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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Who would’ve thought Robert Johnson’s step-sister, a person who personally knew the famed blues guitarist, would still be alive? Who would’ve thought that person — his step-sister, 94-year-old Annye Anderson — would today reside in Amherst, Massachusetts? And who would’ve known that she would still have the faculties, and ability, to tell intriguing stories of perhaps the most important American musician in history?

Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, is still quite an enigma. He’s a larger-than-life figure who, legend says, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for writing the best blues songs in history. Johnson was a vagabond, a hobo, a showman, a visionary, and (according to some) the most important guitarist to ever exist. Johnson single-handedly re-invented the blues, and provided the musical DNA that evolved into rock & roll, inspiring acts from the Stones to Led Zeppelin to Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, and more. The devil met him at the crossroads, and together they changed the world.

To Mrs. Anderson, well, he was Brother Robert.

Brother Robert cuts right through all the mythical nonsense, and tells as much of the true story of Robert Johnson as one will ever read. She knew him, knew his roots, knew what he liked (Jimmy Rogers yodeling, for one), and what kind of man he was. Although she never knew how he died, or where he’s buried (beyond the various rumors), she does know how shady lawyers and the general music industry tried to screw her family out of any royalties from his work, about how fraudulent “descendants” tried to sneak their way into the legends (and the profits), and the pain all these dealings caused other members of her family.

None of that stuff, however, makes this book special. The heart of this book is Mrs. Anderson’s recollections of life in Jim Crow, Depression-era, Memphis, Tennessee. She tells stories of a hardscrabble life, where everyone worked every possible job imaginable to make some money to feed their families. She tells stories of moving in the dead-dark of night, the only way for a black man to survive when accused of pestering a white woman. She tells stories of juke joints and sewing circles and church socials and life of a long-dead era. This is a first-hand account of life lived well in a very dark time, and the way it both brought her family together and tore it apart.

Brother Robert is an engaging read, and highly recommended.

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Family Time

I’m a solo traveler, especially on my national park trips. I’m a spectacular hermit; but also my friends and family have other hobbies and interests, and simply don’t share my enthusiasm for American history and the natural world. It’s OK, though. I find solitude enables greater opportunities for observation, reflection & understanding.

When I went to visit JFK’s birthplace, however, I switched things up, and made a conscious decision to share the experience. I took my mom.

It wasn’t just because I thought she’d enjoy the trip, it was also because I wanted to hear what it was like to live during the vaunted “Camelot” era. JFK was  the first  modern-day celebrity president, and I wanted to know what that was like. John and Jackie’s superiority in handling themselves on television changed everything about campaigning, getting elected, and serving in the highest office in the land. Suddenly, it became less about stump speeches, shaking hands, working the political machinery, and back-room deals. It became more about media savvy.

The tales of Camelot have entered into American legend. JFK’s photogenics destroyed Richard Nixon in the presidential debates. He then became the second youngest person to ever take office. Jacqueline Kennedy was charming and pleasant, with impeccable fashion sense. As a couple, the Kennedys were hip and new, and gave the promise of a bright future. 

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Funnily enough, my mom didn’t have too many stories about the Kennedy era. Neither her nor my father were political types, rarely turning on the news and never talking about it at the dinner table. The only thing she talked about was the shame of the assassination, and how it saddened the whole nation. She talked a lot about the funeral, and how Jackie held up with such grace through it all. 

Then she told me about how she met JFK. 

When she was in high school, she worked on the school paper. A young John Kennedy, then Congressman John Kennedy, was running for the Senate, and touring the state, trying to drum up votes. He came to Western Massachusetts, quite likely just once (the western part of the state rarely gets much attention from Boston). So the high school paper decided to go meet him for some photo ops. 

My mom went with three other girls from her class. The photographer asked the other three to step out of frame because, as my mother said, “they weren’t pretty enough”. [Note: her intonation suggested the photographer was a bit of a perv.] She then had her picture taken, which was published in the paper later that week.

Being a typical high school girl, she was unhappy with how her hair looked, so she never kept a clean copy of the photo. Fortunately, the local paper still had the photo in their archives, and she was able to get a decent copy. 

Mom and JFK

It’s been many years since we went to JFK’s boyhood home in Brookline. She enjoyed the trip, and had fun reminiscing. Today, she can’t get around quite like she used to, her days of travel are long over. She’s seen quite a bit in her years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, 9/11, a global pandemic, and now an insurrection. She’ll be 87 in a few weeks, still doesn’t like talking about politiecs and, woefully, is not happy with how her hair looks.

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The Symptoms

Recent events have, not surprisingly, stirred up discussions of amending the U.S. Constitution. The presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 have folks crying out for a Voting Rights Amendment, eliminating gerrymandering, abolishing the Electoral College, and guaranteeing free & fair elections. The events since the last election, leading up to the insurrection on January 6, have led to demands to strengthen checks and balances; clearer definitions of treason, sedition, and impeachment; and improvements in the mechanisms to remove a President who is either incapable, unwilling, or opposed to fulfilling the duties of the highest office in the land. Then there are the age-old battles over the 2nd Amendment; the definitions of speech; the role of religion; and the legality of the Senate filibuster, to name but a few.

I suggest to you that these are symptoms, symptoms of a greater flaw in the Constitution itself, a flaw traced back to the very forming of the Union and the penning of the document itself. The Constitution is too difficult to change, and that is its downfall.

The Root Cause

Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult. Article V requires two thirds of both Houses, or two thirds of the legislatures of the States, to agree to simply propose amendments. Then three fourths of the States must agree to enact anything. This has led to the Constitution being changed only 27 times, and only 15 times in the last 200 years. That’s far too few for such a long-lived Republic. In contrast, the Connecticut Constitution (written in 1818) has been amended 31 times; the Ohio Constitution was effectively rewritten completely in 1912; and the Colorado Constitution has been amended an astounding 152 times. The French have rewritten theirs outright multiple times, the last in 1958, and it has been altered 24 times since then. And as far as the UK goes, well, I don’t have enough time to navigate that maze of constant evolution. The U.S. federal government is clearly an outlier when it comes to revision.

I will admit, there are some benefits to having laws that are difficult to edit. Stability and consistency are important to a civil society. Many countries have capricious laws, with whichever tyrant assuming power rewriting everything to punish the “other side”. There is great comfort in having a solid system of laws that the people can understand and navigate. However, I challenge that it is a far greater risk to have an unchanging, unyielding system of laws, especially in a democratic society.

An Immutable Government

There are several reasons why I suggest this, the most obvious being the practical one. Situations change in 200 years. There’s no way that even the wisest man can predict the effects of a written paragraph two hundred years into the future. Concepts once of high import can become irrelevant. Unforeseen issues can crop up. Even the meanings of words and the application of grammar can change in 200 years. There was no way they could predict the affect of the Internet on free speech or the press. There was no way they could understand that muskets would evolve into assault rifles. It was doubtful they even foresaw that Europe would no longer be controlled by monarchs, or a United Nations would be possible, and in no way were they prescient enough to foresee a world facing the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Then there’s the problem of the courts. Having an inflexible Constitution gives the courts far too much power. The courts rely on one thing above all other, and that one thing is precedent. Every interpretation, every ruling, unless countered through an appellate process, becomes a precedent. This is especially true of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the adjudicator of how this ancient document applies to modern situations, and those judgements become unyielding precedents. And frankly, some of these rulings (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, for one) are terrible. Terrible precedents not only linger, they linger for a long time. Consider the worst ruling in the history of the Court: Plessy v Ferguson. That magnificent “precedent” stayed the law of the land … for 60 years! That’s three generations of opportunity lost for millions of African-Americans, all because of the inherent racism of the courts in 1896. But precedent it was, and precedent is God. The people never had a say otherwise. The largest counter, the greatest check-and-balance, to the Supreme Court is the ability to amend the Constitution. Yet that is a nearly impossible task. (Side note: Plessy was never explicitly overruled, it just got squeezed into oblivion by various civil rights rulings in the 50’s & 60’s.)

The Philosophy of Democracy

Finally, there are philosophical problems surrounding an unyielding Constitution. The first seven words of the document state “we the people of the United States”, yet that is no longer true, is it? It is “the long-deceased people of the United States”, who wrote the thing, for their people, in their time. It’s not for us, in our time. We have no ownership, no responsibility for it. It’s a relic of days long past, not a document of the present. It’s almost taken religious significance at this point, something to be held in absolute reverence. This makes us adherents to it, followers of its mandates, instead of us being its master and keeping the fate of our country in our hands.

In 1787, George Bryan, former governor of Pennsylvania, wrote an editorial in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer. He spoke, at length, about the immutability of the Constitution. “This appears to me to be only a cunning way of saying that no alteration shall ever be made; so that whether it is a good constitution or a bad constitution, it will remain forever amended. […] The consequence will be that, when the constitution is once established, it never can be altered or amended without some violent convulsion or civil war.” Of course, that is just what happened: it took a civil war for the passing of the first three, and the most significant, amendments since the first 20 years of the nation’s founding.

Bryan continued “If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter.” Here’s an example of a liberty that is not fixed and established: the right to privacy. It’s not in the Constitution, only vaguely implied by stitching together other clauses. It should have been delineated in the Bill of Rights. But nobody thought it would be necessary. And now we have serious privacy problems in this Internet age. We’ll never get that particular liberty.

Bryan also foresaw the problem of entrenched power, a problem we certainly have today, with our lifetime Supreme Court appointments and members of Congress able to serve, unchallenged, for decades. “People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it; and we shall never find two thirds of a Congress voting or proposing any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance.” The Congress will never agree to term limits, or a balanced budget amendment, or anything else to reduce their power.

So this is where we sit. A document in a shrine, revered and immutable. An entrenched two-party system. A disengaged electorate, unable to set its own direction. An insurrection in the very halls of Congress. If the 3/5ths Compromise was the Constitution’s original sin, the stringent requirements to amend the highest laws of the land is its original flaw.

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Yesterday’s events at the U.S. Capitol were shocking, but not surprising. The Era of Trump had no other possible conclusion. He is a man of no integrity, and it is not a surprise that his followers would have none as well. 

He is also a wannabe tyrant, and this is exactly how tyranny works:

  • Defame, degrade, accuse, allege.
  • Inflate then demonize then attack the powerless. Attack the press, attack the scientists, attack institutions of learning, attack the arts.
  • Form your own press. Form your own facts. Make your own culture. Indoctrinate the children to your views.
  • Foment distrust, then foment conspiracy, then foment protest, then foment violence.
  • Then ascend to true, dictatorial power.

This has been the pattern throughout the post-monarchial age. It’s the new way to form tyranny, replacing the royal inbreeding of yore. Pol Pot, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, and a slew of African, South American, Asian, and Eastern European dictators followed the the same pattern, with only slight variations, over and over and over again. Millions have died, billions have been oppressed, as a result. Fascism is a horrible thing to behold, and leaves terrible scars.

But it’s all over now. We won, democracy won, it’s over.

Um, no.

Watching yesterday’s domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, I was reminded of November 9, 1923 and the Munich Putsch, known to Americans as the Beer Hall Putsch. Two thousand Nazis marched on the city, but were stopped by police in a violent clash. 16 Nazis were killed, Adolph Hitler was arrested, and other conspirators fled to the hills.

Munich Marienplatz (Wikipedia)

Everyone thought it was over. Ten years later, Hitler was the Chancellor of Germany.

So what happened? Oof, so much.

The penalties for these criminal activities were woefully light. A number of judges involved were Nazi sympathizers and wanted leniency. Hitler was only sentenced to five years in prison, the lightest punishment for such an offense per German law. In the end, he only served 8 months, being released on good behavior, and many others were released outright or served light sentences.

Hitler used his time in court to espouse his philosophies, to the delight of allied judges. His remarks received extensive coverage in the newspapers. He likely gained more followers in his trial than if he just slunk into the shadows. The Putsch was a great propaganda victory for the Nazi Party, accelerating their position in national discourse.

The Nazis killed in the Putsch were treated as martyrs for the cause. They were idolized. Mein Kampf was dedicated to their memory. An annual march (held, ironically, every 9/11, due to the way Europeans write calendar dates) was held in their honor, right up until the fall of the Third Reich. These deaths became a catalyst for cultic indoctrination into the Nazi Party.

All of this happened during an era of great economic challenge for Germany. WWI reparations posed a heavy burden, most directly in terms of hyperinflation. Things were bad for the German people, and financial hardships led to discontent, distrust, and contempt for leadership. This made the climate ripe for the rise of a fascist state.

If one were to put this into a mathematical formula, it would resemble Martyrdom + Propaganda + Economic Failure – Justice = Tyranny. There are obviously deeper and broader factors, but this is a close approximation.

Capitol Putsch (unknown Twitter source)

What does this mean for the United States of America and our current situation? It means we cannot take this lightly. It means we must apply the appropriate level of honest justice to every piece of this seditionist, MAGA movement.

— Those who refused to follow the orders of law enforcement, committed acts of violence against law enforcement, trespassed onto the capitol grounds, committed acts of vandalism or theft on capitol grounds, made threats of violence toward sitting members of Congress, or acts of seditious conspiracy per Title 18, must be found, arrested, and dutifully tried for the appropriate crimes. This must be a nationwide manhunt, involving law enforcement and the court systems within jurisdictions across the country, within the auspices of the law. These individuals must not be left free or given lenient sentences for convenience. Follow the letter of the law and due process, hold trials, and assign the appropriate punishments per existing statutes. There must not be any plea bargains for the convenience of the court, this is a serious matter and must be treated seriously.

— Speaking of law enforcement, there is concerning evidence that police and sheriff’s departments across the country are sympathetic to seditionist causes, or employ white supremacists (the core of this movement). This is not to say that all cops are bad, it is to say that there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest something is seriously wrong. One need look no further than the difference in response between Black Lives Matter protests and an actual assault on the U.S. Capitol by white rioters. It certainly appears there is dereliction of duty involved, if not in specific response during the incident itself, then in the preparation for what would undoubtedly be a very tense day. Law enforcement agencies must follow up on evidence of collusion or racism by officers, and if it is appropriate, implement the proper correction action including dismissal or referral to criminal prosecution if warranted.

— Anecdotal evidence exists that the U.S. military has also been infiltrated by MAGA sympathizers. The lack of staging of National Guard troops in the District, as a contingency in the event of mass public unrest, is outrageous. It represents an immense failure in judgement at the very least, and suggests it was an intentional act by military commanders or civilian authorities. If there is evidence of intentional actions to prevent appropriate security measures to the U.S. Capitol by members of the Armed Forces, courts martial must be convened.

— Attorneys who have advocated for illegal, improper, or unethical practices or accusations must be held accountable by authoritative bar associations. Bar associations have the authority to regulate the actions of attorneys, and must take actions in these cases. There is a vast difference between ensuring due process for the rights of your client, and using knowledge of the law to circumvent said laws for the profit of yourself or your client. If any attorney has violated the ethics rules of their bar association in support of this movement, they must be disbarred.

— Other civilian authorities must be held accountable if they have worked towards these seditious acts. Whether it’s the Secretary of the Army blocking the staging of National Guard troops, or the Attorney General ordering agents to stand down from a proper investigation, or a media spokesperson blatantly lying to the American people, there needs to be accountability. This could be criminal charges or at least an exposure of their actions to the American people. They must not be let off the hook to become media consultants or lobbyists in the future.

— Donald J. Trump must be impeached. There is no other recourse at this time. Even if he is leaving the White House, there must be a conviction by the duly convened Congress. This would not only prevent him from ever holding elected office again, it would also be a permanent statement in history that his behavior is not to be tolerated. We can never have another President Trump, or else our country is doomed. It would also help to shut him up, stop spouting his garbage, although that would still be a tall order

— Finally, the Executive Branch must be depowered. It is evident that the Presidency has too much authority. Over the decades, the Congress has granted more and more power to the President, giving up their own. This course must be reversed. We need the restoration of checks-and-balances in our federal government. We dodged a very significant bullet, we need to close the gaps before the next tyrant comes along.

This Matters

Now I know what people will say: that I’m advocating a witch hunt. No, I’m not. I am well aware that criminal justice has been used throughout world history to persecute political opponents. That is a tremendously dangerous road to travel, and we must not do that. I am advocating for the use of solid investigatory and evidentiary processes. I’m advocating for the application of appropriate, extant laws, and the enforcement of ethics rules of the various professions. I’m advocating for legal thoroughness. I am also advocating for the harshest possible penalties under those laws, for this is a broad and deep seditious conspiracy against the government of the United States, and not simple vandalism or civil unrest.

This is all necessary. The reality, though, is none of this will be enough. 48% of the voting public supported this administration. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Even if every single MAGA member at the Capitol was arrested and thrown in prison, they represent a tiny fraction of Trump’s support. There needs to be systemic changes elsewhere to fix the problems that led to MAGA. There are legitimate economic concerns across this country, including in the oft-neglected rural communities. Media outlets in this country (and beyond) are failing their duties regarding journalistic integrity to tremendous profits, and that is a nearly impossible nut to crack thanks to the sacredness of the First Amendment. Election interference and voter disenfranchisement are serious problems requiring solutions. Education needs to be fixed, it’s shocking how many people fail to understand basic civics. These are long-term problems caused by long-term neglect, and will not be easy to fix.

Bottom line: we have a choice to make. Do we allow the January 6th attacks on the Capitol to stand, in the hopes that the MAGA movement is a flash in the pan and it will all just “go away”; or do we learn the lessons of the Munich Putsch and put an end to sedition in this country for the next 150 years.

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