Friday, June 28, 2013

Reason #294: So Let's Talk About the VRA

A year ago, when Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare as constitutional, he wrote in the majority opinion that he sees it as the Supreme Court's job to interpret the law as gently as possible--in other words, to err on the side of constitutionality whenever possible and only strike things down when there is no other alternative. As such, they ruled that the Affordable Care Act's insurance mandate was constitutional; not on its own terms, but under the Congress' power to implement taxes--even though that wasn't necessarily the argument its defeners had been making.

I spent the first half of this week assuming today's post would be about DOMA. Before Wednesday I was terrified that the Supreme Court would rule in the other direction and I'd be without a nice, easy topic to write about. But now that I'm here, and this week's events have had a couple days to percolate, I feel like I've already said as much as I need to say about gay marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act. As usual, what little there still is to add was already done quite effectively by Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night, so I'm just going to add a clip below this post that sums up my thoughts.

In the meantime, I'm going to take a page from the John Roberts handbook. Given the title of this blog, I think my own responsibility is to find silver linings wherever possible--rather than just revel in the big thing that everybody likes, I want this blog to highlight the positive aspects of things nobody likes.

Which brings me to that other big ruling this week: the lynching of the Voting Rights Act. Briefly (because I already explained this once), Section 5 of the VRA states that certain areas with a history of discriminatory voting practices (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc) have to clear all future changes to their election laws with the Justice Department. For the last fifty years, "preclearance", as it's called, has been helping to stem the tide of minority voter suppression and ensure that everybody has a seat at the electoral table. The Supremes didn't technically invalidate any of that--all they actually said was that the original formula for determining which states and districts required preclearance was outdated and needed revision--and until such a revision was passed by Congress, the requirement itself was essentially suspended. On its face, that is, well, totally correct. The idea that a particular district should be punished today for laws it passed more than half a century ago is silly. That one of the original preclearance districts is the borough of Brooklyn, I think, says everything.

The problems are twofold: one, many states still are trying to pass discriminatory laws (Voter ID, anyone?) and preclearance was the only thing holding them back; two, making this Congress responsible for fixing the problem is like, well, making Congress responsible for fixing anything--it ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

Make no mistake: I don't like what happened. I would rather have the existing preclearance formula than nothing, and thanks to Tuesday's ruling, what we have for the foreseeable future is indeed nothing. But I'm just not as broken up about it as most of the left, because of the one thing everyone seems to agree on: the Voting Rights Act worked. We are, indeed, living in a different country than we were fifty years ago. The VRA as originally written needed to be enormous, and sweeping, and no-holds-barred, because it was the only thing standing in the way of laws that made Voter ID look like child's play.

But here in 2013, largely thanks to fifty years of the VRA, minority advocates have something they didn't back then: infrastructure. Everybody's been talking about the Voter ID law Texas passed literally hours after the ruling as an example of how the discrimination floodgates are about to open, but you know what? Pennsylvania was never subject to preclearance, and they tried to pass Voter ID here last year--and we stopped it. Resoundingly? No. But the, for lack of a better term, anti-discrimination agenda has enough weight behind it now that it's harder to pass even vaguely discriminatory laws now than it was to pass overtly racist ones in the 60s. And hell, it's not completely impossible that Congress will eventually come up with a new formula that really is better and more effective than the old one.

Maybe it would be easier if the VRA was left alone, but the fact that many on the right talk about "the end of racism" as a cover for continued racism doesn't mean that they're not correct in theory--the goal of the VRA, like with affirmative action, is to speed us along to a place where it's no longer necessary. Sure we're not there yet; maybe we'll never fully get there. But given that the American people will be mostly brown in thirty years no matter what the law says, I'm open to trying a different route for a while.

Further Reading


Friday, June 21, 2013

Reason #293: Participation

A few months ago, I did something I'd never done before: I volunteered for a political candidate.

Bill Peduto, my longtime city councilor, was running in the Democratic primary for mayor of Pittsburgh. Because no Republican has won a mayoral race here since 1934, the primary essentially is the election--whoever wins that, wins in November.

Having followed Peduto's exploits in city government for several years, I was already impressed with his track record for getting business development and infrastructure projects to actually, y'know, happen, and his general orientation in favor of small arts organizations (read: he's aware of their existence), and combined with the fact that he and Pittsburgh's current sleazypants "boy mayor" Luke Ravenstahl have never gotten along, I knew he'd have my vote the second he got into the race.

Now that it's all over but the coronation, Peduto is starting to talk in more detail about plans for his administration, including increased cooperation between the city and county when it comes to development funding, with the hope of turning downtown Pittsburgh--the hub, indeed, of the entire county--into a "mini-Manhattan"; not only a bustling business and office center but a living, breathing neighborhood, with grocery stores, apartments, and the kind of unique mom-and-pop retailers that were chased out of downtown ages ago by the usual bland national chains.

Even more importantly--especially in you work in downtown Pittsburgh like I do--Peduto wants to change the way downtown transportation works, introducing a robust shuttle loop system to ferry people between downtown locations as opposed to the current system of every single bus on the planet driving straight through the middle of downtown every five minutes. He's also a friend of bicyclists, and has gone on record as wanting to see bikes comprise as much as ten percent of all city transportation (compared to their pathetic current rate of 1.6 percent).

Of course, great as all that is, Peduto is still a politician, and in a city that's around three-quarter Democratic, it's easy to become cynical about any one person really standing that far ahead of the pack. What's more, the field of candidates looked very different when I first started working for the Peduto campaign, and there was every reason to think he didn't have a chance. So why did I, once an ardent supporter of both John Edwards and Anthony Weiner, finally make the leap and volunteer for Bill Peduto?

I was mulling that over in the campaign office one day, and I happened to recall an old Mitch Hedberg joke that explained it perfectly: "I bought a $7 pen because I always lose pens and I got sick of not caring." Peduto, I realized, was my $7 pen; for once, win or lose, I just wanted some damned skin in the game.

Further Reading

Bill Peduto, Rising Urbanist Star, Wins Pittsburgh Mayoral Primary

Bill Peduto looks for county's help in creating a 'mini-Manhattan' in Downtown Pittsburgh

Wikiquote - Mitch Hedberg

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reason #292: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

(Editor's note: As an apology for skipping last week, today's entry is something of a special presentation--not only does it fill the role of Reason #292, but it will double this evening as my "performance" at SpokenWord Pittsburgh, an event being held at my night job, the Space Upstairs. If you live in Pittsburgh, come on by and see if it makes more sense the second time.)

In 1766, the Swedish Parliament adopted what is today considered to be the world's first Freedom of Information Law. The brain child of Enlightenment thinker Anders Chydenius, the ordinance declared that "an unrestricted mutual enlightenment...not only promotes the development and dissemination of sciences and useful crafts but also offers greater opportunities to each of [our citizens] to gain improved knowledge and appreciation of a wisely ordered system of government", and as such, "we have graciously decided that the previously established office of Censor shall be entirely abolished and that it shall not hereafter be the duty of the [government] to supervise, approve or disallow the texts submitted for printing, but the authors themselves."

That was the first official instance of a government--a monarchy, no less--establishing legal precedent for freedom of the press, which obviously went on to influence America's founding fathers significantly. While freedom of speech was right there in the First Amendment, though, it wasn't until 1966 that we enacted the Freedom of Information Act, which established that not only could citizens disseminate any information of their own they so chose, but that the government had a responsibility to provide free access to its own records whenever the citizenry asked for it--at least in cases where doing so didn't involve a clear and present danger. This is known as the presumption of openness--the same way that anyone arrested for a crime is presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise, any government document I'd like to see is presumed to be available to me unless specifically classified.

All this is to say that, in my opinion, the concept of personal privacy is no longer relevant.

What freedom of speech really did, in the grand scheme of things, was democratize information. It established in principle that even the authority of a king was secondary to an individual's right to be informed, and to use that information to better himself. For a few centuries, that was all well and good; people could educate themselves and their children, and have at least a rough idea of whether their ruler was an asshole. In America, even children can readily demonstrate the monumental value of information in four simple words: "the British are coming".

Still, at the end of the day, information wasn't genuinely free--the circumstances of your birth and financial situation determined both how much you could get your hands on and how free you were to utilize it. No matter what the law said in principle, a dirt farmer was never going to end up as worldly as an Ivy League postgrad. Now, of course, we have the internet, and pretty much anyone can read pretty much anything whenever they feel like it. Great, right? Well, the problem here is that once you build a modern society around the idea that all information is free...all information is free. The more technology advances, the harder it becomes to pick and choose--so either it's all okay, or none of it is.

I could make the argument to you that all this was inevitable, evil or otherwise. I certainly don't think George Orwell believed Big Brother could be avoided--all Nineteen Eighty-Four did in the end was give us a name for it. I could also make the argument that privacy has no inherent value--or to put it another way, I'm sure there was a quiet dignity to washing our clothes in the river, but that didn't stop anyone from buying a Whirlpool when the time came.

Taoist philosophy, of which I am a devoted follower, frequently advises us to follow the example of water. When you drop a boulder in a river, the water doesn't try to push through it, it just goes around. It folds this new development into itself, and evolves accordingly--and in so doing, the boulder eventually erodes away to nothing.

I don't mean to suggest that privacy never mattered, or that it shouldn't be mourned now--but what I am absolutely suggesting is that it is, in fact, dead. The boulder is now thoroughly lodged in the river. Our job, then, is to assume the shape of our new container, and evolve accordingly.

We knew the boulder was coming, and now that it's here, we know its features: our phone calls are no longer private. Our e-mails probably never were. If the powers that be decide that we're a threat, they can send a drone to our doorstep anywhere in the world.

That all sucks. This is going to be a tough generation.

But I'll never understand how people always seem to forget--even Orwell--that governments are nothing but people, and what applies to us, applies to them. The details of the NSA phone database were first revealed in 2006, then promptly forgotten, and re-revealed this month, yet no one finds it interesting that the National Security Agency that we're all so afraid of--whose job it is to keep secrets--is now the victim of the only scandal ever to be whistleblown on two separate occasions?

Privacy may be extinct, but with it goes deniability. If the government wants to tap our phones, so be it--we'll find out about it. If they send a Predator drone after innocent Pakistanis, we'll find out about it. If they suppress the vote in minority districts, we'll find out about it. I say that with confidence, because they have--and we did. Just ask the hacker group Anonymous--this is not Nazi Germany, and it's not Soviet Russia, it's the Wild West.

This will be a tough generation. Facebook notwithstanding, no one knows what a post-privacy society looks like, and I'm sure there will be battles ahead. But I would rather fight tomorrow's battles than yesterday's, and Big Brother is undoubtedly yesterday's battle.

Further Reading

The World’s First Freedom of Information Act

Wikipedia - Freedom of Information Act

Sources: US intelligence agencies tap servers of top Internet companies

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls