Archive for February, 2020

THE PERLSTEIN SENATE

With Democrats selecting a presidential candidate—it might not happen until the convention—and November’s election looming, I’m puzzled by “one citizen, one vote.” This principle poses two key questions.

One: Why should a 75-year-old military veteran, husband and father, homeowner, holder of a master’s degree, retired businessman and long-time taxpayer have the same single vote as an 18-year-old high school dropout making sandwiches at Subway and living with his folks?

You elitist, you answer, fuming as you read this. Don’t you know that this is America? That the United States represents the ideal of democracy? That every citizen has an equal right to choose our leaders from the local to the national levels?

I respond with question number two: You’re right, but why doesn’t the United States Senate play by those rules?

Following the Great Compromise of 1787, the Constitution granted each state two seats in the Senate. The small states feared being dominated by the large ones in a single legislative body based on proportional representation. The large states believed that such a body based on equal state voting would be unfair to their populations. And here we are.

California, with a 2010 census population of 37 million has two senators. Wyoming with 560,000 people also has two senators. Given the 66-1 population advantage of the Golden State, my individual opinions reflected in votes cast by California’s senators carry a lot less weight than those of a resident of the Equality State, interestingly Wyoming’s official nickname.

I get it that the Founders were challenged to form a single nation from thirteen former British colonies, each with its own interests and none with experience of a republican—small “r”—national government. But America has been around for a while, and the Senate has become wildly unresponsive to the majority of Americans—of both parties.

So let’s amend the Constitution and create the Perlstein Senate. It works like this:

The Senate retains 100 seats. Following each ten-year census, adjustments give the ten largest states—the top five alone, California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois total over 119 million Americans—three seats. The ten smallest states get one. These now include Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Lots of miles there but few people—barely over three million, less than three percent of the five largest. The thirty states in the middle retain two seats.

Citizens in three-seat states will still be proportionally underrepresented. But the Perlstein Senate acknowledges that small states often have vastly different interests—though not all—than large ones. A non-proportional Perlstein Senate remains a buffer against the tyranny of the majority but constitutes one far more reasonable.

Conservatives will go ballistic. They’ll point out that the vast majority of American counties voted Trump in 2016. True. Also meaningless. This statistic favors sagebrush over people. Besides, nothing will stop a state like Texas or Florida—purple though they are now—from electing three Republicans each.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proposed government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s time America took that to heart. Acceptance of the Perlstein Senate might have a snowball’s chance in hell, but it’s worth the effort to eliminate the political hell an undemocratic—lower-case “d”—Senate puts this country through.

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BANANAS

Ten days ago, White House national security advisor Robert O’Brien commented on the removal of Army Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman and his brother Yevgeny from their National Security Council posts. Retribution? No, said O’Brien. But,“We’re not a country where a bunch of lieutenant colonels can get together and decide what the policy is of the United States. We are not a banana republic.” So why do I smell bananas?

President Trump views Alex Vindman as a traitor because he spoke about what he heard regarding Trump’s troublesome July 25 phone call to Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky. But the Army refused to investigate Vindman. Former White House chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly concurred. “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave.” I know.

Just before my 1967 graduation from Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, our battalion commander spoke about practical matters facing young lieutenants. They included illegal or immoral orders. (Sadly, the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam took place ten months later.) We were to refuse such an order and report it up the chain of command. We could not be “good Germans.”

Officers at all levels make life-and-death decisions. Law and morality must be guiding factors. Empowering young officers doesn’t make the United States a banana republic, a term referring to Latin American dictatorships supported by the U.S. and sometimes the result of coups by low ranking officers.

Take Cuba. In 1933, Fulgencio Batista, a sergeant stenographer, led the Revolt of the Sergeants that toppled the government. Batista promoted himself to colonel and later general then pulled strings in the background until becoming president in 1940. He cozied up to American corporations and the Mafia. Rebel forces led by Fidel Castro forced Batista to flee in the wee hours of January 1, 1959.

Is the U.S. a carbon copy? Hardly. Are we heading there?

Donald Trump, while a draft dodger, shares much with Fulgencio Batista. He sees himself above the law, worships the almighty dollar and uses his office for corrupt purposes. Seeking political help from other nations is only part of it. It seems Mar a Lago charges Secret Service agents the full room price when Trump stays there. So when Trump goes to any of his resorts, he profits.

Trump’s insistence that the president can do anything he wants reeks of bananas gone rotten. That includes undermining any sense of independence in the Department of Justice, which interfered with prosecutors’ sentencing requests regarding convicted Trump pal Roger Stone, who received three years and four months. That’s why over 2,000 former DOJ employees signed an open letter calling for Attorney General William Barr to resign.

What’s the worst that could happen? The possibilities are endless. For a glimpse of some—not as fanciful as you might think—I recommend an outstanding British TV miniseries, Years and Years (HBOGo). It peers into Britain’s near future, mirroring our own. The United Kingdom is driven into the ground by a “know nothing” prime minister aping America’s withdrawal from principled leadership under, yes, the second term of Donald Trump.

I love bananas in my morning cereal and as a snack. Also Woody Allen’s classic film from 1971, Bananas. But the fruit of the 2016 presidential election makes “Banana Republic” all too believable.

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I HEAR AMERICA

During election seasons like this one, words of patriotism pour out of people’s mouths. Candidates spew platitudes. Pundits and the public respond with their own. But what strikes me aren’t the words proclaimed during presidential campaigns but the music Americans play.

Last Sunday, Carolyn and I flew down to Los Angeles to hear our son Yosi play violin. For years, Yosi played fiddle with a popular band performing Americana—an amalgam of bluegrass, country, folk and other musical forms rooted in our native soil. He traveled across the United States and Canada and on tour in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Now living in L.A., he determined to improve his technique by shifting gears and studying classical music.

Yosi worked with several teachers when on the road. At home in Los Angeles, he found Beth Elliott, who heads Kadima Conservatory of Music. Kadima—Hebrew for forward—teaches students from young children to adults. Many receive scholarships. They come from a range of backgrounds but share several key traits: They love music. They want to improve their playing. They’re committed to working hard.

How very American—people with a passion seeking to be and do their best. And Kadima is as American an institution as they come. Beth is Jewish, her staff Jewish, white (including Armenian-born), Latino, African-American and Asian. Kadima students mirror this ethnic mix.

Were the student musicians good? The elementary- and middle-school kids displayed both talent and, overcoming initial nervousness, poise. You could hear how they will grow. The older students and adults proved to be truly accomplished and on the brink of great things.

The key to my experience: When I closed my eyes, I didn’t hear the playing of one or another ethnic group. I heard Americans united in their love of music.

Now, let me brag. Yosi was awesome. He and Beth played Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Two Violins in A.” They would have made Vivaldi proud. Carolyn and I were delighted as was the audience.  After the recital, no one considered that any of the students didn’t belong on stage because they weren’t white—which some were.

An added note: Saturday night, Carolyn and two other women performed in a show produced by Society Cabaret, Tunes of the City, as a workshop for budding songwriters. The trio sang “Ladies of Alamo Square” by Jeff Becker about San Francisco’s fabled and fabulously painted Steiner Street Victorian houses. The harmonies are tricky, but the trio did them justice.

Society Cabaret audiences talk about songs and patter, never about performers’ ethnicities or gender preferences. When it comes to music of any kind, you exhibit talent and discipline or you don’t. Performances are judged by their quality, integrity and effort. That’s the reason orchestras now hold “blind” auditions during which musicians are screened off from their judges.

The 2020 presidential campaign will be marked—or marred—by comments about what it means to be a “real American.” Some voters will define that by ethnicity, religion and gender factors rather than core human values.

I hope that the next time those folks sing America the Beautiful at a ballgame or public gathering, they’ll listen to the voices around them. They’ll hear just how beautiful Americans sound when we’re singing together.

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THE STUMBLING BLOCK

The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump was expected. Some Republicans sought cover with Lamar Alexander’s (Tennessee) rationale: What the president did was wrong but didn’t rise to the level of removal from office. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans ignored Leviticus 19:14.

Torah commands Israelites not to place a stumbling block before the blind. Literally, one should never place a physical obstacle in front of a blind person for the cruel pleasure of seeing that person trip and fall. The Sages and later commentators expanded on this. One shouldn’t give bad advice to someone who can’t recognize it or place temptation in the way of the morally blind.

Senate Republicans scoffed. They decided that Trump’s betrayal of the Constitution by freezing congressionally appropriated funds—cited as illegal by the General Accountability Office—to coerce Ukraine into investigating political rivals should bring no direct consequence. While some senators condemned Trump’s actions, all but one left him free to repeat them.

Trump’s take? He gloated about vindication, still convinced he made a “perfect call” to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. Likely, he will abuse his office again given his July 23 comment regarding Article II of the Constitution: “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” This sadly echoes Richard Nixon’s 1977 comment: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Utah’s Mitt Romney disagreed. He voted for removal on the first of two articles of impeachment, abuse of power. His explanation: “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice.”

It’s only right to uphold such an oath. Leviticus 19:15 commands, “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.”

At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said of Romney, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” I acknowledge that only Jews are responsible for upholding the Torah’s 613 commandments. But Trump’s conservative Christian supporters—and Trump himself—often find Torah’s moral directives compelling when it suits their purpose.

The upshot? Self-professed religious Senate Republicans abandoned the Bible for politics. In doing so, they set an even bigger stumbling block in place. Trump now rationalizes doing whatever he wants without being held responsible. Short of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue—no, he couldn’t get away with that one—he can manipulate foreign and domestic policy to serve not the nation’s interests but his own.

Democrats, independents and even a Mitt Romney may call Trump out for seeking political dirt from Vladimir Putin or the representative of some other country delighted to see America’s political system in disarray. So what?

Gearing up for November’s election, Trump supporters hail the Senate’s unfettering the president to play bull in the china shop and continue overturning the order established by “the elites.” Many conservative Christians feel relieved that their anointed president remains free to do God’s bidding—as they define it and would impose it on the rest of us.

Americans—or more accurately, the Electoral College—will decide whether to place an even more massive stumbling block at Trump’s feet where so many grovel. I can’t see how the election will turn out, but I fear too many “God fearing” citizens cling to moral blindness.

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