This morning, as I write, the snow has stopped. At my house the snowfall measured eight and a half inches. I see that nearby, folks encountered twelve inches, even up to sixteen. That’s a decent enough number here in coastal New England. We’ve seen much more, now and then, but 16 will definitely do, It covers the trash barrels, buries the back yard snowman up to his armpits, forces the dog to traipse much too carefully, as dogs do not like to do. It falls off the branches and — if you’re not careful — onto the back of your neck, melting down the back of your undershirt.
The roads, however, are clear. as the temperature rises toward 40, melting changes snow to squish. If it were veggies, you’d cook up a hearty stew of it — that squishy is it under foot and in your hands as you try to make snowballs of it — much too wet ! But back to the roads. They’re wet and clear, and I have places to go, one of which was to the computer at which I am typing now, in the nearby public library because all I have is an iPhone. No tablets for me, no iPad, no PC. Turns out the library opened an hour late and is almost empty of readers. Perhaps they’rte reading at home — or still shoveling out. Myself, I started shoveling at 7.30 and made the driveway all beautifully driveable by 9.00. Then coffee at Starbucks, of course, and a cookie — because I can. There I watched the snow stop and the clouds lift just enough that I could see their contours, no longer a foggy mass of moist grey. I imagine Robert Frost planning the sleigh drive that, in the coming evening, found him stopping by the woods.
There’s woods near where I am typing, but they don’t surround. Not since i was a kid have the local woods sprawled over enough acreage that, once within them, you could not see their lend. In those days the snow was thicker, too, and it did not stop when you hoped it would. It kept on coming at you, as if to fill the entire wood deeply enough that you would need skis to traverse them. You could do that then. There were fewer roads through the woods, and those that did exist were rarely plowed. You put chains on your tires and you slashed through the snow, keeping to the road guided by the orange-tipped poles wise wood-keepers placed along the road sides. You needed them, because if you drove the woods you were more often than not the only driver on the road, and but for those tipped orange sticks there was no way to follow the road-bed. No tire tracks ahead of you and only yours behind. It was a partnership, you might say, the snow and you.
I am in the city with this snow. No partnership there, just the snow, begging, like a Golden retriever hungry, for some loving attention — which it will not get from any of the dozens of drivers hurrying along the salted clear highways and the snow-plowed side streets along which residents are still shoveling and snow-blowing their pathways from there to the job they must go to — because unlike school, jobs rarely send out a “stay home” text. The snow doesn’t know what to do with busy people. It wants attention, which means time out from the busy. It doesn’t get much attention. Perhaps I should give it some ? But I did. I attended to it by shoveling it out of my way. I suppose that was rude of me, but I’m no different from anyone else in the city, a place that’s about work, not snow. Fortunately for the snow, the kids differ. From them the snow can get attention. Kids don’t only love dogs, they love snow. You can’t pet snow, or rub its ears, but you can roll in it and laugh as it hugs you. Woof.
Yesterday, after the latest Suffolk Downs development meeting, I was conversing with some union guys about a claim made in the meeting that the new Suffolk Downs is only 12 minutes from Downtown. More like 20 minutes, said one guy, “but hey –” that’s the difference between Suffolk Downs and Maverick — 5 minutes to Downtown is maverick ! 5 minutes. You can’t beat it.”
Sale price for the Suffolk Downs condos was actually the discussion. They’ll be far less than those in the ,maverick area, that’s just how it is, went the talk. And so it is. If you think that development in Revere and adjacent to it is a big thing, imagine what is going on around Maverick square and in the Gove Street neighborhood just northeast of it. AS another guy said in the same conversation, “and in Maverick you get the view.” Yes, you get the view. Boston harbor and the Tall ships,m not to mention the tall buildings beyond and the fireworks displays. As Downtown continues to boom, there’ll be more to view. Much more, and if you live there, you’re just five minutes away from all the action.
So it is that the parts of East Boston closest to “the view” are undergoing the most radical transformation on the Harbor’s north side. There’;s certainly development in Orient Heights, and a little in the Salesians region, and a great deal of renovation in Eagle Hill and Jeffries Point; but the Gove Street and Maverick-Central portions of “Eastie” aren’t merely being renovated. They’;re in utter reconfiguration. because they’re the close regions to “the view,” the sections where prices are climbing the highest and thus where real estate bounty is most bountiful.
Much of the rebuilding of maverick Square has already happened, by way of ugly apartment blocks along the Harbor front from Lewis Wharf to Piers Park and from Central Square up along Border Street to the Umana School. The ugliest “craptitecture,” as one activist calls it, phase does now seem to have burnt out. The proposals I’ve seen for the Gove Street neighborhood have, at least, a semblance of attempt not to impose ugly as a feature. Set-backs are on offer, and some restaurant amenities, maybe trees and some play space. (These were touted at Monday night’s Gove Street Citizens meeting as pluses for the large 273-279 Maverick Street proposal.) Nonetheless, Gove Street neighbors find themselves almost overwhelmed by big-box proposals. Maverick Street alone has projects at 320, 287, 273-2789, 205, and 179-175; add to that the vast Mount Carmel proposal and the creation of an hotel in the “Berlin 1945 movie set” building (as I cal, it) that abuts Porter and Orleans Streets. Then there’s Geneva Street, a bumpy, pothole trail, unaccepted so far by the city, on which only one, single-family house existed until recently. Today’s there’s four multi’s, and two new proposals will add 6 and 30 units of cramped-size condominiums for sale. (Cramp size is a feature here. With real estate in “the view” neighborhoods costing ever higher dollars — the Suffolk Downs developer says that it cost them $ 8900,000 a unit to build here — condos for sale have to be shoebox size or smaller even for well-walleted buyers.
This is not good news for Gove Street’s neighbors. Much of the area was developed too densely to begin with : brick six family, New York-style apartment houses bricked directly onto the property line, leaving no room for trees or a front yard. Gove Street badly needs breathing room, for people, and parking room for cars, but it has very little of either except in a few spots such as lower Frankfort Street, the Greenway, the park on the Airport side of Geneva, the McKay Schoolyard, or the park that abuts part of Orleans Street. The neighborhood needs to stretch its arms and legs — trees and street front set backs — but there’s precious little of it and not much in the offing,. But that view… oh yes,. That view.
Recently I was asked, on facebook, by a most respected friend, to explain why I do not support City Councillor Michelle Wu’s petition to make the MBTA fare-free. This is what I responded :
OK, since you ask, it’s a matter first of simple fairness : no optional publicly funded service should ever be free to users. It’s not fair to taxpayers. We already gave users a huge benefit by having assumed the financial burdens If operating transit lines back in the 1930s when private transit companies went bankrupt because people gravitated to cars. There was and us no obligation to do so.
Given the arrival of Uber and Lyft, transit, with its rigidities, becomes even more burdensome and difficult. Why have it at all ? Only because it operates in long established right of ways that keep tons of traffic off ordinary streets. I would like to see it expanded, which means all kinds of bigger budget allocations. In no way can such expansion just give itself away. If that’s the goal, I oppose expansion. Let Uber and Lyft do the job. They do it without asking taxpayers to foot the bill.
As a much more extended analysis may be helpful, let me try to explain at length my views on the role that publicly-funded transportation should play as we move deeper into the hugely congested Boston traffic boom, generated as it is by the City’s prosperity boom.
Most observers — maybe almost all — who opine these days about the future of the MBTA discuss its finances, its future expansions, and its prospects versus those of Uber and Lyft. I would like to add a dimension : that of liberty. Why “liberty” ? Because the option to travel is one of the fundamental attributes of freedom. You should, as a free person, be able to come and go when you please, where you please. Restrictions of free movement have always appeared unjust: because we, all of us, feel deeply that it is up to us to decide when to move about, and where. Public transportation does a very limited job of it. Buses and rapid transit take you where they go. If your destination happens to coincide with a T stop, fine; if not, not so fine. Also : our transit system is very able to take us to a destination: but not so capable if we have two, three, four destinations. Using the T to move across the City, rather than into it from an out point, involves hours and hours of transfers and waits.
Enter the automobile. Today many planners view cars as a burden, or a nuisance, or as pollution. Maybe they are that. Yet the automobile revolutionized people’s ability to come and go. In a car, you can go where you want, when you want, in all kinds of weather, and ask no man’s leave. Yes, free people were always free to walk wherever. But walking takes lots of time and involves a fair degree of decent weather and physical health. In a car, you can go much, much farther than a walker, and you can do it even if you are somewhat infirm. This summer I was without a car for five months. I had to use the T to go places. It enormously curtailed what I was able to do in a day. In a car I had been able to go to four, five, even six destinations in the course of a day. With the T it was difficult even to go to one. I recall having to go to a friend’s house in West Roxbury. Starting in Salem, it took me three hours and five changes of T and bus to get there. In a car, never more than half that time.
Having to get around town by bus or T, after doing it regularly by car — having to live in the weather, in the rain, the heat, the snow; waiting for the next bus, perhaps having missed the last bus by 30 seconds; freezing in buses with air conditioning on full blast — one learns a lot about freedom and loss of freedom. It was with this experience in mind that I read Senator John Cornyn’s Mussolini quote that has many activists on the left up in outrage : “We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.”
This, Cornyn is telling us, is the true voice of government administering stuff. Mussolini began his career as a socialist. He moved from there to the dark side, but his words are those of socialism everywhere : limit the freedoms that the individual person rightly cherishes. I don’t think it has to be that way, yet the danger is real. Those who want to downplay the use of cars and step up the use of public transit ask us to restrict our freedom to come and go.
The friends of public transportation tout its low cost: but low cost too whom ? Certainly not to the taxpayer who pays for it. They say that greater use of transit will keep cars off our local streets: but will it ? Unless you can walk to the nearest T stop, you still have to drive to it, and that means driving on local streets. As for the pollution issue, the gasoline engine isn’t a given. Electric cars are upon us. Yes, even in electric cars, Boston traffic will be congested to the max; and it is time consuming, and mighty inconvenient, to be stuck on the Southeast Expressway between 2 pm and 7.30 pm and again in the morning. But so is it time consuming, or inconvenient, to wait for a 117 bus, or to endure the hour and more that the 116 bus takes to go from Wonderland to Maverick.
The T is very useful for what it is able to do. It does, as I wrote above, utilize long-established rights of way bermed off from the communities they pass through. The T does get you from home to Downtown and lets you be there without paying $ 20 to park a car, assuming there’s a space available. And yes, the T should become — will become — more flexible and offer more route options. But we should never lose sight that using the T puts you at the mercy of the schedule, of human error, and of the route. In most cases, I’d rather move by myself; and so would you. We have that right. It is a paramount right. Mussolinis — and their administrative cousins of all government structures — are not to be allowed to interfere, or to explain our freedoms away in fancy theoretical boasts.
I’m willing to pay to use the T, and to pay more, because I want a T — when I want it –that is as bug-free as feasible and as modern as plan-able. Otherwise, I fully explained my reasons in my original response to my friend’s facebook post. Public transit is an option. It is not a gift.
Now on to a larger view of the liberty argument. In the so-called “Green New Deal,” there’s sections which call for building lots of high-speed inter-city and cross-country trains — as a way, so the wording has it, to eliminate air travel. What say ?? The same document, or cousin versions of it, want to restrict the use of private cars by tolling their highway use, or raising gasoline taxes, or by taxing the presence of cars in restriction zones. Some legislators want to tax Uber and Lyft trips to Logan Airport. I am quite sure similar taxes await legislative cation in other states. Companion legislation would increase tax dollar allocations to MBTA repair and expansion. Whether these proposals deserve our support, or not, is a question for another column/. In this writing I simply ant to note that ll involve restricting people’;s transportation options. Instead of making the MBTA a first traveler choice by persuasion or by improved service, they seek to force the traveler’s hand.
If politics wants to enhance one form of movement over another or others, it should do so by assuring that its preferred movement mode is the most desirable, not by pressuring the voters’ wallets to decide in favor of the political preference. Maximize the voters’ freedoms instead of curtailing them.
Almost every observer facing the rising prices of Boston real estate, and of housing rents, decries the two unhappy consequences : that more and more who live in the City cannot afford to do so and that development of new housing is displacing residents out to the suburbs and beyond, to long commutes and loss of old neighborhood ties. These consequences loom large, and it affects me as well ; I would like to move back into my ancestral neighborhood, East Boston, where I work and socialize, but cannot yet afford to do so. Yet the situation is not all blame and no responsibility, so hear me out as I discuss a few Boston housing matters that no observer these days has yet put into print.
No one wants now to admit that for a very long time — certainly from about 1965 to 1985 — Boston housing was substantially underpriced. The price of a typical house in the outer wards was about two times annual family income; in closer to Downtown, less than that. Homes in Charlestown, the North End, and East Boston, in and before 1970, seldom reached beyond the $ 5,000 level, if you could even find a buyer at all. Rents followed suit. I rented in Roxbury in 1968 : $ 35 a month; in Mission Hill in 1970 : $ 40 a month. From 1982 to 1985 I lived on Wellsmere Road in Rozzie : $ 250 a month. My next Rozzie rental, which I kept until 1995, cost me $ 450.00. In 1970 I worked for a time as a real estate broker in the South End. I sold three houses on Fort Hill in Roxbury. The prices ? $ 1500, $ 3000, and all of $ 20,000 — this for a large, period home with two acres of land. It was an all cash sale because almost no lender gave mortgages in that neighborhood in those days. All three sales were for cash. I also sold a five story town house on Beacon Street in the block between Arlington and Berkeley. The buy price ? $ 105,000. In 1975, during the busing flap, homes in West Roxbury were on sale for $ 25,000 — if you could find a buyer. As recently as 1997, three-deckers in Dorchester and East Boston were subjects for chapter 7 bankruptcies because they couldn’t be rented to anyone who could pay even $ 500, and many were extremely run down because there was no money for such dwellings. Empty lots, where homes once stood until condemnation after abandonment, abounded. In 1972, I think, the City enacted rent control (of rents beginning to rise from $ 35 a month to $ 150 !); the result ? Land lords stopped repairing or renovating, and tenants rented rooms to boarders for more than they themselves were paying in rent. Insurance proceeds fires became common, even in the area near Northeatern University where condos now go for $ 800,000 and up.
These were unsupportably low prices, and desperate financials, yet did anyone — myself included — take note of the fact and act accordingly ? We did not. We accepted bargain basement rents and house prices as the way things were even though in most areas of the nation they weren’t like Boston at all. Had we had the slightest awareness of the real deal, we might have accounted our $ 35 a month rents at $ 150, or our $ 250 a month rents ten years later at $ 500, which would have been the norm in most places, and set the extra money in a fund against future return to price normality. That is how people make money by investing: seeing undervalued assets and setting aside the difference between value and price. But of course none of us did that. Had we done so, had we saved the difference between price and value, we would, by 2000, have accumulated enough of a “rainy day fund” to pay the new going rates. We’d even be well prepared for what now is the extended boom, because we would understand — as the slightest engagement with securities markets makes clear — that the more undervalued an asset, the more over-valued it will become when the market turns. And the market in Boston sure has turned, hasn’t it ? In 1970-80 people wanted to move out of the city and did so in bunches. Since about 2000, people have wanted to move into the heart of the City and are doing so in… bunches and more bunches. (Those who moved out were mostly families in search of better schools. those moving in are often single, or couples without kids, to whom schools mean nothing but a tax assessment. This is why developers can get away with building tiny box-sized units instead of residences with breathing room.)
Because none of us took steps to address a market turn from bearish to very bullish — because we assume that housing costs drop upon us out of nowhere and aren’t the consequences of anything except evil profiteers and building trades unionists — most of us now face very painful choices : pay bull-market inflated rents that impact all of our other monthly payments, or move far out , maybe 60 miles out, to where rents are one-half of Boston numbers and sometimes less. Neither option works. If forced to choose, most opt to take on a second job, which means less family time and less sleep. The pain is widespread, which has led to the City Council working its butt off to come up with alleviations, most of which won’t work even if implemented, which most will not be. I’ll return to this matter later in this column.
Meanwhile, one group of us has benefited enormously by the huge bull market in houses : those who bought back in the days when no one wanted to buy. It’s a given, in investments, that you buy what other people don’t want any part of. As my Dad, a shrewd investor, used to tell me, “Son, be a good Christian. When people are begging to sell you something, do them a good deed and buy. And when someone is begging to buy from you, be a god Christian and sell it to them.” It’s a nice story, and in markets it is usually good advice. Yet few Bostonians who bought houses in the 1970s did so because they were shrewd investors. They bought because Boston was their home, and they didn’t want to leave it, or because as City employees they felt the nee to stay in the City. (this was before the residency rule , a fine return to 12th Century serfdom, was enacted by Mayor Menino precisely because so many people were ,leaving the city, including City workers.) Thus those buyers lucked out. Few earned more than the median income and fewer still saved very much cash, but if they still own that home they now possess a winning lottery ticket. I don’t begrudge them one bit. Their good fortune never comes up in discussions these days of Boston house prices, which is not surprising — long-term Boston residents are now the political minority in a City where the new majority often congratulates itself in the most flaunted way, like taunters on a football field. It simply isn’t politically popular in Boston in 2019 to consider the situation of long-term home owners who have never had very much and who, late in life, find themselves anointed by good luck.
So now back to the problem I reserved for later : what do we do about the City’s raging bull market in housing ? First, in my opinion, we have to conclude why it it is as it is. It exists because Boston is now the commercial hub of the entire region, businesses want to move into the core city, and those who work in them, or who serve those who do, want to live, shop, and socialize in Downtown as well, and because the move into Downtown continues with no end in sight. And why should it end ? Do we really want to return to the Boston of 1977, where no one wanted to work, or shop, or live ? Do we want even to curb the new prosperity, which has brought vast money into the City and into its real estate tax revenue ? To take just one example ; the City’s Schools Budget for FY 2020 : Our commitment to public education is reflected in our budget. Including state and federal grants, we plan to spend almost $1.3B dollars next school year, and more than $22,000 per pupil for our more than 55,000 students. As recently as FY 2018, the budget amounted ,merely to $ 1.03 billion. $ 267,000,000 has been added in just two years, and this for an enrollment of 55,000 students in a system with capacity for 92,000 ! Even assuming this added $ 267,000,000 is needed — which I vigorously dispute — where would the money come from — all of it either taxpayer funds or Federal and State grants — if Boston real estate values had not boomed ? It seems to me that we cannot deny that the bull market benefits our City budget’;s biggest item (one third of the City budget total). Taper off the value growth and you’ll have to taper off the BPS budget growth.
Second, we must accept that value cannot be legislated out of existence. Attempts to control it merely shift it from one segment to another, a device which often leads to disinvestment and fraud, as did rent control. For very good reason, the legislature outlawed rent control; it isn’t returning. Likewise, attempts to force tax exempt institutions to pay more “in lieu of taxes” service payments to the City, as some Councillors are pushing, requires those institutions’ consent, because such payments cannot be Constitutionally required; and higher-education finances are already under enormous pressure (some colleges are closing down) due to decreasing Federal aid, higher costs of staffing and of additional courses offered, and fewer students, as the “baby bust” years hit college age. “Progressives” say they ant college education to be free, yet the same “progressives’ want colleges to pay the City more service contributions ? This isn’t policy, it’s absurdity.
I do agree with the “progressives” who say that Boston can’t build its way out of upward price pressure. The more housing that is built,m the more people and business that will want to move in. It’s like highways. We discovered, 50 years ago, that the more highways we build, the more cars that will use them. So we stopped building highways and started to expand the MBTA and CommuterRail. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with housing. A dwelling is a dwelling. Conclusion : we will build a lot more of them. It’s good for the Building Trades, who are Mayor Walsh’s core support, and building trades people spend their big paychecks, so it’;s good for our economy as well. And that observation brings me to the two moves I think we can make that will work : raising the City’s minimum wage. That and encouraging the formation of worker unions and the future success of unions already in the field. Of the two, I prefer expansion of unions, because unions can win, in bargain and contract, wage and benefit increases that are much harder to achieve by minimum wage legislation. Wage legislation has to conform to Equal Protection requirements;. union contracts can differ, be industry-specific, which seems much more practical and appropriate,. That said, the City should establish a $ 21/hour minimum wage, and the goal of union contracts should be higher than that by a lot. Frankly, $ 30 an hour isn’t too much if you want to afford the current Boston and still have money to spend on discretionary purchases, which are the driving force of economic growth.
Surprisingly, I do not hear “progressives” talking about either of these, not the $ 21/hour wage nor expanded unions. 50 years ago, unions were the backbone of Democratic politics. Today, most unions practice an entirely different style and objective of politics than the “progressives.” Myself, I prefer the union approach to resolving the City’;s bull market. I can think of no better way to make Bull market Boston work for as many people as a unionized city workforce.
The headline, I am sure, strikes you as provocative, maybe irresponsible too, perhaps risible. I assure you it is none of these. I mean to argue that we have erred, and may err again, in seeking to elect a major political figure as President. Far more appropriate, for Constitutional purposes, that we return to electing less commanding personalities to the office whose job description is set forth in Article 2.
We have given far too much power to the office of President. No such accretion of authority is contemplated by the Constitution, which gives primary power to Congress. The Constitution reserves almost all power to the people, and to the States, and not only in the Tenth Amendment. For example, electing : the people elect the members of Congress, but the President is elected by States, not by the people. that’s what the Electoral College is all about. I shall talk further about the Electoral College, but first let’s discuss why I insist upon a theory of the presidency which may seem to you merely antiquarian:
We see in Mr. Trump what appears to be a revolutionary, radical alteration in the way our President handles his powers, but Mr. Trump’s abuses are only a gross version of powers that previous presidents have arrogated. There are many factors in how this happened. First, wartime in 1917-18 and again in 1941-45 urged Congress to grant the President — already given the office of Commander in Chief of Federal armed forces — a fair number of emergency powers. Congress deliberates, but in war, decision, not deliberation, has pride of place. The Cold War, which bean in 1946 and lasted until 1989, locked in place those wartime grants of power, and these were occasionally abused : think of Harry Truman’s attempt to take over the nation’s steel industry (1946), Ronald Reagan’s assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras (1982-86), and, more recently, President Obama’s many executive orders regarding immigration, civil rights, and gun control. All of Obama’s orders seem most worthy, and they are to me as well: the trouble was that power granted to do things does not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. It is power, not worth, that is granted or acquiesced to. Mr. Trump has certainly abused the unworthy and pushed the limits of powers granted, and we rightly condemn him for it : yet his pushing his office’s acquired powers to the limit and beyond doesn’t seem to me much different from what the Capetian kings of France did in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, nor is it different from the arrogations practiced by all sorts of rulers throughout European history — and by legislatures, too. When there is no constitution in place in a polity, or none written, power rests with those most able to take it.
Yet we have a written Constitution, a pact to which our representatives have agreed and documented said agreement with their signatures. Our political structure is a contract, whose terms are set in writing to be always reread and reminded of. Power can still be ceded by one branch of government to an other, but no such cession is ever permanent, because the Constitution is the permanent agreement, and power shifts are at most a temporary expedient.
I understand that it is somewhat strange to describe as temporary the grants of Congressional power to the President that have held place continuously since 1941. Hardly any of us have lived under a President limited to Article 2’s powers, which require the President mostly to execute Congress’s orders (we call them “laws”). Yet that sort of subordinate presidency was the norm — perhaps mistakenly, maybe the framers should have decided upon a presidency holding myriad discretionary powers: but they did not choose that. They chose an executive much more like James Monroe, or Millard Fillmore, or William H Taft, or Calvin Coolidge: presidents who did not initiate legislation, who did not issue executive orders in place of legislation: presidents who were unimportant in themselves and whose names today remain obscure to all except history majors. Equally hard it is, now, to recall that most of the major reform, or innovative, legislation enacted in our history has arisen from Congress, not presidents : land grant, anti trust, anti-injunction labor laws, child labor laws, the Federal Reserve, the New Deal, Civil Rights laws (many of which were adopted over the objections, or indifference, of then presidents). Once upon a time, Congress was indeed that important.
Once upon a time even Supreme Court appointments, which begin with a very significant Presidential power, that of nomination, were not major events in the political calendar of a presidency. The High Court was rarely called upon to upend Congressional enactments, and even when it was so called, it did not act in a partisan way. Only occasionally — Louis Brandeis was the big example until 1987 — did a nominee face significant political opposition. But, as with everything else a modern president is able to do, High Court nominations are now a major reason for electing this one or that one,and so nominations to the Court become major acts of presidential, unilateral power.
Among the most significant accretions of power that modern presidents possess is something completely outside the Constitution’s orbit : every major candidate for the office is known nationwide by almost every voter; is, in fact, a celebrity, with all of the aura that haloes the visages of celebrities, political or otherwise, ion our televised world. Thus the custom now is to refer to a candidate as “yass queen” or an “icon,” or simply as a hero. Scads of media people follow them everywhere. Mr. Trump has 54 millions of twitter followers; most other candidates for president have from 500,000 to 5 million. That’s’ a lot of importance. In contrast, most members of Congress have from 10,000 to 200,000 followers. Followers mean power. Even without Congress making a grant of power, celebrity has taken a large slice of that power away and deposited it in the Presidency bank account.
Celebrity has made the president — and major candidates for the office — seem larger than life and louder than ordinary speech. We see them, and we listen. Most voters don’t know much about the Constitution’s arrangements, and i doubt that many would care about them if they did know. Actual lived life has much, much greater weight than an agreement agreed to in 1787. We say we uphold the Constitution, and we likely mean well by what we say; but our practice, politically, has little to do with what the Constitution requires. For example, the Electoral College. It has a very specific purpose : to assure that a candidate for the only office voted on by every corner of the nation be chosen by a majority of electors assembled by state. One can very well win the presidency with far less than a majority of actual votes, as long as he or she carries the majority of votes in states totaling 270 electors. To us, who think of the president as our totem — a kind of personal overlord — electoral votes, given state by state, seem unfair. Yet they are exactly what the Constitution envisions and says so ; States elect the president, because it is states that have to deal with the laws that he or she is entrusted with executing.
As long as the President, and all major candidates to be president, are instant celebrities, we will get celebrity government, not the rule of law; decisions by being known, not by having the authority to make them; and influence, upon our language, customs, and legal powers, because the path from being known to being trusted is one that only our Constitution guards against. And who reads Constitutions, when one can read a pretty face or a handsome voice, or the odor of raw power, which when a celebrity exercise suit, is your power too. Or at least you think so, or hope so. that is why celebrities in power can do things that ordinary people cannot. Add that level of power to the formal powers that Congress has gradually given to the president, or acquiesced in his exercising, and you have moved far away from the Constitutional, Congress-empowered, skeptical of authority government envisioned by our forbears and which served us so well for most of our national existence.
I therefore propose that we elect an unimportant person to the presidency. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, fits the bill. He has expertise in the economy and can surround himself with foreign policy professionals while waiting for Congressional legislation to reach his desk. Another appropriate president would be Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State. Governors Evers of Wisconsin and Hogan of Maryland would do. Sally Yates and Rod Rozenstein seem appropriate — or someone whose name almost none of us know but who has managed department in the Federal bureaucracy and accepts as a given that he or she isn’t the policy maker but the policy executor or executrix. No, it isn’t likely to happen for 2020, but it should. We must never again have a president like Mr. Trump, nor a presidency suffering from several strains of political elephantiasis. And let said president be chosen by electors chosen by the States, electors who are appointed for their knowledge of the task and of the Constitution and who are humble enough to resist the poisons of celebrity, power, and entrustment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.