Passover – A Celebration of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others.

In truth, whoever our ancestors, some were probably slaves. Some were serfs in Europe. Women and African-Americans have been bought and sold in much of the world. African-Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved in this country. The Haggadah, essentially the prayer-book for Passover, has been repeatedly rewritten in part to take account of new struggles for freedom. As we remind ourselves every year, “Not for ourselves alone do we pray, not for ourselves alone, but for all Your children.”

Sometimes it is also necessary to remind ourselves that freedom is indivisible – we all have a stake in each other’s freedom. The slavery of some makes the freedom of the rest of us less secure. I met my wife in 1966 because it was not safe for her to go to the Tehran bazaar without a male escort. White working men before the Civil War understood that their freedom was undermined by Black slavery – the terms and conditions of their employment undermined by what masters could get from their slaves, even as today the conditions of American workers are undermined by the abuse of workers all over the world, and the conditions of the middle class are affected by the abuse of less fortunate workers.

Freedom is not license and it implies caring about each other, not the freedom to ignore the plight of others.

We all grew up telling each other “It’s a free country.” But many of us don’t stop to figure out what that means. Free of taxes? Impossible; that was never true. Indeed the absence of government would reduce us all to slavery, naked and defenseless against every form of force, fraud, scam and abuse. Free to do anything you want without regard to other people? All of us used to call that idea license and distinguished it from freedom. License is uncivilized, the law of the jungle, that allowed and still allows some to enslave others.

Much of American history is about that fight for freedom and we celebrate it. Americans fought for significant freedoms. We fought for political freedom, the right to govern ourselves, the right to representation in the legislatures, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial and all the essential elements so that we would not convict and imprison the guiltless. We fought for civil freedoms – the right to buy and sell, to testify in courts, and the right to marry. Those freedoms are in our Constitution but it was only a few decades ago, in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, that the U.S. Supreme Court actually started enforcing them – another example of the indivisibility of freedom.

Freedom is the gift we share and it is the gift for which we work together. Jews try to celebrate it with family but we also celebrate it as a multi-cultural holiday. Freedom is indivisible.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 15, 2014.


Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

March 11, 2014

Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

A number of listeners have been raising that question in the wake of WAMC reports of lack of medical care in prisons, and my support for Cuomo’s position about educating prisoners.

Let’s assume that we don’t care about them at all. But we care about us. So what is the effect on us of what we do to them?

Actually the implications are huge. Read the rest of this entry »


Environmental Degradation as Murder

February 18, 2014

I don’t think of myself as a motivational speaker. I try to explain, and hope my commentaries provide helpful explanations. But this time, I want to challenge and motivate everyone to take strong action on the environmental catastrophe facing us.

We know burning gas, oil, coal and wood release carbon and help produce global warming. Some of that carbon acidifies the oceans when it’s absorbed. Air and water contamination destroy our food supplies, by destroying habitat and causing draught, among other ways. That destroys us. Global warming and ocean acidification threaten the oxygen we breathe. They threaten to sicken us with new diseases. The science is now well known.

Law generally defines murder as an intentional killing. And we infer that people intend the natural and probable consequences of their actions. And we know. Aren’t those of us who stand by guilty of mass murder-suicide, intending the natural and probable consequence of our use of carbon fuels, the death of many, perhaps billions, of human beings. Isn’t it reckless indifference to human life to fire global warming into this crowded planet. Read the rest of this entry »


The Chemical Contamination in West Virginia

January 28, 2014

Before moving to Albany thirty-five years ago, we lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – a university town and a mining town. We knew people in both worlds. Our daughter was only seven, but after we moved she got letters from a little friend there who was the son of a miner. Miners lived all around.

Morgantown was very special, but the chemical leak and contamination in Charlestown reveals the naiveté of many in West Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., who believe that whatever is good for the companies is good for us, that the companies are looking out for our welfare. Read the rest of this entry »


Supreme Court Recess Appointments Case

January 14, 2014

The Supreme Court heard argument yesterday about recess appointments. The Constitution says:

The President shall have the power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions, which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Presidents have made such appointments since the Washington Administration. In the eighteenth century, adjournments were lengthy because travel to one’s state or district could take months. Now senators and representatives can make the trip quickly. Since at least Ronald Reagan, presidents have made appointments during intra-session adjournments of the Senate.

Democrats under Bush and Republicans under Obama started calling lengthy adjournments “pro forma sessions.” Nothing is supposed to happen; the Senate is vacant except for a couple of senators to gavel in these pro forma sessions. The purpose is straightforward – to prevent the president, initially Bush, now Obama, from making recess appointments so the government could keep functioning. Justices, on both sides of the political aisle, described that as “intransigence” and “irresponsibl[e].” Read the rest of this entry »


Polygamy and American Constitutional Law

January 7, 2014

A conversation on The Roundtable convinced me to address polygamy. A judge in Utah decided that state could ban formal legal polygamy but could not ban people living in comparable arrangements without formal legal sanctions. Some people argue that legalization of polygamy follows from constitutional protection of gay and lesbian relationships. If one consensual relationship is OK, therefore so are all the others. That is a mistake. The law does not work that way.  Read the rest of this entry »


Supreme Poison: Adultery and States’ Rights

November 16, 2013

A week ago my students and I went to the U.S. Supreme Court and saw the argument in Bond v. United States.

Carol Bond tried to poison Myrlinda Haynes because of an affair with Bond’s husband. Local authorities wouldn’t bother helping Haynes but sent her to the Postal Service, because poison was found in her mail and the Postal Service has the power to prosecute crimes involving the mail. The Postal Service set up a camera and caught Bond in the act. Postal inspectors arrested Bond and a federal grand jury indicted her for violating the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act.

The United States is a party to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Congress passed a statute to implement the Convention which prohibited “knowing possession or use, for nonpeaceful purposes, of a chemical that can cause death” or other harms. Treaties and state failure to execute them were a major reason for the Constitution, which gives Congress power to pass laws that are necessary and proper for carrying them out.

But attorneys for Bond smelled an opportunity to narrow national power, arguing such crimes were local and reserved to the states. Read the rest of this entry »


Detroit Bankruptcy

August 29, 2013

The Detroit bankruptcy is likely to mean a big hit for people’s pensions. Think about that: people have worked all their lives and now you tell them the terms just changed, and at precisely the part of their lives when they will find it hard to replace the lost income.

There are two issues involved in the bankruptcy. One is the outrageous fact that wages and pensions are not treated as secured so they take second place to banks and others whose only skin in the game is money, not the sweat of their brows over  lifetimes of work. That’s the legal rule but I’ve never liked it. It creates maximum hardship. Cities and companies go bankrupt for the very reason that they can dishonor their pension obligations. Federal laws require companies to do some things to protect us. But if they don’t do well enough, well, there’s always bankruptcy. That, in my view, is a travesty. Read the rest of this entry »


We Know They’re Spying on Us But How Are They Using the Information?

August 6, 2013

We have heard a great deal under both Bush and Obama about the extent of government surveillance, with a crescendo in recent weeks. We are learning that virtually all of us turn up in government surveillance in some way.

Dan Solove, in a series of wonderful books beginning with The Digital Person, has made clear that the problem is probably much worse than that, because the government employs a variety of private companies to massage its data. And still worse because we know that data is constantly bought and sold, mixed and matched, with results that are sometimes comic and sometimes tragic – people assigned identities by insufficiently skeptical computers that confuse our records with the records of criminals or v.i.p.’s. The databases can and do make mistakes that flag innocent people and deny them the right to vote, the ability to get a loan, a mortgage or just get on a plane.  Read the rest of this entry »


The New Jim Crow

July 16, 2013

While coming to record last week’s commentary, I was listening to Michelle Alexander on Alternative Radio. If you haven’t heard her or read her book, The New Jim Crow, I strongly recommend it. Some of us knew the basic facts but she fills in the details and makes the argument brilliantly.

I want to elaborate something implicit in her talk but not fully expressed – what she described is why civil liberties matter, one of the major reasons the ACLU was formed, and why Alexander was an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 160 other followers