Veritas/Aequitas

THE VALUE OF STRUGGLE

robinson_david_philly_1980

David Robinson still returns to the U.S. to attend events that honor his father, but otherwise spends most of his time farming coffee in Africa. (AP)

BARA VILLAGE, Tanzania — At one 10 p.m. during his 25 complicated years running a coffee farm down here near the Zambian border, the truck broke down along the road. David Robinson would have to walk. This former New Yorker raised in Connecticut would have to trudge on through one of the world’s most profound antitheses of New York. This third child and second son from the famous American family of Jackie and Rachel Robinson would have to step alone along the unpaved roads, through the shortcut he’d learned, through darkness that might have contained a few hazards. A man from a nation renowned for advancements in comfort would take this hours-long path toward his farmhouse, nary a flicker of electricity along the way (including in the farmhouse).

He didn’t moan. His pulse didn’t quicken. He has lived in Tanzania since 1981, mostly (and still) in the metropolis, Dar es Salaam, 500 miles over on the Indian Ocean, but often around here in his bare farmhouse.

"I wasn’t afraid," he says believably.

* * *

He began.

In a 61-year-old man still brimming with curiosity and intent, a rarefied willingness to struggle is apparent on this disagreeable road all by itself. It leaves the last real pavement back near the town of Mbozi. Its potholes pretty much metastasize to craters as you go. The last 2½ miles alone require about 50 minutes of such bouncing, stopping and edging through creeks that the SUV comes to resemble an athlete. “It’s a normal process,” Robinson said. “Everybody gets out. You shovel. You move rocks. You push. You pull.” The road reserves particular scorn for debut drivers, so that Robinson says, “Every driver starts probably 10 miles back, ‘Man! This is a lot further than I thought! The roads! Boy, we agreed to a price, but this is totally different!’”

Sure enough, the driver for this day complains to Robinson in Kiswahili.

Signs of struggle unfamiliar to the comfortable dot the roads to Robinson’s Sweet Unity coffee farm. Small boys must tend to much-bigger cattle. Women carry goods on their heads even as Robinson wishes their families would buck cultural norms and accept donkeys to help out. A modest new building has risen as the schoolhouse-and-cinema, and as the children traipse in on a Saturday afternoon to see a video about Yellowstone National Park through a projector donated by Major League Baseball, many have never seen anywhere else but here. (“It thrills me, it kills me,” Robinson said of the chance — and need — to show these young the world.) It’s remote and disconnected enough that a farmer once asked Robinson if coffee was used to make ethanol. The people of the village make their own bricks. They caulk the bricks with mud, which works.

Robinson knows about the mud, plus a raft of other things you’d have never forecast he’d know back when he alone integrated New Canaan Country Day School as a boy in Connecticut. Back along the Tanzania-Zambia Highway, he can point to a truck and say, “This is copper coming in from Zambia.” He can tell you it’s 60 days to the corn harvest and add, “The sunflower, also.” As the SUV peels off toward the hard roads, he can tell of the elaborate process of getting the first electricity out this way — four years ago. He can tell you the road out of Mbozi with all its shops and markets had a wild-west feel until some pavement came two years ago, and how the road gets menacingly dusty during dry season even as it’s plenty dusty here at the end of rainy season.

He has made this painstaking trek six times a year for the last 25 years. He has done so with his Tanzanian wife and various large groups from among his 12 children (10 surviving). Often dividing into “Team A and Team B,” they have ridden the two taxis to the bus station in Dar, 12-hour bus to Mbeya, the bus to the hotel in Mbeya, and from there some series of two trucks and a bus. They have done the years when you had to rise at 3 a.m. on the farm to walk three hours to the only daily bus. They have slept on floors, stayed the coffee-harvest months (June-July) in small brick houses with no electricity or running water. Forever they grapple with transportation even for the elemental act of moving the coffee from the area farmers to the cooperative. For that truck rental, the measurements must be precise, or the cost will hurt.

Further, Robinson has dealt with all the halting learning across all the years. (“The first shipment of coffee I sent out… we didn’t even grade the coffee!”) The description of the shipping issues alone could give somebody a headache. He has dealt with the politics of the cooperative, from the 47 families at the beginning to the 700 later to the roughly 300 nowadays. He stresses that 450,000 Tanzanian families farm coffee and nobody makes a fortune. He and Sweet Unity have pushed on through the harsh setback in 2000 when 10 men with machetes stole about eight tons of coffee. For a while after that, he’d sleep in the office with the 12-gauge.

Around 4 p.m. on a Saturday, he advises that the village market may or may not have food and that that’s all there’ll be. A woman does have food, and her teenaged son cooks potato omelets in a brick hut while adorable children stare and giggle through the windows at the white extraterrestrial, eating. One baby boy, maybe six months old, wails with clear fear at a first-ever sighting of a white person, prompting a one-liner about whether that baby has some innate sense of history.

By dusk, Robinson and driver and guest reach the farmhouse. He shows a hole-in-the-ground toilet and says, “All the western comforts of home!” On chairs out front as darkness comes hard, he thinks of his Stamford childhood and this neighbor-less present and says, “The comparison that I think about in terms of my father’s life and my own is the lack of social visitors. Not that he and I are unsocial people but I just don’t think we have enough to talk about with people other than the co-op business… He had his social life when he would go every day to New York. People he knew in New York were his social life. Holidays, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and a couple of times in the summer extended family would come. And a huge, huge Thanksgiving dinner. Thirty people. Five or six women who could cook every conceivable type of food on Earth. Pies and cakes and breads.”

By candlelight, he remembers his father as a “straitlaced” man who spoke sparingly and didn’t smoke or drink, but took David on meaningful outings to fishing, to Belmont or Aqueduct, to caddying for his father. Jackie Robinson’s baseball career had ended (1957) by the time David Robinson’s childhood really got going, he says, and then he notes another, and strange, parallel to childhood: the need to kill snakes. Occasionally he sprays the farmhouse in case any snakes have roosted in the rafters in his three-month absence.

His snake-phobic guest promptly sleeps in the SUV under a sky full of stars.

A dog barks serially.

He or she was probably irked at hyenas, Robinson explains later.

His all-night walk from the broken-down truck began. Local knowledge did help. “In 24 years we’ve seen one lion out here,” Robinson said, “so there’s no danger of wildlife. And he was an old male lion, hunting on his own and surely decrepit, and he hit my son’s pig. You know, you could see the claw marks on the side of my son’s pig, but the pig got away. That’s a very bad sign, you know, for a lion.”

He reached Africa first at 15, in 1967, tagging along with his mother, Rachel, who just lately visited again at the hardy age of 91. They saw Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the game parks, the wide-open space. On her way home she dropped him off for a month with friends in West Africa, in Ghana. Here was a child who had spent his first nine school years integrating a private school, not to mention an ice hockey team. To walk around in a majority lent “an instant eye-opening to the subconscious,” he said, “but I’m not going to say that I was so politically aware or astute that I made that observation as a 15-year-old.” Four years later, after one year at Stanford and at numerous anti-Vietnam War protests, he returned to Africa, alone.

That 10-month odyssey took him over to Namibia, up to Morocco, over to Ethiopia, way up to Scotland, even. He did the things a wandering 19-year-old might. He somehow walked into Khartoum shorn of his shoes, so the locals helped. He hitchhiked to Casablanca. He even volunteered, for room and board, at a company filming the Loch Ness hoping to spot the monster. Tanzania, most of all, beckoned.

"That’s when I was able to say this is a place that I can be connected to, that can be a home," he said. "And it took me 10 years to get back. I went back to New York (through the 1970s) and spent 10 years in New York prior to being able to return, but that was always the concept, game plan, dream, returning. I dreamt of Tanzania for three nights out of seven for 10 years."

Tanzania had unity, sweet unity (and, by now, Sweet Unity). From the CIA World Factbook report, one factoid shouts: about 30 percent Christian, about 30 percent Muslim. As Robinson points out, the first president was Christian, the next Muslim, the next Christian, the current, Muslim. “I think Jules Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who negotiated independence from England (in 1964), I think he’s given the country a soul and a philosophy that has held us strong from 1964 up to today,” Robinson said. “A lot of humanist values, a lot of African identity, concepts of unity, collective economics, things that bode well for an environment of peace and accepting coexistence. You know, we have 120 different tribes in Tanzania, but no tribalism to the degree where there’s violent conflict. There’s a lot of intermarriage, and a lot of integration in residential communities. And that was in part developed by Nyerere’s philosophy of Swahili as the national language that all 120 tribes would carry as well as their own local language.”

A U.S. passport-holder with 33 years of Tanzanian residence, he’s a citizen of the world, but for Tanzania he always uses the pronouns “we” and “our.” “I think every Tanzanian over 20 years old or 15 years old is conscious of the strength in our eternal peace and respect,” he said. “And, you know, when Christians hear Muslim being abusive or Muslims hear Christians being abusive, sure, it hurts their religion, but there’s as much concern about encouraging the national unity. So it’s a great thing. We’ll see. And unity has been a theme in my life, a conscious theme since I was living in Harlem, at about 22, 23.”

So of course, it’s his business philosophy. He can get teary reading a coffee company’s manifesto about fair trade. He aims to meld the world’s biggest coffee consumer — the United States — with a big grower — Tanzania — to make Americans more aware of Africans, Africans more aware of Americans and everybody more aware of the farmers without whom no sublime cup would materialize. He can go on about the global relationships with the Canadian roasters in Toronto, Cuban roasters from New York. “It works both ways,” he said. “The consumer gets an enhanced global education and sensibility and the farmer gets more dollars in the pocket. In our totally tiny, totally street-operation way, we’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a church. We’re not highly educated. We’re not a whole lot of things.”

They are a melding of Robinson’s American-ness and African-ness, a way to “touch more people” than he could in New York. “In Harlem,” he said, “we took two years studying the housing market and trying to figure out how to help individuals get in the game, you know, minority groups get in the game, and that’s what we’re doing here as well. How do farmers get out of this mess of continued poverty? You’ve got to do something. You just can’t keep doing this. And, I mean, particularly because I’m born in New York, I can see potentials and options. You know, it’s tough when you’re born here, and most of these people in this village haven’t been to Mbeya town (two hours away), and so it’s tough to try to come up with options.

"But for myself, that’s what we figure is our job, and that’s one of the supposed benefits out of the tragedy (of slavery) is that we’re born in the West, and we have this exposure, we have this potential vision, and let’s put it to use, so we can come here and people are farming in a $100 billion industry and we can say, ‘Listen, we can do better here.’ And the mission was, that if we’re going to work with coffee farmers, then we need to be coffee farmers. And if we’re going to be part of the community, then we’ve got to live here, and struggle, and learn from that struggle."

In a country with villages deeply organized, Robinson had to attain an original letter of recommendation from a council in order to purchase land. It began: “Our blood has returned.” When he has arrived on the truck covered in dust, he has taken care to remember it inconsequential next to the struggles of previous generations. He keeps the churn of the generations consistently in mind, and one of his daughters helps Sweet Unity with the marketing from New York.

"I wouldn’t be here except for my father," he said by the coffee trees one Sunday morning, "and my father wouldn’t have been there except for his mother coming off the plantation. His mother literally came off the plantation and went to California. You know, he wouldn’t have been the UCLA five-letter, four-letter athlete, without his mother taking that step off the plantation. His mother wouldn’t have been there if for five generations her folk hadn’t persevered in slavery to say, ‘We’re going to get out of this one day.’"

robinson_farm_1200Far from the creature comforts he grew up with, David prefers to avoid the excesses of the modern world. (Chuck Culpepper)

* * *

Through the wee hours, all through that night of the bum truck, his walk continued, but blissfully. “I took a shortcut and I was hoping I wasn’t getting myself lost, and I’m used to walking to I don’t know, what is that, eight-hour walk, I’ve done eight-hour walks before,” he said. “You know, sometimes walking by yourself, you’re just glad to be by yourself and you just trot along. You always know that if you put one foot in front of the other you’re going to get somewhere. Thank the Lord, the moon came out, it was one of those nights when the moon came up after midnight, but it was of great comfort and assistance.”

He doesn’t follow sports. Hand him a newspaper and he’ll peel out the business section. Business clearly fascinates and beguiles him as he claims to lack the proper brain for it. He’s certainly not a huckster, not with his philosophy of unity, but he’s also not a socialist and not a flake. He’s a tireless reader, at present a book about Berlin in 1945, daily about the farmers in Scotland or the economics of a new camera company. Like many a head of state or economics professor, he’s forever reading, thinking, scouring the world for the best economic balance.

In the schoolhouse one afternoon, he spoke about excess. If he still lived in New York, he would eat Häagen-Dazs butter pecan far too frequently and, he said, “That’s not a sustainable lifestyle.” At his house in Dar es Salaam, he must go outside to draw the water for the bath.

He is happy with that standard.

"And," he said, "I am happy that I am happy with that standard of bringing the water to the house. In this country and globally, that’s really great access to water. For some of us, it’s important to keep ourselves at that level. It’s how we keep our equilibrium."

In his calm, deep, soothing voice, he warned of the “excesses that you can get used to. There’s just no limits to the excesses so you really have to be careful.” It struck him unforgettably that in one of the recent-years financial scandals, a wayward businessman had spent $3,000 on a shower curtain.

"Shoot, I have a donkey, two donkeys, and I’m not sure if one has died or not," he said. "We try to keep two donkeys to carry the water up to the farm and from a kilometer away. And the water from the river is a lot less clear than the water coming out of the pipe at home. So I have a very specific life example to be happy about the water coming out at home because it’s not coming from two donkeys in the river. And believe me, everything has surpassed me here. I can’t drive my Land Rover anymore because only Rajabu (the farm manager) knows how to get it into first and second gear, maneuver it, and the damned donkeys…

"It’s embarrassing having to chase your own donkeys through the village. I won’t do it."

It’s far-times-far from New Canaan Country Day School, and he has heard some diagnose that he came all this way to get out from under his father’s enduring fame, which last year took him to Beverly Hills for the movie premier of 42. He knows that can be an issue for some but thinks his father’s basic humility — the golf, horses, fishing — soothed it for him. Back at elementary school, his father’s fame helped socially, even if it couldn’t get him invited to the ice rink or fox hunts. “It all raised questions of identity early,” he said, “and even if it didn’t find answers, it raised questions. And I think that was a great experience because I think the earlier you begin to question identity, the better off you are in getting on that journey to something that we all need to answer.”

And so one recent Friday morning, in the airport taking the two-hour propeller jet from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, the youngest of the three Robinson children had come all the way to say: “My father had an opportunity with a phone call from a Branch Rickey. I had an opportunity with an early trip to Africa. Let’s take that and again, look for a social-change vehicle.”

* * *

The walk from the stuck truck went all through the night. And he said, “I made it to our farm as the sun was coming up.” And: “At the end of a long trip this is what we do, who we are.” And: “It was a bit exhilarating to reach in the morning with the sunrise.”

In that sunrise, he had pinpointed again the value of a struggle. He had relished his long walk just as he had chosen to do so, and just as two remarkable parents had raised a remarkable man himself.

Breaking Bad's Walter White, surrounded by money.
Breaking Bad’s mega-rich meth kingpin Walter White, totally conservative.
On Monday I wrote about how liberalism has won the battle of public opinion. Among all the arguments I made, one stands above them all: If conservatives really thought they had public opinion on their side, they wouldn’t spend so much time and effort trying to disenfranchise voters and making it harder to vote. If the public was with them, they’d be working to expand the franchise.

As a liberal, I want everyone to vote. Heck, provide voter registration cards when getting a gun license, I don’t care! But conservatives know that the more people vote, the poorer they do. Indeed, the only reason they have a good chance of winning November’s elections is because off-year turnout is lower than during presidential years. So as far as I’m concerned, case closed. If conservatives want to argue that the American people are behind them, that needs to be accompanied by a genuine effort to expand voter access.

Still, conservatives were OUTRAGED by the notion that they’ve been ditched by the American people. And none responded more hilariously than Breitbart’s John Nolte’s “11 reasons the Left has not won the culture wars.”

Head below the fold so we can take on the hilarious notion in exquisite detail. I promise, it’ll be fun!

1. While judges are legalizing gay marriage, Christianity is making a major comeback in the free market of entertainment.  
Judges are doing what they’re doing because of the United States Constitution, that thing conservatives carry around in their pockets to wave whenever convenient. But here’s the thing: In the last two years alone, gay marriage has been legalized in Illinois, Minnesota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maryland and Washington via the legislature, not the courts. And when voters got to weigh in, they upheld those votes in Minnesota, Maryland and Washington, while overturning their previous referendum vote in Maine, legalizing it there as well.

Efforts to move a ban forward at the legislature just failed in Indiana—where Republicans have huge majorities—and the Nevada Republican Party just abandoned the issue altogether. And of course, there’s the public opinion. Anyone who looks at the numbers showing opposition to same-sex marriage in the mid-30s and responds with “judges are ramming it down our throats!” is deluded.

And the part about “Christianity making a major comeback in the free market of entertainment”? Nolte isn’t talking about Noah, which he considers Satanic (no joke!). He’s talking about God’s Not Dead. One movie, grossing a measly $41 million. For a movie made that cheaply, that’s pretty good! But when compared to the mass movie market, it’s a blip. The anti-neocon, pro-civil liberties Captain America, by comparison, is currently at around half a billion at the box office.

2. While pot is being legalized in a few states, the pro-abortion movement is on its heels in a majority of states and in opinion polls.  
Public opinion is shifting as quickly on marijuana as it has on gay marriage. What exactly does that have to do with abortion? I guess it’s a way to minimize the impact of that success. But even on abortion, conservative gains have come from legislatures they captured in the 2010 wave, and not from mass public demand.

Indeed, while polls show support for some restrictions on choice, the conservative position of “always illegal” has little support. CNN has it at 20 percent, Quinnipiac at 12 percent (with “illegal in most cases” at 25 percent), CBS at 21 percent. And so forth. And worse for conservatives—the strongest supporters of abortion rights in the 2012 exit polling came from Latinos, which also happen to be the largest growing demographic in the country.

3. While television shows become more sex-driven, elsewhere on television the masculine male is making a comeback on wildly popular reality shows that celebrate the working class and their traditional values.  
That’s a link to National Geographic Channel, you know, the one that does nature shows and advocates for protecting the environment and talks about science and evolution. Huh.

But let’s take a more holistic look and take a gander at the 100 most popular TV shows of fall 2013—how many on there would be characterized as “conservative”? I count zero, but admittedly, I don’t know every show on that list. But I do know that Duck Dynasty doesn’t crack the top 100. [Edit: As noted in comments, that list is just broadcast and excludes cable. If cable was included Duck Dynasty would probably crack the top 20.]

4. While Colbert wins David Letterman’s spot, Jimmy Fallon figured out he had to remain apolitical if he wanted to remain number one.
This Jimmy Fallon? Very apolitical:

The same Fallon that did this, according to a conservative media critic site?

The Obamas have had few more obsequious media allies than NBC’s Jimmy Fallon. Now that he’s taking over the hallowed ground of “The Tonight Show,” Fallon’s proven ability to spread his reach into viral videos on YouTube promises to become even more politically potent.

Fallon’s Obama-friendly sketches and interviews have become immediate “news” grist for the Comcast corps at NBC and MSNBC. The same sensation happens when Fallon is ripping into a Republican.

Truth is, Republicans are hilarious, and making fun of them sells.
5. While the rise of the weak, neurotic, man-child metrosexual-nerd dominates one forgettable movie after another, a new Golden Age in television has brought us an assembly line of flawed but masculine anti-heroes — “real men” protagonists like Jack Bauer, Don Draper, Walter White, Raylan Givens, Tony Soprano, the cast of The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, and even House of Cards.
Let’s see: Jack Bauer, who has been off the air for five years, Don Draper is a self-deceiving womanizer (so okay, conservative), Walter White is a meth manufacturer murderer who had to turn to crime because he couldn’t get health insurance to treat his cancer. Is being a meth kingpin now “conservative”? How about a mafia don? Kevin Spacey in House of Cards kills a dog with his bare hands in the opening scene, which I guess is conservative. But he’s a Democrat. So maybe not. And I concede, Shane Walsh in the Walking Dead is very conservative, what with sleeping with his best friend’s wife and then feeding another human being to the zombies in order to save his skin. And that’s just Season 1 2!

But let’s step back for a moment and just ponder the broader implications of Nolte’s claim: Being a “real man” is conservative. Goes to show, they are still neanderthals at heart.

By the way, the top sitcom on TV? Big Bang Theory. Runner up? Modern Family. Probably not a single conservative “real man” among them both. And normal Americans don’t have a problem with it.

6. While Miley twerks and MTV baby-mamas, unions and the union mentality are dying.
Um, what does one have to do with the other, other than nothing? And I thought we were talking about the culture wars. I think we can grant conservatives the union thing, in the “economic wars” portion of this contest.
7. While the left-wing mainstream media figures out how to survive, conservative media is on the upswing.
Of the top 100 sites, I count three “conservative” ones. Of cable networks, Fox is at #6, with lots of “left-wing mainstream media” rounding out the rest of the top 20. It’s amazing the bubble they’ve built for themselves, one that tells them that conservative media is taking over, when the reality is so easy to discern.
8. While the gaystapo makes war against those who don’t wish to celebrate the gay-married,  the demand for charter schools and school choice grows.  
Again, what does one have to do with the other? But it’s funny, in a piece supposedly focused on proving that conservatives haven’t lost the culture war, Nolte sure is conceding all the places that conservatives have lost the culture war.

But funny as always, that link to school choice? It’s a CATO piece on how Republicans were pushing charter schools in the 2011 Virginia governor’s race and the New Jersey special Senate election. And guess what happened? Republicans lost both races. So, John? You might want to try a different link.

9. While we’re paying for Sandra Fluke’s right to birth control, we’re prevailing on our Second Amendment civil rights in ways unimagined just ten years ago.
So conceding they lost the war on contraceptives? Good for Nolte! Of course, that war was won 40 years ago. Not sure why conservatives want to re-litigate something used by 95 percent of Americans. I guess they really love the fringe!

But on guns, public opinion is firmly on the side of stricter gun laws. Indeed, the polling on background checks is off the charts. So no, that’s not a culture war victory for conservatives, it’s an institution governing one. The NRA is powerful, and they really do own the fruits of their victories.

A young boy is comforted outside Sandy Hook Elementary School after a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012. A shooter opened fire at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, killing several people including children, the Ha
10. While our federal government is constructing Orwellian First Amendment Zones, the Supreme Court is slowly suffocating the campaign finance laws that gave our government, union and media overseers a near-monopoly on political speech.
Campaign finance laws are now a culture war issue? And even if we grant that, fact is that 80 percent of the public opposed the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.

Funny how for Nolte, the courts moving the right way on marriage equality, in sync with public opinion, is a bad thing. But the court “suffocating” campaign finance laws contrary to the vast majority of the American people is totally awesome.

Conservatives have lost on the issue. The only thing left is for the Supreme Court to look like America today, and not the America of Ronald Reagan’s years.

11. Occupy is dead. The Tea Party lives.
The tea party is seen favorably by less than 30 percent of the American people. The longer it lives, the longer it will continue gifting us Senate seats like it did in Indiana, Missouri, Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut and Nevada.

Meanwhile, talk of income inequality and economic populism—the raison d’être of the Occupy movement—is only gaining steam. Heck, even REPUBLICANS have are using such language.

So that’s 11, but Nolte doesn’t know how to count, so he continues:

Moreover, we live in a culture that will never again (or at least in the foreseeable future) spit on the American Serviceman or get weak-kneed on crime.
Weak-kneed on crime?
Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws
And:
Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty
And let’s not forget decriminalization of marijuana, given that “Just Say No” has been a cornerstone of conservative criminal policy for generations.

Oh well.

As for spitting on American Servicemen, that’s true! Unless they are gay. Then it’s conservative-approved.

So let’s recap their culture war “victories”: 1) there are asshole men portrayed on TV, which is totally conservative, especially the ones that murder people and engage in criminal activities, but 2) crime is bad and conservatives are tough on it.

3) Judges are horrible for ramming popular gay marriage down our throat, but 4) judges are awesome for “drowning” popular campaign finance reform laws.

5) Nevermind that stuff on crime, because more guns are awesome!, and 6) Sarah Palin had that show so we win.

Good for you, conservatives! You win! And you are all so popular and victorious that you should have no problem expanding the voting franchise, right? Let’s do a national vote-by-mail, why don’t we? Or have an expanded three-week voting period, so that no one has to worry about missing work on a Tuesday.

Let’s make sure everyone can vote, so how about universal voter registration? Maybe we do an Australia and make voting mandatory? Or if you want to be less heavy handed, we make Election Day a national holiday. Sound good? You are so popular, that having so many people vote would guarantee conservative majorities forever!

Right?

It was an otherwise ordinary snow day in Hartford, Connecticut, and I was laughing as I headed outside to shovel my driveway. I’d spent the morning scrambling around, trying to stay ahead of my three children’s rising housebound energy, and once my shovel hit the snow, I thought about how my wife had been urging me to buy a snowblower. I hadn’t felt an urgent need. Whenever it got ridiculously blizzard-like, I hired a snow removal service. And on many occasions, I came outside to find that our next door neighbor had already cleared my driveway for me.

Never mind that our neighbor was an empty-nester in his late 60s with a replaced hip, and I was a former professional ballplayer in his early 40s. I kept telling myself I had to permanently flip the script and clear his driveway. But not today. I had to focus on making sure we could get our car out for school the next morning. My wife was at a Black History Month event with our older two kids. The snow had finally stopped coming down and this was my mid-afternoon window of opportunity.

Just as I was good-naturedly turning all this over in my mind, my smile disappeared.

A police officer from West Hartford had pulled up across the street, exited his vehicle, and begun walking in my direction. I noted the strangeness of his being in Hartford—an entirely separate town with its own police force—so I thought he needed help. He approached me with purpose, and then, without any introduction or explanation he asked, “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

All of my homeowner confidence suddenly seemed like an illusion.

It would have been all too easy to play the “Do you know who I am?” game. My late father was an immigrant from Trinidad who enrolled at Howard University at age 31 and went on to become a psychiatrist. My mother was an important education reformer from the South. I graduated from an Ivy League school with an engineering degree, only to get selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. I went on to play professionally for nearly 15 years, retiring into business then going on to write a book and a column for The New York Times. Today, I work at ESPN in another American dream job that lets me file my taxes under the description “baseball analyst.”

But I didn’t mention any of this to the officer. I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question. But I knew I wouldn’t be smiling anymore that day.

After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.

***

When I moved my family to Connecticut, no relocation service, or anyone else we consulted for advice, ever mentioned Hartford as a viable option. They offered the usual suggestions for those who passed the prestige and wealth test—towns like West Hartford, Glastonbury, Avon, and Simsbury were presented as prime options. On one occasion, when I was preparing to announce a game, someone at our production meeting asked me where I lived. When I told him it was Hartford, he asked, “Really? Did you lose a bet?”

My family could have comfortably afforded a home in West Hartford. My wife is an attorney who graduated from two Ivy League schools. After getting her legal chops in the Philadelphia public defender’s office, she worked at the Chicago law firm where Barack Obama started his legal career. As we painstakingly considered where to live, my wife fielded off-putting warnings about Hartford from well-meaning friends: “You know what they say when you cross the line…”

But we settled on the capital city of Hartford for the cultural experience. Connecticut is one of the most polarized states in the country—as people simplistically put it, “poor black and brown cities surrounded by wealthy white suburbs.” Our decision was not based on the features advisors kept mentioning—shopping centers and malls, or nice homes and “good schools.” It was about a certain kind of civic responsibility and, quite frankly, about making sure our kids saw other people who looked like them.

Our street is one block from the West Hartford border, and our Hartford neighbors make up a sort of Who’s Who of political and legal leaders. The mayor lives behind us, the Connecticut governor’s house is up the street, and a state senator lives two doors down. As soon as I told my wife what had happened, she sent the senator a furious email under the subject line “Shoveling While Black”:

Doug just got detained by West Hartford Police in front of our house while shoveling our driveway, questioning him about asking to be paid for shoveling. The officer left when Doug told him that it was his house. There were several other people on our street out in front of their houses shoveling snow at the same time. None of them were stopped for questioning. Just wanted to vent to someone whom we know cares and would be equally outraged.

Before I could even digest what happened, my wife’s email had set a machine in motion. A diverse swatch of Hartford influentials banded together to assess the situation, including the chief of police, local attorneys, and security officers from the neighborhood civic association. Within a couple of hours, I had outlined my version of events to the Hartford police department’s internal affairs department. Most told me that I just had to decide how far I wanted to take my complaint.

Our next door neighbor (the one with the snowblower) helped my wife and me sort out the facts and figure out our options. He has a legal resume that covers a wide range of jurisprudence, from parking authorities to boards of African American–centric charter schools. He was in our living room within an hour.

The first step was to articulate exactly what the West Hartford officer had done. He’d been outside his jurisdiction—the representative from internal affairs had confirmed this. That meant a police officer from another town had come to my house, approached me while I was shoveling my own driveway, and—without any introduction—asked me a very presumptuous question. 

All of this had put me in an extremely vulnerable situation. In one moment, I went from being an ordinary father and husband, carrying out a simple household chore, to a suspect offering a defense. The inquiry had forced me to check my tone, to avoid sounding smug even when I was stating the obvious: that I was shoveling the driveway because the house belonged to me.

Many people I spoke with brought up Henry Louis Gates, the noted Harvard scholar who was arrested for breaking into his own home. If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?

As offended as I’d been, the worst part was trying to explain the incident to my kids. When I called my wife to tell her what had happened, she was on her way home from the Black History Month event, and my son heard her end of the conversation. Right away, he wanted to know whether I’d been arrested. My 4-year-old daughter couldn’t understand why a police officer would “hurt Daddy’s feelings.” I didn’t want to make my children fear the police. I also wasn’t ready to talk to them about stop-and-frisk policies, or the value judgments people put on race.

Until that moment, skin colors had been little more than adjectives to my kids. Some members of our family have bronze or latte skin; others are caramel-colored or dark brown. Our eldest and “lightest-skinned” daughter had at times matter-of-factly described her brother and me as “brown” and herself as “white.” But that night, my wife made it painfully simple. “We are black,” she explained. “All of us.”

***

After getting legal advice from my neighbor and my wife, I ruled out any immediate action. In fact, I was hesitant to impulsively share my story with anyone I knew, let alone my media friends at ESPN or The New York Times. I hoped to have a meaningful, productive conversation with West Hartford leaders—something that might be hard to achieve if my story turned into a high-profile controversy. Instead, I asked my neighbor to help me arrange a meeting with the West Hartford officials. When I arrived at Town Hall, I was flanked by my neighbor and my wife. They came as supporters, but it helped that they were also attorneys.

I soon learned that West Hartford had an ordinance that prohibits door-to-door solicitation. A man whom I allegedly resembled had broken this ordinance. Someone in West Hartford had called the police, and a young officer, believing he was doing his duty, had pursued the complaint to my street. Our block would have been the first stop for the wayward shoveler if he had entered Hartford.

Right away, I noted that the whole thing had been a lot of effort over shoveling. The West Hartford ordinance allowed its residents to call in violations at their own discretion—in effect, letting them decide who belonged in the neighborhood and who did not. That was a problem in itself, but it also put the police in a challenging position. They had to find a way to enforce the problem in a racially neutral way, even if they were receiving complaints only on a small subsection of violators. In my case, the officer had not only spoken to me without respect but had crossed over into a city where West Hartford’s ordinance didn’t even apply.  

But as we spoke, I found myself thinking of the people who have to deal with far more extreme versions of racial profiling on a regular basis and don’t have the ability to convene meetings at Town Hall. As an article in the April issue of The Atlantic points out, these practices have “side effects.” They may help police find illegal drugs and guns, but they also disenfranchise untold numbers of people, making them feel like suspects … all of the time.

In reaching out for understanding, I learned that there is a monumental wall separating these towns. It is built with the bricks of policy, barbed by racially charged anecdotes, and cemented by a fierce suburban protectionism that works to safeguard a certain way of life. The mayor of West Hartford assured me that he championed efforts to diversify his town, and the chief of police told me he is active in Connecticut’s statewide Racial and Ethnic Disparity Commission in the Criminal Justice System. (He also pointed me to a 2011 article he wrote for Police Chief Magazine, addressing many of the same issues I raised.) I hope their continued efforts can help traverse this class- and race-based barrier, which unfortunately grows even more impenetrable with experiences such as mine.

***

When my mother heard the story of the West Hartford policeman, she responded with wry humor: “You got your come-uppance again.” I knew exactly what she meant. If you are the president, or a retired professional athlete, it can be all too easy to feel protected from everyday indignities. But America doesn’t let any of us deny our connection to the black “everyman.” And unfortunately that connection, which should be a welcome one, can be forced upon us in a way that undermines our self-esteem, our collective responsibility, and our sense of family and history.

In a sense, the shoveling incident was a painful reminder of something I’ve always known: My biggest challenge as a father will be to help my kids navigate a world where being black is both a source of pride and a reason for caution. I want them to have respect for the police, but also a healthy fear—at least as long as racial profiling continues to be an element of law enforcement. But I also want them to go into the world with a firm sense of their own self-worth.

After talking to my own mother, I found myself thinking back to something that happened at summer camp when I was 5 years old, my son’s age now. During one exercise, we were asked to form a circle, and the boy next to me recoiled, saying, “I don’t hold hands with darkies!” I could have felt humiliated, but I just shrugged the whole thing off. It seemed obvious that he had the problem, not me.

My parents had instilled this confidence in me since birth. They’d given me pride in my ancestry and raised me in Teaneck, New Jersey, a diverse community whose school district was the first in the nation to voluntarily integrate. I’d grown up seeing all kinds of people treat each other with a respect that transcended race, religion, class, and every other social or demographic construct.

That upbringing is what enabled me to deal with this incident in a slow, communicative, and methodical way. And it now allows me to see the potential in the officer who approached me. He’s still young, and one day he could become a leading advocate for unbiased policing practices. But I wish he would sit down with my kids and answer their questions. That might help him understand how hard it is to be a father—let alone a father in a black family. And I’d like him to know how much my children—and all children—expect from the officers trained to protect them. At the end of all my conversations with my kids, there were many things they still didn’t understand. But my 5-year-old son reassured me: “That’s okay, Dad. I still want to be a police officer.”

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece from Justice John Paul Stevens in which he analyzes the history of the second amendment, and recent Supreme Court decisions to support his contention that the interpretation of the Second Amendment advanced by the NRA (and recently accepted by the courts) is contrary to the intent of the framers.   According to Stevens:

For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”

When I joined the court in 1975, that holding was generally understood as limiting the scope of the Second Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/…

Stevens then goes on to explain how the recent decisions of District of Columbia v. Heller(which found that individuals had an individual right to bear arms and keep a handgun to be used for self-defense)  and McDonald v. Chicago (which found that Chicago could not prohibit citizens from owning handguns) were contrary to the historical intent and interpretation of the second amendment.

Stevens argues that it is the legislatures who should be deciding rules regarding gun ownership, not judges.

Stevens treats the NRA very harshly.  

Five years after his retirement, during a 1991 appearance on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” Burger himself remarked that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/…

Stevens’ solution (given the recent court decisions) is to actually amend the language of the second amendment to bring it back to the original intent.  His proposed change to the second amendment would read as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/….

Given the strength of the NRA, and the reluctance of the legislative branch to pass any limitations on guns, I see little chance of the Constitution actually be amended to include Stevens proposed second amendment language.   I think that instead the solution should be to appoint judges who do not hold such radical right wing views, and who are willing to overrule the recent cases which have misinterpreted the second amendment.  

The entire opinion piece is well worth the read.  

The Joy of Retirement
with George W. Bush

The Joy of Retirement

with George W. Bush

Fair Market Value

Fair Market Value

Oh really?

Rep. Dennis Ross dismisses

raising the minimum wage

attribution: trueactivist.com
We like to assert that Daily Kos is a reality-based community. At the very least we surely do not deny science. A new study appearing at Princeton’s website may test these assumptions for some of us here. For others, it will be grim vindication of what we already know: the United States of America is no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy.

The anecdotes are plentiful, from modest gun control proposals that saw 90% public support, to unemployment compensation, to infrastructure spending, to women’s rights; where a plurality exists even across party lines, the median public interest seems to hold no sway in policy making. Now science has proven this to be correct:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
Distilled down into simple terms: The U.S.A. is now provably an oligarchy; we are a democracy in name only. DINO, as in dinosaur… As in extinct…. Has the acronym ever been more pathetically poignant?

The authors of this study, which will appear in the Fall issue of of the academic journalPerspective on Politics, are Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. The findings are shocking, but should surprise none. The progressive website Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org/view/2014/04/14) today posted an article on the study and pulls this deeply disturbing nugget from the study.

…the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
Since we are not science deniers, we need to do our part to make this report gets the audience it deserves. None here should take comfort in an “I told you so moment,” because we are all losers here. Despite the trappings and tradition of a representative democracy, the truth is those are just theatrics. At this point, even the echos of democracy are becoming faint. Spectacles like GOP presidential nominees making the pilgrimage to kiss the ring of King Adelson now happen with full knowledge, the vampires are out of the shadows and discover it’s fun in the sun. While satirists rightly lampoon it, media practically celebrates it and the Supreme Court in practice has endorsed it as a victory for the 1st Amendment.

Now that we have science on our side, will we be able to go beyond online outrage? Will the Democratic Party have the courage to fight for the restoration of the public’s will?

I’ll close with an understated gem from page 24 of the study’s published report:

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
The bold is from me. The warning is from science.

Update Note:

In a previous diary penned by HoundDog, which I missed, he revealed the date range for the data set for this study was 1981-2002. Did you catch that, the set of data does not include study beyond 2002, yet the conclusion even then is that we’ve become an oligarchy. Consider all that’s then missing in the equation:

The Iraq War, drones, the 2008 criminally-caused economy crash, the rise of the Kochs, the most obstructive Congress in history, OWS beat down by government proven collusive with the banks, Citizen’s United, McCutcheon, Wikipedia’s leaks & Manning’s torture (arguably), Edward Snowden revelations. Even without the rigors of research, it would be obvious to conclude that 2002 compared to today was practically a majoritarian paradise. It boggles the mind and fuels the urgency of the issue.

Tue Apr 15, 2014 at 12:54 AM PT: I woke to share the blood moon with one of my young daughters, so I thought I’d run through the comments before heading back to bed. I see lots of “well no shit, water is wet” responses. While this is obvious to even casual observers, scientific validation is important as it elevates the discussion and can’t be disregarded as mere whining by the 99.9%. It is provides both meat and hammer in the messaging.

Tue Apr 15, 2014 at  6:34 AM PT: I reached out to the authors and received a reply from Ben Page. He hopes their work will be used as part of evidence-based debate and he was pleased the work is gaining wider audience.

Tue Apr 15, 2014 at 12:03 PM PT: A commenter makes note from one of HoundDog’s diaries that the data used for this study was drawn from study of public policy 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002. Did you get that….2002…In other words the closing set of data PRE-dates the years most of us would say were when the oligarchs truly built steam. Think of what’s unaccounted for: the Iraq War, OWS, drones and the NSA, Citizen’s United and now McCutcheon. One has to think if the last 13 years had also been accessed, the conclusions would be much more dire than even they already are.

coolchicksfromhistory:

c. 1920 Suffrage FlyerMissouri Historical Society Collections

coolchicksfromhistory:

c. 1920 
Suffrage Flyer
Missouri Historical Society Collections

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