Monday, August 31, 2015

John Paul Stevens: Six Amendments; a former Supreme Court justice weighs in on what should change in the US Constitution

Author: John Paul Stevens

Title: “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Publication: New York, 2014: Little Brown, ISBN 978-0-316-37372-2, hardcover, 177 pages, indexed, and 32 pages are used by reprinting the Constitution of the United States with amendments and signatories. Amazon link is here. also available in Kindle, audible, and large print.  The book comprises a Prologue and six chapters.

The author was a justice of the United States Supreme Court, from 1975 (appointed by President Gerald Ford, Republican) until retiring in 2010.  

I was attracted to this book because, in my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book (1997) I had proposed two amendments to the Constitution myself, which would have numbered as 28 and 29.  My 28th Amendment was constructed to protect personal “privacy” (called a “Right to Privacy Amendment”) along with personal autonomy, and focused mainly on sexual privacy (first of all, adult consensual relations, and later abortion), and freedom of speech. I had added “29” to propose an interim step toward gay marriage, a kind of DOMA worded in such a way as to encourage states to experiment with introducing same-sex marriage (or at least civil union) on their own without fear of “Full Faith and Credit” repercussions.  History would move much more quickly on gay marriage than I had ever imagined it could in 1997. “History” would also repeal the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military by 2011, a process that seemed to be much slower and more painstaking, but probably sped up by the post-9/11 war on terror.  In fact, in the DADT-1 book I had acknowledged the possibility of terrorism as significant, but had imagined it could come from secular extremism from the Right (white supremacy) or Left (like North Korea), rather than from radical Islam (or any religion), which did not command a lot of special attention then, at least in my own mind. I had also indulged in an informal (and long) “quasi oral argument” of how a constitutional challenge to the military DADT policy would play out if it ever did reach the Supreme Court. I thought such a debate could actually invoke the history of the military draft, which I’ll come back to.
In my second DADT book (December 2002) had included a long chapter, “Launching a ‘Bill of Rights II’”, an idea that had some word-of-mouth currency in the late 1990s, especially in libertarian circles, somewhat as a result, I think, of my first book and the “word of mouth” effect that was quite effective then for a while.  All of that thinking, though, was pre-9/11. I had, in that chapter, summarized the combinations of steps (essentially four possibilities) through which the Constitution can be amended.  (A complete treatise is provided by the 1993 book “Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process” by John R. Vile, published by Praeger).  I had also covered the possibility of the return of the military draft.  

At this point, recall that Justice Stevens had cast one of the dissenting votes in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), about the Georgia sodomy law, as explained here and Justice Powell had voted for the majority and later admitted he regretted the vote (maybe not knowing he had a closeted gay clerk). Powell might have reread Stevens’s dissent.  That decision would be overturned by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.  

Now Stevens starts his book with a Prologue (almost following Shakespeare!) and resummarizes the Constitution amending processes. He also points out that Article V prohibits two kinds of amendments, including anything that changes the representation of states in the Senate. His comment would seem to suggest that, for example, if the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico were to be given statehood, then such a state would have to be allowed full representation in the Senate (something that makes statehood much less likely for partisan reasons).  

The substance of Stevens’s six amendments have more to do with the integrity of the US political process and with the maintenance of proper checks and balances among the main branches of government, and between the federal government and states, under “federalism” – than they do with individual rights. That said, he does take up the death penalty, and then gun control, two topics that I did not address in my first DADT book or its amendments.  At this juncture, let me add that a lot of the legal talk around individual rights has to do with notions like due process (the 5th and 14th amendment’s incorporation doctrine), and “fundamental rights”.  At the end of 1998, I self-published a booklet “Our Fundamental Rights”, not much remembered now, because it was outside the “Do Ask, Do Tell” wordmark, but, although I talked about a right to property (very important to libertarians), I did not take up (as a “fundamental right”) the right to self-defense specifically – the Second Amendment question that will build Stevens’s last chapter.   

But Stevens’s approach obviously recognizes that there is such a thing as a common good, which is why we need dependable government.  He would not carry this idea as far as, say, Rick Santorum.  But his mindset admits that there are areas where the needs of the community can mitigate the presumed need of the individual for personal autonomy, a very important idea for me. *
Two of the six amendments would require entirely new paragraphs; four others would add key verbiage to existing clauses in the Constitution or existing amendments.  

The first topic is the “anti-commandeering rule” subsumed by Paragraph 2 of Article VI. Stevens argues that this interpretation can hinder counting on the use of local or state resources in national emergencies, which could occur with terrorism or with certain natural disasters (a huge solar storm with its effect on the power grid could be an example).  Stevens even suggests that the rule might have hindered preventing most of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting rampage. Stevens talks (on p. 25ff) about the military draft (conscription) and (implicitly) the Selective Service registration system, mentioning the experience of World War I.  In doing so, he provides a focus on the possibility of needing to expect citizens to put themselves in harms way for the defense of others, in a manner uncommonly seen in modern books or political articles, outside of my own work or, say, Charles Moskos after 9/11.   

Then Stevens moves on to political gerrymandering, with a new amendment.  He points out that gerrymandering tends to compel political candidates to take more extreme positions than can be plausibly implemented in a normal system with democratic capitalism. 

The third topic is campaign finance reform, which goes back to a controversial 2002 law, McCain-Feingold. The chapter gets a lot of mileage over the Citizens United movie ("Hillary, the Movie", 2008, Movies blog, March 25, 2009).  Stevens apparently believes candidates (like Trump) should not be able to spend too much of their own money to get elected – to buy an office.  It’s obvious that he would like to reduce the influence of traditional lobbying on K Street. That should be good for objective political speech from the media and even amateurs, but it could raise the question as to whether the an individual should have access to his own soap box just because he can afford it.  In 2005, campaign finance reform actually got to be seen as a threat to political blogging, even by amateurs, because political blogs could be seen as indirect, untrackable contributions – but that viewpoint died away when the FEC dismissed it. I got involved personally in that aspect of the debate when I was working as a substitute teacher, a history that I have discussed elsewhere.

The fourth topic is the most convoluted for legal lay person – “sovereign immunity”. On p. 92, Stevens mentions the topic of lynching, as abetted by the idea – with some focus suggestive of the work of the late Gode Davis (the incomplete film “American Lynching”). Stevens wants an amendment to remove an exclusion of any state or local official or government from liability for failing to obey federal law – a concept related to nullifying the anti-commandeering rule.  

The fifth gets back more directly to individual rights – the death penalty, which Stevens wants to see explicitly included in the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment”.  He believes it is not a practical deterrent beyond life without parole, and that medical unknowns exist with almost any conceivable means of execution (particularly injection), and that the criminal justice system has convicted innocent people (as in TV series like “The Innocence Project” (see “wrongful convictions” label on my TV blog) or CNN’s “Death Row Stories”.  More significant, Stevens does not believe existential justice (an “eye for an eye”) for murder victims or their families is really possible. To some extent, we all live with a shared risk of “victimhood” as part of civilization. Yet, if that is true, then, I say, “there are no victims, just casualties”.  

The sixth and last concerns gun control and the Second Amendment. Stevens want so add a phrase to the Second Amendment to clarify that it applies only when a citizen is “serving in the Militia”. He points out that the Supreme Court, in interpreting the Second Amendment (as in the Washington DC case) to confer some individual right to self-defense even in a totally civilian and isolated context, did limit its applicability to measures reasonably related to legitimate self-defense, not to possession of arsenals of foreign military assault weapons. But Stevens believes states or cities should be allowed to ban ordinary ban ordinary gun possession in a manner similar to Europe or Australia if there legislature choose to.  Gun control advocates (like Piers Morgan) have often argued that countries with strong gun control have much less violence – although given the recent outbreak of “jihadist”  terrorism in Europe, one wonders if this is still true, and whether the public should count on unarmed brawny male (off duty military) young adults to protect them from armed terrorists who have bought weapons from crime syndicates. A deeper question might be to wonder again what kind of risks citizens in a civilized democratic society naturally run all the time, as if one should not expect to defend oneself against some things.   

My own take on the Second Amendment had been to agree with the Supreme Court. Part of the reason is that we do not have “militia” today in the sense that we did in 1791.  To limit the Second Amendment to people when (off-duty) serving in the military, National Guard, or police force sounds meaningless, unless we look at it the way Switzerland does.  But perhaps the idea that gun ownership should have some continual supervision (like regular license renewal background checks, or even some kind of meaningful concomitant community service) could make sense, as creating a “gatekeeper” function on firearms ownership.  But then just imagine what could happen if we applied the same idea to self-distribution of speech under the First Amendment.  

Stevens’s writing style tends to be dense and detailed (like mine), and he goes into great precision in interpreting many famous cases, even in a brief book.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

DC Center just had OutWrite book fair, sorry that I missed it!

I must confess that I overlooked a book fair that probably would have been good for me to support, given my three “Do Ask, Do Tell” books (the latest was published in February 2014).
This event was OutWrite LGBT Book Fair at the DC Center  for the LGBT Community,  It was held in the U-street area of Washington DC (the Reeves Center) July 31-Aug. 2, 2015, with most of the book displays on Saturday, August 1, according to the Center website here. The website of the organization "OutWrite" right now does not load. 
Metro Weekly had an account of the 2014 event here.

I learned that this event had taken place when I attended the opening of DC Reel Affirmations last night (see Movies blog).

How did I miss it?  I do look at the DC Center site occasionally (for news about the asylum issue) but simply had overlooked it.  I was busy with my own agenda, getting ready to go to New England to discuss the possible completion of the unfinished film “American Lynching” by the late Gode Davis,
Of course, the book series, why centered or motivated by the original debate over gays in the military, spreads out into many other personal and policy areas, with a generally politically libertarian focus, and tends not to be identified with just one “group” whatever that is.

It’s true, I’m working solo right now, and I am not as keyed in to what is going on at a lot of other organizations (like HRC, Food and Friends, Whitman Walker) as others might think I could be.  I’ve gotte that feedback before.  But that’s the way it has to be right now.
I did attend a similar fair in New York City in March 2012, the Rainbow Book Fair (see that month here).

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Gracefully Grayson": a middle-school boy comes to term with gender identity as he accepts a lead female role in a Greek school play

Author: Ami Polonsky

Title: “Gracefully Grayson

Publication: 2014, Hyperion, ISBN 978-1-4231-8527-7, 244 pages, hardcover, three parts, 35 chapters

Amazon link for hardcover here also in Kindle.

This gentle novel relates the experience of a sixth-grade boy, Grayson, who is beginning to deal with the possibility that he is really a girl (transgender), although, by the end of the book, it is not completely clear that Grayson will eventually follow through.

The novel is written in first person present tense.

Grayson has lost his parents to a car accident in Cleveland and now lives in Chicago (or near suburbs) with an uncle and aunt.  His Humanities teacher, Mr. Finnegan (we called this “General Education” when I was in “junior high school” in the 1950s) is sponsoring a school play, “The Myth of Persephone”  about the daughter of Zeus.  Grayson decides to accept the lead role as a girl. He decides he is a girl.

Controversy ensues in the school, possibly jeopardizing Finn’s job, and leading to a climax of the story.

It is common for plays and operas to switch genders.  The lead of Rchard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavlier” is often female.

As for gay teachers, it has only slowly improved over the years, but more rapidly recently. In the spring of 1961, when I was graduating from high school, there was a “rumor” that a beloved physics teacher was gay.  He “resigned” and became a traveling lecturer, but later died of Hepatitis B,
As for Persephone, there are numerous school-age plays based on the Greek mythology, such as this one in Canada, link, or "Demeter and Persephone". 

Back in seventh grade, in 1956, I had a role in the musical “The Sunbonnet Girl”.  I remember putting makeup on my hands and feeling sensitive about that.  But I didn’t want to do anything that could make me “feel feminine”, but partly because masculinity was so “valued” in my surrounding culture.

There is a YouTube review from the Fairfax Network of Fairfax County Public Schools, where I subbed from 2004-2007, with some controversy.  In fact, the novel introduces the idea of a “long term substitute teacher” near the end, who does not have to be licensed but who has authority to grade.  Greek mythology is often covered in ninth grade English in Virginia schools.  

There is a subplot involving the reading of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (not named for a while) ; but this novel was written before "Go Set a Watchman" had become known (see July 15 posting).

There's also a great line about the idea that an actor learns empathy by literally walking in someone else's shoes. Remember Clive Barker's rule that an audience can focus on only three "players" on stage at a time.  

I think this novel logically calls for a sequel, so we learn how Grayson develops in the following years.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Popular Science and "100 Mysteries of Science Explained": do black holes really exist?

Some time back, I picked up the Popular Science100 Mysteries of Science Explained,” edited by Cliff Ransom, on impulse in a checkout line at a Harris Teeter. 

A few of them really deserve mention. 

On p. 21, we have “What’s at the bottom of a black hole?”  The end of the piece mentions the latest thinking by Hawking, that a black hole might not exist at all, because quantum mechanics could prevent the final collapse within an event horizon.  That’s rather radical, as some time back Hawking predicted that even black holes emit radiation and could “evaporate”, rather like ice in sunshine.  There has also been controversy over whether information can be lost inside a black hole, or whether it is kept on the surface (like the track of a human soul).

One possibility is the existence of micro black holes , which could evaporate quickly, but which might temporarily achieve enough density because of the unused dimensions of string theory. Maybe souls ride these to the afterlife.

The book has some related articles on gamma rays bursts, and whether they could ever constitute a danger to Earth. It even indicates that space has an “odor”, metallic, from star stuff (p. 22).

On p. 63, there is “What is consciousness?”  We don’t know, but it seems fundamental to physics.  Living beings who reproduce and who can attain free will might be nature’s way to oppose entropy. Consciousness that we associate with intelligence seems to come into being because of quantum effects within structures in the brain, and it leaves open the question whether something like a quantum computer (at the NSA) could achieve artificial intelligence. But consciousness may be indestructible, as some accounts of NDE’s suggest.  Maybe our “consciousness” goes somewhere.  Maybe it is reborn in a being on another universe.  It’s impossible to imagine not existing once you have existed, but you didn’t exist previously, while billions of years passed.

On p. 70, there is “What happens when you die?”  There is the idea that space and time are products of consciousness, and that when we die our consciousness has become separate from our bodies. There is some evidence that the brain can remain conscious, in a “core” state, for several hours after the heart stops, which raises the importance of the presence of loved ones at the end of life, and also questions about violent ends (brain destruction by bullets) or even the death penalty.   (As I recall, in Christianity, the afterlife in Heaven can start almost immediately, but in Islam, Paradise happens at the end of time.

The consciousness continuum matters to "Is the Doomsday Argument for Real?"  (p. 107). If humans went extinct around 2100, I would have placed about one-third the way along all possible people, a statistical argument (which I am not sure is correct).  It also bears on the question as to whether there is a moral responsibility to future generations -- to people who don't yet exist, have not even been conceived.  It could be viewed religiously as a duty to "God" or "Allah".   
On p. 74, there is "Can you upload your brain to a computer?"  Omni Magazine speculated on that in the 1990s. On p. 75, "What is intelligence?"  It is more than recognizing yourself in a mirror.  From having been adopted by a stray cat once, I know that cats are sentient and can even reason. 
Across the page, on 62, is “Why aren’t (most) humans furry?”  The answer seems to be, when humans developed bipedalism to use energy more efficiently, they hunted during the day in equatorial climates, and didn’t need hair (they did need pigment). But it’s not completely true.  Do our dogs and cats wonder why we are relatively hairless?  Maybe.  But males (especially Caucasian, with ancestors who lived in colder climates) often have some (moderate, when compared to other primates) chest, aim, and leg hair.  Curiously, like scalp hair, leg hair tends to disappear with age, maybe because circulation weakens. In some cultures, body hair may be help identify individuals and may relate to sexual attractiveness or unattractiveness.  Some animals have the same concept: bright plumage in some male birds, manes in male lions.

On p. 58, there is "Do men and women have different brains?"  Women have more white matter (connective stuff) and men have more gray (chess thinking).  But is the white matter ratio 6.5:1 or is it really 6.5% more (not 6.5 times) -- a typo?  
On p.84, there is “What do whales sing about?”  They seem to make real (modern, atonal) music, and maybe it is really akin to language, especially with the orca.

On p. 80, there is “How big would a meteorite have to be to wipe out all human life?”  Not too big. The object that killed the dinosaurs was about seven miles wide, and would kill billions today. A 60-mile wide asteroid would incinerate everyone.

One other thing.  I have a lot of Twitter followers now in the book self-publishing business.  Some of them are a bit aggressive.  I see my role as developing and building on content, just on pushing commodities (although this doesn’t help other people earn livings as middlepersons). One person invited followers to “apply” to become a character in his next novel!

And, still, another matter:  a postman somewhere started a charity for a boy who just wanted books to read to be sent to him. So maybe books should still be a commodity.