A New Constitution

This is the second in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

Coryton, Indiana

Our Founding Fathers chafed under the capricious rule of King George III, had the audacity to declare independence, fought and won the ensuing war, formed a coalition of autonomous states under the Articles of Confederation, and when they didn’t work out, came together to write a Constitution that established a stronger Federal government. They even made provisions to amend that Constitution as circumstances changed.

Milford, Delaware

230+ years later the majority of our populace is chafing under capricious rule. Yet, instead of rising up to create a government that better reflects our people and our needs, we all too often force fit the issues of our day to a fixed, ‘originalist’ interpretation of our Constitution. Applying our Founding Fathers’ specific words to issues they never anticipated is not reverence; it’s reactionary. Sometimes, the best way to honor democracy is to raise our voices in protest. Similarly, the best way to honor our Founding Fathers is not to be pinned down by their words, but to imitate their spirit and actions. It is time for us to create a new Constitution, one that better serves more of our people.

In theory, we ought to be able to amend the Constitution we have. The white male property owners who governed a million souls scattered across a limitless expanse of continent included a mechanism to do just that in our present document. Unfortunately, as our nation has expanded to over 300 million people of all colors and genders pressed against the extents of our borders, we also appear to have hit the limit of Constitutional change. The 27th amendment was ratified over 25 years ago: it only took 202 years to defer Congressional pay raises to the start of the next session. It’s been almost fifty years since the previous amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In our divisive era, the consensus required to pass any particular amendment seems beyond us.

Abington, Massachusetts

Why, if we cannot make a single change to the existing Constitution, do I think we can create an entirely new one? The success of the undertaking lies in its very scope. Assemble a truly representative cross-section of our citizens, authorize them to be bold, and I believe we will rise to the task. The negotiation, the compromise required to move our nation towards cooperation and interdependence will actually be easier to achieve if we stop fiddling around the edges and form a comprehensive vision.

 

Most discussion of a new Constitution comes from what’s referred to as ‘the far right.’ Although I’m not a fan of political labels, few would ascribe that one to me. So why am I advocating a new Constitution? Because it holds promise for every political persuasion. I don’t have to be a states rights crusader to acknowledge that we need clearer separation of federal and state authority, consistent election rules at the Federal level, and more discretion locally. I don’t have to be a contortionist to realize that we can find a balanced way to draw our electoral districts. I do, however, have to be fair-minded, a rare commodity in our present politics.

National Cemetery Vicksburg, Mississippi

I don’t have a prescribed list of clauses the new Constitution should contain, though I will postulate ideas in the coming months. I offer this idea up to generate discussion. Is it something that will happen any time soon? Probably not. But if we want to work towards justice and equity without violence, we have to change the basic premises of our money-obsessed society. And what’s more fundamental to our society than our Constitution? Let’s create one that reflects who we really are and proclaims our best selves.

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A Soft Landing

This is the first in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.

San Marcos, Texas

It’s been almost eight years since I started this blog, ostensibly about yoga, though in fact about balancing tension in every aspect of life; almost five years since I completed my work in Haiti; almost two since I stopped pedaling all over the continental United States. Since returning home, I chronicled that journey in blog, book and on stage. Then I took a summer hiatus. The most frequent question folks ask me is: What next? Same question I’ve asked myself.

While I explored our world in unconventional ways, the world itself changed. Climate change is no longer theoretical, #BlackLivesMatter, so does #MeToo, and Donald Trump flipped our politics on its head. While I enjoyed sharing my talents and ideas with generous souls throughout Haiti and the Untied States, our nation took a sharp turn against the rest of the world. We no longer want ‘your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.’ We are mean.

Hale County, Alabama

And so, what’s next for me is, in my own small way, to counter the monumental meanness of our government, our economy, and our institutions; to dispel the media’s centrifugal spin that separates us into constituent parts; to voice the fundamental goodness of our people.

Revolution is in the air. Not the hotheaded, inner city, college campus, 1960’s revolution of my adolescence that never managed to infect Nixon’s ‘silent majority.’ The seeds of revolution today are wider spread. Minorities and majority alike are unrepresented and disenfranchised. Trump’s ascendance is a peculiar, though necessary step in that revolution: a heaving gasp by white men of power to maintain control by throttling down on everyone else.

 

There are only two fundamental questions regarding the upcoming revolution.

First, how long before it takes hold? Will it take a mere election cycle, stretch over a generation, or maybe even take a century? As the demographics of power and money continue to shrink, their insistence for influence will ever expand. I don’t pretend to predict when the tipping point will occur.

Montgomery, Alabama

Second, and more important, is whether this revolution will mark an evolutionary milestone in the human species. Will women and people of color simply invert the traditional power paradigm, as white guys in the colonies did over England’s King George III, or Germany’s National Socialists did over the Weimar Republic, or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge did over Marshall Non Lol? Can this revolution transcend a mere power flip, can it mark the turning point that allocates power in a broader way than history has ever known?

As a Steven Pinker devotee (Angels of Our Better Nature) I believe that humans are, in aggregate, becoming less violent, more cooperative over time. However, I’m afraid Professor Pinker’s hyper-rational approach shortchanges the idiosyncrasies of human behavior; our incessant thirst for drama, even chaos. Despite our prayers for peace, we clamor for war. Can humans calmly shift power to a wider array? Can we actually spread resources and influence across such a broad spectrum that everyone feels empowered? Can we emerge from these turbulent times with a soft landing.

Phoenix, Arizona

A soft landing will require new political, economic, and social perspectives. It will begin by recognizing that 300 years of technological development and selective democracy have created adequate resources and wealth for all humans, even as we have failed to distribute that wealth with equity or justice. It will acknowledge that the challenges facing our planet cross national boundaries, and so we must share responsibilities across those boundaries. Yet, a soft landing will also support our tribal identities: the families, communities, languages, and customs that define the full spectrum of humanity. It will find a way to celebrate ‘us’ without denigrating ‘them.’

Human nature bends towards each individual’s self interest. A soft landing does not deny that nature. Rather, it expands it. Only after we can operate beyond the security of the next paycheck, the quarterly statement, and the annual dividend, can we define our self-interest in the longest possible timeframe. Only at that distance, can we understand that our self-interest aligns with our neighbor next door, and our neighbor beyond the sea.

This will not be easy. History is littered with noble ideals twisted beyond recognition in their execution: France’s Reign of Terror, China’s Cultural Revolution. We will not get it right this round, or the next, or the next. Which is fine. Humans are better at striving than arriving.

Charleston, South Carolina

 

Over the next year I will toss out ideas about how we might achieve a soft landing. As a guy who’s graduated from day-to-day concerns, the ideas are long-range and intentionally provocative. We need a new Constitution, impact taxes, economic measures rooted in balance, and revamped education. I’m not concerned about ‘why’ we need a revolution: the inequities of our world mandate it. Nor am I concerned about the ‘how’ of implementation. I want to spark dialogue about ‘what’ we ought to do to transform the existing order, skewed to the few, into a new world that benefits the many.

 

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The N-word Comes to Emerson

I’m excited. Invited to ArtsEmerson Play Reading Book Club for The Peculiar Patriot, a one-women show by poet and activist Liza Kessie Peterson.

Excitement wavers. The assembled include fourteen middle-aged white women, three grey-haired white men, and a trio of young women of color: a cross-section of the Boston theater community, to be sure, but hardly the cross-section of this city I had hoped for. Nametags. Introductions. Snacks. Vandy, our graduate-student facilitator, introduces the play. She delivers what I suppose is a trigger warning: the N-word is used extensively. Then she tells us that we must substitute the term, ‘N-word’ wherever the actual word appears because, “we don’t possess the agency to use that term.”

Perplexed. We have gathered to read aloud and discuss a script about people of color in the prison system in order to better appreciate the actual performance later this month. We will read another character’s words, not express ourselves. Yet we are directed to substitute one particular, potent word every time it occurs.

Perturbed. F-word, B-word, the script is littered with words I do not say or write in my own life. The street grammar is likely foreign to most of us, yet I appreciate how readers sustain a cadence, seek the art in the words. Until, of course, the N-word pops up, and rhythm falters. One woman inadvertently reads through it, and then feels compelled to apologize. Prohibition exaggerates the power of the word we are forbidden to say.

Angry. Who is this facilitator to declare we lack agency, and then unilaterally remove our agency? The power of live theater is the visceral connection between actors and audience; more immediate, more intimate, than anything filtered by a screen. Paul Fallon has no business uttering the N-word, but am I Paul Fallon when I’m reading a part? Can I only read lines that mirror my actual life? I cannot be complicit; I don’t volunteer to read.

Heartbeat settles. The vignettes of the play slip past; I’m preoccupied, anticipating the next N-word. My neighbor possesses a silver voice. Every syllable, whether sanctioned or verboten, flows smooth off her tongue. I wonder what she thinks: that a White facilitator forbid her Black lips from pronouncing a noun she is clearly allowed to say.

Break time. “May I ask you a question?” I turn to my neighbor. She nods. “What do you think of the facilitator’s position on the N-word?” I try to phrase it without judgment. “I was surprised that she didn’t give us the option of saying it.” Turns out, this woman has participated in similar sessions before. She waves over Kevin Becerra, Artistic Engagement Manager. He clarifies that Emerson College made this decision in response to concerns raised during discussions of last year’s, The White Card. Yes, Liza Kessie Peterson is aware that reading groups are discussing her script. No, she did not dictate that they edit the N-word.

Meditation. I appreciate that groups of people—identities—want to ‘own’ specific elements of their culture, even though, as a white guy, I don’t share that need. The dominant culture is mine. However, as a gay man, I value the power of claiming something denied others. I am allowed to say ‘faggot’; straight people cannot. I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be Liza Kessie Peterson, or any of her characters. That’s why I’m here: to explore the chasm, to respect our differences, to seek our commonality.

The hostilities I encounter as a gay man cannot compare with those endured by Black people; my identity does not envelop my exterior. Nevertheless, when I write the word ‘faggot’ I trust the reader will absorb that word as best she can. He will lean toward my perspective. If she reads my words out loud, I expect he will pronounce every one. Not because she owns them. But because, in scribing my words, I loan them to him. We enter a tacit agreement that she can try, however insufficiently, however fleeting, to feel the pain, as well as the power. What a shame that ArtsEmerson decided to invite readers to explore a play deeply, and censure us.

 

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Big Box Ethics

Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware.

Responsible consumers are supposed to always make sure they got the true deal. That’s why I watch Star Market cashiers with a keen eye: markdown prices taped to the peanut butter or dry bean shelf rarely correlate with the register amounts; whereas I rest easy at grocery Nirvana: tasty morsels, Hawaiian shirts, consistent pricing, and hipster geniality all align at Trader Joe’s.

The bigger the box store, the more carefully I keep an eye on the tab. But at my most frequent haunt, Home Depot, sloppy errors more often occur in my favor. Which leaves me to ponder: what is my ethical responsibility to call out mistakes made by the orange clad serfs of a faceless corporation?

 

A recent example of Home Depot oversight is a doozy.

I’m overhauling the dark, dank basement of my rental apartments; space I own yet rarely enter. My initial idea—clean out and hang new lights—quickly morphed into removing a dilapidated plaster ceiling, repointing the foundation, insulating the floor plenum, ditto the heating ducts, constructing workshop shelves, adding service receptacles, and installing counters next to the washer and dryer. Oh yeah, I also replaced the lights.

I decided to staple house wrap to the underside of the joists to create a clean ceiling plane and keep the insulation in place, all on the cheap.

A major trip to Home Depot requires several hours. Finding a rolling cart, finding the merchandise, finding a salesperson, getting stuff unloaded from up high, scribing a special order or two, and then checking out: it’s remarkably difficult amidst the gaggle of aproned guys whose bestest skill is avoiding eye contact. I loiter patiently until eventually they wait on me.

The store has everything I need this round, except for the house wrap, which I order. Thirty coils of batt insulation will require three round trips between home and Home Depot. The manager waves the first load through; half an hour later, the second; then, the third. I shake my sheath of papers toward him, “Do we need to check anything off?” “No, I’ve got ya.”

A week later I am e-notified that Home Depot has my house wrap. I return to the store. The display has several rolls of Tyvek (165 feet for $63.00) but none of the generic Everbuilt brand I ordered (100 feet for $28.00). I track down a sales guy, show him my paperwork, he walks me to the display, points to the Tyvek, and says, “Take these.”

What is my ethical responsibility here? Do I tell this guy that I ordered the shorter, cheaper house wrap, or just take four rolls he offers? Expedience governs. Although I would be happy with the $100 worth of house wrap I ordered, I exit the store with $250 of product instead. I don’t feel good about it, but neither am I responsible to monitor Home Depot’s own orders.

The following week, I get another email from Home Depot, announcing that my entire order is ready for pick-up: the insulation, the house wrap, the lumber, everything; $2800 worth of material. Apparently the manager never checked anything off during three round trips of loading goods, and so I am invited to pick it all again, gratis. I am tempted: free is a very good price.

Another week goes by. I get a personal phone call entreating me to pick up my order. When I tell the sales guy I have already taken all my merchandise, he is perplexed. What perplexes me: how does Home Depot stay in business?

 

 

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Statutes of Limitations

Does criminal behavior carry an expiration date?

I recently wrote, in regards to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, “I have reservations about how we apply 2018 standards to 1980’s adolescent behavior.” A reader who objected to that statement (“…young men in the 80’s knew when they were crossing the line…the white male privilege was unbounded. Every woman…has a story…about being assaulted or bullied or coerced or manipulated sexually…”) inadvertently proved my point. I am not condoning the behavior, nor denying its criminality. I am simply stating it was common at that time and rarely held consequences for the perpetrators.

Since then, some laws may have changed, but social standards have changed even more. Although the past week has illustrated that we are far from parity with regards to sexual dynamics, we are trending in that direction. Regardless what guys got away with in the past, I’d like to think that today harassment is not tolerated, that assault is prosecuted.

But what is our responsibility to address the past? Three imperfectly aligned forces are at play: law; social custom; and moral truth.

Our legal system prescribes statues of limitations that restrict how far back one can reach to bring charges against another. There’s merit to this idea; people’s memories are fallible, evidence fades, evildoers reform. But there are also problems. The statue of limitations often expires before victims most traumatized by sexual crimes of power can gather the strength to accuse.

 

Societal norms usually evolve ahead of the law. There was a time when it was okay, in certain societies, to burn accused witches, chop off heads at public executions, define women as property, lynch Black men, gas Jews, taunt homosexuals, spank children. Although these actions may still occur, they are no longer socially acceptable.

Moral truths offer the most steadfast barometers of our species. When transgressed, they supersede mere statutes. Nazi war criminals were extradited, tried, and convicted decades after their atrocities; their crimes so horrific they eclipsed legal time limits. More recently is the movement to remove the statue of limitations in cases of sexual abuse by priests. Advocates argue that since the victims were young and the Catholic Church devoted so much time and money to covering up the crimes, time limits should be set aside.

People in power determine the laws, and how those laws get applied. When the power dynamic shifts, either abruptly—as in the case of Nazi Germany—or gradually—as in the ascendance of women’s rights—behavior that was once tolerated becomes unacceptable, illegal, even punishable. Yet we have no consistent way to punish the perpetrators or alleviate the victims. Admitting guilt and asking forgiveness is a logical starting point, although in our era of deny, deny, deny; even that is difficult to obtain. Reparations are an option; I’ve heard cogent arguments from African-Americans advocating that means to redress slavery. But making the grandson of the slave owner pay the grandchild of the slave flies in the face of the Biblical admonition that “the son shall not suffer the iniquity of the father” (Ezekiel 18:19-20). But perhaps it should … since the father’s sin established the social and economic advantages that the son enjoys.

The legal statute of limitations to try Brett Kavanaugh in a court of law for his accused harassment is long passed. Instead, he has been tried in the court of public opinion where, because he aspired to a position of exalted authority, behavior that was ‘common’ despite being illegal should not be overlooked. Was this fair? I think so. Supreme Court justices make judgment over us all: they are exempt from any statute of limitations. We can demand of them a higher standard.

But the court of public opinion cannot convey clear verdicts, and its results satisfy no one. Brett Kavanaugh has been damaged, a bit. Some will consider his punishment insufficient, others will portray him as the victim.

Because 1980’s society dismissed harassment and assault as ‘boys being boys’, especially among privileged white boys, and 2018 society confirms that the most effective response to any past allegation is denial, Justice Kavanaugh will never receive a conclusive judgment, his accusers will never receive even an apology, and society will never shape a unified story of these events.

I am certain that, even in 1980, the boys in question knew this behavior was wrong. But they also knew they could get away with it, well past the statute of limitations, all the way to the Supreme Court. It is too late to convict them of their crimes. But in elevating Brett Kavanaugh, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, and others missed a key opportunity to set a higher standard; one that the highest court in our land deserves.

 

 

 

 

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A Chink in the Wall of Deny, Deny, Deny

Democracy creates strange bedfellows. This morning our precarious system of justice got a one-week reprieve thanks to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a soft-spoken, earnest professional woman; two strident protestors who blocked a US Senator in an elevator; and a lame duck Mormon with five children and a shred of conscience. Their actions motivated a one-week delay in the once-speeding Brett Kavanagh Supreme Court approval train.

As the #METOO movement has unfolded, one pattern has held true: men who apologize are pilloried (bye-bye: Al Franken); men who deny remain in power (still here: Donald Trump). But this morning despite Kavanaugh’s testimony, loud and angry as any white man who, methinks protesteth too much, we have hit the pause button. We’re going to try to dig a bit deeper than the usual he-said, she-said.

Life was so much simpler when our nation began. White men got to vote. White women didn’t. At least they got counted as 100% human. Slaves were a mere 3/5 of a person. The world’s self-proclaimed ‘most noble’ government has always been rigged, but at least back then the calculus was clear.

Now—in theory—women vote, slaves are free, and #BlackLivesMatter, but more than two centuries into our democratic experiment, white men still yield outsize influence. So much, in fact, that as long as they repeat a mantra of deny, deny, deny they hold on to power, regardless how many allegations pile up against them.

Perhaps, the FBI probe will demonstrate nothing. Kavanaugh will be appointed to the Supreme Court, and all that Dr. Blasey Ford and the elevator doorstops and a recalcitrant Mormon will have achieved is a short delay. That result would not alter the direction of the highest court in our land; merely tarnish its conceit to represent all. Still, delaying the ‘business as usual’ of the white guy juggernaut is a victory in and of itself, and the week delay will leech through other veins of our septic politics: to elections, protests, and greater civic engagement by people who have been shunted aside.

Possibly, and more likely every day, Kavanaugh will step down; or our President, quick to turn on anyone he considers a loser, will withdraw the nomination. In that event, the chink in the wall of deny, deny, deny, will be big enough to undermine the foundation of the white guys in charge.

I am a white guy. I have reservations about how we apply 2018 standards to 1980’s adolescent behavior. I dislike the politicizing of our Supreme Court, though from Robert Bork to FDR both parties have dirty hands. I disdain the haphazard, accelerated process Mitch McConnell has pursed to appoint Brett Kavanaugh, especially in light of his obstruction to Merrick Garland.

 

Still, these reservations evaporate in the face of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony versus Judge Kavanaugh’s. Two perfect exemplars of the fundamental conflict in our nation. Regardless of your politics, in our hearts, we all know who spoke with the highest authority. A calm and responsible woman with nothing to gain called to question an angry white man with everything to lose. Amen to that.

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Let’s Put on a Show!

Three years after I began my bicycle odyssey throughout America, the voices of the folks I met took center stage at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at the first public staged reading of my new play, How Will We Live Tomorrow? The stories, the songs, the voices made for an enjoyable, and thought provoking evening—as well as another round of revision and polish.

How Will We Live Tomorrow? is now available for workshops, readings, or full performances across the country. Watch this three- minute You Tube trailer of our recent reading. Pass it on to anyone you know in theater. Let’s put on a show!

How Will We Live Tomorrow? Trailer

 

 

 

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