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Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Creeps in this petty pace from day to day"

There comes a time in the experience of some writers when a block rears its ugly shape and turns ideas and thoughts to mush.  So what can one do to break through this blockage?  Truthfully, I’m not sure, but I have an idea that might work:  I’m going to write pretty much what comes into my head.  I realize that may be a very scary thought, so I will cut out what just doesn’t seem right.  In other words, this may be something of a “stream of consciousness,” tempered by another stream of common sense.  Let’s give it a try....
I attended a memorial service last week for a colleague and friend who was a progressive activist.  He was someone who valued actions above mere rhetoric, and who cared for people with a big heart and who, with straight-forward words (and hugs), told others how much he loved them and valued who they are.  He was a remarkable person who acted upon principles of the Christian Gospel without apology but with an apologia that was clear and plain in a simplicity that could not be taken as weakness but as strength.  It was one of the only memorials I have ever attended where the several ministers who led prayers, readings and meditations as long-time friends and admirers of the deceased, were visibly moved and emotional over his passing and the life-lessons they had learned from him. 

Another memorial/burial service was being conducted in the area at about the same time.  It was for a very young man, married with children, who had died of a mass blockage in an artery while just three days into a training course to become a state trooper.  His story was prominent in both regular and social media.  State flags were ordered flown at half-staff.  Traffic was actually closed off in the area of the funeral because of the large crowd expected, including an influx of police representatives from all over the state.  It just so happened that the closed streets were on the way to my friend’s memorial service, causing some of us to use a detour, which was not a problem.  Let me be clear: I have no argument with the hero’s treatment given this young man from our area, and I sympathize with his young family left behind.

I just want to make a point for thoughtful consideration.   How do we decide what is heroic?  I certainly find heroic qualities in a young man who gives his life to serve others as a state trooper (he was also a marine by training).  I find heroic proportions in a young man who cares for others and who loves his family, but chooses to put himself on the line for citizens and others in the very doing of his job.  I admire this young man who deserves adulation. 
But equally I admire the heroic qualities of my friend who demonstrated his caring and concern for his fellow human beings in various modes over a full lifetime.  Is heroism a virtue or characteristic reserved only for those who fight for, or somehow serve others from dangerous positions?  Or, is there room for also recognizing the heroism of those who care for others by volunteer service that targets people with special needs?  Moreover, it occurs to me that some are far more prone to recognize (and reward and praise publicly) those who are in less-than-heroic circumstances, but are surrounded by bling and fame and money.  I just wonder if re-appraising our hero-worship tendencies would lead us to much greater praise of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives of caring, service and meaning. 

That brings me around to another consideration:  how often does anyone take time to speak directly to someone who has done something well; to tell them that their ability or caring nature or skill, or their service to you or someone else is appreciated?   I’ve been trying to do this much more lately for ordinary working people, volunteers, senior citizens, young children, and more.  The reaction is pretty much the same across all categories.  There is a look of disbelief that someone noticed; a look of joy that someone actually said something positive; a reaction that equals: “you made my day!”  If you’re not already doing so, try it – you’ll like it!  If you can’t be honest about your feelings, don’t try it because an insincere bit of canned praise is perhaps not worth uttering.  It has to come from a sincere sense of real appreciation.  The truth is, our daily lives seem to overcome a necessary virtue:  the gift of positive appreciation given freely to our fellow human beings.  And that leads me to another topic.
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.... (Act 5.5.17-23)"

"The repetition of tomorrow suggests tedium, endless repetition, and tomorrow creeps in slowly from one day to the next, always, and it is just as useless as all of the yesterdays.

Macbeth slips into nihilism, here, the belief that nothing matters, and nothing makes any difference. His wife's death is the trigger that moves him to hopelessness. All the yesterdays lead one only to the dusty grave. And between the beginning and the end what happens is irrelevant." – (an interpretation by a teacher)
I want to add that I think this particular quote from Macbeth has something to do as well with the "lighted fools" of yesterdays.  I disagree that all is irrelevant.  In fact, those yesterdays are full of meaning that we failed to discern, thus falling victim to that "petty pace" and acting as fools.  That is why we have activists: they know that the petty pace is fraught with danger and foolishness.  It distracts us from the issues that do matter.  It prevents us from discerning the implications of slow-creeping purveyors of destruction and negative change.  It keeps us from understanding how ideas and concepts totally foreign to us can take over our very lives and our institutions if simply allowed to grow.  It is like National Socialism (Nazism) or structured racism or an institution like public education -- the steady slow erosive pace of dogma, symbols and falsity creep in to our lives and we fail to see destruction until it is too late – then we find out what fools we have been!
What comes to my mind immediately is the slow steady pace of racial bias that creeps in to everyday life in the most insidious manner.  It comes in the form of real estate agreements and restrictive bank loans in order to segregate our neighborhoods and our schools.  It comes in the petty form of songs sung on a college bus, or chants at a fraternity party or in negative words posted online.  It comes to us in the form of a "War on Drugs" which was never waged against drugs, but against certain people. 

Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs was nothing more than a Big Lie that crept into people's minds as "law and order" or keeping criminals off our streets, or stopping the drug trafficking and the drug cartels.  It was never a War on Drugs because it never went after the roots of that particular problem: the drug cartels, the growers of plants and crops from which many drugs are produced; nor did it target drug kingpins and dealers who often happened to be white people.  If you haven’t already done so, read Michelle Alexander’s book, "The New Jim Crow" to understand the real meaning of that Big Lie. 
Reagan's furtive "War on Drugs" has led to the partial destruction of the 14th amendment (with the complicity of the Supreme Court) which guarantees citizen protection from unwarranted searches and seizures.  It has led to the militarization of local police forces who, under the guise of fighting drugs, are actually attacking people of color where they live and when they travel. It has led to no-knock raids on innocent people in their homes, resulting in injury or death for some.  It has led to the unwarranted and unjust over-incarceration of non-violent people who are being punished for the color of their skin.  It has led to the life-time stigma that cannot be removed of "convicted felon" which keeps many a man (and woman) of color from obtaining a decent job, raising a family, buying a house or car, getting further education, or being able to vote.  It has led to the largest prison population in the world; so large that prisons have become profitable businesses for some private companies who now run certain prisons.  It has led to federal government support of militarization of our local police forces by the transmittal of surplus military weaponry and equipment to them.  Some of those local police forces were even able to use federal stimulus money to increase their militarization.  Perhaps, worst of all, this "War" has led to seizure of property that is beyond the pale.  Some police forces even maintain quotas to fill in terms of arrests and property seizures.

Too many people of all races have been caught up in the "petty pace" and have missed the disastrous consequences of "the New Jim Crow" that threatens the very foundations of our democracy and our justice system.  We seem to have been diverted by the day-to-day pace of life without a thought of what is happening.  So often we awake from such stupor to realize that something has changed for the worse, and we can't get back what was lost.  That is why activism always stresses the imperative nature of "NOW."  We cannot wait until some tomorrow is “right” for us to act against such forces.  We must act right now as though the destructive implications have already happened.  Reform and rescue cannot be postponed!  Destructive forces will not indulge our complacency.  They continue to creep in among the elements of that petty pace, and are full-blown within a relatively short period of time.
It occurs to me in my continuing stream of consciousness writing that there is something to which we have not paid enough attention.   It is the ability of the Congress to pass laws that exempt certain people, groups, institutions or its own members from certain provisions (or the whole) of those laws.  I have written about this before in my Blogs, but a recent article sent to me by a colleague definitely caught my eye and my attention. 

In a recent posting, I wrote about Hillary Clinton's trouble with (mostly) the Republicans in Congress over her treatment of e-mails.  I raised the issues that what she did is not uncommon; that her "offense" is not one of legality but of compliance with rules, vague though they may be; and I also raised the issue of whether members of Congress had monitored their own behavior in this regard.  Turns out the NY Times raised the latter issue in a blog published on March 19th, titled: "In Congress, a Double Standard for Email."  I quote:
"The closest thing to a policy about lawmakers' transparency was some guidance in a resolution approved by the Senate and House in 2008 that says lawmakers should 'properly' maintain and preserve their office records.  But this leaves each member entirely free to decide what records to keep and when to make them public, if ever.  They are free from the sort of transparency standards for the Executive branch that Mrs. Clinton is accused of skirting....Lawmakers remain free to keep emails and other records hidden for decades or more."

In other words, "Congress has effectively exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act which governs executive agencies."

Congress has a rather active penchant for exempting members from legislation that applies to the rest of us.  Some base such behavior on the "speech or debate" clause in the Constitution "which grants broad immunity to protect the legislative process and the independence of individual lawmakers," says our NY Times blogger.  Not necessarily so, say I.  I believe that broad immunity" is circumscribed by the phrase that precedes the speech and debate clause.  Here is the whole of the constitutional provision in Article I, Section 6:
"They (Senators and Representatives) shall in all cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House they shall not be questioned in any other place."

In and of itself, that wording to me does not grant "broad immunity" to Congress.  It simply prevents them from being questioned in some other place than in their sessions.  Amendment I assuring freedom of the press would seem to have negated the thrust of this particular phrase.  Besides, this is vague enough to warrant much discussion.  I think it has to be seen in the context of the first phrase, meaning that public authorities are restricted from questioning them "in any other place."  As a writer for the Heritage Foundation submitted: "it is clear that activities not directly related to the legislative process are not constitutionally shielded."  The 'speech and debate clause' is not a substantial reason for members to be able to exempt themselves from the application of laws that are passed and signed. 

The fact that Congress can actually investigate another person for doing what they are exempted from doing is a gross injustice, and makes a mockery of "equal justice under the Law." 
Let us name just a few of the rather blatant and flagrant exemptions Congress has, in the past, reserved for itself:

The Equal Employment and Anti-Discrimination Law. Laws in this category deter discrimination based on such characteristics as race, sex, religion, and national origin. 
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires each office in the Executive Branch to submit an affirmative action plan for the disabled to the EEOC.

The Freedom of Information Act - Congress defined itself out of the scope of this Act, which is designed to ensure that the business of public bodies is accessible to the public.
The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, which governs the relationship between the federal government and public employee unions, does not apply to Congress. Neither does the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which further protects federal employees’ right to organize.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which was intended to create a safer workplace, applied to all employers, but the legislation added that the term did not include the United States and therefore failed to include Congress.
The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes certain minimum workplace standards, such as pay floors for overtime work and prohibition of certain kinds of child labor.

However, Congress did also pass the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. It specifically made sure that most of the laws just mentioned, dealing with civil rights, labor and workplace safety regulations, applied to the legislative branch of government. The independent Office of Compliance was also established to enforce the laws in Congress.  But, that does not excuse Congress for their original actions, nor has it kept them from exempting themselves from provisions of other laws passed since 1995.
According to the investigative journalist experts on Propublica.org, Congress has continued to exempt itself from certain provisions of certain laws, but there is much misinformation that surrounds this subject, to the extent that citizens have been led astray as to the extent of the problem.  Nonetheless, Congress continues down a road that is not acceptable in my opinion.  So here’s an up-to-date list of certain exemptions from ProPublica (backed up by a similar listing on Fox News.com)

Whistleblower Protections: Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, which protects workers in the executive branch from retaliation for reporting waste, mismanagement or lawbreaking. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act gives similar protections to private-sectors workers. But legislative-branch workers, as well as employees of the Library of Congress don’t get the same protections.
Subpoenas for Health and Safety Probes:  The Occupational Health and Safety Act empowers the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate health and safety violations in private-sector workplaces. If an employer doesn’t cooperate, the agency can subpoena the records it needs. The Office of Compliance, the independent agency that investigates such violations in the legislative branch, doesn’t have the power to issue those subpoenas.  The agency’s inability to subpoena information regarding legislative workers’ complaints about health and safety often means the office must negotiate with congressional offices to gather the facts it needs. 

Keeping Workplace Records: A number of workplace-rights laws require employers to retain personnel records for a certain period of time. But as a recent report on the congressional workplace notes, “Congress has exempted itself from all of these requirements.” Congress is also exempt from keeping records of injuries and illness the way private-sector employers must.
Prosecution for Retaliating Against Employees: If a private-sector employer retaliates against a worker for reporting health or safety hazards, the Department of Labor can investigate and, if necessary, sue the employer. Congress’ Office of Compliance doesn’t have that power — legislative-branch employees must file suit personally and pay their own legal fees.

Posting Notices of Workers’ Rights: Workplace-rights laws require employers to post notices of those rights, which often appear in office lunchrooms. Congress is exempt from this requirement, though the Office of Compliance sends legislative employees the same information each year, formatted “in a manner suitable for posting.”
Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Retaliation Training: The No Fear Act requires agencies in the executive branch to provide such training to employees, but the legislative branch is exempt.

The Freedom of Information Act: The public can request information from federal agencies, but Congress, the federal courts and some parts of the Executive Office of the President are exempt.
The Office of Compliance has urged Congress to apply the laws listed above to itself — except the Freedom of Information Act — with little result. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate who represents the District of Columbia, introduced a bill in 2011 to do this, but it died in committee.

When I began this posting, I knew it might well lack a continuous thread that tied it together.  I was right, unless you count my questioning of easy acceptance of the status quo as a viable thread.  Did it remove the writer’s block?  Probably not completely, but it was helpful.  Will I do this again?  Probably not, but who knows.  Thanks for hanging in there while I seek to get back “in the groove!”