Monthly Archives: October 2013

Societies only get better…they never rot

Nick Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

I had the privilege of seeing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speak last night.

Whatever I may think of Justice Scalia or his rulings, I have tremendous respect for anyone who can make a clear and compelling argument for their view. It’s okay for people to disagree with me, as long as they can explain their disagreement (more or less) politely and intelligibly .

As you may imagine, Justice Scalia was no disappointment in this regard.

He spoke about his commitment to an originalist view of the Constitution – interpreting laws based off what they were understood to mean at the time the people voted for them.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but when ratified in 1791 no one thought hanging was unconstitutional. Therefore capital punishment is constitutional even if we might consider it cruel and unusual today.

We, the people, can advocate and vote to change the law – federally or in our own state – but judges shouldn’t interpret “cruel and unusual” based off today’s standards, Justice Scalia argues.

Frankly, I’ve never been an originalist. Since at least elementary school, the idea of the Constition as a living document appealed to me. Our founding fathers were certainly courageous, bold, and innovative. I do have a lot of respect for them. But I don’t think they had my interests in mind when crafting the Constitution.

They were creating a society from the perspective of wealthy, educated, property-owning, straight, white men. Even if you assume they were inclusive for their day, genuinely trying to craft a society that would be good for everyone, that narrow perspective is too exclusive to sustain a fair and equitable society.

So what’s the danger of the “living document” model?

Justice Scalia argued that interpreting the Constitution based off today’s morals only works if you assume societies only get better. That they never rot.

The originalist approach protects the people from corrupt regimes.

If modern morals deem that waterboarding or other forms of torture are not cruel and unusual, then it becomes okay because we can interpret it as constitutional. If modern morals deem that gay people aren’t entitled to the same rights as straight people, that unborn fetuses have more rights than their mothers, that governments should do whatever it takes to stop terrorism – then that changes what becomes interpreted as constitutional.

And a political litmus test for judges becomes the only way to determine who will make a good Justice – who will share your moral interpretation.

This argument makes a lot of sense to me. I do think societies rot. I do think we need to protect ourselves from corrupt regimes.

But here’s the problem.

There is a lot of corruption in our regime. And the system is not protecting us.

Justice Scalia said the people should take their concerns to Congress. That it’s Congress’ role to interpret modern needs and to implement laws adjusting to them.

That may be the originalist’s view of Congress’ purpose, but as you may have noticed, that venerable body is not getting anything done these days.

So where does that leave us? Left in endless shouting matches and political posturing?

The courts are our only hope for justice.

And maybe Justice Scalia is right. Maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe we should be more careful about creating a system that could strip our freedoms away just as easily as it can provide them.

But in the face of injustice, what else are we to do?


HarvestFest is here again

The weather is amazing, leaves are changing, and pumpkin everything is on the shelves. And that means it must be time for Somerville Local First’s annual HarvestFest fundraiser.

I serve on the board of this small non-profit which supports local businesses in Somerville and promotes understanding of the local movement.

Since this post is clearly a shameless promotion of an organization which I care about, I’ll start with the fundraiser details (which I might call “deets” if I was more hip, which I’m not), then I’ll explain why I think it’s important.

Somerville Local First’s 5th Annual HarvestFest
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Session 1: 2:00 to 5:00 PM
Session 2:
6:00 to 9:00 PM

Tickets range from $35-$55 depending on how generous you’re feeling, and will get you delicious food from some of Somerville’s best local restaurants, local beer from great Massachusetts brewers, live music, and some fun, harvesty games. Tickets can be bought online.

So, other than the fact that this will be a fun, awesome event (I feel like I should make posters proclaiming, “Free Beer!”), why should you care about the work of Somerville Local First (SLF)?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I believe in the importance of a local economy.

My grandfather owned his own bakery. My mother and her family lived above the bakery, and she spent much of her childhood helping out in the store. I imagine it with an optimistic 50s lens. Everyone got along and life was just perfect.

That image may be idealized (“…you think?” I can hear my aunts saying), but nonetheless, the bakery was important enough to my family’s character that my father built a model of the bakery. And sometimes, when we drove through the neighborhood the bakery had been in, my mother would say, “Right there…that’s where the bakery was.”

As an adult, I find that local business are the ones that really make an area a community. I walk in and people know my name. Business owners introduce themselves. People are friendly. It’s almost enough to look at modern life with an optimistic 50s lens.

And more than that. local businesses have character. And not tchotchke-wearing, manufactured character ala the restaurant in office space, but real character. Whether it’s my local gym where they have kettlebell painting contents, the local 80s themed restaurant where they host “Baywatch Bingo,” or the retail store where I can pick up Somerville t-shirts and signs. These are the businesses that make my community.

And they’re in real danger of going extinct. Big businesses can cut corners, save money in bulk, and squeeze out any hint of personality to become vastly efficient machines. Sometimes it’s faster, easier, or cheaper to shop from big business, but rarely is it better.

If all of us bought from corporations all the time, then that little slice of 50s innocence would be lost. And that would be a real tragedy. Of course, you can’t shop local all the time (disclaimer: my computer is not local), but when you can, please consider shopping local first.

Supporting these businesses is the work of SLF. Connecting them so they too can collaborate for bulk rates and jointly innovate for new endeavors. Supporting them in understanding laws, regulations, and changes in the political landscape. And educating people – not just consumers, but real, human people – about the value of shopping local.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s the link to support this great work:

See you there!


Dysfunction junction, what’s your function?

With the government shut down, the news is full of blustering politicians, polling over who Americans are blaming, and plenty of shut down humor.

Just like the newscasters, I have no solutions or special insight into the situation. So like the newscasters, I could tell stories of folks who are now out of work and wondering how to pay the bills. Or I could try to diagram the finger pointing and yelling happening in the capital. Or, I could just express my frustration as an average Joe.

But when I post to my blog, I try to think about what would add value – about what’s missing from the conversation. So, here’s what I’m going with:

I’m okay with the government shutdown.

I mean, not really – as a person living right here, right now, it drives me crazy and makes me angry in ways many of you are probably also experiencing. But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Sometimes, when things seem to be going badly, I’ll say to myself, “Well, at least I’m not in Europe during the Black Plague!” And this exercise is a bit like that. I wonder what the shut down will mean historically. And not just in another 17 years, but in another 50 years. Another 100 years.

Amid all the hot air on the news this morning, I caught one fiery politician saying that the founding father’s would be disappointed in us. Disappointed that we couldn’t make the government run.

And I thought, “Wait, would they?”

I mean, the founding fathers (bless their hearts) were kind of a hot mess.

Neither Rome nor our government were founded in a day, and the meetings of the Continental Congress and early United States Congress were quite heated and intense from what I understand. Politicians of the day had very real disagreements about what we should be as a country. Federalist or state favored. Industrial or agricultural. They even disagreed over who were people.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were vocal rivals. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel over a political campaign that got particularly nasty. So lets not pretend that politics used to be all sunshine and butterflies. It’s always been a tough business in this country.

Political blockage is part of our national character. And frankly it’s intended to be. Yes, our elected officials can’t get along, but really – neither can we. Drop me in the middle of a tea party gathering, and the conversations not gonna be any prettier than what I see on the news.

We can blame congress all we want. We can point fingers and decide who’s to blame. But as long as I literally don’t understand the views of half the country and as long as they literally don’t understand me, nothing is going to change.

I’ll keep electing Massachusetts liberals, and other parts of the country will keep electing tea party Republicans. And frankly, I don’t want my guys to compromise.

So sure, let’s shut the government down. Let’s realize that the system is broken and we need to fix it. And by “we” I don’t mean that congress needs to stop acting like brats and learn to play nice. I mean we. You and me.

We need to learn to get along. Need to learn to see eachother’s points of view. Need to listen and to understand. Need to figure out how to compromise without sacrificing our ideals. This is our country. And fixing it is in our hands.

Oh, and sorry to everyone who’s out of a job as a result of this national lesson. That really sucks.