In the second installment of attempting to read the Constitution, I've read Article One. I won't reprint it here as it is quite lengthy. I'll try to give you the highlights.
Section 1: The Legislature will be bicameral - a House of Representatives and a Senate.
Section 2: Rules of The House: House members will be elected every two years. They have to be at least 25 years old and have been a citizen of the US for seven years. And here's where it already starts to get sticky. The original section apportioned the number of representatives according to the number of free people, including indentured servants, but excluding "Indians" and counting all other people as three fifths of a person. The 14th amendment changed that to a formula that counts all male inhabitants, excluding Indians, except those that are not allowed to vote because of rebellion or some other crime.
Clearly, we've got this whole 'liberty for all' thing mucked up already. The government didn't consider either Native Americans or the Africans they brought over to work for them eligible for this notion of freedom or representation. Let us continue.
The House has the right to choose its own leaders and has the sole right of impeachment.
Section 3: Rules of the Senate. The Senate will have two members from each state chosen by that state's legislature. Each Senator will serve a term of six years and have one vote.
That rule was changed in the 17th amendment to make the selection by popular vote.
Senators have to be thirty years old, have lived in the country for nine years and must reside in the state from which he is elected. The Vice President shall be president of the Senate but only has a vote which counts in the event of a tie. The Senate has sole power to try all Impeachments and must have a two thirds vote for a conviction. Impeachment convictions will result in removal from office and a ban on further positions of trust but do not preclude separate criminal cases.
Section 4: Elections and meetings. Congress must meet at least once every year in December (changed to January in the 20th Amendment) and elections shall be set up by individual states.
Section 5: Neither House can adjourn for more than three days without the concurrence of the other. Both Houses must keep a journal in which all business is recorded and published on occasion "excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy". Each House is in charge of its own discipline, its own rules, and may, with a two thirds majority vote, expel a member.
I see no notation that that secrecy provision was ever amended. I find that interesting. So secrecy on the Hill was a part of the original Constitution.
Section 6: Compensation. This one's short - I'll copy it in total. Section 6 - Compensation
(The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.) (The preceding words in parentheses were modified by the 27th Amendment. That says no change in pay can be instituted until after an election cycle for the House of Representatives.) They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.
Okay, there's enough for now. There are three more sections in Article One and they deserve a separate post.
So far I see racism, elitism and secrecy. Practical, perhaps, in a country that is designing itself from whole cloth. But not exactly the democracy that we are taught in the classroom.
Okay, so my assignment for the foreseeable future (or until I give up) is to really look at the US Constitution. Let's see firsthand what's in it, shall we? It seems to be at the crux of the disagreement over health care reform, election reform, campaign finance reform, etc etc etc.
Time to go to the source.
Here's the preamble:
The Constitution of the United States Preamble Note
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Laudable goals. How'd we do? A more perfect union. We're not very united right now, are we? In fact, we're so deeply divided that we now color states blue or red.
Establishing justice. Justice for all, I would imagine, was the goal. But we live in a modern world with many races, religions, beliefs and customs all jammed within our borders. And we disagree about what justice means. Anti-abortion terrorists call killing doctors who perform abortions justice. People die because they can't afford health care. Is that unjust? Prison guards in NY's juvenile detention center slam kids to the ground, breaking teeth and bones, for infractions as small as taking an extra cookie. That's documented in a new federal study. But when the state tries to fire them, the courts overturn it based on union regulations. Justice? Immigrants, some of them illegal, work in degrading, unsafe conditions for far below minimum wage and are threatened for trying to unionize. Justice?
Domestic Tranquility. I think not.
Provide for the common defense. That didn't work out so well for the people of New Orleans after Katrina. Not so good on 9-11 either.
Promote the general welfare. Unless you want health care. Or if you're in the armed services. Or if you're a minority. Or if you want a college education.
Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. Wait - there's nothing in here about securing the blessings of liberty for every country in the world. You mean our role as the World's Watchdog isn't in the Constitution?
Okay, so far, I'd give us a C-. Maybe a D now that I've had a night to think on it. It sounds good on paper, but after a couple of hundred years we've mucked it up pretty badly. I can't wait to get into the document itself.
Thank you to a local independent political hopeful who strongly believes in the capitalist system in theory and the Constitution in practice...I finally understand the basis of the health care reform debate and many other philosophical struggles that have seemed to be based in nothing but fear.
There is fear, of course. Only fear could make someone believe that yelling over others at town hall meetings or packing a gun is appropriate behavior for a discussion of the issues.
But for rational, thinking people who are opposed to what they call "big government", people like the gentleman I spoke with last night about this subject, the bottom line is clear: the government's role is constitutionally very limited and that's the way it ought to be.
"But shouldn't the government, in exchange for the taxes we pay, offer a basic level of service that not only protects us from attack but maintains our health so that we can pursue life, liberty etc?" I asked.
"No." He was emphatic. "I'm not trying to not be compassionate. I truly believe this. If you can't afford health insurance, that's too bad. I've paid into Social Security for twenty years. I get back what I put into it."
I didn't ask him how he feels about Medicare, which he is undoubtedly using. I didn't have to. He told me the worst thing that ever happened to this country was FDR.
"He began the role of government as caretaker. That's not in the Constitution."
"But isn't it what it ought to be?"
"If that's what you want, then change the Constitution. I'm all for that if that's what the people want. But until they do, no. Government is supposed to exist to defend us in time of war. That's about it."
He and I agree that the current political system doesn't work. And perhaps that common ground is what makes it possible for us to discuss this dispassionately. I don't think he's evil incarnate and he doesn't think I'm a tax and spend liberal. But we have a basic, fundamental difference of opinion.
"So what you're telling me," I concluded, "is that my vision of a government that provides basic services for its citizens in exchange for tax dollars..."
"...isn't the way it works here," he continued.
"But what if I think it should?"
"Then you should move to another country. That's socialism."
And I think he's got something there. Maybe the ideal America I envision isn't what it was intended to be. Period. Just because I was born here doesn't mean that the system of government I studied in school is one I agree with.
What an amazing thought. Somehow I assumed I belonged here.
I'm doing research for a book and I found something that left me gaping. Literally.
And then I got mad.
I knew that America's education numbers weren't stellar anymore. I knew our maternal mortality rate wasn't as good as we might expect.
But come on - guess how bad it is? What country do you think has a maternal mortality rate equal to the United States?
We must be better than Canada, right? All we've heard lately is how awful their medical program is.
Oh. Maybe the UK, then? The health care debate in the US appears to have put our cousins on defensive, rushing to defend their own system. They must know there's something wrong, right?
Well it's got to be some big industrialized power. What's left? One of the other G8 countries for sure.
Nope. Not by a long shot.
Go search for maternal mortality rates on the Internet. I'm not making this up. These are numbers compiled by UNICEF and distributed by the World Health Organization.
One in 4800 mothers in America dies in childbirth. That doesn't sound so awful, does it?
Compare it to the UK. A mother's odds improve to 1 in 8200 there. Canada? 1 in 11,000. Well at least we've got to be doing better than the Middle East. Kuwait? 1 in 8600. Republic of Korea? 1 in 6100. And in Italy, the maternal death rate is 1 in 26,600.
So what's the country that has a rate equal to ours?
On the fortieth anniversary of the most famous music concert ever, the little town of Woodstock is back in the headlines again.
I live in Woodstock. I moved here when I was nine. I was twelve in 1969 - no way were my parents going to let me go to the concert fifty miles away. But I saw this town when it was clear why the festival organizers wanted to keep the name anyway.
Woodstock was a young town then. It had been an arts colony long before the hippies claimed it, but in 1969 the streets were crowded with long haired, friendly stoners. Music drifted into the street from the Joyous Lake on one end of town and the Cafe Espresso on the other. There was always the smell of leather from the weirdly named leather shop in the center of town. The biggest names in rock could be found jamming a the Espresso or grabbing a pizza at the Millstream Motel.
My first job, just a couple of years later, was to sit in the little rough-lumber shack that served as the Chamber of Commerce information booth at the main intersection into town in front of the Woodstock Playhouse and point down the road to the highway.
"It wasn't here," I told carload after carload of people who wanted to see Max Yasgur's farm. "It wasn't here."
But people came anyway. There was a good vibe in Woodstock and the artists will tell you there always has been. They say it's the mountains.
I left when I went to college and didn't come back to live until thirty years later.
Woodstock 2009 is a changed place, just as the world has changed since then. The music business blossomed here, then withered. The hippies grew up and either burned out or assimilated. The leather shop is gone, replaced by a chic clothing store. The Espresso is a photo gallery. The Lake is a tee shirt and head shop. The musicians who stayed kept pretty much to themselves.
Woodstock has become an old town. Its young people huddle together on the stone steps in front of the empty storefront that was once Just Alan's; the first hip, urban gift shop in town. They show up at the convenient store, their red-rimmed eyes and wobbly gaits making the six packs in their hands seem like overkill. By ten at night, the streets are usually empty.
The older residents, some of whom have been here since before the concert, remember how it used to be and wonder what happened. They miss the music. They miss the life. The laid back attitude is still here, but it's not what it was. It's a quiet country town with a few eccentrics and a weekend tourist trade.
Live music venues are trying to make a comeback in town this year. The winter will determine how many of them survive.
But there's a problem here that I don't think is unique to my town and I saw a demonstration of it tonight.
Woodstock, being Woodstock, always holds it fourth of July fireworks in August. I don't know why. But it's a great show and we go every year. This year I got some insight into at least one difference between the Woodstock I grew up in and the one I live in now.
As the sky lit up with a million lights and the booms echoed off the mountains, kids near us were yelling.
"I love PCP!" "I smoke meth!" "Meth is better than heroin!"
When the crowds flooded the sidewalk back to town, a few of the kids, clearly high, were harassing people as they passed. I won't repeat some of the things they said, but one thing that struck me was this one: "I'm just feeling really violent right now, you know? I want to hurt somebody."
And there's the difference.
I believed, back in the Woodstock of 1969, that the proliferation of drugs was an attempt to realize the connection between us all, an attempt to transcend reality to see something bigger, something even more real. I wasn't doing drugs. I was looking in from the outside. And the people who were doing drugs didn't scare me.
There were angry, troubled people, too, of course. But they were the exception among the hippies I saw every day in town. Most of them were sweet, gentle people who would look you in the eyes and try to have long, earnest conversations about things they thought were really important. They were silly sometimes, but they were kind.
Today's young drug users seem to be angry. They take drugs not to find answers, but to escape. And when they're high, they're even angrier.
I'm not blaming the kids. I'm realizing how the world has changed. We've all become angrier. That weekend of peace and love forty years ago was such a short, sweet interlude. And after that was Kent State, Watergate, so many years of disappointments, disillusionment and disgust culminating in Dick Cheney.
It takes real resilience to hold on to dreams when reality can be so ugly.
Is what's wrong with the world the fact that the wrong people are in charge?
Bear with me here; that would seem pretty obvious but I'm getting at something else.
Why are the wrong people always in charge? Why does it seem that the outstanding leaders, the best thinkers, the truly idealist and compassionate people are not the ones who assume roles of political leadership? In fact, as soon as they assume any type of leadership, doesn't it seem to distort them into something new, something less than they were?
I think I've hit on something here. I really do. It has a few components. Run through it with me and see what you think.
What may be ailing our world is that humans, by nature, are a species in which the personalities most interested in being leaders are the ones who shouldn't be in that role. They have holes in their psyches which get filled by being in charge. They need that sense of importance so badly that they're willing to put up with anything: political campaigns, character assassination, even physical danger. These are damaged people who are trying to feel whole and once they achieve their position of power their psychological cracks don't fill. Those cracks are constantly aggravated by challenges to their sense of worth, their sense of entitlement, their sense of self. They are always struggling to defend their position, a position that helps quiet that inner voice that tells them they're not good enough. So why would they listen to an opposing viewpoint? That view is a threat to their very existence.
Listen to the screaming over health care reform that drowns out any discussion. Consider partisan politics.
See where I'm going? It gets worse.
Idealistic people, people who want to take an active role in helping others, fall into a different trap when they're put in charge. Once in control, they can develop a God complex. They are suddenly on a mission and they come to believe that anyone who differs with their views is differing with the mission. It becomes "My way or the highway." They see criticism of the work or the way it's done as a personal criticism. They come to identify completely with the cause and they become the cause. They are, in their minds, the central, vital ingredient and no one can ever appreciate them enough.
I've seen this one in action. People who work really hard doing something truly admirable who are monsters - abusive, demanding, unappreciative, insecure and paranoid. It is sad because they want to do something good. But they've become something bad.
And what of what I believe is the vast majority of the human race, the decent people who don't want to do any harm, will help if they can but just want to live their lives in a way that makes them feel good about themselves? They don't want to be in charge. They don't want to fight. They'll pitch in and help if they're needed but otherwise they leave the spotlight to those that crave it.
They should be the ones in charge. But only for a short while.
Power corrupts. It's true. And that's where I begin to believe America got it wrong. The longer you have power, the worse the effect. Term limits should be in effect for everything. Not just political office, where it's absolutely vital, but even in corporations. I'm serious. I think a CEO should have to step aside after four years, take a commensurate cut in salary and take a position as an advisor to the new CEO. Imagine the brain trust that could result as capable people moved up through the ranks every four years.
And for the government, no more career politicians. It wasn't how it was supposed to work and it doesn't work. The Senate is full of angry old men and few junior Senators delighted with what will probably be a career gig. Two terms is plenty for a president, for a Senator and two terms should be enough for a Congressman. Right now, seniority is rewarded with influence and some legislators try to use that influence for good. But seniority also means extensive outside influence (corporate money) has time to assert its control as the expense of campaign after campaign taxes all but the wealthiest representatives.
Are there exceptions to the rule this theory creates? Maybe. But I wouldn't count on it.
Human beings may have the ability to lead and even the inclination. But it's time we admitted we don't do it without messing up.
Maybe it's because it's raining again. Maybe it's because my back still hurts after two weeks. Maybe it's a million worries that I try to address without going under, but I'm not in a very good frame of mind.
Our town has a farmer's market every week. It's a great little event that seems to bring everyone out from the hills to the center of town. There's live music, food, a few flea market-style booths and lots of kids and dogs. KB and I generally sit on a stone wall right near the entrance and watch the world go by. It's highly entertaining.
We generally speak to the same people every week: the neighbors, the little dynamo who is now head of the Chamber of Commerce, a loosely scattered sprinkling of musicians, some of whom you'd know and some of whom you wouldn't. This week was different.
Our town has more than its share of characters. It's an arts town and a famous one at that, so it's to be expected. Yesterday, that's who we found ourselves chatting with at the farmer's market.
There's the fiery, dramatic and passionate Dean, whose heart is as big as our mountains and whose dreams of acting fame, though sixty years old, are even bigger. I'll link to one of his performances below - I'm sure he'd be delighted if you saw it. He sat down with us and because he knows and loves everyone, we soon found ourselves talking to people we often see but never knew.
There's the old hippie couple in their bare feet and love beads. He's a fixture in town - always stands at the green flashing the peace sign to passing traffic and honking a horn a la Harpo Marx. He doesn't speak. But he does. We found that out a few months ago when he stopped to tell us we were "absolutely beautiful, man." Imagine our surprise.
This week we heard about his recent marriage to his "old lady", the winter he spent in his tent in her bedroom, the years he spent living beside the road.
"I'm a resident now," he proclaimed.
She nodded vigorously from her wildly decorated cart behind his bicycle, then they rolled off.
There's the sad-eyed, unkempt old man who lives down near the pizza place and only speaks in grunts. He used to be a lawyer. Dean knows his name, knows his story and fears he's going down the same path.
There was the sculptor, the filmmaker, the musician. They all stopped, they all were greeted by Dean with the enthusiasm generally reserved for long-lost friends. They returned his greetings with a combination of fondness and caution, fearing getting caught in a conversation that could go far into the night.
I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I've always loved characters and I love to hear peoples' stories. When you scratch just a little, it's almost certain you'll find a fascinating story hidden under even the most ordinary-looking facade. And when you find that story, the person telling it lights up; suddenly the mask drops and you see who they really are, what they care about. That, to me, is connection. That's when I can believe in humanity.
But KB's had a harder life than I have and he's listened to a million stories from a million people. His affection for our species has been strained to breaking. Our encounters left him feeling discouraged.
He began wondering why we're so intent on focusing on people who are "making a difference", to quote Brian Williams. Why expend energy that could be used to hold a mirror to the ones who aren't? Why are we making a big deal about people who are simply behaving correctly, the way people should behave toward each other? Why, he wondered, don't we simply nod at those people, acknowledge that they 'get it' and turn a spotlight on the ones doing it wrong - the people who put money before other people, who become corporate sharks, political monsters, idealogical dictators?
And the answer, for me, is I don't know. Perhaps I'm being a Pollyanna. It wouldn't be the first time. The sense that things are wrong is so huge, so overwhelming and so disheartening that I turn to the individuals, the stories, the people with good hearts and big stories to keep me going. And that, I know, will get a knee jerk "You're Right!" from many people. But really, am I?
I wonder if I'm just hiding under a blanket, afraid to poke my head out, turn on the flashlight and look under the bed. And if I found a monster, or maybe a lot of them, would shining a light just make it easier for them to find me?
I almost believed in the Woodstock Nation again, just for a little while.
I had no plans for this weekend. But the phone rang and suddenly I was heading to the Tinker Street theatre here in Woodstock for an advance screening of "Taking Woodstock" and an exclusive interview with director Ang Lee and producer/writer James Schamus.
It was an accident - the guy who had knocked himself out arranging it was suddenly sick. A stomach bug trumps a bad back, so off I went.
An hour before the doors opened, there was a line of people waiting for the seats they'd paid $100 for. It was sponsored by the "Fiercely Independent" Woodstock Film Festival and there would be a Q and A as well as a reception afterwards.
I wasn't doing the reception. But I spoke with some of the people who were and asked them whether they went to the concert in 1969. No, the ones I spoke to didn't. They were too young. But they had a nostalgia for those times, for those ideas that they'd seen in their older brothers and sisters.
You know, of course, that Woodstock wasn't in Woodstock. But as Michael Lang said yesterday when asked why he never changed the name as the event bounced from town to town before it landed, "I didn't want to be part of the Wallkill Nation."
"What about the town of Woodstock now?" I asked the moviegoers, as some of them were locals.
"It's a parody of itself."
Not a promising mental state as the lights went down. But something happened as we watched the movie. Ang Lee, who didn't know a thing about the festival, who was a kid in Taiwan when it happened, who didn't even know it was held 40 miles from Woodstock, got it. He captured the warmth, the unbelievable sweetness of those times. He caught the innocence, the openness and the hope that was the hippie movement. It was a gathering of children and what seemed like the first deep breath of a new world. Or that's how those of us who weren't there see it. He caught the idealized Woodstock that we want to believe in.
The film's taken crap from critics because it's not about the concert. They miss the point. It is about the colliding of two cultures - the fifties Borscht Belt Catskills and the free-wheeling, wildly optimistic and unrealistic hippies who were trying to make the world into a Garden. It about the hard working, responsible young gay man who brought those worlds together.
As producer James Schamus said later, if you want to see a movie of the concert, that's been done. Go rent it.
This film pays homage to that one with the use of split screens. But that's where the similarities end. This is a story about the people, not the music. And the scene where Lee recreates the entire experience through the acid-distortions of two young peoples' eyes is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
"Yes," my head said, "that's what it should have been like."
The interview with Lee and Schamus went well - they're very nice guys. And Lee has a sweetness that mirrors the people in this film. They seemed delighted that I "got it". They wanted to a make a movie showing the hearts behind the festival, showing how the concert changed their lives.
My favorite moment was afterwards. Michael Lang, in the film, is a laid back force of nature. He never wavers, he never worries, he never loses his cool. He has a vision and it's going to happen.
I stopped the real Michael Lang on the way out the door.
"Michael, was it as much fun as they made it seem like?"
He smiled. "More."
I walked down the streets of Woodstock, the town that is no longer the wild, rollicking place where I grew up and where I've come back to live. The live music, the smell of leather, the barefoot hippies, they're gone. A few burnouts remain, but it's mostly a weekend shopping spot for New Jersey visitors. The artists hide out in the hills. But I loved it again after seeing "Taking Woodstock." I loved it for what we thought it could be, and for the ideals we've never entirely abandoned, even those of us who weren't hippies, who weren't there. That was the world we believed could be. And maybe the best parts of it still could.
I'm hot on the trail of a story that's making my blood boil. Mortgage servicers, the banks that handle the investments of mortgage lenders, are acting like collection agencies.
You've never missed a payment on your house. You've never even been late. But you do have an application in for a loan modification. Are you a target?
If your loan servicer is IndyMac/OneWest, I was told that you and everyone else whose loan is serviced by them can now expect a phone call within a day or two after the first of the month.
"When can we expect that payment? How will you be making it? Will you be sending a check or paying online? Would you like to pay now by credit card? Can I please make a note of when you expect to pay it?"
The money isn't due yet. There's a two week grace period and you're well within it. But the phone calls will come every month and if you ask why - is it because you've applied for a loan modification?"
"Oh no - it's not just you. We're calling everyone."
I got in touch with IndyMac/OneWest's spokesperson - or I should say I got in touch with her secretary. How do you reach her? It's not easy. The website doesn't offer any options except for a circular route through an automated system if you don't know the name of the person you want. And since OneWest is currently trying to hire a communications person to replace the last one (who went to Fannie Mae), what name can you use? I reverted to research - tracking down the name of a corporate VP through professional websites and asking her to get me in touch. It worked. But I didn't get a call back. Yet.
But officials at a local foreclosure counseling service say they're hearing this a lot. And it's not just mortgages. If you've got a large outstanding debt of any type - mortgage or credit card - companies are apparently being far more aggressive in trying to ensure payment.
The phone calls are regular and they're intimidating. If you hang up on them today, they'll call back tomorrow.
And remember, these are calls to people who pay their bills on time.
It's pretty nasty, especially since these servicers are the ones that we now know are holding up processing of loan modification applications because their fees are better if borrowers default.
**UPDATE** Spoke with OneWest today - they are looking into it, but these phone calls were news to the person I spoke with. Curiouser and curiouser.
Call me Quasimodo. As I sit typing this, it's the only relatively-comfortable position I've found in two days. I threw my back out.
I was told twenty years ago that I have a disintegrating disc (or was it two?) and if I allowed myself to get too heavy I'd likely find myself in a wheelchair someday.
I didn't follow up for any further information, because it seemed pretty cut and dried to me.
I have kept my weight down (though I'd like to be a fashion waif) and until taking a job that required eight hours of sitting in front of a computer I used to exercise regularly. My back hurts sometimes, but that's to be expected when I mow the lawn, weed the garden, move furniture or paint five rooms in two weeks.
I refuse to admit I have limitations.
I can't deny it right now. Getting out of bed took five minutes - with one wrong move leading to screaming muscle spasms. I got halfway down the stairs and had to clutch the wall and wait for a spasm to pass. I made coffee (ow!) but couldn't feed the cats. I can't bend. So the cats are hungry and will have to wait until KB gets up.
I will probably spend much of the day on the couch - reading, watching movies, icing and heating my back and praying it stops being so angry.
We wanted to go the county fair last night and I thought I could do it. Stupid. Fortunately for me, the parking situation was such a nightmare we opted out and went to dinner instead. It was a big treat.
I watched everyone around me moving freely, walking, swinging their arms, standing and sitting without a second thought and I had a surprising reaction: jealousy. I was actually envious of their mobility. I'm usually one of them and I take it for granted.
Perhaps I'm not the kind, loving, compassionate person I believe myself to be much of the time. Maybe I need to get acquainted with the angry little brat who gets mad when other people can do what she can't.
Writer, journalist, house junkie and Pollyanna.
Maybe there's something to this astrology stuff: Geminis have a little trouble focusing on one thing.
I also very occasionally post some of my dad's writings on a companion blog, Alfred C. Barnett. Stop by for a read.