Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Supreme chance to cage the gerrymander -- Sept. 28, 2017 column


The Supreme Court convenes Monday after its summer recess and on Tuesday takes up a case that could end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Justices will hear arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case from Wisconsin where, after Republicans took complete control of the state government in 2010, the state legislature redrew state Assembly districts, resulting, a federal court ruled, in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

The plan purposely favored Republicans and hurt Democrats to such a degree that it violated the constitutional guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause and the First Amendment right of association, the district court ruled.

Wisconsin appealed, saying its plan does not violate the Constitution and, besides, partisan gerrymandering is nothing new. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and granted the state’s request to block the lower court’s order to create a new redistricting plan by fall.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says Gill could be the most important case of the entire term.

And she told CBS’s Charlie Rose Tuesday: “It’s drawing a map so people think, `Why bother voting? This is a secure Republican district or this is a secure Democratic district, so my vote doesn’t count.’ That’s not a good thing for democracy.”

Gerrymandering creates “safe” political districts that make general elections uncompetitive and give party insiders greater power than constituents, a bipartisan group of current and former members of Congress said in a friend of the court brief, one of dozens filed in the case. Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia, was among the brief’s signers.

The Supreme Court, mindful that redistricting is a state responsibility, has been reluctant to rule on political gerrymandering disputes, although it has kept a watchful eye on racial gerrymandering.

A question for the court now is how much partisan gerrymandering is too much. 
Judicial tea leaf-readers say the Supreme Court, by putting the lower court’s ruling on hold, suggests it may side with the state. Much depends on swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy and whether a majority can agree on standards for judging whether redistricting plans are so partisan as to be unconstitutional.

Whatever the court decides, two things are clear: Gerrymandering has been with us always – and it erodes voter confidence and trust in government.  

Charles Ledyard Norton tells the story of the term gerrymander in his 1890 book, “Political Americanisms.”

Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill in 1811 that adjusted legislative district lines. When artist Gilbert Stuart took a look at the map, he penciled in a few lines and told a Boston newspaper editor: “That will do for a salamander.”

“Salamander?” the editor riposted. “Call it a Gerrymander.”

Poor Gerry has been carrying the gerrymander burden ever since. But should he?
One of the first gerrymandering episodes actually took place years before in Virginia.

An “atmosphere of bitterness” hung over the first federal election in Virginia in 1789, following Virginia’s unconditional adoption months earlier of the Constitution, the editors of the James Madison papers explain.

Gov. Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalists, wanted revenge on the Federalists, so he changed voting lines to make Federalist James Madison run against anti-Federalist James Monroe for a seat in the U.S. House. Henry made Orange County part of an eight-county district that was strongly anti-Federalist and had opposed ratifying the Constitution.

Madison campaigned hard, and in the end he beat Monroe by 336 votes out of 2,280 cast.

In his biography of Henry in the late 1890s, Moses Coit Tyler wrote: “Surely it was a rare bit of luck in the case of Patrick Henry that the wits of Virginia did not anticipate the wits of Massachusetts by describing this trick as `henrymandering,’”

Henry “thus narrowly escaped the ugly immortality of having his name handed down from age to age in the coinage of a base word which should designate a base thing -- one of the favorite, shabby maneuvers of less scrupulous American politicians,” Tyler wrote.

Yes, Henry was lucky, but American voters are still victims of the shabby maneuver.

Gerrymandering may be as American as Patrick Henry, but if voters are lucky, the Supreme Court will agree with Ginsburg that extreme partisan gerrymandering is bad for democracy -- and end it.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Earthquake reveals heroic Mexico -- Sept. 21, 2017 column


The nation watched with hope as Mexicans struggled together in the aftermath of a violent earthquake Tuesday that killed at least 250 people.

A doctor volunteered to climb through the ruins of the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City, risking his life to search for children trapped in the rubble.

Dr. Pedro Serrano crawled on his stomach in crevices to a classroom, only to find a girl, a woman and a man dead, he told The Associated Press.

Then Mexico’s elite volunteer rescue team Los Topos, the Moles, combed through the school’s debris by hand, carefully removing pieces of concrete and lumber in their search for survivors.

Los Topos raised fists to command silence in hopes of hearing faint sounds of life. More than 25 people died at the three-story school when a wing fell onto itself.

As anguished family members waited, strangers rushed to the school and to similar scenes around the capital, bringing water and food and staying to pray. The 7.1-magnitude quake toppled dozens of buildings in the capital alone.

“This is the spirit of Mexico,” a volunteer in Mexico City told CNN. “That’s our community in general; it crosses classes – if you are rich or poor – and any other divide.”

The images were heartbreaking and heroic, just as they were after hurricanes in Houston, the Keys, along the East Coast and Puerto Rico.

Sadly, heroic is a word we seldom associate with Mexico.

Our politicians for generations have promoted a dark cartoon version of our southern neighbor.

Since after World War I, some politicians have blamed Mexicans for bringing crime and drugs into the country, although most Mexicans come to work and employers rely on them.

In 1919, a page-one headline in The New York Times warned: “Anarchists Flood Here from Mexico – Dangerous Aliens Smuggled Across Border at Rate of 100 a Day – Stricter Laws Needed.”

“During the 1920s, politicians and pundits in the Southwest made the eugenic argument that Mexican immigrants would `destroy white civilization,’” historian Neil Foley writes in his 2014 book, “Mexicans in the Making of America.”

During the Depression, the United States deported half a million Mexicans when jobs here were scarce, but during World War II, the U.S. welcomed tens of thousands of “braceros,” mostly farm workers, from Mexico.

In the 1950s, Operation Wetback again deported Mexicans, writes Foley, chair of the history department at SMU. A Mexican American, he received his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia.

The latest politician to malign Mexico and Mexicans to his benefit is Donald Trump. 

“They are not our friend, believe me,” Trump said when he announced his candidacy for president in June 2015 at Trump Tower. He blamed Mexico for stealing our jobs, hurting our economy in trade and exporting its problems.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he said and added, grudgingly, “And some, I assume, are good people.”

His vow to build a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it was a centerpiece of his campaign, and he still says that will happen.

After Mexico suffered an earthquake Sept. 7 that killed at least 90 people, Trump was criticized for his slow response in offering sympathy and support. This week, though, he quickly extended a hand, tweeting a couple of hours after the quake: “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.”

He called Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto Wednesday to offer condolences, assistance and rescue teams, the White House said.

The snapshots from earthquake-devastated Mexico and the hurricane-ravaged United States show that more unites than separates us. As humans, we all suffer from the capriciousness of nature.

The president is right to stand with Mexico in its hour of need. We’ll see how long the era of good feeling lasts, but it’s a start.

We need each other – as heroes more than scapegoats.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved,


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not dead, poetry due for a comeback -- Sept. 14, 2017 column

Have you read a poem in the past year? If so, you’re in the minority.
Just seven in 100 Americans read poetry even once in the past 12 months, government figures show, down from 17 percent in 1992.  
“Poetry is going extinct,” a headline in The Washington Post lamented in 2015, after the 2012 statistics, the latest available, were released.
But wait. Sometimes called the Cinderella of literary forms, poetry isn’t dead; it’s not even asleep.
I won’t go as far as a British newspaper, which earlier this year heralded a “genuine renaissance” in poetry in the United Kingdom. But, in the United States, poetry, like an endangered species that’s been protected, is showing signs of life.
Poetry Out Loud programs in all 50 states invite students in grades 9 through 12 to compete in contests by memorizing and reciting poetry. The Library of Congress this year named the first national youth poet laureate.
A new book, “Why Poetry,” urges people to stop thinking of a poem as a riddle or code to crack and read what the words say to them.
“Like classical music, poetry has the unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which makes us feel (unnecessarily) as if we haven’t studied enough to read it,” Matthew Zapruder, a poet and former poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, writes in “Why Poetry.”
Tracy K. Smith is the new poet laureate of the United States, the 22nd in a line of literary legends that includes Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur and Rita Dove. Dove also served as poet laureate of Virginia and holds the Commonwealth chair at the University of Virginia.

The author of three books of poetry, Smith, 45, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012. Her 2015 memoir, “Ordinary Light,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. She and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar, teach at Princeton University and have three children.  

Smith said a few months ago that as poet laureate she would take poetry beyond the ivy walls of universities and urban literary festivals to places where it is seldom heard or read. She received invitations from communities struggling with addiction as well as from nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.
“Nursing homes are often overlooked” when we think of poetry, she said in a telephone interview Wednesday, before her inaugural reading at the Library of Congress. “Poetry can be very useful at the end of life.”
The U.S. poet laureate, who is chosen by the Librarian of Congress, has few duties beyond fostering a national appreciation of the reading and writing poetry. And, if you’re wondering, no, this is not a case of your tax dollars at work.
The poet laureate’s stipend is privately funded through an endowment created in 1936 by Archer M. Huntington, a philanthropist whose mother was from Richmond. Among Huntington’s many gifts was the money to start the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News.

The title originally was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1985, Congress changed it to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

When he had the job in 1963, Howard Nemerov was only half joking, the library says in a history, when he wrote, “The Consultant in Poetry is a very busy man, chiefly because he spends so much time talking with people who want to know what the Consultant in Poetry does.”

For Smith, who still remembers the thrill of discovering Emily Dickinson in fifth grade, her job will be to make poetry less stressful and more enjoyable.
“People have anxiety about poetry,” she said. They see a poem as an object “that must be analyzed to death to be enjoyed or understood.”
But there’s no need to feel obliged to wrestle hidden meaning from poems. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from taking a few minutes from our busy, tech- and information-overloaded days to let poetry speak to us?
“Poems teach us how to read them,” Smith says. So, when her students read a poem for the first time, she starts with a simple question: “What do you notice?”
It’s a good question, one I plan to ask myself more often – and not only when I’m reading a poem.   
© 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Get your curiosity on! -- Sept. 7, 2017 column

About 2,500 book lovers erupted in sustained applause when author David McCullough talked about a mantel in the White House. But this was no ordinary hunk of cold marble.
The audience at the National Book Festival in the Washington Convention Center Sept. 2 applauded the hopeful words inscribed in the mantelpiece:  “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”  
McCullough was doing what he’s done for half a century: telling America’s stories so we will remember who we are as a people and the values we share.  
He explained that John Adams, the first president to live in the White House, wrote the sentence in a letter to his wife, Abigail. Franklin Roosevelt had the words carved into a wooden mantel in the State Dining Room, and John Kennedy later had them carved in marble so they’d last forever.
“And I think it’s very important to understand . . .he (Adams) put honesty first, ahead of wisdom,” McCullough said. “Honesty.”
The redoubtable McCullough, a vigorous 84, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, didn’t utter the name Donald Trump. He didn’t need to.
The audience also applauded warmly when he said, again without the name, “None of our great presidents has ever been one who didn’t have any interest in history.”
Trump proudly says he doesn’t read books – history, biographies of presidents or anything else – because he’s so busy. Besides, his brain is so big he doesn’t need to read. He reaches the right decisions because he has a lot of common sense, he says.
With the help of ghostwriters, Trump has published about 10 books, mostly about his business acumen and success.
Not every president has been an intellectual, and some readers and deep thinkers in the White House have been accused of dithering instead of acting. During the campaign, McCullough was among historians who warned voters that the vulgarian Trump was a clown, unsuited for the job.
Pulling back from direct criticism of the sitting president, McCullough now reminds people of the strain of intellectual curiosity that has run through the White House:
John Quincy Adams spoke many languages and may have had the highest IQ of any president. Jefferson was a genius in many fields. The brilliant Theodore Roosevelt wrote many books, including a definitive history of the Naval War of 1812.
Woodrow Wilson was a professor of history at Princeton. Dwight Eisenhower himself wrote every word of “Crusade in Europe,” a classic about World War II, without the help of any ghostwriter.
McCullough, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “Truman,” praises Harry Truman, who lacked a college degree but loved to read, including Latin.  
John F. Kennedy wrote three books of history, including “Profiles in Courage,” which is still read.
“Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages” is one of McCullough’s favorite lines. But our educational system is letting us down.
“We are raising several generations of young Americans…who are by and large historically illiterate, and it’s not their fault,” he said. “We have to stimulate curiosity.”
McCullough’s latest book, “The American Spirit,” is a collection of speeches he’s given around the country over the years. He wrote it mindful of Trump, but it’s aimed at helping readers gain perspective.
At an immigration and naturalization ceremony at Monticello July 4, 1994, McCullough said Thomas Jefferson “was an exceedingly gifted and very great man, but like the others of that exceptional handful of politicians we call the Founding Fathers, he could also be inconsistent, contradictory, human.”
So Jefferson wasn’t perfect, but his “absolute belief in education” is part of his lasting legacy. Jefferson “said any nation that expects to be ignorant and free . . . never has been and never will be,” McCullough said.
For many of us, the start of the school year feels like New Year’s without the hangover. Fall is a time of possibilities and a second stab at resolutions.
No matter our politics, it’s time to rev up the curiosity that separates us from cabbages. What are you reading this fall?   
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.