GOVERNOR BAKER VISITS THE ISLAMIC CENTER OF BOSTON

Of course there was plenty of message in Governor Baker’s visit to Boston’s huge Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the entire Boston area. This was not just a visit of friendship in the ordinary course, though a friendship visit it was. After all, a Governor who sincerely wants to serve all the people of his state, as Baker has proven he does, wants personally to connect with every important state community, faith or otherwise. Governors of Massachusetts have been doing this for 100 years at least, when hundreds of 1000s of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to our ports to begin new lives; and though there was plenty of dislike cast upon those immigrants by people who thought them alien, political leaders competed with each other to enlist the newcomers in their followings. Thus it was with Baker. Though many Muslims have lived in Boston for some decades now, it has only been recently that their presence as a community has become a force. If anything, the opposition to Muslim immigrants expressed by the President has enhanced the significance of Massachusetts’s Muslim residents — made it imperative to welcome the community, praise it, incorporate it into the power structure.

Thus the visit by Governor Baker had a larger purpose than the usual political practice. There was more purpose in it for the Islamic Center, and there was more purpose in it for Baker. Partisan Democrats like to chaff Baker for not being a loud voice against Mr. Trump, which they are and he is not: but these partisans either overlook, or choose to not recognize, that Governor Baker by his deeds demonstrates opposition to the ways of Mr. much moire effectively than would any words. Actions really do speak louder; and Baker, in almost all that he does — bipartisan legislative co-operation, open-ended outreach to everyone, embrace of sort of person no matter his or her gender or identity, faith or no faith — acts the opposite of how Mr. Trump acts. Baker is a uniter, not a divider. He never “speaks to a base,” indeed he seems not to acknowledge or identify an ideological or ethnic, gender or faith base. I say “seems” because Baker does in fact speak to a “base” voter : the ordinary voter of all sorts, who does not breathe ideological fire but just wants state government to do its job and electeds to address the challenges that taxpayers pay to see worked upon.

Clearly there’s an awful lot of ordinary voters of the kind I have described, for Baker won 67 percent of the vote in the recent election against a very decent, well versed opponent. Other candidates should take notice. Ordinary voters make up by far the overwhelming majority of all — at least three quarters of the whole number. Why does this huge majority not get more attention than it does, by more than a handful of candidates who see things the Baker way ? In particular, why do most of our candidates for national office act like firebrands ? Why do they sound like no one you ever meet in the regular course of your goings and doings ? When Baker talks to a room of voters — or of managers — he sounds like a normal guy, a manager describing his management problem, occasionally a fun guy telling a joke or a quick anecdote, always easy to listen to: he sounds like people you actually know and work with. Why do our national office holders, in contrast, sound so different, so strange, so hepped up, so humorless ?

To some extent the humorless ways of our national office holders comes with the territory: they’re tribunes of the people, modern-day Gracchi fighting against the powers that be , warriors for this cause or that interest. After all, the Roman Senate was not exactly a forum of buddies. The speeches of Cicero — especially those against Cataline, or Clodius — pulled no punches; people were assassinated (as was Cicero himself, eventually) over the bitter divisions that fought to the death in that first great legislature. Yet one would like to think that we in America have improved the process a bit. The Romans had no Constitution, neither or written, and thus the rules were whatever the powers wanted them to be. We, however, have a written Constitution. It makes very clear what the legislature’s duties are, its priorities, its purposes. We have a Supreme Court to umpire interpretations of it. We have universal suffrage to assure that no office holder is there merely by inheritance or granted privilege. What, then, is the problem ?

Every time I think I have the answer, I find myself mistaken. The problem is not money, because Baker has to solicit donations just as national office seekers do. It isn’t faction, because we have factions in Massachusetts just as they do in Washington. It isn’t even the irresponsibilities and bigotries of Mr. Trump, for we have had such before, albeit not in the same degree. Partisanship certainly aggravates political irresponsibility, because those who live politics 24 hours a day can take over the process from people who live regular lives with little time for or interest in never-ending meetings and schemings. Yet we have partisan zealotry in Massachusetts too, and though it has impacted the edges of our governance, it hasn’t affected the actual decisions and accomplishments at all. Yet the presence of partisan zealotry does point me to an actual problem : party primaries. In Massachusetts, we elect a Governor at the November election, with 60 to 75 percent of voters voting. Most other offices — especially for national office — are decided in the Democratic primary, with 15 percent of voters voting. The Republican primary is even worse. It nominates mostly unelectable candidates, because the party numbers only ten percent of voters, and about half of them do not vote in their primary.

The smaller the party, and its primary, the more ideological the tone, because once we gave up the patronage system, as we did about 30 years , there was no incentive for anyone to be a primary voting stalwart except for ideology’s sake. This happened nationally, and it did so at the exact time that the Republican party was being taken over by cadres with a religion agenda on the one hand and, more recently, by identity politicians in the Democratic primary (which has now become an arena for eco-socialism as well). Yet there’s another factor at work beyond that of ideology or even of partisanship generally. I refer to impatience. It’s a commonplace that Americans want instant gratification. Easy it is to carry that mindset into the political arena. And now we see the REAL difference between Governor Baker and the others : Baker is a man of infinite patience. He doesn’t expect things to be done tomorrow, nor does he expect it. He is not in a hurry. He seems to understand that reforming huge institutions — and the state bureaucracies are all that — is best accomplished by small degrees, small enough as to hardly be noticed one by one but which, seen over time, look very significant indeed. Baker’s patient approach to reform works so well because it is natural : we all age, and learn, but we do so very slowly. Day to day one sees little or no change to who we are or what we look like, but over a stretch of years, the change is enormous, and we accept it.

That is why Governor Baker has had the political success that he profits by. He is as natural as he can be, in his actions and in his patience. That is what our national office seekers so often lack and why they arouse more trouble than benefit. They want it all done NOW : racism must end NOW, if not 35 years ago; sexual customs must be disciplined NOW, if not 34 years back. Transformation of our energy system must happen immediately. Everything is on the hurry, hurry, hurry. Well guess what ? You want to hurry people, expect huge push back. Push back strong enough to defeat you and make things worse than they would have been had you done nothing. No, no, no: if you want reform — truly want reform — in a nation where every voter can — and should be encouraged to — vote, you must change a significant majority of minds. It cannot be forced. You have to respect the voter whose mind you seek to change.

Changing minds — and mindsets — takes time. Takes patience.

That is why Governor Baker visited the Islamic Center of Boston.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

REFORMING THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL : CRITIQUE AND PROPOSAL

Andrea Campbell, City Council president, has so some news for you. He heard her. She didn’t say, buit will you enormously

Some of Boston’s City Councillors now advocate that the Council term move from 2 years to 4 years. Strongly I oppose this idea.

Look : before 1924, when the wards of Boston were last apportioned by the Suffolk County Apportionment Commission that hadn’t met since — despite the state law requiring it meet every ten years — the Council members were elected by Ward and had one year terms. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to revisit THAT.

Complaint # 1 made by the proponents : elections cost the City money. Less electing saves money.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. Democracy does occasionally cost money. Better that than dictation.

Complaint # 2 : four year terms would free the Council members from having to campaign constantly.

My response : (a) wanna bet ? (B) what’s wrong with the members having to campaign constantly ?

The Council is an advisory body, not a legislature. Its only power of any consequence is to approve the budget. I know that many Council members want to be a kind of Congress member — she-roic tribunes of Social Justice — maybe even of “environmental justice,” whatever that is — but no : the City works better with a strong Mayor, advised by a council whose most useful role is to suggest and negotiate. If that means less public attention on the members, that’s fine, especially in the era of social media, where loud speech by every interest group – the more radical, the louder — intimidates electeds in the direction of loud. (Note : Althea Garrison, who is now an at-large Councillor, opposes the measure.)

I should note that the same proposal would require a special election to fill a Council vacancy. Would that election not cost the money the proponent claims to save by not having elections every two years ? Of course it would.

So much for the four year Council term. That said, I do favor some city charter reforms. I’ve written already — about two months ago — that the Council ought to move from nine Districts to eleven. Boston having added at least 100,000 new people since the last census, if we want to maintain the 70,000 population mean for Council Districts, adding two members has to happen. In support, that 70,000 figure fairly well fits the sizes of Boston’s major neighborhoods, on a combination thereof.

As I noted above, before 1924 the City’s Council was elected from the city’s wards, which until 1934 were apportioned by population, more or less. In 1934, and ever since, the City’s wards have had no election meaning; no office is decided by ward boundaries. My suggestions for reform, then, are these : first, the Districts — ( 1 ) elect 22 Councillors, one from each of the newly boundaried wards ( 2 ) elect eleven, one each from two wards plus or minus ( 3 ) create eleven wards and elect three councillors from each; second, the compensation : instead of paying $ 99,000 salary to thirteen councillors, pay a small stipend to each — say, $ 25,000 — and boost the pay of council staffs : the idea being that the bread and butter work of researching issues and potential City policies is really staff work and that the Councillor should view his or her job as advisory and secondary to his or her earnings; third, the method of election : I strongly favor the current process, whereby the top two finishers face off in a final. I oppose the current fad for ranked-choice voting, a system which invites interest groups to crowd the ballot with six, seven, ten candidates all from more or less the same agenda group, the idea being that ten candidates working more or less together can amass more votes versus a disliked opponent than any one of them could win on her own. We saw a perfect example of this last November in Maine’s Second Congress District, where two similarly “liberal” candidates together won enough votes to defeat the “conservative” incumbent, as either one of them alone would likely not have done.

A friend this morning suggested an additional procedure : that the required number of signatures to nominate be lowered from about 1,800 to 1,000 and that it not take a mere three weeks to certify them.

I also favor an elected school committee, because school issues are a universe of their own and because the Mayor cannot be held to account on school matters alone. Boston’s many school constituencies need to be seen for what they are and do; that’s hard given the current appointed committee, overseeing a $ 1.7 billion budget that includes $ 100 million at least of capital planning. A school committee elected for three year terms, elected from districts conforming to the City’s currents seat-assignment District, with five committee people elected from the large assignment districts, four from the next in size, and three from the smaller zones, would be both representative and diverse in its viewpoints.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

AN AVALANCHE OF NONSENSE

Senator Ed Markey : embracing an unworkable, extreme proposal because — well, you know why

The 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be a flood of hallucinations. The same can be said of the coming City election here in Boston. If what is published, or spoken at rallies, is any example, proposals are being made that range from the merely unworkable to the outlandish. None of the City Council trial balloons, however, surpasses the radicalism and downright insanity of what is being touted by national office holders and seekers.

It’s a given that Mr. Trump offers falsehoods and chimeras, denigrates whole classes of people, and longs to take us back to the era of coal and smog. This, we’re used to hearing. We’ve dismissed it all, as we should. What is new is the equivalent nonsense being proposed by the “socialist” wing (their word, not mine) of the party that we are counting on to defeat Mr. Trump. Anyone who has read through the so-called “Green New Deal” will find there what critics, with much justice, call “enviro-fascism.” Cars are to be taxed out of existence, gasoline as well; trains are to replace everything else, including airplanes (I kid you not). All in the name of “saving the planet from climate disaster (their phrase). Anyone who has lived by bus or train, as I have, knows the frustration of only being able to go where the bus or train takes you, of having to wait for one to come, and of the near impossibility of going to two, three four different destinations on a day. The freedom of being able to take yourself where you want to go, when you want to go there, and the flexibility it provides to your life, well, those are just old fashioned tastes, I guess.

Gimme a break,.

I don’t know about you, but I find the Green folks’ panic just as absurd as any other stampede. If this proposal is what the voters will be offered in 2020, it will surely re-elect Mr. Trump, because as terrible as he is — and he is really really terrible — we have devised the political means to hem him in. There will be no such means if the climate panic crowd gets its way.

This is not a choice any ordinary voter wants : Trump’s cruel bigotry, Russian pandering, and industrial hallucination on the right hand — and government control of every inch of your life on the left hand . (And I do mean control of everything. The same folks who experience climate panic want to dictate what you think about race matters (you really should abandon skin color prejudice, but you have to do it because you want to, not because a thought cop tells you). They also want to impose inquisition justice upon those accused of sexual harassment. They think it crucial to force professors out of jobs, and writers out of publication, because they disapprove what is said or to be published. The rule of law, with all of its safeguards for the accused ? That’s sexist, I guess. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech ? Obsolete.

As yet we have not devised a political mechanism for deflecting these assaults upon individual freedom and the wisdom of the law. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, no ordinary voter wants this choice.

To return to Boston’s City election for a bit. Here’s what an up and coming Boston political aspirant posted on his facebook page yesterday by way of supporting Councillor Michelle Wu’s call for making the MBTA fare-free (!!)

How to Make the MBTA Free while also helping the environment.

1. Increase the Gas Tax to 30 cents
2. Congestion Pricing for driving in/out of Boston 
3. $10-15 fee per flight at Logan
4. Surcharge for each UberX or Lyft (not shared) taken to/from Logan

Back of napkin: $600-700 Million
*This does not include the savings from not having to do fare inspections, purchase turnstiles (and maintain them), fare vending machines, etc.*

This alone would be more than enough to cover the fare revenue, increase ridership, and generate stakeholder value.

Beyond the specific proposals, each of them political suicide, what does this amount to ? As one respondent said, it simply transfers MBTA payments from one class of person to all others. That’s the purpose behind much of the ideology being submitted to the City Council : since prices of real estate are going up, transfer the price from owners to everybody else. It’s an absurd policy, one that assures failure — it was the theory behind rent control, which Boston tried in the early 1970s and which killed Boston real estate — because you cannot stop a bull market that doesn’t want to be stopped, you can only move its value bits from here to there. And what the blazes is “stakeholder value” in the T ? Enlighten me.

I have written elsewhere about the Council’s responses to our real estate boom. The answer lies not in penalizing landlords or owners of pricey homes but in finding paths to increasing the wages of our workers. I don’t want to rehash what I have already written; just let me say this : ( 1 ) we aren’t going to raise the gas tax by 30 cents ( 2 ) we aren’t going to put surcharges on Uber and Lyft, which are wildly popular transportation choices ( 3 ) we are not going to impose flight fees on millions of travelers, who have the vote just as do the proponents of taxing and ( 4 ) we’re probably not going to penalize drivers who drive during congested hours, because that’s when the work day ends. (This last proposal might have legs if the economy can find a way to institute staggered work hours.)

Why should riders on the MBTA not pay a fare ? The T exists for their convenience. Taxpayers subsidize much of the T budget because many taxpayers also use the T and because the T allows workers to get to their job more efficiently than driving (and paying a $ 20 fee for garage parking). I doubt that T ridership would increase if taxpayers were to be saddled with 100 percent of its cost, because the cost of parking a car downtown is ten times that of a T fare. People use the T already. Moreover, the T is money- limited by the huge costs it faces to bring the entire system to a “state of good repair,” a job that Governor Baker estimates won’t be finished until 2023. Taking away T fares just makes the job that much longer to accomplish. Again, there WILL NOT be a gas tax hike, because so much of Massachusetts lies outside the T service zone and has no interest at all in paying for it.

Drats. Foiled again !

Now back to the 2020 election and its world of Edward Lear. The manifestos being bruited by some Democrats are about the Democratic party, not about the nation. It’s a battle to wrest control of the party away from the “corporate” Democrats who actually work with business and think that the economy benefits from having businesses prosper. Democrats who oppose that view — who think that the profits of a business belong, as of right, to the line workers, not to the investors who risk their capital — have found a fair measure of support in our big cities, and the surprise success of several urban Democratic candidates in 2018’s Congressional primaries has juiced them to assault the party itself : because control of the party means control of its campaign money and its rules of nomination. These Democrats have seen how the Evangelicals took control of the Republican party and thereby had the track to impose their restrictive agenda — much of it unConstitutional — upon party and nation (not yet completely, thank goodness). They’ve seen it and want to replicate it, and to the same end : to impose government control of your life upon you.

This is why a wise old head like Senator Markey, who is up for re-election next year, has decided to do a Democratic equivalent of Senator Lindsey Graham embracing Mr. Trump. He is afraid of being primaried by a “progressive,” and his fears are well placed, given the shocking defeat — by 18 points — of Congressman Mike Capuano in last year’s Democratic primary. In the Republican party, you have to be totally Trump, or else; symmetrically, in the Democratic party, if you’re not as opposite of Mr. Trump as possible, you’re the enemy of “change can’t wait.” Especially if you’re nearing age 80 and have been in Congress since 1972.

Can we the ordinary voters, who want wise reform but mostly cannot get it from either of the parties, find a way to make our aspirations and common sense the dominant agenda ? Because reform can be done. The Massachusetts legislature and our Governor prove that, every day. Yet nationally, and in the City, I am not sure we can. There, all the current momentum is to the extremes, to proposals each more radical than the last, to government control of everything, including our thoughts. Even the Constitution — our last line of protection — is not safe.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EVERSOURCE’s SUBSTATION MAY NOT BE OK

At least 100 residents in opposition attended the Eversource substation public-comment meeting

For the past three years, at least, Eversource, which provides electricity to most of greater Boston, has proposed to build a transmission-line substation on a part of the city-owned field at the eastern end of Falcon Street in East Boston. The proposal won initial approval last year from the Energy Facilities Siting Board based on need : more power is needed in a city growing rapidly both commercially and with residents. At the time, the company’s argument of need seemed to me pretty convincing. As of this writing, however, I’m thinking that the company’s need is blocked by the inappropriateness of the intended site.

On Tuesday evening Eversource made its public-comment presentation as required by Massachusetts law. Final Siting Board approval cannot be granted without it. Thus at least 100 people came to the public-comment hearing at East Boston High School, and not one resident supported the proposal. Opposition came from people lifelong in East Boston as well as from new arrivals. All three elected representatives — State Senator Joe Boncore, State Representative Adrian Madaro, and City Councillor Lydia Edwards, spoke convincingly in opposition. Madaro insisted that East Boston already bears an excess of the City’s burden of utility infrastructure — he called for “environmental justice,” which, I guess, means that the neighborhood should be the locus of only a representative share of utility infrastructure. He was heavily applauded. Councillor Edwards made a point even more enlightening : that the huge turnout of opponents was an “opportunity,” as she put it, for the company to start working with the community, as it had not so far done.

Edwards has it right. Eversource has not, until now, fully engaged the community its substation would impact. This time it’s different. That the community is now on Eversource like a tackler on a fullback results much from Edwards’s own years of work arousing her neighbors and fellow activists. I hope that the Siting Board understands this and will listen to those who object to the site. In particular, objectors made one point which, in my own mind, seals the argument: the proposed site is in a flood zone.

There are other reasons to dislike the proposed site, and these were advanced at the hearing : its very close to jet fuel storage tanks, it lies adjacent to a ball field where kids play, it is across the street from dense streets of residences, all of them likely to destruction if there’s an explosion: and these do occasionally occur. Eversource has responded somewhat to these objections. It has moved its substation site about 190 feet westward from where originally proposed, a site that was perilously close to Louis Silverio’s fish processing factory. Having done so, Silverio, who had intervened in the case (as provided in the law), has dropped his objections.

Nonetheless, the flood zone objection stands. Chelsea Creek flows hard by the proposed site. It won’t be too long before the Creek will flood regularly; and as all climate change activists know, that flooding will only grow deeper. Bad things happen when electricity is conducted through water; and no matter how rigorously Eversource might build protections into its substation against the water from reaching the power lines, safety cannot be guaranteed.

To sum up : after Tuesday’s hearing I think Eversource has no choice but to rethink its plans. The flood zone objection cannot be willed way, and the universal opposition to project, from all who have any opinion about it at all, makes it bad customer relations for the company to proceed as if all were OK> All is NOT OK as it stands. The community conversation that Councillor Edwards has called Eversource to needs to happen and to be taken seriously. The City of Boston, too, which sold the land to Eversource upon which it intends its substation, needs to step back and rethink its plans. No doubt that the City needs more electric power badly. Brownouts already occur. Proper location of substations, however, is just as important as having them.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

RACISM : WHAT IS IT, AND WHY IS IT ?

Governor Northam : condemned long after the fact. Was this just ? Was it fair in any way ? And what do we as a society do about customs deriving from skin color prejudice ?

This past week we have seen a Governor of Virginia, by all accounts a man of high repute and great respect among those who know him, almost destroyed because back in 1984 — 35 years ago — when he was a medical student,. his yearbook page featured a picture of two people, one in “blackface,” the other wearing a KKK costume. Mr. Northam happens to be a Democrat, and the yearbook photo was published, so it seems, on a Republican blog page — an attempt to ruin him, so we are told, because he favors legalizing third term abortions in certain cases.

The Governor’s response to this ambush pleased few. That’s another issue not for this column to discuss. The question I ask is, why was a 35-year old student photo — even one as unnerving as this — able to have any effect at all on Mr. Northam’s current standing, much less generate a firestorm against him ? Is the answer purely political, that leaders of his party saw his predicament as an opportunity to demonstrate that in pursuit of the moral righteous it will destroy one of its own (and in the process eliminate a potential rival for future Presidential nominations) ? Maybe. But why was their response so successful ? Why did not one Democratic leader stand up and say, “Governor Northam deserves better than to have his reputation cratered by a photo from 35 years ago” ? Again : one wants to say, “no Democrat did that because after the vicious level of character destruction Democrats wreaked upon Republican nominee Judge Kavanaugh, it would look like partisan favoritism if Democratic leaders now move to defend one of their own.” A reasonable explanation : yet how did we get to this ?

My purpose is not to argue the politics of Northam and his detractors. Plenty of other writers are doing that. Rather, I propose to examine the custom we call “racism.” What is it ? By “race” we mean people of different skin color and, in some cases, other differing physical characteristics; yet this meaning fails, because many peoples who have dark skin are more distantly related to one than either is to people of lighter skin. If geneticists are right, almost no two peoples are more distantly related than the very dark-skinned Bushmen of southern Africa and Aborigines of Australia. It seems that almost everyone alive, of whatever skin color, is more closely related to African peoples than Aborigines, who, it appears, have been separated from all other human strains for at least 50,000 years. If there were a “Black race,” it would either exclude the Aborigines or would be only them.

There is, then, no such thing as “race.” Yet there is skin color prejudice. Why so ? How did it begin ?

The various peoples of the world — all descended from one African female, whom we name “Lucy,” who lived about 200,000 years ago in the upper Nile Valley — separated geographically from one another beginning at least 80,000 years ago. They did so in small groupings — which were the only groups of humans then living; our population 80,000 years ago probably didn’t surpass 50,000 people total — in search of food. Edible animals had to be hunted; non-poisonous plants had to be found. Early food searchers had no plans ahead. When an area’s food sources were used up, they moved on. As the group multiplied, it had to break up, because a given area contained only so much food. The others had to move. By about 10,000 years ago, if not sooner, various human groupings had, through gene mutation, acquired different physical traits, those which we now see in their roughly approximate homelands : Asians in China and eastern Siberia, lighter skinned peoples — of varying eye color, hair type, and facial prominence — in Europe and western Siberia, dark skinned peoples in Africa south of the Mediterranean coast (the Sahara dried up only 6000 years ago. Until then, dark skinned Africans hunted all the way up to the coastal area.) Did these various groupings ever encounter one another ? If so, only rarely. Even among the basic group types there was little inter-tribal contact. Korean, Japanese, Mongol, Mandarin, and Cantonese — all east Asian — are entirely separate languages with no visible common ancestor. In the Middle East, peoples who likely looked very similar — and were probably very closely related — spoke at least five completely unrelated languages (Sumerian, Hamitic, Hurrian, Semitic, Elamite, Caucasian). Language, it is clear, took shape very recently, among peoples completely separated from one another and constantly on the move, away from each other because there wasn’t enough food to allow for much juncture.

One doubts that anything like what we call “racism’ existed among any of these nomad tribes. There simply wasn’t the opportunity. The advent of farming, and soon thereafter, of cities, finally brought people of different food tribes together : there was inventory now (of food stuffs) and there was trade. People different from oneself were encountered: speaking different languages, wearing different fashions, having different physical characteristics. We know from early writings in the Middle East that recorders saw peoples less as individuals than as tribes. One reads of the Hittites, the Canaanites, the Elamites, Akkadians, Urartians, Copts, Chebraius (Hebrews), and such like. Kings were named, but as officials, not as individuals. Despite the branding, in no writing does one find any of these tribes demonized. Their presence is noted, their features, their comings and goings, their wars and their peace treaties. There was fear of some. But of what we today call prejudice, it isn’t found at the official level in which all the writing then was done.

Yet skin color prejudice arose. Why ?

Of all the differences among peoples of the first age of trade, and of subsequent history all the way to Medieval times, one finds rivalries, and feuds, and slave hunts. But the slaves of the ancient and Medieval worlds were not slaves because of what they looked like. Greeks of the Mycenaean age slave-hunted whoever they could conquer. This was the custom all the way through Roman times. In the early Middle Ages, peoples of eastern Europe were slave-hunted. The word “slave’ derives from “Slav,” the language grouping spoke from Czechoslovakia and Poland to Ukraine and Russia. As late as 1450 slavery had no connection with skin color.

Did skin color prejudice already exist ? Some claim that it came to be during Roman times. If so, why ? I shall now attempt an answer.

Of all the differences between peoples, skin color is the most visible. Eye color is seen but requires some concentration. Hair color affects only a small part of the body, and much of that is clothed. Skin color, however, is easy to see, and the less clothing, the more of it is seen.

I have used the verb “see” three times in the above paragraph, the other senses not at all. I don’t think this is accidental. Sight is by far our dominant sense. Hearing is significant, but you have to listen. Smell certainly has its moments, but it is not easy to know whence a smell emanates. Touch has an entire vocabulary of manners attached to its application, but to touch is voluntary. Seeing is not. It cannot be avoided. and if what we see sometimes deceives, that’s a sophisticated epistomelogical concept that humans did not note until classical Greek times — and then only among a few merchants and sailors whose work required not taking things at “face value.” (More on sense perception later.)

For the rest of us, taking things at face value is an a priori habit. Most of us don’t even realize the control that sight exercises over our cognition, our judgments, our values. Thus skin color prejudice had a major advantage not possessed by other social grievances.

Still, in order to raise skin color from being difference to the virulence of a prejudice required a catalyst. One was provided at the discovery of sub-Saharan Africa by Portuguese navigators and, later, of the “new world” by Columbus and his collaborators and, immediately after, of the riches of the Incas by the conquistadors.  Colonization of the “new world” began almost immediately after that, and to help work the land thus conquered, Portuguese and Spanish slavers, en route from the Iberian peninsula to the “new world,” passed directly by the West African coasts where Arab slave-catchers had lots and lots of captives to sell; and bought, they were. As the custom of serfdom had long in Europe been one in which serfs were legally, as a class, bound unless freed of servile obligations, it was easy for Iberian slavers and slave-buyers to classify all dark-skinned slaves as a special class — there being essentially no slaves in West Africa who were not dark-skinned. Thus the powerful influence of sight coupled with the rigidity of feudal law to create a skin color classification from which there was no escape.

I don’t propose to narrate further the history of slavery in America and its historical aftermaths. There’s plenty of writers doing that. Rather, I’m going to explore the epistemology of skin color prejudice, whence I find a partial remedy for the curse of it. Because skin color prejudice has been bequeathed to us by our forbears, and exists commonly in our custom, its habit is reinforced every time we see a person of the pre-judged skin color. (For argument’s sake I am going to discuss prejudice against dark skin. The oprejudice could just as easily go the other way, and sometimes does.) Thus sight and habit combine to elicit a response in us before we even realize it has occurred, much les before actimg to stop it. Nor is sight all. Skin is material. It can be felt. As it takes human shape, it seems alive in and of itself, as skin, skin only. These are potent declarations made to us by our senses and our learned experience of them.

Two responses to the doinance of sense perception have come into oyr culture. The more recent is the scientific analysis that begins, for modern tims, with Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne, who in the earluy 1730s wrote thus :
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?

Add the skin of a human being, including its color, to Berkeley’s list, and his asertion was that when we see the objected skin color, e actually see only our own idea OF it, that the color of that skin, indeed, the skin itself, may not exist because what does exist is our imagination ? One needn’t take such a radical idealist position to draw common snense imnstruction from what Berkeley argued. All that needs is his idealism : for skin color prejudice is exactly waht he says, an idea in our minds that overrides and een replaces reality with its own. Is there any doubt that when we disfavor a person because of skin color, we are replacing that person with our idea of her, indeed asserting that our perceptioon of her is the real “her” andnot any posible ‘her’ that exists outside our mind ? Followwers of Berkekley do in fact say that perceoptions are a prejudice. They aren’t wrong.

The second remedy from skin color prejudice is to act with our eyes closed. We pray with our eyes closed. Why do we do that ? Is it not so that we can toss aside the dominance of sight and allow our inner voice to perceuive things that cannot or should not be seen ? Historic Judaism not only forbade graven images of God but also refused him a name. God was to be addressed with as little input from sense perceptions as feasible. Sense was considered a distraction, or worse, a temptation. Only voice was embraced. The voice of God was to be heard and only hard: not felt, not seen, not touched or smelled. It is by voice that we most deeply understand Rabbi Hillel’s great teaching, “whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”

Yet voice is not perfect. We hear what is said uncleanly. Habit and custom and our lived lives create all kinds of static that clutters voice and distorts it. Thus we are, and it is better that we admit to it. If you have read this far in my argument you probably already do look inside yourself, maybe with your eyes closed. It helps. Its hard to maintain a damnable prejudice, that depends upon sense perception, if you have given perception a time-out. Let me assume, then, that you avoid the traps and errors in perception, and that you pray with your eyes closed. One difficult remains : how c an we — how can I — remedy damnable social prejudices in other people ? My response : you can’t, and I can’t. Perception is entirely personal. No one else sees with your eyes, no one’s brain but yours registers your perceptions. Condemn another person for his or her perceptions, and you’ve violated a basic social rule : a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In other words, we have as a society to learn to live with perception errors that beget prejudices all around us. We have to allow each person to challenge her own prejudices, herself; no one else can do that for her. It is enough, I think, that we, ourselves, cleanse our souls of these mistakes. For each of us is responsible ultimately for our own decisions, our own opinions, and the effect these have on our fellow man. In the famous Talmud story, Rabbi Hillel taught his precept not by condemning the student who did not know Jewish law but by stating that law in the simplest terms in which “you” and “fellow man” are equated. Hillel doesn’t blame. He doesn’t charge the student with hurting his fellow; he simply says, here’s what you should do if the case arises.

One should never accuse, never judge. Jesus the Jew was right about this. “Who among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” he said to a crowd about to stone an accused prostitute to death. Governor Northam wore blackface, it seems, when he was a student 35 years ago. The time for criticizing him for it was then. Not now, half a lifetime after the fact; not when skin color prejudice and its customs continue to play out and trouble us at least in part because we fear that we ourselves may have already made an equivalent error of perception, or have taken for granted consequences of perception whose procedures we fell into, fall into even now, almost without realizing it, or completely.

Our politics deserves better than to be an arena of accusation, of condemnation, of ostracism and shaming, for the sake of sense mistakes almost none of us can help but make every second of every minute of every hour of every day, year, and lifetime.Think with your eyes closed, and you’ll be a better political citizen.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere






	

BILL WELD FOR PRESIDENT ?

Bill Weld: President in 2020 ?

It seems that Bill Weld, former Governor of my state (Massachusetts), will run for President. He’s going to be 74 this year, which for some is a no-no, but my view is that as long as you are alive and fully functioning, the number of your years cannot be bad. Thus if Weld runs, and I hope he does, the question is, why should any serious voter support him ?

Perhaps I should ask the opposite question : why should any serious voter NOT support him ? Assuming that his agenda isn’t full-tilt Libertarian but something more practical, Weld may well merit support well ahead of the usual party suspects. I now make my case :

( 1 ) can it be that Mr. Trump was elected not for his agenda, which featured only one identifiable position,. that of opposing all immigration, but because he was not a puppet of the partisan zealots who have ruled the center ring of our politics recently ? I know all about the argument that it was racism that field the success of Mr. Trump : but millions of 2012 Obama voters voted for Mr. Trump. Did these Obama voters suddenly become racists ? More likely these voters chose Obama because, he being of color, Obama was seen as an outsider to the partisan marionette show.

We who are not partisan puppeteers despise the show and for very solid reason.l At least 80 percent of us are not partisans. We want our elected leaders to leave us alone, to do their job of administering Federal departments, do that job efficiently and respectfully, and work them co-operatively. We do NOT want Republicans to create a Republican America, nor Democrats create a Democratic America. we simply want a working America. We don’t want revenge politics, we don’t want base agendas, and we don’t want the current fad for hounding people out of office, or out of candidacy, for stuff they did or said decades ago. We are not tired of forgiving or of its power to heal and unite.

Nor do we like the acrid taste of accusation and humiliation which the Brett Kavanaugh hearings modeled. I said at the time that the attempt by Democrats to ruin a fine Judge’s reputation on the rail of ancient accusations and half-baked hallucinations was a very long bridge too far; that it must never happen again. But it Is now happening again, with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who 35 years ago, it seems, wore a racially inflammatory costume at some sort of party. Myself, I’m far more moved by what officials like Governor Northam do by way of public policy today than by what they did at a party 35 years ago. It is, however, a lot easier to condemn a sidebar than to appraise the main event, and condemnation always feel better to the weak mind than open-minded analysis. But Governor Northam was nominated by a party, and his fate now rests with the plotters and interesteds who secured his nomination. It is not likely to be a fate made easier thereby.

We used to complain of how political parties nominated standard bearers in “smoke filled rooms” where the “bosses” dealt out party favors indifferent to the wishes of the voters at large. Are the party nominations of today so different ? Yes, they play in public; but no, they aren’t any more open than the smoke-filled boss rule of 50 years ago. Its still the very small battalions of activists — zealots or big donors or both — who decide. The voters get a vote, yes; but the choices presented are mostly the names sponsored by the new-era bosses. We the 80 percent deserve better. Never again should a Donald Trump, with all of his comprehensive unfitness, be the only choice available to voters who isn’t packaged by those who see America through partisan-hued glasses.

Which is why I am now writing about Bill Weld. The Republicans and Democrats alike want the 2020 election to be their personal monopoly of power. Why should we the voters allow them this ? Must we accept the terms the two parties offer us, take it or leave it ? I say “no.”

MR. Trump is dangerously unfit. He seems clearly a Russian asset. He knows nothing of policy, and such policy as he advocates is anathema to most voters who aren’t political Evangelicals. His presidency immediately threatens the rights and opportunities of immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, and people needing public assistance; and his methods threaten our rule of law. He must be defeated. But we won’t have gained much if, in place of Mr. Trump’s cruelty and mendacity we elect a team of insufferably judgmental, unforgiving speech and behavior police from whose condemnations there is no appeal.

Bill Weld likely advocates the Massachusetts system : socially live-and-let-live, economically prudent, government reluctant to expand its reach. The system works well in this state, where unique political math allows the voters to elect Republican Governors who actually administer in a non-partisan manner that mirrors that 56 percent of our voters ant precisely that. The nation could do worse than to embrace the Massachusetts system. Perhaps the election of Bill Weld as President could dissolve the grip of hardcore partisanship or at least begin the loosening. This must happen. If we allow the pre-occupations of partisans — vigilante busybodying by the Democrats, imposed religion by the Republicans — to poison our politlics, we will lose the democracy we profess to value. We may already have lost it.

All of which gives a potential Bill Weld campaign serious immediacy.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere