Posts by hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

CAN BOSTON’S SCHOOL COMMITTEE BE MADE TO WORK ?

distraction

This week, Boston’s School Committee made the news again — and not in a good way. Two members of the all-appointed Committee were caught out exchanging racially charged messages: complaining about “West Roxbury white-ies.”

Condemnation came swiftly, from every quarter, as it had to be. Why is a schools person, of all perps, engaging in racial invective ? One expects educated people to be smarter than that, more worldly, more accustomed to politicking among all sorts of folks in all kinds of neighborhoods. So much for expectations !

As I see it, however, the problem here isn’t just personal ignorance where awareness ought to be. It’s that an all-appointed School Committee just doesn’t do the job.

We all know this is so. I have written a couple of times before on this issue, favoring an elected school committee because the voting public should be choosing who sits on the committee that proposes and operates a budget taking up one full third of Boston’s entire City expenditures.

Yes, the appointee answer to the Mayor, who is elected by Boston’s voters. But no, it isn’t really feasible to hold the Mayor accountable separately for his or her school decisions. We elect Mayors upon many issues. Too often the schools matters het lost in the pack or are overlooked altogether when we choose a Mayor. An elected School Committee is the right device for submitting schools accountability to the voters.

Mayor candidate Annissa Essaibi George suggests a hybrid committee : some elected, some appointed by the Mayor. I’m not sure that’ll work as well as an entirely elected committee, but as long as the voters elect a majority of committee members, the accountability level is high enough.

We’ve had an elected school committee before. Five at large until 1981, nine by District from 1981 until 1993. Why not again ? My own proposal is that elected school committee members be elected from the present school seating assignment districts : four from the largest district, three from the middle sized district, and two from the small district. Add two members appointed by the Mayor, and you have an eleven-member committee that voters can judge on school issues alone.

I would doubt that elected members would ever be caught blurting dumb racial slurs. Responsibility to the voters entails some degree of self-awareness and a high degree of self-discipline. You can think all the ugliness you like, but if ops, keep it to yourself is a wise axiom. One would like to think, that committee members who have to face the voters every two years would live up to this minimum of public good manners.

Boston’s public schools have enough to do without having its board of directors nicked by unnecessary controversy. There’s a ton of spending waste (the “transportation” account in particular), unsupportable allocations,. long neglected maintenance and facility upgrades, anomalies in the teachers’ contract, poor school lunch administration, lax financial oversight, and a ton of happy talk about “every child, not only those in the exam schools, deserves an excellent education” with no measure of happy follow-up. Can we ever get to administering and upgrading the schools serving 54,000 kids, or can’t we ? CAN WE AT LEAST TRY ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

64 HAYNES STREET : BATTLES OVER EVERY ISSUE

64 haynes

A proposal has been offered, to abutters and the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association, to construct, on an empty lot, the building pictured above.

Crystal Mills, the proponent, makes the following statement and asks people to sign it, as a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeal, endorsing the project :

I support the project at 64 Haynes Street for the following reasons:

1. The building will be the primary residence of the sponsor, who has been a long-term resident of Jeffries Point, and not an investment project.

2. The building will be 100% compliant with Group 1 accessibility requirements for the physically impaired.

3. Is a three-family dwelling, which is conforming use per the zoning code, and matches the great majority of abutting buildings.

4. It proposes three off street parking, one for each unit, helping with the neighborhood existing street parking shortage. All this while reducing the size of the existing curb cut already present on the property.

5. The building is designed with climate resiliency in mind, avoiding any living space on the ground level. This is in line with the BPDA Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines – http://realestate.boston.com/…/boston-zoning-climate…/ / http://www.bostonplans.org/…/d1114318-1b95-487c-bc36…

6. The project would bring three additional dwellings to the city of Boston. Idle land in a densely populated urban setting further deepens the affordability crisis by reducing supply...”

Sounds simple, right ? Just one of over 100 such proposals being made all over East Boston these days, and this by far not the most outlandish. The building would be four stories high ? Some East Boston proposals request SIX stories.

It will be three units ? Many East Boston projects want nine units. (Propose more than nine, and you are subject to the City’s unworkable “affordability covenant,” under which a builder must offer an ‘affordable” unit, at least one such per every ten units he wants to build.). Several neighborhood proposals seek 20, 40, 60, even 100, 200 nd 300 units. Entire cities crammed into a neighborhood already dense with traffic and cheek-by-jowl housing.

So, no ; the 64 Haynes Street request is far from the most frightful imposition seeking to impact East Boston at this time.

Nonetheless, this proposal has put into play all the issues that housing development has agitated on the north shore side of Boston harbor. Follow me :

Crystal Mills does not tell us that she is, in fact, the proponent. it is to be HER building. Into one of the units her Dad will move; into another, guests from Italy. Great : but as several commenters on the Jeffries Point facebook page note, there is no guarantee that her Dad will stay living in one unit, or that he will even move in; while the unit given over to “guests from Italy’ almost certainly will end up an air bnb.

And what if those two units get put up for sale, at huge prices current these days in East Boston ? Prices which further roll away the immigrant, working class character that East Boston has had since the 1850s ?

One commenter, an abutter, objects to the proposal as follows :

Crystal, could you also please post the square footage per dwelling? At the latest meeting I attended, there were two units of about 500 Square feet taking up one floor between them – one for your father and then one for guests visiting from Italy and then an additional unit spread over two floors upwards of 2000 sqf with a roof deck for your private residence. Is that still correct? Because that, in fact, is not matching the great majority of abutting buildings, where you usually see one unit per floor -equaling 3 dwellings of approximately equal size and it explains why you require a 4-floor building which is out of scale with the neighboring buildings. I want people to have full information when you talk about 3 dwellings. More importantly, this building will stand a story higher than the neighboring buildings setting a new precedent for the entire street.

Here’s all of the basic arguments being made by people who have lived in East Boston for many years and do not cotton to seeing it become something entirely else.

I could post dozens of comments, about other not-so-outrageous proposals, that mirror every part of this person’s objection to one particular project.

Another commenter, who happens to be a real estate broker active in East Boston and owns their own single family home in it, offers the following :

The design would be great with one less floor. While I appreciate the family story, and your small businesses, I also don’t trust that these won’t be sold after permitting, used for market rate versus family etc. which is your right but again asking for variances should be for hardship, and this isn’t hardship.. we’ve had the community sacrifice tear downs and variances with owner “stories” only for it to change. Maybe a convenant could be used ensuring you won’t rent or sell once approved for a certain period of time?

This very argument gets made by residents all over East Boston, people who do not object to all development but want to restrain its impact by persuading builders — hopefully — to conform their buildings to what East Boston houses already are.

Does such a request work ? Sometimes it does. But it is, as Otto von Bismarck once said, generally not wise to rely upon gratitude.

Another commenter notes :

“Also a question to all who know more- as someone who lives in this neighborhood with a family, do families promising to live in the house get preference? Should they? Does it matter in the variance process? If so, how is this regulated? I know another neighborhood where a developer rezones/ renovates, lives as a primary residence for 2 years for tax reasons, and then moves on. Where does that fit in the scheme of things?

—- —-

If all the above issues draw you farther into the matter of one proposed building than you’d like to go, hey– I am with you and so is everybody else. We don’t want these disputes. Don’t want them at all. Yet what are we of East Boston to do ? Almost every development proposal for this side of Boston Harbor, no matter how gross or disruptive, gets approval by the BPDA no matter the degree of opposition voted by the neighborhood associations whose vote the BPDA approval process requires.

Evidently the neighborhood vote is advisory only — has no legal force and not much political clout either.

Equally dismissive is the Zoning Board of Appeal’s hearings upon variance requests.

For those who don’t know, a variance is an exception to the zoning law classification governing a certain area. These classifications are set by the City according to State zoning law. Variances — exceptions — are allowed in case of “hardship” — as zoning is of general force, particular buildings, especially ones that existed before zoning laws came into being, may violate the general class as they are; or a property owner may want to extend a bedroom, or erect a deck, and such like; the addition may well violate the zoning, but it would be a hardship to deny the owner such addition or extension. The owner appeals the building department’s denial of a building permit, and the Zoning Appeal Board (“ZBA”) grants the exception.

Every variance thus granted is supposed to enhance the zoning regulation’s purposes, not undermine it. Yet these days the ZBA grants almost every variance request. Many people well before me have objected — loudly and often — to what amounts to ditching the zoning law altogether. The objections are disregarded.

64 Haynes Street asks for six separate variances. this isn’t unusual. Almost every developer proposal seeks as many variances as the developer needs to build what he likes. Developers do sometimes agree to scale back their proposals, hoping for a positive vote by the neighborhood association. Maybe that will happen here. Maybe it won’t.

What is battling at 64 Haynes Street is the same sort of fight occurring all over East Boston and in many other parts of Boston. Nor is 64 Haynes the worst offender — as I have written above. It is, however, emblematic of the direction that Boston is going in pursuant to vast sums of money insisting on treating Boston real estate solely as a huge profit opportunity.

Every housing move made by Boston City Hall these past thirty years has aggravated the situation. Worst, probably, was Mayor Walsh’s declaration, back in the 2013 Mayor campaign, that he wanted 53,000 new housing units built. Overnight the acquisition cost of land doubled. it has since doubled again, even tripled, as the building rush Walsh’ s declaration generated has fed upon itself.

Almost as aggravating was Walsh’s “affordability covenant” rule, as pronounced by his BPODA, whereby a developer who builds ten units or more must offer one per every ten at an “affordable” price. At first the “
affordability” ratio is to be 13 percent of units built. Lately, the huge Suffolk Downs project, offering 10,000 units, was forced to agree to sell 20 percent at an “affordable” price., What this “:affordability: rule does, as simple math shows, is to jack up the price of the market rate units: because if a developer has to take a loss on 13 or even 20 percent of his units, he has to raise the price of the other units accordingly so that he can make the level of profit his investors have contracted for.

This is what politicians do. (and by the way, it has been “progressive” politicians chiefly, who have revved up the trend.) Unhappily, the math doesn’t care about your progressivism or your politics…..

At this point, the politics and the profit wave have mutually assured the destruction, within Boston, of low-price, immigrant and working class housing.

The fate of East Boston, 160 years an immigrant destination, seems irreversible. Into it are moving an entirely newcomer class of high-earning participants in the money economy our City is hub for : finance, insurance, medicine, hi-tech, biotech, higher education (this last one of the most grossly overpaid groups anywhere) — and who as often as not live in vast crap-itecture structures, porch-less and with no back or front yards, where no one knows anybody else or cares to.

They are of course fully entitled to live their lives as they see fit. Far be it for me to criticize anyone thereby. Yet as the lives of many East Boston newcomers are lived, community is not a part thereof. And even for those who do find time to make friends and be activist neighbors, the matters that draw their activism rarely have anything to do with the activities that immigrant East Boston organized ; kids’ sports, park-league sports, school charity events, celebration days and parades.

Lastly, the very status of immigrant hasn’t the patriotic devotion that it had 40, 60, 100, 150 years ago. Our nation restricts immigration generally, even denigrates it. Those few immigrants who are allowed come are rarely penniless, as were our forbears, and do not settle in immigrant havens. Thus the people flows that once fed East Boston have been cut off even as South beach prices and jet-set lifestyles become the norm for a generation that parties on instagram and aspires to million-dollar condos.

64 Haynes Street might as well have a Miami Beach zipcode. Because that’s where we are now. Private islands, celebrity mansions and all. Or if not exactly that — yet — at least houses that say “I am an influencer.”

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

TRANSPORTATION : MAKING SOME SENSE OF BOSTON ON THE MOVE

airport

Last week, canvassing in East Boston for a City Council candidate, I had a lengthy informative conversation with Chris Marchi, as well-knowing a transportation activist as any I know of. From that discussion, which focused on MassPort traffic, but soon expanded to the impact of major housing creation on our local transporting systems, I drew conclusions whence arises the column I am now writing.

The problem : Logan Airport’s location directly abutting East Boston has brought an ever-increasing surge of vehicle traffic onto all the access roads that surround and pass directly through a neighborhood which is home to at least 45,000 people. Although the Covid pandemic shut down most of this traffic for over a year, it is sure to return now that the local State of Emergency is set to end on June 15th. Marchi predicts that post-Covid traffic to and from Logan will increase well beyond the highest pre-Covid numbers. Add to that the traffic consequences of the 10,000 housing-unit Suffolk Downs project,, and there is simply no place for so much vehicle traffic to traverse.

Discussion : Perhaps Logan airport should not have expanded as much as it has. Perhaps a second Boston airport should have been constructed, elsewhere. Other big cities are served by two airports or more; why not Boston ? It was oft5en discussed some decades ag but nothing transpired. Instead, Logan Airport took over the entire Wood Island section of East Boston and encroached upon Jeffries Point right up to its ocean side. There is, however, no more land that Logan can take. Its danger to East Boston no longer arises from land seizures but from traffic overwhelming every neighborhood street.

The Logan plan : Logan has put together an expansion proposal which, so argues Marchi, vehicle trips to and from the airport will total maybe 100 million per year. If that number is reached — the highest figure pre-Covid was 75 million, says Marchi — streets to and from Logan, all access roads, and many neighborhood roads, will be jammed up all day long and well into the night hours.

An advisory committee, many of whose members I know, all of them dedicated East Boston activists, has met with Logan planners and, according to a member of the advisory group, had all of its concerns satisfied. Marchi, however, argues that the expansion plan will enable traffic volumes well beyond what the advisory committee has considered.

If Marchi is correct, what now can be done ? He says that it’s a matter for State government, that local mitigation efforts no longer suffice; that the State’s Transportation administration (MassDOT) must tackle the matter fundamentally. This includes increasing traffic capacity on access roads; limiting the number of one-occupant vehicle trips to and from Logan; and making use of auxiliary airports such as T F Green in Rhode Island to handle the anticipated air flight surges.

Of these suggestions, all of which ought be approved in order for any of them to work, I would advise the following :

( 1 ) divert short-trip flights to T F Green and to Manchester Airport, via shuttle service, if need be, reserving Logan for long distance flights (greater than 500 miles)

( 2 ) connect Logan access roads directly to Route One north and even to Interstate 93 in order to relieve the traffic pressure oi Burbank and McLellan Highways.

( 3 ) limit one-occupant vehicle trips to and from Logan to persons intending top park on site at Logan. Pick-ups and drop-offs to be done at one central location on the main Logan access road hard by the Airport MBTA terminal, those being dropped off or picked up using a shuttle to go to or from an airport terminal.

The second item on my list is going to happen anyway once the 10,000 Suffolk Downs housing units are fully occupied some ten years from now. Suffolk’s planners have already discussed with MassDOT improvements it intends to make to McLellan and Burbank Highways, including moving and reshaping the lanes. Might as well ad just these renovations to my airport traffic proposal.

Conclusion : some have suggested State action top discourage the use of private vehicles for its own sake. I oppose this move., The private vehicle is a significant advantage to personal freedom. Being able to move where one likes, when one likes, is crucial to the liberty we idealize as Americans. Better by far to be held up in traffic as a free man than to speed one’s way somewhere under the control thumb of public transport. That said, my suggestion uses only private vehicles as far as they can rationally go : to the gateway of an airport, even if not, in most cases, into it. The airport gateway is all that a free person need destine himself to. Inside that gate, you’re the airport’s guest and can freely accommodate yourself to being hosted.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

TRANSGENDER IS NOW A POLITICAL ISSUE. IT SHOULDN’T BE

Caitlyn Jenner

FILE – In this Jan. 18, 2020, file photo Caitlyn Jenner, a well-known transgender person, speaks at the 4th Women’s March in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Our political parties have made the transgender condition a political issue. This is wrong. No private attribute of any person should ever be a political matter. Every person is the owner of his or her condition. It is nobody’s business except that person’s.

The condition of transgender has also become a social issue. This is understandable. As with almost every condition arising from human nature, it is a mystery; and mysteries intrigue us all and set us pondering. I say ‘a mystery” because no one really knows what the human condition is or is supposed to be. We may think we know, but we don’t.

Nonetheless, some observations about transgender seem to make sense.

First, it exists in every human community and is therefore not a cultural construct.

Second, it seems linked only tangentially, if at all, to sexual biology. People who have the transgender condition find their biology at odds with who they are. Nor is one’s biology any indication of sexual attraction. People of all conditions may be attracted to those of the same biology, or opposite, or both. Transgender people are no different in that regard.

If we have learned anything about sex and gender conditions these past 50 years — and I think we have learned much — it is that how these three attributes play out is a mystery and entirely personal and thus not to be interfered with by any other person.

Now comes the politics. Let me dispose of them forthwith:

Some on the political right want to deny that the transgender condition is anything other than a delusion or a quirk of the mind. My own experience belies this view. One realizes that one is transgender long before any thought about it arises. it is simply something that one knows. The doubter may say, “but that knowing is an illusion,” yet is it ? Perception is a physical attribute; transgender is of the whole being. the concept of “soul” enters here. We do not know what the soul is, but we do know that human life is more than mere biology or cellular physics. What that may be, we do not know, yet we know it is there. A mystery ? No less so than the precepts of any religion are a mystery — as they have always been.

The dispute here is simply a difference of opinion about what life’s mystery is. If we respect one person’s idea of life mystery, we should respect another’s.

Some on the political left want to force the transgender condition into legal clothes. This too is a mistake. No more than the mythical Procrustes could force his guests into one bed by stretching them or shrinking them, can we jam the legs of transgender into a legal bed.

One such bed is the matter of pronouns. Transgender people have become accustomed to adopting their gender pronoun rather than their biology pronoun. That is ok; I see no reason why gender should not replace biology as a seedbed of one’s pronoun. Difficulty begins when people start substituting neutral terms for gender nouns. Of late some on the far left have come up with “birthing person” in place of “woman” in order to include transgender women as women. There is no basis at all for doing this. there are plenty of biological women who cannot give birth. The noun “woman” suffices for all.

I also se no reason why transgender people have any right to force everyone else to accept a transgender person’s definition of the condition. First, there are too many views, among transgenders, of what this condition is. How else do we see some people calling themselves “they” — a plural pronoun — or “genderfluid” ? These are clearly attempts to search — for what probably cannot be found.

Second, as it is a mystery, it should be enough for the society at large to view transgender as a mystery : a question with no good answer. Or, as Queen Elizabeth I once told an inquiring parliament, I give you an “answer answerless.”

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

POLICE PRACTICES : SUGGESTIONS FOR REFORM

Potter

The officer who mistakenly shot Daunte Wright now faces a manslaughter charge. What went wrong and what can we do about the future of police practices ?

—- —- —-

The news is aglow these days with bad news about various failings by police in action. Because we at Here and Sphere support police departments, in principle and as a matter of practical politics, we take up the matter of police reform without animus. We want police officers to succeed, not fail. In that spirit, I will proceed as follows.

Obviously I am upset by the accidental fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in a suburb of Minneapolis. As I see it, the entire course of events involving him and police officers from his local department was one long series of practical errors.

First : why was he, the driver of his mother’s car, out for an errand with his girlfriend, stopped at all ? There seems not to have been a moving violation. It is reported that his car had an obstruction in its rear window. I am not persuaded that such minimal violations of some automobile directions call for a police response. If so, the officers could just as well have sent him a citation by e mail (information available in the records of a Stater’s driver license). Surely an officer’s time and attention are better applied to more serious offenses ?

Second : what was the officer who shot him, mistaking her gun for a taser, doing out on patrol as a 26-year veteran of police work ? Why was she not a supervisor or other management ? Tasers didn’t exist when she was in police academy in 1993 or so. Was she trained recently in the use of a taser ? My suspicion is that she was not so trained; that no one thought it necessary to update her training because today’s officers, trained in taser use, know the difference between gun and taser and just assumed that, as a 26 year veteran, so would she.

Lesson : you should never assume.

Third : what happened during the stop of Mr Wright that made a veteran officer want to tase him ? This was an ordinary traffic stop. I grant that officers will tell you that they hate traffic stops because there’s no telling what the stopped driver might do, and because traffic stops are so ordinary, officers can tend to relax — which can lead to a bad end for them. Perhaps the veteran officer had in fact relaxed and was suddenly surprised by something Wright did that she had not seen coming ? If so, that’s no excuse. The officer who loses focus puts both the driver and herself at risk.

The officer, who resigned her position the next day, now faces a pretty conclusive manslaughter charge. The municipality faces loss of reputation and, likely, a huge wrongful death award against it. And Mr Wright is dead at age 21. All because a veteran officer failed what her job requires. I see this as a tragedy for everyone concerned.

All of the above I have written by way of argument for the sorts of reforms I am now going to plead for. These are not necessarily legislation but more in the manner of regulations pursuant to legislation :

( 1 ) police officers should be retrained regularly, so that updates in police tools and procedures can be learned and mastered. There simply can NOT be a possibility of an officer mistaking a taser for a gun. It has happened before; this case is not unique. That adds to the urgency of my suggestion here.

( 2 ) officers should never tase someone unless the situation is out of control. Because a traffic stop of someone whose habits are unknown can put officers on edge about possible bad stuff, officers should conduct the stop from within their cruiser or squad car and approach the driver only if necessary. Writing a traffic citation does not make such approach necessary. The driver’s license and registration info are online and can be accessed by the officer in her cruiser’s computer. All cruisers now have them. If the driver has an expired license or registration, or both, in some States an arrest is called for. In such case, the officer should wait for backup, or if she is accompanied by a second officer, the second officer should stand directly in front of the stopped vehicle while the other officer approaches from the passenger side. That way the officers can control all but the craziest driver.

( 3 ) Officers should patrol with restraint. If they see a driver committing a mere safety equipment violation, as seems to have been Mr Wright’s case, they can check his driver record to see if he is an habitual offender. If not, why stop him at all ? Just send a citation, if you must, by e mail.

( 4 ) A municipality should prepare a code of patrol regulations in writing, supply each officer with one, and require a written exam to see that the officer understands the regulations and how to apply them. This test should be updated and an update exam given and graded.

( 5 ) Officers should make an effort to know personally the community they will be patrolling. The captain in charge of a police precinct should schedule a public town hall in his precinct from time to time, and his community relations officers should diligently attend — and deliver a report at — monthly meetings of neighborhood associations in the precinct. In Boston, these are standard procedure. they should be standard everywhere.

I do not buy the accusations laid against police forces by activists with ulterior agendas. I oppose unalterably calls to defund police forces or to create public agencies whose enabling legislation gives them an accusatory slant. Police are not our enemy. They are doing a job. The doing is only as good as the job description, the regulations, the force’s morale, and the training. Let us focus on the actual problem, not on chimeras invented by agenda groups or by our own quick-reaction anger

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

HISTORY WARNS US AGAINST ZEALOTS. ARE WE LISTENING ?

mob

^^ Mob rule in the French revolution

We in the United States no longer discuss much about the French Revolution, but in my youth, some 60 years ago, it was still an intense topic of recrimination and musts to avoid. It had taken place some 160 years prior, yet we all knew, or were taught, to study its excesses of zealotry and to never forget them as we graduated into our adult lives in and amongst the American public.

There was much to abhor. The king had ruled all France from an utterly. centralized bureaucratic despotism in which some thousands of nobles and their families were exempted from all sorts of taxes, tolls and fees, while the rest of the nation paid every one of them, with some regional exemptions entirely ad hoc and always liable to withdrawal on the whim of a monarch and his few courtier favorites.

Then came the great upheaval; even the minor nobility had had enough; the “national convention” met and began the process of curbing the king and, eventually, abolishing almost the entirety of French custom, law, and culture. The world watched in horror as the convention set up tribunals where, without process of law or a bare sham of it, condemned to death first nobles and priests, then those who opposed the tribunals, then members of the “convention” itself battling to their mutual beheadings at the “guillotine.” Religion was abolished; religious monuments torn down; the graves of monarchs desecrated; the homes of aristocrats burned and looted, their occupants forced to flee or, if caught, imprisoned and in thousands of cases, guillotined. Even the calendar was abolished, the twelve months renamed (Priarial, Thermidor, Vendemiaire, Brumaire, Pluvoise, and the like) and a ten day week imposed. Mob rule terrorized all Paris and many of the provinces. An estimated 40,000 people were judicially murdered, thousands more imprisoned and impoverished, or forced into exile.

It all ended, of course, in a twenty year burst of Napoleon’s kleptocratic, military dictatorship, world war, and the utter ruin of all France and much of Europe. It took a coalition of England, Prussia, Russia, and the “guerillas” (a word then invented) of Spain to defeat him and to restore legitimate government to France — which never recovered its governmental equilibrium, really, until, in the 1950s, General, then President, Charles DeGaulle won ratification of the constitution that ever since has governed French politics and law.

I am hardly the first conservative to make a French revolution allusion to the ominous trends in our nation’s current public life, but the reference has enormous pertinence despite its recent frequency. So, please bear with me.

I do not want to see anything like it befall the United States, yet as I look at events, I see an undertow sucking us in that direction :

( 1 ) the Republican party of Trump attempted a coup d’etat that, had it succeeded, would have begun a civil war at least, just as the storming of the Bastille on July 15, 1789 initiated the French conflict. Much of the Republican party remains loyal to autocracy today — a religious fanatic autocracy supported those whom the media and academic worlds have stamped with the scarlet R of “racist.”

( 2 ) cultural revolutionaries are, if many reports are to be believed, imposing self-loathing orthodoxies and race-based tribalisms on teachers, administrators, and school managers as well as on employees in major corporations, sports teams, and public figures generally where they can. If reports such as this one –>> https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/i-refuse-to-stand-by-while-my-students?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=twitter — are at all true, we are well into the fanatic phase of a revolution as ominous as the French one of 230 years ago.,

I have read many, many reports similar to the one I have linked you to. I have not visited campuses to research for myself if they are accurate. yet in my own experience of big city politics recently, I have certainly encountered zealotry of the same type : preachy, condescending, sure of its own utter righteousness and of the perfidy of anyone who in any way opposes it. The zealotry is especially virulent when questions of race are on offer. The preached view — “anti racism,” they call it — is the only correct one and anyone who disagrees the slightest is to be coventried, or worse, as a racist.

That this sort of demand-politics generates enormous push back, does not give them pause. Sure now, via social media, that they can intimidate businesses, faculties, and many politicians, and even economically extort them, the demanders seek to impose their racially sequestered, self-agitated manifestos upon public policy generally.

Fortunately, the framers of our constitutional republic so divided sovereign powers that almost no movement, no matter how zealous or extortive, can overtake the entire system. Trump could not do it, and — so far — his much better organized opposites seem to fall short of their take-overs except at the State level in some States in which they command veto-proof majorities. (Last week in Maryland the zealot legislature enacted, over Governor Hogan’s veto, a bill, much of it unconstitutional, which will make policing almost impossible in that State.) Nor is this zealotry limited to the “left.” Legislatures in some Republican States have enacted bills that would seriously erase the civil rights of LGBT people, or unconstitutionally interfere with women’s control of their own pregnancies.

Tragic mistakes by police as well as police overreaction lead now not to judicious reform, or to fair trials in court, rather than in the media, but to riots, threats, and calls for abolition. Do we have the moral fortitude to say No to these impulsive responses ?

At the Federal level, no such impulse or law sweep seems enactable, yet how close to the tipping point we are ! An unconstitutional voting bill, styled H R 1, fall short of passage only because Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia refuses to abolish the Senate filibuster — guarantor of the legitimacy of minority viewpoints against majoritarian rule — and thus prevents said bill gaining sufficient Yea votes. The filibuster also stands stalwart against the Democratic left’s impatience to pack the Supreme Court with political Justices.


Thank goodness.

Equilibrium, the fundamental societal principle underpinning our Constituition system, is defended by the filibuster as well as by our other obstacles to tyranny : the electoral college, the provision giving two Senators to every State, no matter its population.

Equilibrium breeds and fortifies the freedom of the citizen. It is the Nay to every sort of attempt to curtail diverse opinion. It sanctions multiplicity of method, plurality of policy, and contradiction in the culture. It sanctifies every citizen’s assessment of public experience and wards off all attempts to silence or shame anyone for who he is or what she thinks about whatever he cares to think publicly of.

Equilibrium is the driving wheel of equality. It is the platform of freedom.

Without equilibrium, we are the tools of whichever mountebankery happens to prevail momentarily. One may live for the moment on a dance floor, where the jolt of a beat or the thrill of a riff takes us high, high, high: but public policy is not music, nor is a governmental system a dance floor. We lose sight of this at our peril.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT VOTING RIGHTS IN AMERICA

voting

As you surely have read, a buzzing beehive of queens is all het up about the new voting rules law enacted in Georgia. The law has several provisions that alter in part — sometimes a small part, sometimes quite major — how elections in Georgia are to be conducted.

Immediately the law was signed — even before — it was being assailed as “worse than Jim Crow.” It is no such thing ! Have we really forgotten what Jim Crow was actually like ?

But is the new law a significant impediment to Black voters registering and voting ? Not that I can tell. It may in fact INCREASE Black voter turnout.

I have read two ( 2 ) major-media articles in which the law’s changes are serially analyzed. Some of the provisions actually make voting easier; some make it harder. the net effect is not much. Let us read them :

First, Stephen Fowler’s article here : https://www.gpb.org/news/2021/03/27/what-does-georgias-new-voting-law-sb-202-do

Next, the New York Times’s analysis : https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/03/upshot/georgia-election-law-turnout.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes

The Times’s report, authored by election analyst Nate Cohn, suggests that the Georgia law’s tweaks are essentially much ado about nothing. I agree. Under our Constitution, States operate their own elections, subject only to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Nothing in the new Georgia law crosses those guarantees.

The law is basically administrative. It alters procedural rules : expands early voting (a device which I don’t like at all, because risks the early voter missing important candidate information revealed after he votes early), changes voting hours, substitutes voter ID for signature on ballots, and limits the number of ballot drop boxes — albeit making them a formal part of the Georgia process rather than a temporary emergency measure. The law also makes it harder for voters waiting in line to receive a beverage, but the new provisions mirror those in other States (including Massachusetts); however, the law also expands voting locations, so as to minimize the length of voting lines.

The Georgia law does do one very troubling thing: it takes election administration away from the Secretary of State — Brad Raffensperger, whom Mr. Trump tried hard to pressure, and giving it instead to a state elections board controlled by the legislature. (Raffensperger is still a board member but without a vote on it.) This is surely a revenge move by Republicans angry that Raffensperger chose integrity over Trump.

I see no way to gloss this over. It taints the entire law and marks its passage as suspect, thus opening the door to the altogether more unfounded objections by Democratic activists.

Why did the Georgia legislature not leave well enough alone ? I’ll let you speculate an answer. I’ve heard several versions. In any case, the State has now achieved the highly unlikely : its elections system was attacked by Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, by Mr. Trump last year, and now by activist Democrats in 2021. Bipartisan consensus !!

that’s quite the trifecta.

Governor Brian Kemp stands in the middle of it all, everybody’s pinned donkey tail. More : his US Senate pick, Kelly Loeffler, was soundly defeated on January 5th by now Senator Ralph Warnock. Is Kemp really that politically stub-toed ? Maybe so. In any case, he now faces an angry Donald Trump AND an even angrier Doug Collins — a former Congressman and Trump favorite whom Kemp passed over for the Senate appointment that Loeffler got — and of course Ms Abrams and now the entire nation’s Democratic wokes. Can Kemp win re-election ? Can he even win a Republican primary ? We will soon know the answer.

But enough of Governor Kemp. The big question is the voting rights situation generally. Set aside the Democrats’ big Federal elections bill, H R 1, of which I wrote in a previous column and whose provisions, overreaching unConstitutionally, cannot pass. I am here thinking of the many States — including Massachusetts — which, setting their own election rules as the Constitution assures them power to do, operate elections under rules stricter than the new Georgia rules and/or which no one seems to complain of. Why not ? Answer : because those States are never in play in a national election. They are either safely Democratic or securely Republican. Thus no one complains when their election rules, no matter how flawed, administer an unsurprising win.

Georgia is different . it was, until last year, a safe republican win in national elections. Republican activists are angry that that safety is now unsafe, just as Democrats are angry that their new Georgia-win accomplishments may be turned back by the State tweaking its rules.

The Georgia brouhaha is not about the election rules per se, its about PARTISAN zero-sum : if you win, I lose; if I win, you lose. Nor is the noise about Black voters per se. If Black voters voted 95 percent Republican, Republicans would be celebrating their turnout surge. The fuss is NOT AT ALL about racial animus. It is about PARTISAN advantage, that and nothing but that.

Myself, I do not like early voting. Not because it favors Democrats, which it needn’t, but because it deprives the early voter of candidate information which may befall after he votes. I don’t like voting by mail either. I want voters to appear personally at the poll on election day appointed. Absentee voting, yes, but limited only to those who CANNOT personally appear at the poll. Voting should require voter effort. Americans fought and died to sure us voting rights. the least we can do in return is to exert ourselves to register and again to vote.

I stand by the above principles.

Election rules are hardly the only field on which today’s partisan hatreds bump and bruise. But election rules are sensitive to those who value our Constitutional republic AND the basic political principle of equilibrium upon which our Constitution’s success rests. The partisan activists of this era seek to up-end that equilibrium. They know not the consequences of their rash radicalism, nor do they care. It is THEY who scare me, a lot more than i am alarmed by election law tweaks, even significant ones.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

A VOTING RIGHTS BILL ? YES, BUT NOT THIS ONE

Congress Schumer

Demanding Federal rule for State elections ? Here’s Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaking during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Samuel Corum/Pool via AP)

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Before the Congress these days is a large chunk of Federal legislation concerning voting laws in the States. Unhappily, I must oppose most of what is proposed. Per our Constitution, elections are empowered by the States united by it. Federal power cannot impose or interfere with elections in the several States except pursuant to the 14th Amendment : all State election laws — as with all State laws of any kind — must give equal protection to all who those laws obligate.

With these sanctions in mind, let me set forth for you what the proposed Federal voting bill seeks to require or forbid :

( 1 )

A set of national voter registration and mail-in voting standards: H.R. 1 requires the chief election official in each state — the secretary of state in most — to establish an automatic voter-registration system that gathers individuals’ information from government databases and registers them unless they intentionally opt out.

And it says it’s the government’s responsibility to keep that information up-to-date, based on information from agencies like state motor vehicle administrations, agencies that receive money from Social Security or the Affordable Care Act, the justice system, and federal agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration and others.

There is simply no authority given in the Constitution by which Congress can impose registration procedures upon a State, nor order a State policy. One encourages citizens to vote, of course: but it’s entirely a State matter how that encouraging becomes a legal duty. This is especially true for Federal elections. The office may be Federal, but the election of Federal office candidates is entirely a State matter, with that one proviso, equal protection. If a State pursues a registration policy that asks potential registrants to take action — to bestir him or herself — I se no reason why that fails approval. In America there is NO DUTY to vote; it is an entirely voluntary matter, and a State is fully justified in requiring potential voters to get out of bed and go to where registration can be done. Indeed, I think it preferable to seek an active electorate. Participation is the essence of a republican system.

( 2 )

Nonpartisan redistricting commissions: In an attempt to get rid of gerrymandering, the law would require each state to use independent commissions (not made up of lawmakers) to approve newly drawn congressional districts. The commissions would each include five Democrats, five Republicans and five independents, requiring bipartisan approval for districts to be allowed.

“Regardless of whether it’s a red state or a blue state, we are seeing significant manipulation in the legislative redrawing of districts,” said Tom Lopach, CEO of the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, which has advocated for the bill. “H.R. 1 presents an opportunity for everyone to get onboard with independent, unbiased and balanced redistricting that frankly is good government.”

Everybody finds fault with State legislatures drawing Congressional district lines, but how can it possibly be better for those districts to be drawn up by anyone other than people who are elected by the voters ? The last thing we should want is for ELECTION districts to be drawn by persons not elected and thus not answerable to an electorate. And if the elected legislature does draw districts which violate the Equal Protection principle the Federal Courts are there to overturn such drawings.

Number ( 2 ) cannot stand.

( 3 )

Big changes in campaign finance law: H.R. 1 would require super PACs and “dark money” groups to disclose their donors publicly, a step Democrats say would eliminate one of the most opaque parts of the U.S. election process. It would establish a public funding match for small-dollar donations, financed by a fee on corporations and banks paying civil or criminal penalties.

This provision appears on its face a worthy reform.

( 4 )

New ethics rules for public servants: The bill would create the first ethics code for Supreme Court justices, to be created within a year of the bill’s passage.

It would also stop a controversial practice in Congress: When a member of Congress settles a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit, in certain cases they can use taxpayer money to settle. H.R. 1 would prevent taxpayer money from being used for such settlements.

These have nothing to do with voting. I absolutely oppose the former. Congress has no business telling Supreme Court Justices how to do their jobs, other than jurisdiction, which powers are enumerated in the Constitution but can be expanded by Federal laws. As for the latter provision, that’s a matter for Congress to do or not do within its rules setting power. I see no reason whatsoever why it should be pasted into a voting rights bill. (I also oppose it. It would encourage vicarious accusation of the sort now virulent in the social media environ we all are targets of, but as it is Congress’s business, so be it if they want it.)

( 5 )

A requirement that presidential candidates disclose their tax returns: This one is a little more relevant to recent events. Democrats have been frustrated for years that Trump never released his tax returns, and H.R. 1 would require it by law.

This, again, has nothing to do with voting rights. It also demands that candidates lose the privacy protections given to all of us by laws and thus violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection guarantee.

All in all, the Democrats’ voting rights bill fails to improve voting and does much to demean it. There are proposals now in debate, in several States, which would hamper the registration to vote process and squeeze the available hours of voting as well as methods. Limiting voting days and hours almost never looks good, but let us remember hat until recently, voting could be done only on voting day. Early voting was a convenience reform, not a Constitutional requirement . The same was true of absentee voting, although here physical necessity required some provision be made.

Early voting is a potentially bad decision. What does the early voter do about events that happen to candidacies after a voter votes early ?

I personally would get rid of early voting entirely and instead make election day a Federal holiday.

As for voting by mail, if States want to have it, that’s on them. As long as Equal Protection is accorded, that’s an end of the matter as far as the Federals are empowered.

Lastly, the Democrats’ Federal bill, like many State legislative bills proposed by Republicans, doesn’t even disguise being proposed for strictly partisan advantage. Its bad enough that we have political parties, to advantage zealotry over common sense and one side’s fantasies over another side’s fears. the last thing our electeds should do is to sell us the stink of such merely partisan — and monumentally un-Constitutional — fish bait.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

POWER TO THE MINORITY : YES, BUT HOW MUCH ?

filkibuster

head to head, face to face : the filibuster is a symbol of passionate opposition, once upon a time actual fighting, today the trials and troubles of debate

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Much talk has arisen concerning a Senate tactic we call “filibuster.” It is a venerable device, about whose beginnings these mid-19th Century observers had these words to say :

FILIBUSTERING is a term lately imported from the Spanish, yet destined, it would seem, to occupy an important place in our vocabulary. In its etymological import it is nearly synonymous with piracy. It is commonly employed, however, to denote an idea peculiar to the modern progress, and which may be defined as the right and practice of private war, or the claim of individuals to engage in foreign hostilities aside from, and even in opposition to the government with which they are in political membership. [Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1853]

The noun in the legislative sense is not in Bartlett (1859) and seems not to have been in use in U.S. legislative writing before 1865 (filibustering in this sense is from 1861). Probably the extension in sense is because obstructionist legislators “pirated” debate or overthrew the usual order of authority. Originally of the senator who led it; the maneuver itself so called by 1893. Not technically restricted to U.S. Senate, but that’s where the strategy works best. [The 1853 use of filibustering by U.S. Rep. Albert G. Brown of Mississippi reported in the Congressional Globe and cited in the OED does not refer to legislative obstruction, but to national policy toward Cuba.]

About these observations I will have more to say later. Right now, I want to express my view that the filibuster at it is practiced is a necessary foundation of minority power during the legislative process. Properly wielded, it forces the majority to negotiate a compromise in which the minority sees some of its amendments incorporated into the bill which the majority wants. Or, in some cases, a filibuster may oppose the bill completely.

Why do we allow such a custom ? We do so because our Constitution, and our political practice, is skeptical of majorities. We see how readily a majority for x may change into opposition to x. We see also that today’s elected majority is tomorrow’s defeated majority, and thus we ask that bills proposed by today’s majority be able to attract enough minority support that when today’s minority becomes tomorrow’s majority, the bill, if enacted, does not get repealed. After all, most of us prefer stability in the law; input from a minority helps us get to there. We all see how in Massachusetts, legislative consensus assures that reforms stick. If everybody has a stake in what is enacted, how can an opposition gain traction ?

Such are the arguments in favor of filibusters. The question then comes, what sort of filibuster make for good legislative days ? I guess that my preference is the same as expressed yesterday by President Biden : a filibustering minority in the Senate must actually stand up and speak –debate the issue — contribute to the discussion. It is not enough merely to threaten a debate. The objector must actually argue his objection.

This is the same position now taken by centrist Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia being the foremost. I understand that minority leader McConnell passionately wants no change to current filibuster standards, and he has reason to be stubborn : once you begin to alter the standards, it becomes hard to stop further alteration. I share his worry; yet the majority has rights of brag as well, and it is a majority, however temporary, and presumably advocates laws that a majority of voters support. Although our Constitution is not a majoritarian agreement — far from it — it does grant numbers to the majority, and we should dilute said numbers only when necessary : I say ‘necessary’ because advantage is not enough reason to curtail a majority; something more urgent must be at hand. Thus, necessity.

Scot Lehigh in his excellent column about the filibuster, in today’s Boston Globe, notes that our Constitution already grants a minority important buttress: by way of allocating two Senators to each state regardless of population. This was done expressly at the insistence of small States, who rightly feared being power-swamped by large states had a purely majoritarian legislature been agreed to. Filibuster frosts an additional layer of objection onto said cake, a layer not included in the Constitution and therefore precarious. It arises from the world of fighting opposition — from actual violence — and is that opposition’s formalized symbol. Today it exists at the pleasure of a Senate which sets its own rules every term. Having thus to pass muster every two years, filibuster has to compromise just as its use asks for compromise. I see no reason why the present request, to require actual debate of those who would filibuster, is not a just solution to this particular paradox of governance.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

FOR ISRAEL, A TWO-STATE SOLUTION IS NO LONGER FEASIBLE

US-ISRAEL-UAE-DIPLOMACY-POLITICS

(L-R)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates arrived September 15, 2020 at the White House to sign historic accords normalizing ties between the Jewish and Arab states. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

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Back during the Bill Clinton administration, there was a chance — a very good chance — that Israel and its West bank enemies would settle their differences. Those differences were deep and hard, but a compromise was offered by Israel prime minister Ehud Barak. Then West Bank leader Yasser Arafat did not accept.

More about that decision later. Let me now talk about the current state of things in the land called “holy” and the prospects going forward.

One of Mr. Trump’s few successes as President was the campaign to bring Israel and its Gulf Arab neighbors into full accord. The UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all opened diplomatic and economic relation s with Israel, an opening which has now become an established reality. Israelis visit Dubai all the time now; flights between Israel and the according states take place daily.

Granted, that the impetus for these embraces came from outside: the imperial aspirations of Shi’ite Iran, whose fanatical leaders have fomented war and terrorism in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and, occasionally, in the Gulf States. As Israel wields the region’s most powerful and combat-ready military force, what better for the Gulf States than to fall in under Israel’s shield ?

So far, so good : Israel has now become as normal a Middle East entity as its neighbors have long been. Like them, its enemy is Iran and Iran’s proxy militias in Syria and Lebanon. So here’s the deal : the Gulf States oppose Iran, Israel fights Iran’s proxies. This is a sensible apportionment of force.

Now that Israel’s external security is settled (we hope), one can revisit the internal matter at hand : what to do about the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, who call themselves Palestinians and who have never accepted Israel’s right to exist ?

Yes: what about them ? They number about 2 million people; Gaza has another million.) Seventy years ago, about 40 percent were Christian — 98 percent in Bethlehem — but constant persecution of West Bank Christians by the Sunni Muslim cadres of Fatah, occasionally violent, has reduced Christian numbers to little more than five percent. As Fatah cadres have done to their Christian neighbors, so much the more violence have they wreaked against Israelis. You might forget what happened at the 1972 Olympics, or at Uganda’s Enteppe airport; you might set aside numerous terrorist attacks and individual murders on Jerusalem buses or of the occupants of cars on highways near the West Bank border; five wars with the terrorists of Gaza, and four battles with Iran’s Hezbollah proxies in South Lebanon, but Israel cannot forget these. Deaths caused thereby are a family hurt for almost every family in Israel.

Meanwhile, West Bankers will tell you about the Israeli military’s often high-handed occupation of West Bank cities. I find it understandable, however, that Israeli soldiers, having seen their own and their neighbors executed, might often not be kind to people whom they suspect of harboring, even encouraging, such murders. Recall that even today, West Bank children are taught that Israel has no right to exist. Granted that soldiers as well disciplined as the IDF (Israel Defence Force) should never give way to feelings of anger, it happens, and the bad feelings perpetuated add to the unlikelihood of any two-state agreement such as might have happened in 1999.

Fact is, that Arafat did not accept Ehud Barak’s offer — to make Jerusalem an open city with shared governance — because he knew that if he did accept, he would be assassinated by his own Fatah militias. He had seen Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin murdered by an Israeli irreconcilable, and he knew of the murder of Michael Collins by IRA fanatics back in 1922 after Collins had accepted a compromise agreement with Great Britain. Assassination is the way of fanatics everywhere, but that was and remains the point. Though West Bank negotiators may in good faith wan t to live in peace with Israel, and though most Israelis would like to settle their 75 year battle with the West Bankers, fanatics hardened by 75 years of zero-sum battle won’t let it happen.

My prediction : there will not be, ever, a “two state” peace between Israel and its West Bank neighbors.

No Arab nation wants anything to do with the grievances of West Bankers, much less the thuggery wreaked upon the hapless citizens of Gaza by the rapacious gang that calls itself “Hamas” that controls Gaza while subjecting itself — and its captive civilians — to Iranian militias because no one else will have anything to do with them. Life for Gaza’s million residents isn’t pleasant, but rescue isn’t coming, not from Egypt nor from Israel.

In which case, where does Israel go from here ? Whence the West Bank ? Perhaps it is time for West Bank leaders to accept Israel’s right to exist and to blend its economy with the Israeli economy so that its people can at least live and prosper despite a political vacuum. Worse outcomes could certainly happen. They already have. Why not try economic agreement ? It works much more readily than political agreement and more often.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere