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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part One)

(Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two part series on how we resolve complex problems here in America under our democratic system.)

How do we keep our American core values in a continuous state of progress?  Is it prudent to charge ahead proactively?  Or should we delay and react passively to conditions?


Fortunately, the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated system of navigation.  Over the succeeding generations, the problem of forming a more perfect union came to be simplified to one main consideration: whether and when to steer the ship (Hamilton) --- or simply to drift (Jefferson).

The stated goal has never varied much, an equality of opportunity for all citizens, regardless of status, with special privileges to none.  When that equality was at risk, it was time to steer.  Once achieved, it was time to leave it alone and drift.  The aim was “a better quality of human nature effected by a higher type of human association.”  Its foundation was “mutual confidence and fair dealing.”

But some say Hamilton was guilty of over-steering, to the extent that his capitalist system is dogged by the ill effects of preferred status, unscrupulous competition and selfish materialism.  Others say Jefferson’s fundamental principle gave rise to an indiscriminate individualism, fatal “to both the essential individual and the essential social interest.”  Over-drift was akin to abandoning ship.

Yet liberty and equality of opportunity, each a desirable principle, are often at odds.  Insofar as equal rights are freely exercised, they are bound to result in inequalities, made to be perpetual.  The “marriage,” which the free exercise of equal rights is designed to consecrate between liberty and equality, “gives birth to unnatural children, whose nature it is to devour one or the other of its parents.”

Consequently, the principle of equality of opportunity cannot be “confined to the merely negative task of keeping individual rights from becoming in any way privileged.”  It must go further.  The nation’s task in its collective capacity must progress to a selection among the “various prevailing ways of exercising individual rights” those which contribute to national and individual integrity.”

As a threshold matter, whether and when to steer the ship demands a national consensus.  But when does an issue become national, requiring centralized action?  To be sure, there were those in the 19th century who believed that human bondage was merely a local issue which failed to meet the threshold.  Others in the 20th century believed similarly in the throes of economic depression.  When is the line crossed wherein action in one’s own best interest is in fact unreasonable?

Such is the suspicion of reasonable men to subject themselves to the corruptive and abusive effects of political power unacceptably concentrated.  Better to stall and prostrate the legitimate legislative function with a jammed circuit board of competing economic special interests.  Better yet to neuter the executive function, while decrying the judiciary to stick to legal interpretation and refrain from activist law making.


Perhaps human nature is such that there will be those who deem the ship to be in a safe port, sheltered from the storm, where steering is altogether unnecessary.  Just as soon as there will be others who, with a sense of alarm, see the same ship as careening toward a direct confrontation with rocky shoals or the Titanic’s iceberg.  Perhaps there can be no effective reconciliation between these contrasting visions.

All the while, the pendulum swings back and forth.  We steer, then drift.  The process repeats itself.  Each cycle brings us arguably closer to a more perfect union.

(Editor’s note: The second and final part in this two part series contemplates how our society can steer its way back to good health, given a record level of wealth disparity.  By moving too suddenly, the danger of uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.)


-Michael D'Angelo


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Baltimore Riots and the Kerner Report

Spring 2015 witnesses riot and civil unrest engulfing the streets of Baltimore over the tragic death of an unarmed black man while in police custody. Thorny issues relating to law enforcement priorities and practices, racial profiling, due process and fundamental fairness under the law bubble to the surface once again.

For those old enough to remember, scenes from Baltimore conjure up images from the 1960s, standard-bearer for racial unrest in the modern civil rights era. Were the Baltimore riots (and events perhaps yet to come) the result of the mistreatment of just one man? Or is there more involved? As the national economy ebbs and flows, prosperity in this age of acquisitive individualism appears to have bypassed Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods, which remain largely unchanged in 50 years.

Why did they riot in Baltimore? Why did they riot in the 1960s? Are events related?

The 1960s riots took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles, as well as several other major northern US cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Newark.  The riots were not confined to the US, however.  Great Britain and South Africa also experienced race riots during this time.

The riots had begun in 1965, due to mounting civil unrest, and continued for three successive summers.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed a federal commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still in progress.  He determined to learn the cause of the race riots and unrest.  Upon signing the order establishing the commission, the president asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

The commission’s final report, named the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation.   The 426-page document became an instant best-seller, with over two million Americans purchasing copies.  Its basic finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. critiqued the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

One of the commission’s core findings was that the federal government had engaged in unfair and discriminatory loan practices.  For example, in important matters of employment, education and housing especially, federal low interest loans under the GI Bill were made available to World War II and Korean war veterans who were white, as an incentive to flee to the “safety” of the suburbs, where a better quality of life awaited.  Black veterans were illegally denied equal treatment under the law.

The Kerner Report’s most infamous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white --- separate and unequal.”  The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social service policies, also aiming some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media: “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”


The federal commission concluded that the riots were the result of poverty, police brutality, poor schools, poor housing, attributed to “white racism” and its heritage of discrimination and exclusion.  The equation was a simple one: no education, no job, no housing and no political power equaled no hope.

Following the riots of the 1960s, America’s suburbs continued a trend of becoming more white and its cities more black.  This phenomenon occurred as much in the North and on the West Coast (Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles) as in the South (Atlanta and Charlotte).

The Johnson administration had the report analyzed but dismissed its recommendations, however, on budgetary grounds.  Soon the Great Society would be sidetracked anyway by external events in a far away place called Vietnam.  The War on Poverty would be swallowed up and replaced by the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs, with all the attendant shortcomings of that campaign.  Some argue persuasively that the resulting discriminatory enforcement of these laws was by design --- and is alive and well to the present day.

Is this some of what's going on --- and not going on --- in Baltimore?


-Michael D'Angelo