Friday, July 24, 2009

One Giant Leap For Mankind

This past week we observed the 40th anniversary of an American landing on the moon. It was a significant moment, a day that I remember quite vividly. Sitting transfixed in front of the TV, I watched grainy black and white images unfold. It was the television climax to all those previous broadcasts of preliminary space flights and admired astronauts: Mercury → Gemini → Apollo → Lunar Module that I had been captivated by in my youth for a decade. The centuries-old dream of the imagination of space travel, breaking free of earth’s gravitational limits, transporting oneself to the ultimate new unknown, had been achieved. In those turbulent times of the late 1960s with its multiple assassinations, civil rights upheavals, Viet Nam battles, and youth cultural rebellion, something had finally transpired around which all the warring factions – the dreamers and the pragmatists and the America-first patriots – could all pull together.

For a few months, the euphoria remained, reminiscent of the honoring of Charles Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight to Paris in 1929. We had heroes once again, universally admired. And then we too quickly moved on to other things, retreated into the misery of our daily headlines. So the thrills and TV ratings of subsequent moonwalks fell rapidly downhill into non-events, except perhaps for Apollo 13’s near calamity (impending disasters are always an attention-getting ratings boon). The once glorious theater of moon exploration was closed. Crashing to an inglorious early termination only 3 years later due to a lack of funds.

Rather than building on that scientific achievement, flying on the wings of these pioneering astronauts / explorers, we walked away from it all. Soaring spirits gave way to Watergate and a hasty retreat from the embassy rooftop in Saigon. Nixon’s “Peace With Honor” thankfully became Ford’s “Let’s Come Home” and Carter’s “Time For Reconciliation.” The flower children realized that making love was not enough to overcome the entrenched establishment. And in that climate of downward spiral, the US space program drifted into the wilderness of no overriding goal, no dominate purpose. So it simply moved instead towards commercializing the accomplishments to date. The breakfast drink of Tang opened the door to significant commercial uses of space: GPS systems, weather monitoring satellites, world-wide communication links, disease research, new materials and composites. A couple of scientific accomplishments remained – the Hubble Telescope, and the Mars and Jupiter unmanned satellite explorations.

Unfortunately, our opportunity to repeat the 16th century Age of Discovery, to recapture the spirit of Columbus, Magellan, Hudson, etc. never happened. It is discovery for its own sake, basic research, without an immediate return on investment, yet knowing that great nations (and cultures and peoples) are defined by their continuing pursuit forward. Instead, we walked away; not coincidentally, the great American “can do” spirit has been struggling ever since. The financial market explosions of the 1980s and 2000s were not “can do” examples; they were both cynical manipulations of the marketplace that led to implosion and collapse. Only the home technology burst in the 1990s seems to have recaptured that American “do it” persona; yet it too was taken over by the financial guys and driven off the cliff in the “dot com” collapse.
Trucking products into space or to the International Space Station is a necessary thing. But it is not a leadership thing. And it is not a “spirit rising” thing, an uplifting that we need right now. This 40th anniversary of the moon landing should be more than just a nostalgic look back. It should also be a new start forward. Health care reform, global warming reduction, and energy independence are all important chores that we must responsibly tend to in order to support the body. But we also need to plant flowers, inspire music and art, and yes, fly once again to the moon and then beyond. To nurture the spirit. To remind ourselves that, in spite of inherent dangers, the human spirit still needs to meet the unknown and transcend our fears in order to discover and experience that which is new and heretofore unexplored. And thereby to inspire others to do likewise. The late Walter Cronkite understood this and delighted in the aura of the journey. That small cadre of 24 men who once walked on the moon joined an exclusive club in which none of us can truly belong. But all of us can experience our own journey of exploration and discovery in our own way. We can each seek, explore, experience; find what no others can find for us. Neil Armstrong may have made one giant leap for mankind, but regrettably man elected not to leap after behind him.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Strictly Interpreting The Constitution

This week Washington brought us a new edition of the periodic confirmation process for a new Supreme Court judge. Sonya Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican-American with long judicial experience and (a rarity) field experience in prosecutorial law. I have no idea if she is qualified for this judgeship or not; others will determine that for us. Given the current political makeup of the Senate, her confirmation is pretty well assured baring any damaging revelation that may yet arise.

Nevertheless, politicians will still use these televised hearings to make righteous-sounding speeches, gain points from their respective voter bases, and regurgitate stock political slogans in search of news media headlines. Most of which will actually have little to do in substance to Ms. Sotomayor or her confirmation.

So far, there seems little dispute about her legal qualifications, earning a top rating from the American Bar Association, or about her 17 years of experience as a federal judge. The major complaints that we hear are:

1. Her comment to the effect that “a wise Latina will likely make a better conclusion than a white male.” No doubt she wishes she could put that comment back into the tin box, but it is too late. Nevertheless, there is a truth in her comment. While her opponents say that the comment introduces racism into her legal thinking and promotes “law by personal opinion,” in reality it simply describes what is already happening on the court. No judge escapes the reality of his/her background, personal experiences, and lessons learned over a lifetime. That bundle of personal history colors what one sees, thinks about, considers relevant, and how one measures importance. It takes Ruth Bader Ginsburg to help eight older men understand the impact of what strip-searching a 14 year-old girl really means. I do not know of anyone currently on the court who can help them understand the devastation of learning that you have been underpaid for decades solely because of your gender.

It is from one’s sense of outrage at these events, and the recognition of the outcomes of these events, that one energizes intellectual efforts and finds nuanced openings of interpretation in the law. From that enlarged perspective, one finds not only the factual logic of the law, but also the justice which must give the law a context and reason. By any measure, the Dred Scott decision in the 1850s affirming Negroes as “property” was wrong within itself, regardless of the political currents of the day or the reading of the statute books.

2. Which leads to the repeated mantra of those conservatives who yell for “someone who will not legislate from the bench, but who will strictly interpret the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it.” This is another case of horse-dung spoken by people who would not know a Founding Father if they happened to see one rising up from the grave.

Article III of our Constitution established the federal court system. It is considerably shorter than the sections defining the executive and legislative branches. It essentially: a) says that there will be a Supreme and inferior courts as needed with lifetime judges; b) defines the scope of the court’s jurisdiction; c) establishes rules regarding charges of treason (important given the colonies’ experience with England). That’s about it for the courts. No procedural rules, no guidelines for decisions, no set limits on its role, no definitions about what its powers are. All left unanswered, an expectation of sort of following a sense of what courts had been doing before in colonial America – except that there had been no federal court system over all of the colonies. Therefore assumedly just wing it from here.

It was not until 1803 (16 years after the Constitution) that Chief Justice John Marshall’s court even declared that it had the power to declare a congressional law unconstitutional! People may have assumed it, but the Constitution never said it had that power. So the court proactively and unilaterally said “we have that power; it was implied in the constitution.” Neither Congress nor President Jefferson challenged that self-proclaimed authority. Further, Marshall went on to say that the criteria for determining constitutionality was, “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.” You could drive a train through that ambiguity. So much for “expressly stated powers only.”

To ask that courts interpret the law “as the Founding Fathers intended (in 1787)” and not legislate from the bench is an absurdist position. Courts have been interpreting the law for 200 years. These interpretations come from the express wording of laws, a judge’s perspective on personal values shaped by experience, a weighing of impact, and the best possible balancing of conflicting legal views – which is why cases come to a Supreme Court in the first place. To re-read the Constitution and the history of its creation is to understand that there was not one collective mind writing this document. It is a broadly-worded framework containing but a few absolute requirements driven by their experience of the Revolution from English rule. It reflects the compromises of men with many different goals and perspectives, with most all details to be filled in later (including a number of critical issues that were ducked entirely, e.g. the slavery issue). Detailed decisions that will necessarily reflect the times and events in which they are decided. Yet they are decided with a flexible eye towards the continuity of “judicial precedent” in order to maintain a certain measure of shared stability and advance knowing.

Our Constitution has little meaning and detail inherently within its pages. It wonderfully instead established values, principles and processes to be utilized in putting statutory meat on that skeleton of ideas. And it left it to future generations to provide that bulk in their best wisdom under that framework. That is the true strength of our Constitution and why it has survived. We need to quit looking for some supposed Oracle of Truth in that document; it is not there. We need instead to find a few select people of good spirit, high intellect, and genuine humility who will utilize that special tool carefully and wisely for our times.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Passing Of Icons

Recently we witnessed all within one week the passing of three figures of note. People who, in their own way, were representative of a slice of Americana in the latter 3rd of the 20th century.

Ed McMahon was the consummate 2nd banana. The stalwart supporting actor to Johnny Carson’s lead star. For 30 years he and Johnny defined the late-night talk show television format still practiced today, and reflected back to us our concerns, foibles, and circumstances with unfailing humor and courtesy.

Farah Fawcett was one of the striking faces of the 1970s. From only one year on a fair-to-middling TV show, combined with being THE pinup poster of the 70s, she and her hair were “the look” for that decade. She was a sweet and friendly kind of sexy that made her the aspirational model of teenage girls and the never-realized fantasy for millions of men and boys.

And then there was Michael Jackson. A true megastar who experienced the complete highs-to-lows often seen in show business. The troubled man-boy who never quite found his way. We watched his cuteness as the little boy lead singer for his older siblings, and then watched awe-struck as he dramatically broke out into his electric solo career in the mid-80s. We watched his descent into increasing weirdness as his personal life became increasingly inexplicable and seemingly irrational, concurrently as his creative power and output diminished. Culminating in a death that seemed to smack of a final release from all his personal chaos.

Ed lived to an old age, yet was struggling at the end to retain his dignity in the midst of financial collapse. Farah, the beauty, withered away to the ravages of cancer. Michael, who defined a whole new style of popular music dance still in place 25 years later, moved from being the King of Pop to the cold slab of a police morgue due to a likely overdose of pharmaceutical drugs.

The news media, of course, loves these milestones. Ed was given a short but due mention of his supporting role in television history. Farah (and her long-term companion Ryan O’Neal) was given documentaries and the Barbara Walters interview, overall treated with respectful honor. It was Michael that has generated the media feeding frenzy. Hours of video replays; interviews with the truly famous alongside the umpteen wanna-be and underwhelming bit stars and media players; some ridiculous presentations and statements by news commentators (e.g. Matt Lauer giving us a tour of the empty Michael Jackson house and describing to us what furniture USED to be in each room; one self-serving commentator telling us that his interview with Michael years ago was a “life-changing event for BOTH of us!”). At one point I channel surfed across four cable news channels and two network news programs: all were running some kind of special report on Michael’s death. Dick Cheney’s outlandish speeches, the supposed revolution in Iran, nuclear missiles in North Korea, torture and the redistribution of terrorist prisoners, suddenly were all faint glimpses of discussion in this yet-again overreaction of the news media to this latest “big story of the moment.” We await the next frenzy that will likewise thankfully chase away this current crop of over-reported death stories.

There are people who are truly iconic and deserve that label, versus just people of recognition. Those that we rightfully call iconic fully embody within themselves a time, a moment, or a cultural movement. Some make it to a long natural end; many die short and tragically and thereby become immortalized. Often these are in entertainment, frequently in sports, occasionally in politics. Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio epitomized baseball in their times, and extended their auras to sports in general for all time. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and now Michael Jackson each defined a musical genre and reached iconic status. Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate iconic sexual female, unsurpassed 50 years later by any number of pretenders to that status. It is important that we properly differentiate those people who truly set the bar and serve as the fundamental reference point, versus the endless parade of followers who we prematurely anoint with a status beyond their accomplishment.

We do legitimately take pause when persons-of-note die. Especially for people who came to represent certain aspects of our cultural life. We tend to freeze those people into a fixed image in our minds. We link those images to parts of our individual histories and experiences. Experiences that seem forever in our own mind are suddenly jolted into recognition that they are in fact gone forever. These are often hard moments for us to assimilate – these reminders of the temporariness of our lives, that time does not stand still and we are now of another time, that parts of our lives are truly gone forever. It is worthwhile to properly acknowledge these kinds of events, and to give peace to our moments of small deaths in our psyche. Honor the individuals; honor ourselves. And from that place of quiet honoring, we move on.