from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Shaw's father wanted no monument 

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Shaw is Robert Gould Shaw, white commander of the the all-black Massachusetts 54th, for whom August St. Gaudens crafted the Memorial in Boston. The words are from "For the Union Dead" by Robert Lowell. The poem was published in 1964, which provides the rationale for the reference to the school children.

My Memorial Day meditation will perhaps be somewhat different. I hope you do not find it too off-key.

When I was a child I was drawn as were many young males to tales of martial heroism. As a small child I read and re-read a child's version of the Odyssey. And perhaps that begins my downfall, for I admired more the cleverness of the hero than I did any martial sacrifice.

Still, I was drawn to the idea of military service. Ballantine Books had a paperback series on the World War II, and I read them all by the time I graduated from high school. I knew the names of American heroes, and even some opposing us whom the authors admired. I could list the four Japanese carriers sunk at Midway and tell you about airborne aces. I applied for Naval ROTC only I failed the first part of the physical on my eyesight.
Lowell's poem was written in 1964. In 1963 I participated in the March on Washington, after an extended period of civil rights demonstrations in New York, and that Fall I further participated in demonstrations in Chester PA. When I dropped out of college in 1965, still drawn to the idea of service on behalf of others, I enlisted in the United State Marine Corps. I never came close to combat, but I served with those who had - NCOs with service in Korea, and as time went on more and more who had been "in country" in Southeast Asia. And perhaps that is when my ideas about military service were finally altered.

I am now a Quaker. While not an absolute pacifist I accept the idea that when men go to war it is an admission of failure - that we could not settle our differences otherwise. I already had Quaker leanings while in the Marines, which made for an odd combination. After all, those of us in the Society of Friends attempt always to answer that of God in each person we encounter, while those who serve militarily are trained to kill the person designated as the enemy. The question inevitably arises, are we prepared to kill that of God, to destroy a creature or parts of creation in the name of some cause so great that we can justify such death and destruction?

I acknowledge that we enjoy freedom because there are now, and always have been, those willing to make two sacrifices. The one we acknowledge readily is their willingness to die on behalf of the idea we call American democracy. The one we too readily ignore is their accepting the price of taking lives of others, themselves perhaps prepared to kill on behalf of their nation, their people, their religion, their ideology.

Lowell's poem, which can be read in its entirely here, is not as well known as say the poems from World War I, but like them it challenges the "normal" patriotic reaction on occasions of commemoration. I will not quote the entire poem, but offer one more selection to consider:
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

I admire the poet's gift, which I lack, to express with a few words deep insights about the human condition. Poets, prophets and holy fools challenge us in our comfort, and force us to think more deeply about important things.

As an adolescent I became deeply fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose admiration for and love of Lincoln was unbounded. I do not remember whether I responded to Whitman because I was already drawn to Lincoln, or that a still nascent attraction was fanned from embers to flames by the poetry. As a sophomore in College we commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of Jack Kennedy by singing Paul Hindemith's requiem, itself written in commemoration of the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and using the entire text of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." It and the companion poem "O Captain, my Captain" serve to remind us that Lincoln was also a casualty of war, one of the last of our own Civil War. In the poem Whitman works with three images: lilacs as a symbol of death, the great star that droops for the fallen Lincoln, and the small bird who is the poet. Of that small bird he writes:
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou wouldist surely die.)

Whitman's poem is far too long to quote entirely. If you do not know it, today is an appropriate day to ponder it. The various images are powerful, deeply moving, thought-provoking, and can easily be applied to anyone whose sacrifice we remember this day. Allow me to share uninterrupted the 10th, 11th, and 12th stanzas:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till
there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.


O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking
sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves
of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a
wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky,
and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen
homeward returning.


Lo, body and soul--this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides,
and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light,
Ohio's shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover'd with grass and corn.

Death that is removed from our living is not what we remember. The sacrifices that others made is what enables us to enjoy ordinary scenes of life, and the bounteous beauty of the land which so moved Whitman.

As a child I remember riding my bicycle to the war memorial. The end of the parade would take us there, with the list of names of those who had served, with especially commemoration for those who had died. This was not a glorification of death. It was an acknowledgement. Whitman has in the 14th stanza of his poem a "death carol" from which I take the following 8 lines:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love--but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Lowell began his poem with an epigraph in Latin:
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
This is a plural version, replacing the "Relinquit" on the actual St. Gaudens memorial, which was temporarily in a crate as the garage under Boston Common was being constructed. The original is the motto of the Society of Cincinnati. You can choose which version you prefer: "He/They left behind everything to save the Republic.

Lowell was answering a poem by his friend Allen Tate who had written "Ode to the Confederate Dead" which begins
Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sought the rumour of mortality.
and which ends in a fashion which connects with my meditation:
We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:

Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush--
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!

Today many will visit graveyards. This particular "celebration" began as "Decoration Day" when the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers alike had flowers placed upon them. It fulfills a human need to acknowledge what others have done on our behalf. And for many we need a physical symbol and place to which we can direct our attention.

Shaw's father thought no memorial was appropriate. You may agree or not as is your wont. For myself, even as I acknowledge the power of place and the force of physical symbolism - and I know few places with more force than the Vietnam Memorial, the Wall - I am drawn beyond these to the memory and image of the poet. Thus I return to Whitman, to "Lilacs," to the end of the magnificent poem, a selection which perhaps can only be fully understood at the completion of the rest of the words, but which even by itself can help us, guide us in turning our grief into something appropriate for this day:
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for
the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands--and this for
his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Some nations have been fortunate to have poets and playwrights as their leaders. We have had one whose gift with words approached that. It was he whom Whitman mourned, and he led this nation in its greatest crisis, when we fought brother against brother. It is his words to which I turn to end this meditation, himself one of the final victims of that titanic struggle. I do so in the belief that he challenges us to do more than merely remember, even more than absorb the insights of the poets. And I find his words so appropriate in our own time of national crisis:
It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.


I wish this were only a book review 

Originally posted on May 26 at dailykos

Should we amend all of the textbooks in America to explain to schoolchildren that what has been taught for more than two centuries about checks and balances is no longer valid? Should we teach them instead that the United States Congress and the courts are merely advisory groups that make suggestions to the president on what the law should be, but that the president is all-powerful and now has the final say on everything? Should we teach them that we are a government of men, not of laws? Should we teach them that we used to be a democracy but now we only pretend to be?

The words above are from a chapter entitled "Democracy in the Balance." They appear on p. 226 of Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason which I read yesterday. Like the other words I will cite in this posting, they move me to anger, despair, frustration, depression, sadness and more. And they make it absolutely clear why I will not, even at the cost of my life, give up the struggle to save this nation, and thereby perhaps humanity.

During this past year I have on occasion posted online pieces about my struggle - could I continue teaching with integrity? What do I say to my students about the depredations of democracy and of the Constitution ongoing under this administration?

I have said that this is not a book review. While reading I went through a welter of emotions. I marked a number of passages such as that with which I began this posting. From those I have selected some which I propose to share, and by share I mean not only offering them for you to consider but at least on occasion sharing my immediate or more considered reaction.

From pp. 112-113 a passage that cuts to the heart of the matter:
Is it possible that Bush and Cheney truly believed the false assertions they foisted on the American people and our allies? Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, "The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions." And investigative journalist I. F. Stone wrote in A Time of Torment: "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." If Bush and Cheney actually believe in the linkage that they assert in spite of all the evidence to the contrary presented to them contemporaneously - that would by itself make them genuinely unfit to lead our nation. On the other hand, if they knew the truth and lied, massively and repeatedly, isn't that worse? Are they too gullible or too dishonest?

Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that they settled on weapons of mass destruction because it was the easiest way to justify an invasion to the American people. Andrew Card talked about not rolling out a new product before Labor Day. The evidence is clear that those working closely with the two elected to lead the nation knew they were lying and manipulating. Gore cites many examples from both of them as well. In either case, as hard as the task may seem, is not the responsibility of the Democrats in Congress to constantly remind the American people of these incidents? Is it not the duty of all Americans to ask the questions that inevitably lead to a recognition that they are either incompetent or deliberately venal, and either case "genuinely unfit to lead our nation" as Gore says?

From page 25, in chapter entitled "The Politics of Fear"
Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with thousands of missiles poised to annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Fifty years ago, when the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union was raising tensions in the world and McCarthyism was threatening our liberties at home, President Dwight Eisenhower belatedly said, "Any who act as if freedom's defense are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America." Edward R. Murrow, whose courageous journalism was assaulted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, declared, "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason."

I am 61. I lived through the McCarthy period, with my first television memories being the Army-McCarthy hearings. I also lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when we believed realistically that we could be facing imminent nuclear war. In the former case the Congress, belatedly, took responsibility for oversight, and the press gave us honest coverage of the distortions that were occurring in our government. In the latter our President honestly informed the American people of the risks we faced, and yet did not use the occasion to aggregate more power to the executive nor to deny people their constitutional rights. I often wonder if too many in both the Congress and the media are either too young to remember things like this, or too ignorant of the history of our nation. In either case, it is incomprehensible to me how anyone can rationally think that we should allow restrictions on the grounds of a threat far less than that we lived with for so many years.

But then, this is not a question of rationality. We are encountering a deliberate manipulation of our emotions and our fears. As is put bluntly onp. 28:
A scientist at Stony Brook University, Charles Taber, went so far as to say, "The Enlightenment model of dispassionate reason as the duty of citizenship is empirically bankrupt."
That scares me - absent reason he who yells the loudest or offers the scariest scenario is likely to dominate the "discussion" with results that are horrific to contemplate.

We then become the recipient of directions on how to respond, rather than co-participants in a liberal democracy. This is made explicit in a two paragraph selection from the chapter entitled "The Politics of Wealth" that begins on p 73:
The derivation of just power from the consent of the governed depends upon the integrity of the reasoning process through which that consent is given. If the reasoning process is corrupted by money and deception, then the consent of the governed is based on false premises, and any power thus derived is inherently counterfeit and unjust. If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears, or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished. If the suspicion of reason causes a significant portion of the citizenry to lose confidence in the integrity of the process, democracy can be bankrupted.
If citizens no longer participate, those among them who notice signs of corruption or illogic have no way to voice their concerns and summon the attention of others who, upon examining the same evidence, might share their dismay. No critical mass of opposition can form among individuals who are isolated from one another, looking through one-way mirrors in soundproof rooms, shouting if they wish but still unheard. If enough citizens cease to participate in its process, democracy dies.
And that quote is sufficient argument for me to continue to struggle to teach government honestly, to provoke my students to participate in the processes in the hope if not yet fully the belief that by their participation they may be able to make a difference.

And yet we face what Gore has in one chapter entitled "The Assault on the Individual." We face a government prepared to argue that it should be entitled to suspend any rights it may choose under the rubric of the president's inherent powers as commander in chief in a time of war that the administration warns may never end. Gore notes on page 133 that
As Winston Churchill once put it, "The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist."
If anyone can be used to violate Godwin, surely Churchill would qualify. And when we look further, we will see that applying Churchill's seemingly extreme words is by no means a stretch. Gore further illustrates with 3 paragraphs on p. 159:
The president has also claimed that he has the authority to deliver captives under our control for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is yes, then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the president has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap, and torture, then what can't he do?
After analyzing the executive branch's claims of these previously unrecognized powers, Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law school, said: "If the president has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.

These are scary times in many ways. And recognized leaders have for some time pointed out how much so, and suffered personal attacks in return. On page 183 we read two paragraphs upon which we should all reflect:
General Joseph Hoar, former head of the U. S. Marine Corps, told Congress, "I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss." When a senior military leader like Joe Hoar uses the word abyss, then the rest of us had better sit up and listen. Here's what he means: more American servicemen and women dying, Iraq slipping into more chaos and violence, no end in sight, with America's influence and moral authority seriously damaged. Retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, the former four-star-general in charge of Central Command, said recently that our nation's current course in Iraq is "headed over Niagara Falls."
Zinni, named by President Bush as his personal emissary to the Middle East in 2001, offered this view of the situation in a recent book: "In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw at a minimum true dereliction, negligence and irresponsibility; at worse, lying incompetence and corruption; false rationales presented as a justification, a flawed strategy, lack of planning, the unnecessary alienation of our allies, the underestimation of the task, the unnecessary distraction from real threats, and the unbearable strain dumped on our outstretched military. All of these caused me to speak out, and I as called a traitor and a turncoat by civilian Pentagon officials."

That Gore accidentally assigns to Hoar a position he never held in no way diminishes the power of these two paragraphs. And for those of us who have continued to criticize the administration on many of the same points and on similar matters, perhaps the reason we have so far been ignored is that we lacked the credibility, the gravitas, that men like Zinni have. But we cannot doubt that were we to be viewed as a threat the denigrations, the pejorative expressions would quickly be directed towards us. And if those proved insufficient to discredit what we had to say? At that point do we not have to consider what other actions this administration might feel were warranted? Could we, especially given our lack of individual visibility, perhaps find ourselves in custody as individuals designated by the President as providing material assistance to terrorists, denied our rights under habeas corpus and the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments?

There is a very human tendency to want to please those we admire. We are often tempted to make compromises in the hopes of obtaining position, influence, wealth, or power. Far too many of the supernumeraries of this administration have demonstrated the folly of such an approach. Once one begin down such a path with this administration, it is as if one has entered a criminal enterprise with the Mafia tradition of omerta, silence. Those who choose to criticize find the full force of the administration devoted to destroying them. Ask Paul O'Neill or John DeIullio. And while that might, as was the case with Anthony Zinni, be viewed as rank disloyalty, one need not have officially affiliated, merely to have questioned - ask Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.

We may have little time left. And I think the American people will, if presented forcefully with an alternative, reject what this administration has been doing. Let me allow Gore to put it quite bluntly, as he does in pages 221-22 from the chapter "Democracy in the Balance":
President Bush has repeatedly violated the law for six years. In spite of the fact that the only judicial decision to have reached the question of legality has ruled comprehensively against the president's massive and warrantless surveillance program, both the Justice Department and the Congress have failed to take any action to enforce the law. There has been no request for a special prosecutor, and there has been no investigation by the FBI. There has been deafening silence. But the consequences to our democracy of silently ignoring serious and repeated violations of the law by the president of the United States are extremely serious.
Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. One that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we have become a government of men and not laws.
Any executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary become the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution. In the words of James Madison, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

Quite obviously I found the book worth reading. It moved me to further thought, and I would suggest that there is much beyond what I have quote which will do the same for you. But that is insufficient.

We must act as if it is not already too late. We cannot allow temporary setbacks or still further disclosures of how bad things have been to discourage us from further action, from serious opposition, from demanding that those who seek positions of leadership demonstrate a willingness to reassert the proper functioning of a liberal democracy.

Jefferson told us in the Declaration that governments were instituted among men to protect our rights, that life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were only some of the rights with which were were endowed. Jefferson made clear that government has its JUST powers only from the consent of the governed.

I hereby withdraw my consent for the depredations of this administration against our democracy and against humanity. It did not seek office or reelection on an explicit platform of abandoning our Constitution, and even had it done so no legislative action outweighs the limits on government provided by a Constitution designed precisely to limit the power of the government, Marshall argued this persuasively in Marbury v Madison:
The question, whether an act, repugnant to the constitution, can become the law of the land, is a question deeply interesting to the United States; but, happily, not of an intricacy proportioned to its interest. It seems only necessary to recognise certain principles, supposed to have been long and well established, to decide it.

That the people have an original right to establish, for their future government, such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness, is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected. The exercise of this original right is a very great exertion; nor can it nor ought it to be frequently repeated. The principles, therefore, so established are deemed fundamental. And as the authority, from which they proceed, is supreme, and can seldom act, they are designed to be permanent.

This original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here; or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments.

The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing; if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it; or, that the legislature may alter the constitution by an ordinary act.

Between these alternatives there is no middle ground. The constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.

If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the constitution is not law: if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.

Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void.

This theory is essentially attached to a written constitution, and is consequently to be considered by this court as one of the fundamental principles of our society. It is not therefore to be lost sight of in the further consideration of this subject.

If an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void, does it, notwithstanding its invalidity, bind the courts and oblige them to give it effect? Or, in other words, though it be not law, does it constitute a rule as operative as if it was a law? This would be to overthrow in fact what was established in theory; and would seem, at first view, an absurdity too gross to be insisted on. It shall, however, receive a more attentive consideration.

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each. [5 U.S. 137, 178] So if a law be in opposition to the constitution: if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law: the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.

If then the courts are to regard the constitution; and he constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature; the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.

Those then who controvert the principle that the constitution is to be considered, in court, as a paramount law, are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that courts must close their eyes on the constitution, and see only the law.

This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written constitutions. It would declare that an act, which, according to the principles and theory of our government, is entirely void, is yet, in practice, completely obligatory. It would declare, that if the legislature shall do what is expressly forbidden, such act, notwithstanding the express prohibition, is in reality effectual. It would be giving to the legislature a practical and real omnipotence with the same breath which professes to restrict their powers within narrow limits. It is prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.

The principle established in Marbury was expressed with respect to legislative acts, but is also in cases like the steel seizure case clearly applied to the executive as well. Marshall noted near the end of his opinion
It is also not entirely unworthy of observation, that in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the constitution itself is first mentioned; and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall be made in pursuance of the constitution, have that rank.

Thus, the particular phraseology of the constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.

The other departments includes the president of the United States. The actions of this administration are in clear violation of the principles of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances - all the things which I am required to teach my government students.

If these are to be meaningful we must act now. We must be prepared to pay the price of speaking the truth. We must demand of our elected officials and those that seek elective office that they commit to a reinvigoration of our constitutional democracy, and oppose as forcefully as they can the not-so-creeping moves in the direction of tyranny under which we have lived since September 11, 2001.

We owe it to ourselves. Those of you with children and children clearly owe it to them. We owe it to the rest of the world. And if we stop to measure the cost, we will already have lost.

If we do not act, and speak, now, we will have abandoned the concluding statement of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. The men who signed faced far greater risk in their actions than do we, at least so far. We still have the rule of law, to some degree, we still have the ability to speak out and criticize. Franklin warned at the end of the Constitutional Convention that we would have a republic only if we can keep it.

So I close as did the signers of the Declaration. I take unto myself the responsibility of those words, and ask that you do likewise:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Our seniors are gone - a personal reflection 

Yesterday was the last day for our seniors. That may seem strange. Graduation is June 1, and the school year goes for almost another two weeks beyond that. I won’t try to justify this. But yesterday was the beginning of a time for goodbyes, and when one says goodbye, it is not unusual for one to look back. So before I begin what will be a hectic and peripatetic day I thought I would take a few moments to share some thoughts. This posting will contain thoughts about teaching, about students, about society. It will personal but it will also be political. I invite you to continue reading, but will also understand if the subject does not interest you.

I have just over 150 students on my roles right now, of whom 16 are seniors. 6 of these will have to return next Friday to sit for (but not pass) the state examination in Government - they joined us this year and the examination is a requirement for graduation. For the young ladies it means they will not be able to begin preparing for that night’s prom until 1 PM, which given how extensive the preparations can be will squeeze a few for time. 15 of the 16 are going on to further education next year, two in the local community college, others to places like University of Chicago, William & Mary, MIT, UMBC, and of course Maryland. This group of students includes two born in India, one in Jamaica, one in Syria, and one in Jordan. They are black, white, yellow and brown, with family members also born in Taiwan, England, and Canada. They are Catholic, evangelical, Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and no religion. Their politics range from anarchist to exceedingly conservative with everything in between. There are superb athletes and equally superb musicians, people in our championship model UN team and one who missed her last week because she was in Albuquerque for the international science fair (where she partnered with a student who was in my classes two years ago). One has been an intern at the US Senate (her father is a senate committee staff director) - she’s a Democrat, and another has been a page at the Maryland General Assembly - she’s a Republican, and personally close to former state First Lady Kendall Erlich. 5 of these 16 took regular government from me as freshman before we changed the sequence of the course and enrolled in AP to have me as a teacher again. One had her younger brother ace both the course and the AP exam as a sophomore which provoked her to sign up this year. One other was new to us last year and took regular government as a junior, and I urged and persuaded her to take on the challenge of AP this year. I wrote college recommendation for 7 of the 16. 9 of them asked me to sign their yearbooks.

But none of the foregoing gives a full sense of what it has been like to have these seniors in my classes. Most of my students are sophomores, and the two-year age difference represents a serious difference in maturity, both intellectually and emotionally. It provides a leaven to 5 of my six classes, although I acknowledge one young man, who is repeating the basic course, may be the single most immature student I have. It was touch and go until yesterday if he would pass 4th quarter and thus pass the required course and be able to graduate. He was up most of the night completing a project that was late for which he got only partial credit, but 40% on the assignment was the difference between passing and failing.

I will hopefully see all of these students again at graduation. After the ceremonies are completed they will come to get their actual diplomas (they receive an empty container at the ceremony so we don’t have to worry about the order of about 600 walking across the stage) and at that point there will be time for hugs - they will no longer be our students. Some will stay in touch, and there is something I insist upon - one year from now they will no longer address me as Mr. Bernstein or even Mr. B, but at that point I am Ken - if they want they can make the change now, but in a year I will insist on it. If experience is any guide, I will see about 1/2 of them some time during the next school year. Some students stop by several times a year. A few will remain in ongoing contact via email. I am always delighted when that happens, but understand if it does not - they are now in new phases of their lives, and while it is normal to remain in close contact with a few of their classmates, their lives will be so busy that it is easy to lose contact with former teachers.

Some of the most interesting former contacts are from students who perhaps resisted what I tried to do for them, or for whom it suddenly begins to make sense a year or more out of high school. Perhaps once or twice a year I will have contact with a former student with whom I either was not close or who really struggled. The former want to show me their success as if to say “so there” and that’s great- whatever motivates them. The latter want me to realize that they kept at it, and it is very gratifying that they choose to share their success with me. They can tell me that I made a difference, but when the success comes well after they have left my pedagogy, then they should claim the lion’s share for themselves. I am appreciative that they remember any part I may have played.

These students have spent their high school year’s in a time of unnecessary war. I have watched the evolution of the thinking of those I have taught more than once, and over several years there has been a lot of change. But even those who were my students only this year have evolved in their attitudes about politics and government. I think of the young lady going to William & Mary, whose younger brother I taught last year (and coached both both his freshman and sophomore years). The family is politically conservative and evangelical Christian, seriously so. She plays volleyball and bass clarinet. She has an acute intelligence, and a strong sense of honor and responsibility. And she is now one of the first to laugh at the president. My task with her, and with the young lady going to Chicago who is about as far politically left as any of these 16 young men and women, is that they not become totally cynical about government and politics, that they remain willing to be engaged, and attempting to make a difference. I reflect back on what has happened in our classes this year and in the world around us. And it is remarkable to me that so many do remain as optimistic about the future as they do. Perhaps it is their youth, that they anticipate so many possibilities among which they can still choose. The two who have been most politically active and have served as pages and interns, neither has yet been turned off to politics or government - in fact in both cases it has inspired them to want to pursue careers in the arena. My U of Chicago leftist hopes to use film/video and photography to persuade people, even to radicalize them. She remains engaged in the political processes, and I suspect will continue to be engaged.

In the two weeks until they graduate I will inevitably think about them. I will step into a classroom and see up to 5 empty seats, and that will remind me - I will miss their voices, the expressions on their faces, the insights they shared with their classmates and with me. I will wonder if I did enough as their teacher to challenge them, to support them, to encourage them? Of course, I do that with all of my students, but most of those who are not seniors will be back in our building next year and I will have an opportunity to somewhat observe any impact my teaching may have had, to hear from other teachers how they are doing. I might encounter them in the hall, or perhaps they will participate in an activity with which I am associated, soccer, musical theater. Some may come to talk with me about colleges to consider, as some of last year’s students now ending the junior years have already begun to do - I already have about a dozen who want me to write recommendations for college. Some of those underclassmen will ask for help getting into programs - one of last year’s students will intern this summer in the office of a Senator who is running for president, perhaps in part because of the recommendation I wrote for him.

Teaching contains inevitable transitions. Students pass through our lives, as I supposed we are sometimes but a fleeting part of theirs. I may hope that they have positive memories of their time with me, but I do not control that. Nor do I have sufficient time to thank them for the positive contributions they have made to my life. I am inevitably affected by every student who passes through my classroom, however briefly. I regularly wonder what I could have done to be more effective for these young people, and am delighted when I learn of their subsequent successes. At times they may drive me nuts, but I am nevertheless the richer and the wiser for having known them.

I will try to see each on graduation day, to thank them for being part of my life this year and is some cases over several years. For now let me end this the only way I know how:

TO: Latoya, Keenan, Lina, Sarah, Chloe, Brandon, John, Alex, Rino, Jessie, Ibrahim, Melissa, Cathryn, Amanda, Lindsay, Kesha -

thank your for sharing your lives with me this year. I am honored to have been a part of your learning. You taught me, and I love you all.


Mr. B

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