E Pluribus Unum, For Better Or Worse

Perhaps you’ve looked at a map and thought it might be a good idea if the United States came apart at the seams. I have. If only we could make those other people go away!

Abraham Lincoln didn’t agree, of course, but he never met our current president or Mitch McConnell. 

Akim Reinhardt, a history professor in Maryland, says we should seriously consider the idea:

Is there anything more clichéd than some spoiled, petulant celebrity publicly threatening to move to Canada if the candidate they most despise wins an election? These tantrums have at least four problems:

1. As if Canada wants you. Please.
2. Mexico has way better weather and food than Canada. Why didn’t you threaten to move there? Is it because of all the brown people? No, you insist. Is it the language? Well then if you do make it to Canada, here’s hoping they stick you in Quebec.
3. New Zealand seems to be the hip new Canada. I’ve recently heard several people threaten to move there. News flash, Americans: New Zealand wants you even less than Canada does.
4. [Note: #4 isn’t really a problem so I’m leaving it out.]

. . . I’ve got a much better alternative: Stay put and begin a serious, adult conversation about disuniting the states.

If, through the vagaries of the Electoral College, 45% of U.S. voters really do run this nation into an authoritarian kleptocratic, dystopian ditch, then instead of fleeing with your gilded tail between your legs, stay and help us reconfigure the nation. It might be the sanest alternative to living in Txxxx’s tyranny of the minority, in which racism and sexism are overtly embraced, the economy is in shambles, the pandemic rages unabated, and abortion may soon be illegal in most states as an ever more conservative Supreme Court genuflects to corporate interests and religious extremists.

And of course it cuts both ways. Should current polls hold and Joe Biden manage to win the election with just over half the popular vote, those on the losing side will be every bit as upset. So upset that they too would likely open to a conversation about remaking an America.

Indeed, no matter how this turns out, about half the nation will feel like they can no longer live with what America is becoming, even as they live in it. The losing side, whichever it may be, will want to wrest this country back from those who seem increasingly alien to them. So perhaps national salvation comes when the winning side remains open to a discussion the losers will launch about radically redesigning the United States. . . .

It is time for the rest of us to begin a serious discussion about national disincorporation. About disuniting the states. Because no matter who wins, about half the nation will not want to live with it. Tens of millions of Americans on the losing side will not trust the winner to govern fairly, competently, or with the nation’s best interests at heart.

It’s a recipe for disaster. We need to get ahead of this discussion. . . .

Let me be clear. I am not advocating a unilateral declaration of secession and military assault on federal installations like the treasonous, Confederate slave-owners did in 1861. Rather, I am advocating serious discussions about untangling this fractured nation. For finding a peaceful, constitutional solution that either dissolves or drastically reconfigures the United States.

I believe it may be the most sensible and mature approach to dealing with a deeply riven partisan divide that has done nothing but worsen these last forty years, and increasingly breeds mutual frustration and resentment among tens of millions of Americans. The U.S. constitutional system is predicated on compromise, and the Republican Party has spent the last quarter-century working against compromise with increasing fervency. That’s not a smear, it’s a statement of fact. It’s a central tenet of their politics. Republicans are openly dismiss compromise and try to get everything they want and accept nothing they don’t.

It has become dysfunctional. And it’s not going to change anytime soon. . . .

Though perhaps unfathomable at first glance, we may actually be nearing the point where a majority of Americans are ready to call it quits on our current national incarnation. . . .

After all, in the world of national governments, 231 years is a really long time. And it wouldn’t even be our first rodeo.

We have done this before. The Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, peacefully replaced an earlier form of United States national government organized under the Articles of Confederation. Yes, drafting the Constitution and getting the nation to adopt it over the Articles were difficult processes, hardly perfect, and engendered a fair bit of acrimony at the time. But it came about, peacefully (for the most part), and led to something that’s lasted well over two centuries.

Is it so impossible then to imagine the United States reconfiguring itself once again?

Of course a new United States could take many shapes. . . .

But regardless of what shape it might take, perhaps the most important thing is to have the conversation. Like adults. To talk about what it means to share national governance; how it’s working to our satisfaction, and how it’s not; and what we might do to improve it. . . .

Or perhaps, irony wins the day. Maybe serious discussion about disunion actually help decrease partisan tensions. Simply broaching the topic in a serious manner may force many Americans to recognize how close we are to losing we’ve always known.

Or perhaps such discussions really do lead many Americans to decide that it’s time to replace We the People, with You and Us the People.

Unquote.

Prof. Reinhardt has a few ideas about how this dismemberment might be accomplished. We might become two or three nations; change the Constitution to give more power to individual states; combine states or divide them up, etc. To use two old phrases, thinking about dividing the U.S. is a parlor game and a pipe dream.

Here’s one reason. Although we think of blue states and red states, some of them are purple. In addition, if you drill down further, America is an even greater mixture of blue and red. This is a map with counties marked blue or red depending on how they voted in 2016, with each county assigned space on the map based on its population.

countycartrb512

Assigning either blue, red or purple to each county based on the percentage that voted one way or the other would make it even harder to separate us by our political leanings.

I think a better and more practical solution will be to reinstate majority rule in the United States by making the Electoral College obsolete, getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. That would allow the federal government to pursue more progressive policies, which would help the economy, allow more social ills to be addressed and reduce inequality.

We also need to remove some of the emotion surrounding three issues: abortion, gun control and the Supreme Court. Abortions are already becoming more rare; putting more emphasis on education and birth control would reduce them further. Private ownership of guns is here to stay; but somehow we need to do what the majority of Americans want, i.e.  institute sensible gun control. A revised, clarified Second Amendment might allow us to do that while protecting a citizen’s “right to bear arms”. The Supreme Court has become too political. I’d add three seats, so we’d have 12 justices evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. No more 5-4 decisions. If a ruling can’t get a majority, let the lower court decision stand. 

Maybe thinking about how we could make America a better country for people on the right and left and in the middle is also a parlor game and a pipe dream. It seems to me, however, that a more perfect union is within our grasp if we make the effort. It would be much harder to make those other people go away.

Disturbing the Peace

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 225 years ago. It states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So let’s consider the Oxford Dictionary definition of “militia”:

A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. “creating a militia was no answer to the army’s manpower problem”

Now let’s read who showed up last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as reported by The Guardian:

With their loaded assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, combat boots and helmets, it looked like the US army had descended on the pretty college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, as a white supremacy rally turned violent last weekend.

The military did officially turn up, in fact, in the form of the Virginia national guard, called into service to back up the police when a state of emergency was declared at 11am on Saturday morning….

But they were not the most visible or heavily armed soldier types [present]. That distinction goes to the militia [sic] members brought together as a unit from a handful of the hundreds of unofficial paramilitary groups that have long thrived across America due to the second amendment’s directive: “A well regulated Militia….”

With their trigger fingers ready on their loaded, battlefield-style rifles, held across heavy-duty body armour, these quasi-troops turned heads as they murmured to each other via radios and headsets.

The men in charge of the 32 militia members who came to Charlottesville from six states to form a unit with the mission of “defending free speech” were Christian Yingling, the commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, and his “second in command” on the day, George Curbelo, the commanding officer of the New York Light Foot Militia.

“We spoke to the Charlottesville police department beforehand and offered to come down there and help with security,” Yingling told the Guardian.

“They said: ‘We cannot invite you in an official capacity, but you are welcome to attend,’ and they gave us an escort into the event,” he added.

Gun laws vary from state to state and even city to city, but Virginia has one of the most relaxed sets of laws in the US. It is legal for civilians to carry weapons openly, including intimidating assault rifles loaded with 30-round magazines, which the Light Foots – but not the police or official military – carried during the Charlottesville event….

Curbelo praised his militia unit…. “We were de-escalating things and treating people injured on all sides, until we were hugely outnumbered,” he said, although he noted: “If I saw me coming at me in all my gear, I would find it intimidating.” 

This is insane. Private citizens who enjoy getting together and pretending to be soldiers are not a “well-regulated militia”. They aren’t a “militia” at all, no matter what they call themselves. A better word for these idiots is “paramilitary”:

Organized similarly to a military force. “illegal paramilitary groups”

Even if some right-wing fool on the local police force said they’d be welcome (“Come on down. Bring the biggest guns you have. The more the merrier!”), they had no business being in Charlottesville. The city police, the Virginia state police and, if necessary, the National Guard were responsible for keeping the peace. 

Furthermore, the law says these paramilitary groups are illegal. From Philip Zelikow, a lawyer and history professor, at the Lawfare blog:

For those close to the action, including the law enforcement personnel on duty, hardly any aspect of the Charlottesville confrontation was more menacing than the appearance of organized, often uniformed, private bands of men in military getups, openly brandishing assault rifles and other long guns.

This is an ominous development, but it is not a new one. And it can be—and has been—countered with legal action. I took part in that work.

In 1981 an organization called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized and trained paramilitary groups to harass Vietnamese-American fishermen on the Texas Gulf coast. They, too, wore Army-surplus-style clothes and gear, not white sheets. Working with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Berg and I represented the fishermen in a federal lawsuit against the Klan. We invoked a Texas law more than a century old that banned “military companies” other than those authorized by the governor. There are similar laws in most states, including Virginia.

We asked the judge to shut down the Klan’s paramilitary activities.  Since this law had never been interpreted, we developed a legal standard to define the barred activity…We focused on private efforts to create a military or paramilitary organization that had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.”

Expert witnesses explained how the group’s activities met the standard. The Texas attorney general urged the judge to accept our application of the law.  The judge … granted our request and in 1982 shut down the training activities…. The order worked. 

Our approach was used again in 1985 and 1986 when the Southern Poverty Law Center took legal action against the Carolina Knights of the KKK and its successor, the White Patriots Party. After they violated court orders, a jury found the organization and its leaders guilty of criminal contempt. The leaders were jailed….

The problem arose again during the 1990s as self-styled militias organized in several states. Morris and I published an op-ed in the New York Times in May 1995 to review the legal option of restricting the activity of private military groups. That danger subsided, after many lives had been lost—above all, in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 

But the danger is rising again, as my town, the nation and the world can plainly see.

The Second Amendment arguments can be—and have been—overcome.  Individuals may have a right to bear arms for self-defense, but they do not have a right to organize and train as a private military group. In 1886 the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for controlling what the Second Amendment calls a “well-regulated Militia,” when it held that “[m]ilitary operations and military drill are subjects especially under the control of the government of every country.  They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law.” A New York appellate court noted in 1944: “The inherent potential danger of any organized private militia is obvious. Its existence would be sufficient, without more, to prevent a democratic form of government, such as ours, from functioning freely, without coercion”….

The language of Virginia’s Constitution is clear. While “a well regulated militia” is valued, including what state law calls the “unorganized militia,” the Constitution stresses that, “in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

Well, when truckloads of organized groups of heavily armed men drive into my town—or your town—it is time to uphold the civil power. Virginia, like most states, has the legal power to stop them. And the precedents are on the books.

Amen.

That Amendment Again

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Fortunately, a well-regulated militia is no longer necessary to the security of a free state. It’s not 1789 anymore. We now have the largest “defense” establishment in the world, as well as the FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, Border Patrol, National Guard, state police, local police, security guards and mercenaries keeping us secure. We devote more energy and resources to security than any other country in the world.

But we’re stuck with the Second Amendment for now. The question is: how should that amendment be interpreted?

In practice, some people interpret it this way: “the right of just about anyone to own and operate the latest in high-tech firearms shall not be infringed”. That’s an extremely liberal interpretation.

After all, none of the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution are absolute.  We certainly don’t have an absolute right to life (you can be executed for certain crimes, especially in Texas), liberty (you can be locked up for lots of reasons) and the pursuit of happiness (ditto). You can’t say whatever you want or assemble wherever you want or even practice your religion however you want.

Living with other people means having our rights restricted. In line with that fact of life, we should all start interpreting the Second Amendment in a reasonably restricted way:

“The right of the people to own and operate firearms shall not be infringed, but shall be subject to appropriate regulation, consistent with everyone’s more important rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Even Justice Scalia agrees that the right to bear arms is restricted. The next problem, however, is that he and his like-minded colleagues won’t accept regulation that sufficiently protects other people’s rights to avoid death or injury at the hands of someone with a gun.

After Newtown

The first entry on this blog was written in response to the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, less than 5 months ago:

https://whereofonecanspeak.com/2012/07/24/insanity/

Tom Tomorrow offers a “generic cartoon” on the theory that nothing will change:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/17/1169578/-Generic-cartoon

But maybe the horror of what happened in Newtown will finally make a difference. The NRA is trying to pretend that nothing happened last week. Certain politicians are reconsidering their positions. Maybe we can decide as a nation that some of us shouldn’t be allowed to exercise the right to bear arms, and none of us should be allowed to exercise that right by owning weapons designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Nicholas Kristof calls attention to some sensible ways in which we can make this a more civilized country. For example, we could regulate guns as seriously as we regulate cars and ladders:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-do-we-have-the-courage-to-stop-this.html