Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.
Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.–Eugene V. Debs
Utopia 21: Jeff Reexamine
Jeff chuckled and in the background murmurs from the audience could be heard, but Jack sat in stony silence. He had not caught the debater quip. It was Thursday, their traditional night to drink the four beers that Jack acquired from The Whip and watch the debates, but Jack was somewhere else. He sat with his beer growing warm in his hand, staring at the hologram and saying nothing.
“Alright. Let’s have it.”
“What?” Jack looked up startled.
“What’s eating you. You haven’t said a word since you dragged your sorry ass in here. What on Earth is the matter?”
“Andy’s still out of class.”
“Oh that. Are you still hung up on that? For God’s sake…”
“Yeah that. The kid could have died. We all could have died.”
“What? You think you’re the only one who ever made a mistake?”
“I’m the only educator in Corona that nearly killed his entire class.”
“But you didn’t kill them. As I remember the story, you did everything you could to get Andy to the hospital and the class back home.”
“I never should have had them out there in the first place. I’ll be lucky to keep my license to educate.”
“Lord! What a drama queen. They aren’t going to yank your license. You’re a damn good educator.”
“And if they do? What then? What do I do then?”
“You start over.”
“Start over…” Jack snorted, “Just forget about 8 years of training to be an educator. Not to mention the eight years spent with the class.”
“Yeah, son. You start over. Because you have to, because it makes you a better person.”
Jack looked over to Jeff about to retort, but paused. Now Jeff was the one staring at hologram with unseeing eyes. There was silence between the men and then Jack asked softly, “You ever have to start over, Jeff?”
“Huh?…You think you’re the only one who makes mistakes?” Jeff reached in his back pocket for a handkerchief. He considered it for a moment then he brought it to his mouth and spat in it. He met Jack’s eyes and without taking his eyes off Jack he wiped the moist handkerchief over the back of his hand. Flesh colored pancake came away on the cloth to reveal a shiny scar on the back of Jeff’s hand. A capital “R” encased in a circle. Jack gazed for a long moment at the scar that had been burned into the old man’s flesh. Then he raised his gaze to Jeff’s eyes. Jeff looked back defiantly. Jack was seeing his friend for the first time.
“You couldn’t have been more than just a kid. How could you have worked for the corporations?”
“Yeah. I was a kid alright. But I had seen more than most adults have today.”
“They actually put you in prison?”
“You don’t get one of these at just any dance. Yeah they put me in prison. In the desert.”
“How…what did you do?”
Jeff withdrew his hand and picked up the beer bottle again. He lay back in his chair and took a swig. Then he leveled his eyes on Jack and began…
Jeff and Grant arrived on the West Coast with a flood of other refugees. Millions of families were displaced and California was the refuge of the first Dust Bowl and so it became the preferred destination of the second Dust Bowl. Camps along the California border harbored most of the refugees but Jeff and his brother had slipped out of the camps at night and headed toward the coast. There Jeff started to look for work, but Grant was too young. Really, so was Jeff but he had no choice. He was competing against herds of full grown men. All he could get was small day jobs. Not enough to actually feed Grant and himself and so their supplies dwindled.
Eventually Parker’s ring had gone for full water tanks and another 2 weeks of food supplies for the two boys. Emptiness consumed Jeff when he gave the last vestige of his father to the merchant for a thin lifeline of supplies. Even their father’s ring was gone. So they started to join the soup lines at night. But it wasn’t long until that dried up as well. That’s when the food riots started…
Jack sat in stunned silence. “You were in the food riots?”
“Well yeah. Not on purpose. At least not at first. You see we were just trying to get fed.
“We would stand in line all day and the government trucks would show up with the wheat or the corn and water bottles. Never enough for every one. Those in the front got food and water. Those in the back got angry. The truck would unload and beat it out of there or the mob would turn the truck over. I was just behind one of those trucks once when the mob got to the driver…”
They took him out of the cab and carried him off kicking and screaming. Jeff never saw the man again.
After the first few attempts Jeff learned that the food trucks were not a good way to get supplies. They were too little. Bigger men would push them out of the way. Once in a while Jeff could grab a smaller bag and Grant could get a couple of bottles and hide it under their shirts well enough to run away. Once Jeff even pulled out his father’s gun to protect one of the sacks of food.
When they couldn’t get anything, they started to follow people who did get some grain and beg from them. Sometimes they got lucky and some times they just got hit or kicked.
A month after they had run out of food they were following a man with a sack of corn when he invited them to come with him. Because he had food, Jeff had followed him but never within arm’s reach because he feared being grabbed.
The man led them to a boarded up store front and he unlocked the door and let them in. As soon as they were in the building the two boys could smell something cooking. Something delicious. The boys were drawn to the odor as though they were hypnotized. It pulled them into the “kitchen” where a man stood near an open window over a hobo stove cooking a large pan of rice and beans. Several other people were in the “kitchen” apparently all talking at once but as soon as the boys entered the room, all conversation ceased. There was a long moment of silence as unfriendly eyes landed on the boys and then the man who had invited them entered with his bag of corn.
The man cooking over the hobo stove yelled, “Arnst! You can’t bring those kids in here, man!”
“Why not. Its their future ya fight for.”
“Yeah but we can’t feed every stray cat ya’ find in the street.”
Arnst stowed the corn in one of the cabinets under the counter. Jeff glimpsed other bags under the counter as well. These people had food and plenty of it.
“I can work for our dinner.” Jeff piped in right away.
The man at the stove ignored him. “You put every thing in jeopardy. You put us in jeopardy when you bring in a stray like this.”
“They’re just kids, Balto.”
Jeff’s stomach rumbled and he could not take his eyes off the stove. He took a tentative step forward, “We’ll do anything…Anything you need done…Anything you don’t want to do.”
Balto acted like Jeff had not spoken. “Get them out of here.” He said to Arnst.
“Let them stay.” a booming female voice commanded. A huge black woman had entered the room. She was dressed in a flowing sundress of tie dye and her hair was in long dreads down her back.
“Cass, we can’t afford to feed stray dogs. They need to leave.”
“Oh I got a job for these strays, Balt. Let ’em stay and feed ’em.” She sidled over to Jeff and cradled his chin. She broke the spell the food cooking on the stove had over Jeff’s eyes and forced him to look up at her. “Hungry boys?” she asked in a gentle tone.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jeff snapped back with every bit of civility he possessed. He currently considered this woman an angel.
The crowd in the kitchen whooped and cat called. Cass’ face broke out in a wide grin which showed off a gold tooth in front.
“Well these boys got some manners.” She laughed as she released Jeff, “We’ll have to give them an extra helping for that!”
Jeff and Grant didn’t know it at the time, but they had just joined the Crux…
“Oh come on. You’re telling me you were a member of the Crux too? Now you’ve gone too far. You were way too young for that.” Jack interrupted. He turned back to the hologram, ignoring Jeff and feigning renewed interest in the debates.
“Yeah we were too young. But ya have to realize that is the way it was. It was chaos. You just fell into things. They kind of took us in. They shared their food and water with us. It was like an adopted family.” Jeff looked down at his long empty beer bottle. “Right then that was what Grant and I needed. A family.
“We didn’t care that they were going to overthrow the government. We weren’t even sure who the government was. We were just trying to get by. We worked as couriers for the Crux. Carrying messages. Most of the time we didn’t even know what the messages meant. We were small, and no one paid attention to us. We could get from one house to the other without being bothered. We were also too young to know any better. For us the job was fun. It was a game. So we didn’t look anxious or suspicious. We looked like any other street urchin did. We were the perfect cover for their messages and Cass knew it.
“And they fed us. We felt safe there. We weren’t safe, but we thought we were.”
Jeff was carrying a message for Arnst when the new guy Arnst had brought by 2 weeks earlier came out from a side alley right in front of Jeff. Jeff recognized him, Steve. Jeff was about to raise his hand in greeting, when he noticed that Steve was with two other men. Cass had taught Jeff and Grant not to greet any of the members on the outside, if they were with others. Jeff looked away; concentrated on the broken side walk in front of him so that his eyes did not drift to the man he knew. He was about to pass them when Steve grabbed Jeff by the collar of his coat and yanked him into the nearest doorway with his two friends.
“Jeff, my man.” Steve said with undue familiarity.
Jeff glanced up at the unfamiliar faces and said, “You have me mixed up with someone else.”
“No I don’t. You’re Jeff all right.” Jeff’s eyes drifted to the strangers. “Don’t worry, they’re friends of mine.” Steve reassured him.
“I’m sorry. You made a mistake. I’m not Jeff. Now let me go.” Jeff now thoroughly frightened began to struggle against the hand that held him.
“Jeff. Grants’ brother Jeff. I’d hate to have to ask Grant a favor because you wouldn’t do it for me.”
Jeff stopped struggling and looked up at the man.
“Now that’s better. I need your help, Jeff.”
Jeff said nothing.
“You carry messages for the Crux, don’t you my man?”
Jeff was now frozen with fear and could say nothing.
Steve knelt down to be on Jeff’s eye level but did not let go of his collar. “You seem like a good kid, Jeff. Taking care of your brother and all. Looks like you’ve had a rough go. I understand how you got mixed up with a lot like the Crux, but you got to understand. They aren’t good. They hurt people, Jeff. They hurt people and I’m supposed to stop them from hurting people.”
Jeff stood transfix. He had only carried messages for the Crux. He had been at food riots that they had orchestrated, but food riots happened whether the Crux was there or not. He couldn’t picture Arnst or Cass actually hurting anyone but then he didn’t know what the messages meant most of the time. Did they do things, talk about things when Jeff and Grant weren’t around? Jeff kept listening.
“Look. I’d like to see you and your brother really safe. Out of this situation. I can get you and your brother out of the city to a home. A home for boys without their parents. A place for you and Grant where you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is or run from the police. We could let Grant be a kid, Jeff. The two of you could go back to school where boys your age belong. I could do that for you Jeff, but you’d have to do something for me.”
Jeff’s hand relaxed against the hand holding his collar.
“I need those addresses. The addresses where you deliver the messages, Jeff. Will you let me help you and Grant, Jeff?”
And so Jeff did. He helped the FBI fight the Crux. They got the addresses, names dates of activities. All Jeff had to offer. They had all they needed to take the Crux down. And when they were sure they had it all, take the Crux they did.
It was pouring rain outside and there was nothing to do really. Jeff sat in the first house he and Grant had come to. This house they considered home, as it was where Cass, their adopted mother, hung out most of the time. There were no food deliveries scheduled that day, so no riots had been planned. Some fliers were being handed out and Cass had made them all baked potatoes for lunch so their bellies were full. Most of the members were in the kitchen and Jeff could hear the arguments coming from that room. There were always arguments coming from the kitchen. It was how things were settled at the Crux. It was the sound of home for Jeff.
Jeff was rereading The Lord of the Flies and knowing what was going to happen made it much less enticing. His eyelids had started to slide shut when there was an explosion down the hall. Jeff jumped up from his seat and Grant was standing near him in wide-eyed terror.
There were shouts and the sounds of many men stomping. Jeff ran to the kitchen with Grant in tow in time to see about a dozen men in black uniforms with bullet proof vests and helmets explode into the kitchen.
Arnst turned to them with a wooden cooking spoon in his hand. Later, Jeff was to think the police must have thought it a weapon. He was mowed down by the lead officer and fell sprawled and bleeding in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Cass, however, did have a gun. She flipped the kitchen table and tried to get her considerable girth behind it while firing off several poorly aimed shots. Her chest exploded and she was propelled backwards onto the bench seats that framed the table. Her hand went up and to the side still firing her weapon randomly into the air. The table she had tried to turn on its side was kicked by her outstretched legs and went over on its top useless as a shield to the other two men she had been arguing with. One of them also had a gun and was dispatched from this world seconds after Cass had been.
Then there was quiet in the room. Quiet except for someone screaming. And then Jeff realized the person screaming was himself. He forced himself to stop and braced for death. But the men did not take aim at him. They stood and lowered their weapons. Then the lead one removed his helmet. It was the officer who had told Jeff how dangerous the Crux was. Who told him that he and Grant would be cared for. That they could go to a home and have plenty to eat and go to school. It was Steve.
He approached Jeff and his mouth was moving but he wasn’t saying anything. Finally he croaked, “I’m sorry Jeff.”
Jeff thought he meant that he was sorry for the Crux. For killing all the people Jeff thought of as family until the man said, “It was an accident. He just got in the way.”
Jeff looked at him. How could any of this be an accident?
“I’m sorry about your brother.”
What on Earth was this man talking about. Was he saying that Grant couldn’t go to school? Confused, Jeff noticed the man was near tears and although he was talking to Jeff he wasn’t looking at him. Jeff turned around to followed the man’s line of sight.
There, behind him, was Grant spread eagle on the floor in an every increasing pool of red.
Jeff fell to one knee with a whimper and stared at the lifeless body of his younger brother. It was as though Jeff himself had pulled the trigger. He was wrong about the ring being the last vestige of his father. It was Jeff’s promise to look after Grant that was the last bit of his father that Jeff held dear. And now he had sold that too.
Jeff sat by his brother. He sat there as Steve began to call for others to clean up the scene. He sat as pictures were taken and the area roped off. At one point Steve came to Jeff and put his hand on Jeff’s shoulder. He tried to say something to Jeff, but Jeff wrested his shoulder away and would not look at the man. He merely sat by his brother in the now dark pool that surrounded him. He sat there while a crowd of curious on-lookers gathered. Then while the police were busy with their reports and their pictures, Jeff just stood and walked calmly out the door and into the crowd.
It was years later when the tables had turned. Those that had survived the massacre had long memories and a debt they wanted paid. Those in power were finally ousted there was a rash of trials for crimes against humanity. It had not taken them long to figure out who had betrayed them. Jeff’s body was not among the dead or among the jailed. And there were those police pictures. Pictures of Jeff untouched sitting next to the body of Grant.
Jeff had not thought to change his name when he disappeared into the crowd that day. He was no longer a sympathetic-looking boy. He was a young man who had made it a point not to rely on anyone. He had had some success as a thief and then a bookie. He certainly was no longer hungry by the time he came to trial. Jeff had lost just as much on that day as any of the men who testified against him. Jeff had left the building with nothing and had lost the camaraderie that those who testified at his trial had kept. He was alone in the world and never took anything from the police. But at the trial they implied that what little he had acquired over the years stemmed from what he had been given as the hired snitch of the FBI. It was pretty much a forgone conclusion that Jeff was going to get the brand and wind up in the desert digging trenches for a future solar energy station…
“By the time I got out the world was a different place. All these Granges and ‘community’ muttered everywhere. But I was one pissed-off SOB.” Jeff glanced over at Jack who had one eyebrow raised.
“Oh. I see. You think I’m a pissed-off SOB now. Son, you have no idea. I wanted nothing to do with any of it or anyone. I wasn’t going to join any Grange and if that meant I couldn’t vote or have a place to live, well so be it. I just wandered around doing odd jobs.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Only thing that can change a mind that hard.”
Concepts Behind the Fiction
1. Failure and Redemption
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
BEN: Did he tell you what we’re supposed to do?
LOCKE: He did.
LOCKE: He wants us to move the island.
HURLEY: Well, if you could move the island whenever you wanted, why didn’t you just move it before the psychos with guns got here?
BEN: Because doing it is both dangerous and unpredictable. It’s a measure of last resort.
–Lost Season 4 (About the time the show jumped the shark.)
For all you Lost fans who are about to lose your show for good (What will you do on Sunday nights?) that is how I feel about today’s topic.
Last episode I spoke of failure. Specifically of our failed press and failed state. I was spurred on by Bill Moyers’ retirement as much as by an article that I recently read in the Sentient Times by Lawrence Lessig. Lessig was wondering “How do we Get Our Democracy Back?”
Lessig is as disturbed by our loss of control over our government as I am. He calls our current Congress the the “Fundraising Congress” to distinguish it from the form of government we were told we had when we were in school. He also sees reigning in government as the first act to fixing our numerous problems. I agree. Many of our problems would fix themselves if we fixed our government.
Lessig reminds us that the framers of the Constitution actually planned an escape hatch into the government. They had foreseen a moment in our history when our government might be taken over by hostile forces. And they prepared one legitimate way out for us.
George Mason argued from the floor of the Convention that it “would be improper to require the consent of the Natl. Legislature, because they may abuse their power, and refuse their consent on that very account.” Mason added that, “no amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive.”–Wikipedia
They prepared a way to change the government from the outside; from the grassroots. The final layer of checks and balances. A system that we have never used before. Lessig suggests an Article V National Constitutional Convention.
An Article V Convention refers to the other way to change the Constitution. We have added 33 Amendments to the Constitution and all of them came through Congress. Article V requires two thirds of states (34) to request such a Convention from Congress. Once this number is met, Congress has no choice. It must convene the Convention. At that Convention a 3/4 majority (38 states) is needed to create an Amendment or change the Constitution.
Our first Constitutional Convention resulted, well, in the Constitution. It was initially called to make some minor changes to the Articles of Confederacy. But once it was called there were no controls set. The framers of the Constitution debated behind closed doors and their notes were not made public for decades. When they emerged they had rewritten our government completely. And they even had the audacity to rewrite how changes to the government get approved. The Articles of Confederacy requires 100% state approval while the Constitution only required 75% approval. Since then we have kept that Constitution and only made relatively minor changes.
We have come close on several occasions to calling an Article V Convention and several of the Amendments to the Constitution are there because there was a threat that an Article V Convention would be called if amendments were not passed by Congress. But we have never actually done it. Right now there is a call for such a Convention to “limit the size of the federal government” and getting a balanced federal budget. To date 32 of the 34 states needed have asked for a Convention to be called.
We have not called our own Convention because it is risky. Once an Article V Convention is called there are no rules. The Convention is not under Congress’ control. They can set their own agenda as the original Constitutional Convention did. And that is a two edged sword. Congress is of course afraid of The People taking control. But what will the people do when and if they ever really do take control? The recent suggestions for an Amendment have been somewhat telling and very concerning: defining marriage as between a man and a woman, defining life as at conception, prayer in school etc. Most of these subjects are really not of the caliber that would require a desperate move like evoking Article V.
Who should a state send to such a convention. Clearly none of our professional politicians since they have wrought the very things in government we would seek to cure. Randomly chosen citizens? Oddly, that might not be so bad. (See British Columbia Citizen’s Assembly for a historic perspective of how that functioned.) State statutes can be written into the documents calling for a Convention that picks delegates outside the channels of big business/big government. Such a referendum should also have a method of delegate recall if the delegate begins to behave as though s/he had been bought by big business. Nonbinding referendums to instruct the delegates could be passed as well. But it is still a risky process and open to corruption. You just never know what such a Convention will come up with.
Even if the delegates are above corruption by big money interests, what pressures would be placed upon them? What would corporate press coverage look like? What sort of pressures would these men and women face and could they get their states behind them, even if they did the right thing, given the state of our media?
There is another hitch to calling a Convention. Once the Amendment is drawn and submitted to Congress, Congress does not vote on the Amendment but it does vote on how the Amendment becomes law. Either a vote by the delegates of the Convention themselves or it sends it to the state legislatures which then votes on it individually and 3/4 (38) of states must approve it. Of course the Fund Raising Congress would send it to the state legislatures because they know that the state governments are just as bought as the federal government. All the effort to wrest our government away from the influence of big money could die with that one power Congress preserves. Unless of course the Convention did what the original writers of the Constitution did and rewrite the rules while they rewrite the Constitution. Perhaps instructions for how the state wishes to approve the Amendment could also be included in the initial referendum asking for the Convention. Say instructions that any Amendment must be submitted to a direct vote by The People for example.
For a moment, lets imagine taking such a risk. What should We the People ask for. Something as small as a balanced budget or definition of marriage or something as large as rewriting the government entirely?
Here are some of my suggestions:
*Declare that only Humans are “persons”. And while you are at it specify that corporations are in a position of servitude to humans they absolutely do not have Constitutional rights. See also Democracy Unlimited.
*Make it clear that this is a democracy and not a plutocracy. Disallow all but a small amount of campaign contributions from humans for fundraising. Say $100 per human/person per candidate or issue. After getting to a certain threshold public funds could be made available. See also the Fair Elections Now Act at: Fix Congress First
*Some sort of way to support independent media. See the suggestion below.
*Citizen lawmaking that is independent of the government. In other words a way for The People to create a national referendum that would be put to an actual vote at election time and become law.
*Fixing the voting system in this country. Why should people in poor neighborhoods wait in line 8 hours to vote and have the polls close before they can vote while others in rich neighborhoods only wait 10 minutes? Why isn’t the President elected by the majority? Get rid of the electoral college. How about instant run off voting and choice voting with proportional representation instead of winner-take-all? See also Fair Vote.
*How do we fix the Senate? Currently nothing is moving in our Congress due to the blockade of the Senate. Two things allow this. The faux filibuster and the secret hold. Can we get rid of both? Should we just ditch the Senate entirely?
Ok. So we have never done this before. So what? True, if we called a Convention we would have to wade through the nutty but popular suggestions to change the Constitution like defining marriage, school prayer, and flag burning. But it is one of the few ways we, as a people, can make a fundamental change in our government. At such a convention we could make “people” mean humans and not corporations. We could make Freedom of Speech about talking and writing and not about money. We could actually decide to have a democracy and not a plutocracy. We could decide to have more control over the media or over where our money goes.
2. Best Idea I’ve Heard all Year
“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” –Thomas Jefferson
I was listening to Against the Grain on Pacifica the other day. A tape of Robert McChesney and John Nichols pushing their new book The Death and Life of American Journalism was playing. A great talk by the way, you can listen to the whole thing here. Anyway they had one of the simplest and most elegant solutions to our problem with the media I have ever heard. I come from a state where you can designate $100 of your tax money to any school or any school program. This does not mean that you pay more. It only means that you designate some of your tax money to go to a certain school or educational program. The device has been very instrumental in saving the school system in that state once people understood how it worked.
McChesney and Nichols suggest a similar device for public media. You could designate $200 of your federal income tax to go to any noncommercial news media source, local or national. Democracy Now!, Radio-4-All, Public Broadcasting, Pacifica, Radio EcoShock any of these would qualify.
Imagine if Democracy Now! could afford to have correspondents around the world. What stories would we hear from Amy and Juan then? What if Public Broadcasting was actually “funded by viewers like you” and not big business? Would Now still be on the air?
3. War is not the Answer
Right before publication I got an e-mail about a bill going before Congress to end the wars and give you and me the tax payer the profit of ending the wars. That is illuminating the federal income tax on the first $35,000 that you make ($70,000 per couple). Oh, and we would still have $15 billion in deficit reduction. If you like how this sound please see the petition for The War is Making You Poor Act.
Eugene V. Debs was probably the most famous American socialist until Bernie Sanders. Debs was ahead of his time. He fought for women to vote, for child labor laws and against war. Debs was instrumental in creating Unions in this nation and protecting workers. During WWI Debs gave a rousing anti-war speech and was convicted of sedition for his remarks by Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Debs speaking on his own behalf at his sentencing for sedition.
He was so popular that he ran for president from prison and got nearly one million votes just after the turn of the century. His campaign slogan was “From Atlanta Prison to the Whitehouse, 1920,” and his campaign button read “For President Convict No. 9653”.