Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Rights and Protections -or- Easy on the Analogies, There, Chief

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has taken some pretty serious body shots from his critics, during his two and a half decades in that job.

In January 2013, several media outlets reported on his remarks from the bench. Not so much their content, though, as the fact that he had actually made remarks at all. It had been a month shy of seven years since he had spoken at all during Supreme Court oral arguments. “A study of transcripts by Timothy Johnson of the University of Minnesota,” reported CNN, “found in the past four decades, no justice besides Thomas had failed to speak at least once during an entire 12-month term.”

Speaking (!) as a shy person, I may not wish to assess someone’s intelligence or engagement based solely on the frequency of his or her utterances. That way might lead to hypocrisy. There are people who have impressed me greatly (or, in some cases, frankly unnerved me) during my life who have spoken very infrequently, or concisely, and who have done a lot more listening than blabbing.

And, doing a little digging, I discovered an interesting and relevant tidbit: Justice Thomas spoke the Gullah language, not English, during his childhood near Savannah, Georgia. When he attended the College of the Holy Cross, Thomas realized that his speech still sounded unpolished, despite having been drilled in English grammar at school, and chose to major in English literature “to conquer the language”.

Recognizing that childhood experiences often have a lifelong effect on a person, I can see my way to excusing a certain residual reticence on his part. Historically, I myself have been much more comfortable sending an eMail to a person or company than picking up the phone and making a cold call. I can do public speaking; but I have to kinda rev myself up for it.

The usual verbosity of this blog, in fact, might lead a reader to think that verbosity pervades my whole life. The reader would be very wrong.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to recognize writing as an easier environment in which to organize one’s thoughts. And if I were a Supreme Court justice, with my dissents and decisions and such being in the public record, potentially to be pored over by legal and non-legal minds for many ensuing decades … well, I’d want to do a few drafts before doing the Supreme Court equivalent of hitting “send”. And I think I’m careful with this blog!…

So I’m inclined to read one of Justice Thomas’ bits of writing, from one of this week’s decisions, with some chin-scratching of my own.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that states’ bans on same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Justice Thomas was one of the three dissenting judges.

In his dissent, Thomas wrote:

Perhaps recognizing that these cases do not actually involve liberty as it has been understood, the majority goes to great lengths to assert that its decision will advance the “dignity” of same-sex couples. … The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no “dignity” Clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Objection, Your Honor: … human dignity cannot be taken away by a government? Those held in internment camps do not lose their dignity because a government confines them?

Counsel wishes to enter into evidence: perhaps the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s? … Or perhaps the Christians and the lions engaging in an afternoon tilt on a beautiful Rome day in the Colosseum? … Or perhaps Birmingham, Alabama public safety commissioner “Bull” Connor’s 1963 use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against civil rights protestors, including their children, to enforce racial segregation? … Or, with my profuse apologies for the invocation of Godwin’s Law, but … Auschwitz?

Also: objection, Your Honor: … slaves did not lose their dignity because the government allowed them to be enslaved?

Counsel wishes to enter into evidence: the idea that if someone is owned by someone else, regardless of whether a government has stepped in and said “hold it” … the person who is owned has by definition lost at least some of their dignity, regardless of whether their owner “treats them well”.

I dunno, maybe I need to brush up on my definition of “dignity” … but I don’t think so.

Finally, and this is the crux of the decision … so, objection, Your Honor: … those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits?

Counsel wishes to place this into evidence:

Until today, there were same-sex couples that wished to be married, went to their local government office to try to secure a marriage license, so that they could be registered as legally committed to each other (and thereby enjoy the same rights and protections that “straight” couples have always enjoyed – including those related to social security, tax law, health care, hospital visitations, child custody, and plain ol’ public acceptance and recognition of a committed personal relationship) – and were refused by some local-government employee who took it upon themselves to pass judgment upon them for personal or religious reasons, or our-state-law-still-bans-this-sort-of-thing reasons, or no very damn good reason at all.

And they probably felt like, in fact were treated like, second-class citizens.

That’s not an example of a government contributing to their loss of dignity?

Counsel wishes to suggest, Your Honor, that you have not exhibited the empathy for your fellow human beings (those who wish to enjoy the same benefits of marriage – not more, but the same benefits – and have the same opportunity to screw marriage up) that any human being ought to be capable of showing another human being.

Counsel also wishes to suggest – may it please the Court – that if the Justice is going to utilize analogies, that in the future he ought to find some that most of the good and decent people that I know wouldn’t sadly shake their heads at.


Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.” Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis

June 26, 2015 Posted by | civil rights, current events, Famous Persons, government, news | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Art Criticism

I’m no art critic.

As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up … well, for about six months … but after awhile, I figured out that I could draw a really mean stick figure (I mean, these were good), but that was it.

When I tried watercoloring, the paints ran wherever they pleased. When I dealt with clay, it never quite made the shape I had in my mind – regardless of whether the clay was spinning or just sitting there. In a soapstone carving class, I took a block of the stuff and, after much struggle, settled on carving … a pair of dice.

Frankly, anyone who takes up brushes, chisels, or their own hands and fingers, and is remotely successful at creating works of visual art … I tip my cap to ya. Heck, I can’t even figure out how to make a cap. (And don’t ask what my creations in the sewing part of middle-school home-economics class looked like. I said don’t ask.)

With that as background and backdrop … I got a thought or two about a painting I saw this week.

Its creator was Philadelphia-area painter Nelson Shanks, who has been called America’s “eminent painter” … whatever that’s supposed to mean … and its subject was former president Bill Clinton.

The painting was first displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC, in 2006, and was rotated out of the American Presidents exhibit.

In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News this week, Shanks revealed something about the painting which, at the end of the day, I think says much more about him than his subject, or even his abilities as a painter.

A cursory glance at the official painting of President Bill Clinton that is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection would easily miss an ode to the lowest point of his presidency — Monica Lewinsky. But it’s there, the artist revealed … [he] cunningly included a shadow over the fireplace cast from a blue dress on a mannequin.”  [This, from the Washington Post article about the Daily News article, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2015/03/02/portrait-artist-says-he-painted-lewinsky-reference-in-bill-clintons-official-painting/&gt; .]

Well … I suppose there’s no denying that the Clinton presidency had two parts: the pre-Lewinsky era and the post-Lewinsky era. This cannot be denied or changed.

But is a reference to the post-Lewinsky era appropriate for a portrait to be hung in the National Gallery?

Would you put a piece of Native American memorabilia in the background of a painting of Andrew Jackson?

Would you put a bottle of whiskey on a mantlepiece in the background of a painting of Ulysses S. Grant? (It’s not what you think. Look it up.)

Would you put a teapot on a desk in the background of a painting of Warren G. Harding?

I’m not even sure I’d have the grit to put a hint of anything referencing the Watergate break-in in the background of a painting of Richard Nixon. And that guy might have had it coming.

Would you do anything so tasteless as to put a playbill from Ford’s Theater on a desk in the background of a painting of Abraham Lincoln, or some reference to the city of Dallas in a painting of John F. Kennedy?

I can’t speak for presidential portrait artists; but if I were one, I think I would aim to create the most realistic image of the actual person, and leave the background – the Oval Office – fairly generically White House. Maybe that’s just my opinion about how to do it appropriately. If I were creating a work of art to hang in a sports bar, then maybe I might feel less constrained toward scoring dignity points.

Hold that thought, about realism. I’ll get back to that.

Shanks said, in the Daily News piece:

Shanks said painting Clinton was his hardest assignment because ‘he is probably the most famous liar of all time.’ So he added the nod to the Lewinsky scandal because it had cast a shadow over Clinton’s presidency. ‘He and his administration did some very good things, of course,’ Shanks said, ‘but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind, and it is subtly incorporated in the painting. … It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.’”

Oh okay. I see where you’re going, now.

That’s just plain immature.

Maybe it’s just my take on the presidential portraits that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, but I would think that such an environment, and such works, are not the proper location for an op-ed piece.

When judges have a strong prejudice about something in a trial they are asked to oversee, very often they recuse themselves from hearing the case. Feeling that strongly about President Clinton, maybe Shanks might have done a similar thing.

Gentle suggestion for the painter of a presidential portrait: it’s not, strangely enough, all about you.

Back to “realism”, now.

And actually, “realism” turns out to be the hallmark of Nelson Shanks’ work, at his own insistence.

Shanks was interviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen as part of the “Drexel Interview” series (an interview which is about fifteen minutes of dour and unlikeable … but that’s just my opinion). You can find the interview on YouTube: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ekwg0jXUMzY&gt; . Within the first two minutes, Shanks answered a question about his philosophy of art this way:

I happen to be an advocate and believer in realism, because I think that nature, in its incredible vastness and variety, is the best and really the only real vocabulary that an artist can legitimately work with, without falling off the cliff of self-indulgence and just basic nonsense.”

Unless, Shanks continued:

…unless he does it for his own personal therapy and nothing else.”

And thank you, we have just added to “immature” … “hypocritical”.

As it happens, I think Shanks’ portrait portrays Bill Clinton’s face as a bit too wide – and there’s a photograph of Clinton standing next to the painting that makes it easy to compare the two faces. A bit too close to Ted Koppel.

But that’s just my opinion.

I’m no art critic.

March 4, 2015 Posted by | arts, Famous Persons | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The High Road

Early in my ninth year, I found myself out on my school’s playground, in the grasp of a large galoot whom I had previously thought of as a friendly.

This member of my third-grade class had me by the arm, and was playfully whacking me with his free arm. He was smiling. I was relinquishing my own smile, in exchange for a muttered, “um, hey.”

My classmate’s free arm – the one executing the whacking – was partly encased in a cast. Being as this was during the early days of the Gerald Ford administration, it wasn’t one of those lightweight flexible air-cast things that are used nowadays.

His wrist and forearm were encased, basically, in shaped rock.

It kinda hurt.

I let this go on for a few days, turning the other cheek, taking the high road … and then one night I told my parents about it all, over supper.

My non-violence-espousing, turn-the-other-cheek, do-unto-others, decent parents did something that totally, utterly shocked me.

They signed me up for karate lessons.

Several wintry months later, I had completed a series of Saturday mornings in which I got used to the idea of making violent contact with other human beings – in a controlled and disciplined environment. That was entirely outside my experience (except, perhaps, for the disagreements I had with my younger sister, and even those wrestling matches I usually lost).

But aside from some sparring matches during which I was out of my league – somehow, the instructor thought I was good enough to compete with a couple of otherwise genuinely friendly boys who were a solid belt-color-level above me, which ought to tell you more about the instructor than it tells you about me or my competition – I actually was really good at making contact. And performing those pantomimical forms – downward block, punch, kick, upward block, discount double-check… And I even made those hi-yat-su! grunts pretty well (also not a super-large part of my personality).

Recess. Spring day. Playground. Alleged friend. Smile. Grasp. Cast.

Raised eyebrow. Punch in the stomach.

Kid never came near me again.

Last night was the State of the Union speech.

I know. Your head just whiplashed. Stay with me now.

The annual tradition in Washington, on a Tuesday evening each January since Woodrow Wilson was president, is for the president to ascend the speaker’s platform in the House chamber of the US Capitol and address a joint session of Congress, to give a brief overview of how the last year went, and what plans he (or, someday, she) might have for the coming year.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Capitol building. Two summers ago, I was there as a tourist. Along with my tourist compatriots, I felt an undeniable need to maintain an air of dignity and decorum in the midst of the truly impressive surroundings of our nation’s loftiest legislative location. Beyond my thoughts about all the truly momentous people who had strode through those corridors, all the important decisions that had been made in that building, all the important quotes from American history (“a day which will live in infamy”) that had been launched from that podium … the place has décor that kinda demands that people behave very well indeed.

You’d think so, anyway.

During President Obama’s first State of the Union address, a Republican member of the House of Representatives shouted “you lie!” in response to one of the President’s assertions. It drew an audible gasp from a large portion of the assembled legislators and spectators. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot a stare out in the direction of the outburst that reminded me very strongly of one of my elementary school teachers after a back-row yahoo belched loudly in the middle of silent reading time.) You just don’t do that! … Or, you didn’t. Until now, I guess.

During one of Mr. Obama’s later State of the Union speeches, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito vigorously shook his head “no”, in response to another of the President’s assertions. Traditionally, Supreme Court justices who attend the speech do not react in any way to the speech, yea or nay – they stare stoically straight ahead. … Or, they did. Until now, I guess.

I don’t recall any such reactions to the assertions of any past President, Republican or Democratic. Members of Congress never treated any President, from Wilson to Bush 43, with anything but applause (from polite to passionate), the occasional standing ovations, and the otherwise ubiquitous quiet deference and focused attention. Even Bill Clinton, whose foibles got him into various versions of hot water with the press, the public, and his Congressional colleagues, wasn’t treated like this. It has always been understood that, well, we’ll present the opposition-party response to the speech, and we’ll go on “Meet the Press”, and we’ll write op-eds, and we’ll get back at him that way.

Until this Administration, I guess.

Last night, on the way to a larger assertion, Mr. Obama began a paragraph with the preparatory clause, “I have no more campaigns to run, …”

A significant number of legislators applauded sarcastically. As if this were a middle-school assembly and a kid running for student council president was making his campaign speech and screwing it up.

At this moment, the President had a choice.

He could have proceeded with the rest of the paragraph, trying to make his hecklers (hecklers!?) look bad by just ignoring the interruption and trusting the American public to write its elected representatives and chastise them themselves.

Yeah, not likely.

He could have stopped, looked out at the clapping Congresspeople, and (as he has done at some other public events) gently murmured, “now, come on, we don’t have to do that.” Whatever has been his way of dealing with people in private, which we really cannot know, this “let’s all be civil here” reasonableness has been his public personality, over the course of his time in office. Once, he offered a couple of demonstrators the opportunity to talk with him after his speech was over, and then made good on that offer, directing the Secret Service to bring the men backstage so they could present their case to him in person.

He could have taken the low road. Gotten actively angry in the middle of that speech. Or, today, in his first speech after last night’s address, he might have lashed out at the Republican-controlled House or Senate. After six years of having bitten his tongue hard, of taking the high road, one might have forgiven him for having a brief moment of “…are ya kidding me?”

For six years, Mr. Obama has taken it on the chin from his political opponents, consistently and relentlessly. Sometimes they’ve been needlessly personal. Often the name-calling has been hilariously contradictory (you can’t be a feckless, weak President and a dictator at the same time, friends).

And often the policy arguments have been contradictory, too. In the first day after the capture of the mastermind behind the Libyan embassy attacks last year, the President’s opponents criticized him both for not achieving the capture soon enough and for rushing to capture the man so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could trumpet the success during her appearance on Fox News the following night.

I have the feeling that if the President were to suggest that the sky was blue, someone would pout, “well, it’s cloudy where I’m standing.”

The President has endured attacks on his wife. For transgressions such as, she’s showing too much of her (frankly ripped) upper arms … she looks like she’s rolling her eyes at the Speaker of the House during a state dinner …too this, too that, pick, pick, pick …

But at least Mrs. Obama is an adult and by way of being First Lady, she’s a public figure and therefore, in terms of criticism, will be an eligible receiver. It happens. Same goes for being the actual President. You’re thin-skinned and hopelessly naive if you make it to the White House and still don’t get that.

The President has endured attacks on his kids. (Ostensibly as a way of attacking him. This is what some of his critics think of as clever.) This has traditionally been kinda frowned upon. Leave the kids out of it, as has been suggested in this space previously. Even so, the President has refrained from explaining to the critics of his children at just which bus stop they need to step off.

I admire this. If it were me, and my niece and nephew were treated like Malia and Sasha have been treated on occasion, I would be sorely tempted to recall my third-grade karate lessons.

So, in some small way, I was disappointed last night, when the President didn’t pause, look out at the Congress, and say something like, “…–Really?” Or…

Are you fking kidding me?” Or…

At some point in your miserable, politics-of-personal-destruction, inexplicably-elected lives, are you actually going to attempt to portray grownups?” Or…

Do you not see where you are, what responsibilities you’ve been elected to carry out, how many people across the world are watching how you behave and who you are?” Or…

Do I have to pull this Congress over?”

He didn’t, though.

This morning, he’s being lauded in many quarters for distributing what Slate.com called an “instantly legendary ad-libbed burn”:

He looked out, raised an eyebrow, clearly looked as if his thought bubble was reading, “oh, I get it. We’re still playing that game. It’s still gon’ be like that”, and went off-script. Question: how do I know I have no more campaigns to run? Answer:

I know, ’cause I won both of them.”

He will take truckloads of, forgive me, crap for that, in certain other fair ‘n’ balanced quarters, by the end of today. (“Disgracing the office of the President!”, no doubt.)

And it wasn’t probably as satisfying to the President as “going off on them” would’ve been.

But a little satisfying.

I don’t know; maybe this morning he’s regretting not taking the high road and just ignoring it all.

I didn’t regret that punch in the stomach. But I’m not the President, and I haven’t spent the last six years being called a Fascist Nazi Kenyan Socialist Muslim usurper.

This essay has nothing to do with politics. I promise. And it has nothing to do with whether I’m a big fan of the President, or a big detractor.

This has to do with standards of behavior.

It reminded me of a quote which has been one of my favorites for a long time, and speaks to this moment rather eloquently, if unintentionally.

It wasn’t one of his Starred Thoughts™; instead it was a quote from a magazine interview with the director of my alma mater’s band. In it, he was describing the culture that had been built, over the course of many years, that allowed him to not worry about what first impression his band was going to give people when it went on the road for an away football game, or a parade, or an exhibition, or a rest-area stop for food, or whatever.

There are standards — standards of behavior, standards of how to project the image of the band, which is the image of the university, which is of course the image of themselves.”

One could say that a lot of our elected officials “could stand to improve” on that front … except that their unlikeliness to improve is given away by their pesky ol’ body of work.

January 21, 2015 Posted by | current events, government, news, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment