Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Wingnuts" Book Review

A couple of weeks ago I was traveling on one of the more remote stretches of the Interstate Highway System between Fillmore and Nephi Utah. There isn’t a lot of FM radio reception to be had on this stretch, so I flipped the dial over to AM where I can tune stations from more distant locations as the sun sets lower. On this particular evening, I was able to pick up a right leaning independent radio host who was interviewing the Constitution Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Utah. I can appreciate a healthy skepticism of candidates of the Big 2, but the gist of the Constitution Party tenets seem polar opposites to me.

The radio show guest, Senate Candidate Scott Bradley more or less stated that we need to get back to the constitution in its original form (I'm paraphrasing from memory). He went on to postulate that every public or civic action could and should be settled by an examination of the U.S. Constitution. And therein is the paradox. This approach would mean city governments could be done away with and that state legislatures would only need to carry out those duties specifically detailed within the constitution. However, the constitution was a framework for a system of self-governance “by and for The People”. The Bradley plan is kind of a throw it out and embrace it at the same time kind of logic.

As for me, I support a different paradox, one embraced by the authors of the constitution; a system of by the people government that envisioned competing and divergent interests which made allowances for amendments and for differences to be voiced and settled. The Big 2 have embraced a very partisan model of what Mr. Bradley thinks will work; a top down autocratic inflexible application of the constitution as they understand it. Wrong. Though there are vast portions to be rigidly adhered to, the whole of the mission and intent is to establish a republic to be governed by the people—a statutory state of rigid flexibility if you will.

When I sat down to begin writing this, the Scott Bradley interview synopsis was supposed to be a segue into a review of John Avlon’s book Wingnuts, How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, so I better get started.

John Avlon is clearly an independent and a successful writer, but I started the book not looking for something to disagree about, but not wanting to be the centrist version of a super-ultra-mega-dittohead if you know what I mean. I would say I like 90% of the book. It is for the most part an insightful chronicle of the inciteful (its in the urban dictionary, good enough:). From a literary standpoint, Wingnuts is heavy on inflammatory quotes that are admittedly way over the top and problematic as the book indicates. I found the quotes overwhelming. They shed light on the crazy talk crowds, but I had a hard time keeping up with who was currently shouting.

My 10% disagreement was probably the first 10% of the book, predominantly his criticism of and "Bush Derangement Syndrome". I'm not defending, I am not even sure I've ever visited that website, but Mr. Avlon portrays radical reactions to Bush administration policies as "wingnutty". I was independently incensed by a number of Bush administration blunders, and I mean livid mad--and I voted for the guy......twice. Oops. I'll give you my personal stories.

First, I was in Iraq with the Army in 2004 and I was well, quite unimpressed about stories emerging about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and torture and injustice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was particularly concerned about these abhorrent acts because it could and did elevate my personal risk of injury or death, though thankfully I came through unscathed.

Second, and this is still a very disturbing insult to me. I was driving to work in Draper, Utah, just listening to NPR when they broke a disturbing story that a U.S. Army and Navy whistleblowers revealed, without meritable dispute from the NSA, that NSA personnel were recording, transcribing, distributing and mocking intimate conversations between GI's in the Middle East and their spouses or partners here in the states.
So, on this point, I will disagree vehemently with Mr. Avlon, I don't think any vociferous objection to that breach of the law and decency is vociferous enough. It is crazy and wingnutty NOT to be incensed by such immoral and illegal activity directed against the real warriors and their families in these wars.

All that being said, I am going to give Wingnuts 3.5 stars on my review for being better than average but not great. And now I have a new book to add to my booklist--"The Shadow Factory" by James Bamford.

Closed Primaries = Subversion + Dead Wabbits

Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free. Utah Phillips
So I came across this op-ed in the small local paper here in Davis County Utah written by the editor Rolf Koecher on the topics of open primaries and the dysfunction of a 2 party duopoly. Mr. Koecher articulated the 2 party shrinking tent problem in a way that I have not been able to, though his concern is directed primarily at the Utah Republican Party.

"I took advantage of early voting last week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the candidate I wanted in the race for U.S. Senate. And neither could the majority of Utah voters. Utah there has been a concerted, and noticeable, effort to circumvent the voters. And whenever the Clipper has challenged actions by the Legislature or by city officials in Davis County, it has ultimately hinged on this key issue...we are troubled when efforts are made to keep the ultimate decision making from the voters. 
Ironically, that means the party that fancies itself as the protector of the Constitution is in itself subverting this document when it 
(a) sanitizes the process by making sure voters only get to select from hand-picked and approved candidates, and 
(b) tries to do everything in its power to keep citizen-drive initiatives from reaching the ballot box.... 
Some of the world’s most despotic dictators have done the same, keeping themselves in power by offering only sanitized slates of candidates at the ballot box, making sure the public does not get a meaningful choice." wrote Mr. Koecher.

My first afterthoughts were "yes, that is exactly right. The two parties ardently pressing for, in most cases some positive policies, but in being so suspicious of opposition, closed and exclusive as a means to their ideological ends, are subverting the constitution they are loving----------to death." The immediate literary connection I made was Lennie from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and the poor loved to death rabbits.

Our constitution is a framework for a government by and for the people. The parties are suffocating symbolic rabbits day in and day out.

But what about us? There are two conditions that can handily subvert our ingenius by and for the people system of government. The first and most obvious and most discussed is the 2 party small and shrinking tent syndrome. The other toxic dose is administered by We the People when we allow it to happen, when we don't get involved. It happens when we don't get active, when we don't talk about it with associates, when we do not write letters to the editor, and when we do not connect with neighbors with similar concerns. In short, it happens when a government by and for the people doesn't govern.

I cringe when I hear lamentations that government is too big. That suspicious perception has missed the point entirely. Sure, our bureaucracies are a bit unwieldy, but until every eligible voter is involved to at least some small extent, our government is not big enough.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wait a Second

Earlier this year, April 4th to be exact, I spoke with State Senator Mike Waddoups and KSL host Richard Piatt about independent redistricting. Here is a transcript and a commentary.

Piatt: OK, so Fairboundaries wants to change the process of how these boundaries are drawn. How do you propose to do that?

Miller: Yes, the Fairboundaries initiative that's been drawn up proposes to establish an 11 member commission to redraw these boundaries. One thing to realize though is not just the Utah Constitution but the United States Constitution charges the legislature to redraw the districts after each census. The only problem is inside of that, there is an inherent conflict of interest, you have the fox watching the henhouse essentially.

Initially, I think when they framed the constitution, I don't think our founding fathers, with as much skin as they had in the game, having gone through a bloody revolution, they essentially were traitors to their country, and what they went through they could not have possibly have imagined the low level of character that it would take to manipulate these districts for a particular political gain.

Piatt: Lets take a look at that graphic again and show what exactly this petition purports to do. It purports to create a commission that's independent.

    11 member commission
    No more than 4 from any political party
    Anti gerrymandering standards
    Open, transparent process

Sen Waddoups, do you believe that can be the case? Is the system as it exists right now better than what they are proposing it should be?

Waddoups: I think the current system works very well, for proof of that I would point to the fact that Utah has never been sued for a gerrymander for innappropriately drawing the districts. Most states where they have gerrymanders have lawsuits. The Texas example, there was a suit going on for 10 years until the next reapportionment. Utah never gets sued because we have people that are representing their constituents that are doing the right things.

Piatt: But you don't purport to say that gerrymandering doesn't exist. There are examples, the ones we showed you have a couple in your folder there. So is gerrymandering a problem do you think?

It does exist in this country yes, it doesn't happen in Utah because
of the constituency that we're representing. In Utah it's expected that we will represent our constituency and if we don't it's expected they would vote us out of office.

Piatt: Do you resent this notion that you're one of the foxes guarding the henhouse in this process?

Waddoups: I certainly do, because it says in the constitution that the legislature will draw their boundaries and those boundaries are drawn by people that are elected by the public. I would say this maybe is the rooster guarding the hen house but certainly not a fox.


1. So, if I am understanding the Senator correctly, 'Utah is a rare example where politicians do the right thing and represent their constituency or they are voted out, not like other places in the country where unresponsive representatives are not voted out'? Alright, general public, please weigh in on that one. I for one think a jury will not buy that argument.

2. We've never been sued, so see, no gerrymandering. C'mon. If we all took that attitude at work how long would our companies be in business. We've never been sued for negligence, so naturally our product or service is superior

3. We have legislators doing the right thing and representing their consitituents? Like Kevin Garn and Sheldon Killpack?