Texas AG Should Seek Counsel

The Supreme Court’s vote affirming the right of gays to marry is a victory too for the Constitution itself.

That so many of our Republican officeholders in Texas don’t grasp this should embarrass all of us. It’s Neanderthal that Attorney General Paxton has it wrong, attacking the decision as a threat to religious liberty, which he says is the first freedom. Actually, he’s wrong twice.

What comes first in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights is vital to all the rest: complete separation of church and state. This alone justifies the Court’s finding.

Second, it folds freedom of religion into the overarching intent of the First Amendment, which is freedom of expression, whether exercised in speech, religion, or assembly.

Mr. Paxton couldn’t help but draw upon two code words of right-wing rattling: infringement and harassment. He provides as context: “Our guiding principle should be to protect people who want to live, work and raise their families in accordance with their religious faith.” But such is not the ordinary American workplace, where business always comes first, where productivity and success make little room for time wasted in political or religious chatter.

If workers expect the workplace protection he alludes to, they should seek employment in the large bureaucracy of the church they follow, or in the charity work that many perform. I have long applauded the hours that my closest Catholic friend devotes weekly to Catholic Charities. But every other workplace deserves separation of church and state. It’s the great wall that keeps bureaucrats, of the Paxton tilt, from telling us our workday must always start with a “word of thanks.”

What I’m always thankful for is the Constitution, which shields us from public officeholders who really don’t understand it, however prone they are to misuse it.

Paxton has doubled down on his abuse of office by allowing government clerks, county clerks in particular, to think they might force a new challenge in the courts by continuing to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples, on grounds that their personal beliefs are infringed in doing it. Paxton just doesn’t get it. In accepting election to his state office, that office requires that his right-wing evangelicalism be left at the door. This goes for every public office, leaving county clerks no room for exceptions. Without that great wall, is there any corner of government that would be safe from religious distraction and agitation?

What’s that old adage? Ignorance of the law is no excuse. In the state’s highest office of law enforcement, it becomes obscene. Paxton’s ignorance is bringing nationwide embarrassment to Texas. In effect, he’s telling county clerks and other officials in licensing and assisting gays in marriage that their duties to the law need not outweigh religious conviction in official conduct — arousing doubt that he’s even read the Constitution.           Now fellow lawyers are threatening a formal complaint to the Texas Bar, whose rules require that members uphold the Constitution, hence abide by edicts of the Supreme Court. Some 150 lawyers have expressed willingness to sign such a complaint, with the count growing.

Paxton’s stand is not working. Marriage licenses are now flowing freely to gays in Texas. The AG now must grapple with slackening respect for his opinions.

Frank Mensel — July 2015


(Nor a Friend of the Earth or the Constitution)

It takes bravery, as the National Anthem reminds us, to keep Old Glory waving and to keep faith with the Constitution. That’s a taller order now than ever before.

“Establish Justice.” It’s more and more dreamed of than delivered.

Promote the “general Welfare.” Poverty dogs our nation in far greater numbers than it did in the worst days of the Great Depression. In the mightiest economy the world has seen, poverty is a disgrace. It insults the Constitution. The globe’s one superpower can’t find the bravery to fix it. When the Star-Spangled Banner brings us to our feet, why aren’t we blushing?

Perhaps that’s why we hear God Bless America more and more. But why would any god of fairness bless a nation that grew by genocide, erasing the Native Tribes, and by slavery on unprecedented scale, whose vestiges continue in countless ways to keep us a nation divided against itself. What could be more ironic than its role in our foremost entertainment industry – football – where blacks now dominate the trenches of warfare? Can we excuse its popularity because the blacks are bearing the greater risks, both as linemen and as running and defensive backs, who will suffer the preponderance of concussions and eventual brain impairment? “A brain is a terrible thing to waste” – unless it’s a black brain.

How do universities still run with that motto, with a straight face, chasing gridiron glory and fat bowl checks, knowing that any and every concussion has the potential of wasting a brain?

The vast hypocrisy of all this should prompt higher education to declare a sports holiday. Make it a full year, and see what it tells us about ourselves, as a swarm of couch potatoes. It won’t happen. It can’t. There’s too much money involved. Education is badly tainted by it, with high schools and universities both dancing to the music of this unrivalled entertainment industry. Money is the tail that wags every dog in our economy of free enterprise.

But sadly, it ain’t soooo free anymore. If it were true capitalism, it would spread wealth more than it concentrates it. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, to keep us free. To deliver economic justice. To prove itself in a growing middle class. But we know it’s not working because our middle class, once the envy of the world, has been dwindling to where it can no longer be called a middle class. It’s too small. And, the hope of growing a new middle class has gone dark, because Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage in more than a generation, so that it will not by a 40-hour work week keep the earner living above the poverty line. It leaves the growing population living in minimum-wage jobs (thank you, Mitt Romney, for being so honest about the less fortunate and powerless “47%”) living at the pleasure of the Wal Marts and the other makers and manipulators of markets, essentially pitting the multinationals against communist China. Daring the Brave to do anything about it. Even Texas, which is leading the nation now in population, job and economic growth, sees the surge of new jobs concentrated in the low-wage service sectors.

So what we have in place now of the promise of the Constitution is government by oligarchy, spearheaded by corporate power, which has the green-light no less than from WeThePeople’s last line of defense, the Supreme Court. American history will have no irony greater than this. It makes a monster of the legal profession, where the record plainly shows that money talks loudest.

Just five lawyers outvoting four others to feed us the cruel joke that corporations have personhood and thus have the same grab on the Bill of Rights as individuals, because they are formed by people. By that slender, shaky 5-4 vote, these lawyers are telling us that money has the right to walk all over us, when and where it pleases.

The growing oligarchy has been aptly framed as the One Percent vs. the 99 Percent.

Maybe there’s room for hope – thanks to climate change. It’s too early to visualize the battle lines that will form. At least some of the billionaires are beginning to see that denying climate change is a blind man’s bluff, and they have the most to lose. After all, the One Percent hold assets as great or greater than the lowest 50 Percent combined.

However high their mountains of wealth, they will not, cannot, deny the earth the last word. What sterner enforcer of that word than the oceans, which are steadily rising as the icecaps and glaziers melt away? Once they are gone, no resource may be more precious than safe drinking water.

Ironically, it is the richest, most populous State that is driving this home to Americans. Though California has grown an economy ranked as the seventh largest, trailing only six nations, it is suffering a drought that has no end in sight, as its matchless farms cut production and idle large tracts in an effort to conserve water. But they already have badly depleted and endangered their priceless aquifers.

If the aquifers don’t recover, neither will California, nor the nation as a whole. It’s a perfect opportunity for the California billionaires to step forward, and make themselves the example by sharply curtailing their extravagance and shaving away their luxurious lifestyle. All the world would notice if Rodeo Drive boarded up all the shops.

In a world increasingly threatened by the divisions and terrorism that religions are spreading, the USA, as the last superpower, stands yet as the bastion of freedom most likely to lead mankind away from demise. Whether the oligarchs see this, in time to curve history in a positive direction, is a grave question. They wield the corporate power, and with it the legal profession, too easily swayed by prospects of fatter wallets, to take us in a new direction. It is that power that, while tarnishing freedom, leads freedom in the global trade war with communism.

But are they aware enough, and brave enough, to act? Will they realize that to act is to save themselves? The choice with the most promise would be instruction to their high-powered lawyers to give us the rule of law the Constitution promises, to ensure that it lives by the letter of the Preamble of the Constitution, which stands as the bravest commitment a people ever made to themselves to make freedom ring, and ring, and ring.

The oligarchs have that choice. Any other makes them fools. They can run, but they can’t hide. There no longer are mountains or islands secure enough to guarantee their survival. They and their fortunes will not keep the oceans from rising, or the ice fields from dying. They must realize that the last word is never theirs, no matter how large their law firms. That word is always the earth’s, in which climate change is a friendly warning. If they can’t see their responsibility to start helping the world of free enterprise meet it and live by it, they’ll keep growing risks for the kin whom they are bent upon showering with their assets.

Oligarchs, you have the choice. Where’s the bravery? Gumption could work, with some initiative and common sense. But the singing at which you, your corporate mouthpieces and lawyers excel simply won’t cut it. The earth isn’t listening. She will always have the last word. Against rising oceans and other new waves of climate change, corporate power will become useless. And wealth won’t cut it, either. That you can take to the bank, should any remain standing.

Frank Mensel — July 2015

OBAMAS, More Ivy League than Democrat?

Flux comes easily to mind as the word that best fits the legacy growing from the Obama presidency in its seventh year. It swims in so many pressing uncertainties whose outcomes will tell Americans whether they have a democracy that still delivers “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or a future largely written in oligarchy, if not something worse. Consider but a few of the sharks that nibble today at that legacy: climate change, unwanted wars, overpriced health care, stubborn recession, unprecedented poverty, exploding technology, lost value of labor, unstable immigration, insecure borders, drug mania, crumbling infrastructure, banks too big to fail, trade agreements that breed more corporate power and trade deficits, raging ideologies and evangelical zealotry.

So at which targets will President Obama aim to round out his legacy? Will it be distinguished by hard choices, or by dilemma and paradox?

So far, the Affordable Care Act has been his biggest score. More than 10 million Americans now have health insurance who didn’t have it before. He is standing tall too in the gradual recovery from the Great Recession, aka the Bush-Cheney Recession, the worst since the Great Depression, which closed out the B-C presidency, and history may well show to be our most destructive. Steady growth in employment is now running five full years under Obama.

He has sided with science on climate change, in words at least. But his actions are not matching those words. His ardent advocacy of the pending Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement show a lack of concern for the environment that is alarming, and at odds with science and the consensus developing in his own Party. It puts him on the side of Wall Street, not the rainbow rank-and-file who elected him. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats are digging in their heels on trade agreements that lack firm safeguards and security for both the environment and American workers. American labor has in fact been burned in previous such agreements.

His overall performance has shown more concern and favor to the banks and Wall Street than to the priorities that fortify his own Party. His White House staff has been built more around Ivy League connections than the grassroots within his Democratic base. Specific economic gains of the recovery were not detailed in the talking points fed to party precinct workers, which could have lessened the Republican sweep of the 2014 elections, and left the president facing an unfriendly Congress in the months that will wrapped up his administration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, has assured one and all that his mind and ears are open and his posture friendly for the duration of this last Congress of the Obama presidency. But the flat-out hostility toward the first black president that was the drumbeat of his recent years as Minority Leader can’t be erased overnight, amid the doubt over how hard he’ll really try. Mitch might think twice about his own legacy. Will he be remembered most for using his leadership in the Senate to refight the Civil War, conspicuously in his rejection of the first minority to capture the White House – won twice, no less?

President Obama and the First Lady are Democrats, with the capital D more in name than substance. Both his presidency and his party have been tested and continue to be tried by it. Their rapid ascent in Illinois politics came more from good fortune than from service in either office or party, or their performance in either. His service in the Senate was neither long enough or deep enough to complete his seasoning in either party politics or high office. Perhaps his Harvard degrees helped.

With more grassroots party seasoning, his election would have grounded him better as the first black president. That distinction alone assured him of trial by fire. The economic collapse in the last year of the previous administration of Bush-Cheney had greeted him with forests of finance turning to ashes.

Even before his inauguration, in spite of the downturn, the Republican leader of the Senate, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, swore that whatever the president was aiming to do, he would do his best to torpedo. At the same time, the Republican minority in the House declared their intent to do the same. It was a unanimous vote of their caucus. It was a show of racism the public musn’t forget, however hard the right-wing has tried to paint it as something else.

Such blind unity was also at odds with the well-worn traditions of bipartisanship and compromise, and actually turned in the president’s favor, even his reelection. It ultimately paved the way for the enactment of a norm typical of nations that elect their government: national health insurance, under the Affordable Care Act, which has enrolled millions in coverage they could never qualify for in the past. It could rank him in history as the first important president of the 21st century, better still if complemented with a major overhaul of immigration.

Yet his relatively shallow grounding as a Democrat turned his White House into a team that suffered from the same deficiency. The staff are heavily Ivy League, consistent with the educations of both Obamas, and thus more elitist than traditional Democrat. It is not a staff well-rooted in his party base.

This showed very unhappily in the 2014 mid-term elections which went heavily Republican, not unlike most elections in the sixth year of a two-term administration when the party out of power ordinarly scores well. Yet in 2014, the economic tide ran so strongly in the president’s favor that it should have helped the Democrats more than it did. It was in large measure a failure of White House wonks to get the message out. Nearly five years of steady job growth and rising productivity, with the first inkling in a generation of a recovering middle class, yet none of this was documented on bullet sheets that in the hands of party faithful could be spread door to door, precinct by precinct.

On February 22, 2015 (birth day of the first President, no less) he laid out the case in rich detail: “For tens of millions, Obamacare is working.” Much of that data was available in the fall, but never played in the campaign. An FDR, or Truman, or Clinton would never have missed such a bet. But the Obama team were not deep enough in party ties or experience to know this was their job, to boost both incumbent and party.

Just how much, and for how long, this bungle will hurt the party is uncertain. Will Hillary Clinton, coming from the Obama cabinet, be hurt? Never has the country been quite so ready for a woman becoming commander-in-chief, but Hillary’s Obama link is at play in the Progressives’ push to get their erudite champion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to challenge Clinton. Little doubt that a few TV debates between the two would arouse party faithful and stir voter interest in degrees that no one in the GOP pipeline could muster.

Roughly speaking, the Progressives are to the Democrats what the Tea Party is to the GOP. But it’s more in the nature of Progressives and Democrats to find common ground. As the old saying goes, when Democrats fight each other, they produce more Democrats. It’s a game the conservatives can’t play; if they do, their faith suffers. They trip on their egos, when they try. Ego is a common Republican hang-up. No one shows it better than Ted Cruz, but his rivals have plenty also to spare.

Despite the recent mid-term setback at the polls, Democrats are eager to play in 2016, to draft a new platform and pack historic Philadelphia for their convention. The Progressives seem especially eager to show their colors. Color itself will work in the Democrats’ favor, with the very beautiful Obama family then rallying both their old base and legions of admirers who appreciate the class they’ve shown in the White House.

What have the Republicans got to match that show. The Bushes? Jeb, now their standard-bearer, has the early lead in the money chase, but is tarnished by both his governorship and the name. Americans cannot easily forget the the George W. presidency was the most destructive run in White House history, from the devious and reckless war to the Great Recession on which it ended. Even the surge of Jihad and the grisly Islamic State show dots running back to Bush-Cheney.

The Obamas will be remembered happily for their class, their style. People who wanted to see a minority leader win the White House should feel they were fortunate. They could hardly have done better.

Far more important, history is beginning to smile on this president. His Affordable Care Act is proving monumental, enrolling tens of millions thus far in health insurance for which a great many could never qualify before. It may be fine-tuned by the Republican Congress, but the USA is not about to give it up and thus tell the western world that the one superpower is the only party in that world that can’t afford universal care for its people. Too, he has shaken off the Great Recession now with an unprecedented run of consecutive months of job growth. He’s well on his way to rank as the first important president of the 21st century. Should he bring the Republican Congress into a compromise (that cherished word of the Founding Fathers) on immigration reform, he could easily find himself firmly placed among the ten (or fewer) most important presidents.

In any event, he will be remembered as a better president than Democrat. Which is the way our politics should work, anyway. And, as the first First Lady of color, Michelle will surely be remembered as a superb complement in that highly sensitive responsibility, perhaps more deeply educated for it than any predecessor. The Ivy League might take a bow. Does it ever miss the chance? It’s obvious now that Michelle is a political force in her own right, whose popularity at the moment tops any other figure in the Party.

If it turns out that she actively campaigns for Hillary, and makes it clear she is doing it purely because she wants to, if that’s close to possible, the respect and trust people have for her is bound to help the ticket. Who’s to say that in eight years she won’t become our second black president? That could easily make this first couple the most prominent Democrats of this century, a certification larger than their Ivy League degrees.

Frank Mensel — March 2015