The Sweet Scent Of Cedar

We’re having new siding put up on our cottage in Stonington, Maine. The contractor is using something called cedar shake shingles for the exterior. It looks good, in that classic, rambling, soon-to-be-extremely-weathered Maine seaside fashion, but it’s also got a heavenly woody scent. Our little place is crammed with boxes of the “cedar shake” and is therefore utterly discombobulated, but it sure smells good.

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When Food Sets The Mood

Sometimes food immediately orients you to time and place. A steaming hot dog slathered with Stadium Mustard says you’re at the ballpark. Salt water taffy tells me I’m at the Jersey shore. And a lobster roll, French fries, and a Diet Coke from The Fishnet in Blue Hill scream “Maine”!

Calithreenia

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a curious measure on the California ballot this November.  The proposal would split California into three different states that would be separately governed.  The last time that happened with an existing state was 1863, when loyalist West Virginia broke off from secessionist Virginia during the Civil War.

202574-fullThe three new states that would be created by the proposal are “Northern California,” which runs from the northern border of the current state to the middle of the state and includes cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento, “Southern California,” which runs from the middle of the state down to the border with Mexico and includes cities like San Diego, Anaheim, and Fresno, and “California,” which is geographically much smaller in size and encompasses California’s crowded coastal area, running from Long Beach in the south up to Monterey in the middle of the state and including Los Angeles.  Whatever else you might think of the proposal, I think we can all agree it fails miserably in the “creative state naming” area.

The ballot measure was spearheaded and funded by a venture capitalist who apparently has made it his life’s mission to break California up.  Previously, he tried to split the state into six parts — which he now thinks was just too many for voters to stomach.  “This is a chance for three fresh approaches to government,” he told a newspaper in an interview.  “Three new states could become models not only for the rest of the country, but for the whole world.”

When I was out in California recently, I asked some people about the ballot measure and what they thought.  I didn’t find any proponents, but did find people who were worried less about becoming models for the world and more about practical things — like water, which is a pretty scarce commodity in what would be “Southern California” and is primarily supplied by “Northern California.”  There also would be challenging questions involved in allocating infrastructure and accounting for its cost.  And the people I spoke to also indicated that they like the Golden State the way it is — a big, sprawling, incredibly diverse state that offers lots of different climates and geographical areas and encompasses some of the country’s most iconic cities.

Even if California voters pass the measure, the break-up apparently would need to be approved by Congress, which would be no sure thing.  It’s not at all clear that other parts of the country would want to add four new Senators from the west coast — or two more stars to the national flag.  Fifty is a good, round number.  52?  Not so much.

Writer On The Edge Of Forever

Harlan Ellison has died.  An Ohio native, a graduate of the Ohio State University, and a prolific writer who had a long and productive career, he will always be remembered — by me at least — as the genius who came up with the idea, and wrote most of the screenplay, for one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes:  City on the Edge of Forever.

city-edge-foreverCity is generally considered one the finest episodes from the original Star Trek series.  It told the story of Edith Keeler, a gentle, peace-loving woman who lived during the Great Depression, helped the unfortunate, and dreamed big dreams.  When Dr. McCoy is inadvertently injected with a drug that induces a psychotic episode and finds a time portal, he goes back in time and interacts with Edith in a way that somehow changes history, prevents the formation of the Federation, and leaves the Enterprise leadership stranded on the planet with the time portal.  Kirk and Spock use the portal to try to fix the damage and also go back to the Depression era, where Spock attempts to build a primitive computer from vacuum tubes — or, as he puts it, “stone knives and bearskins” — to learn what happened and Kirk falls madly in love with Edith.  When Spock determines that McCoy somehow saved Edith from death, and thereby created a universe in which her pacifist leadership delayed America’s entry into World War II and gave Nazi Germany time to win the race to build atomic weapons and capture the world, Kirk has to make the excruciating decision to allow the woman he loves to die.

When he does so, and he and Spock and McCoy return to the planet with the time portal, a heartbroken Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” to end the episode — which legend says was the first time a curse word of any kind was broadcast on American network television, and the censors let it go because it punctuated the episode perfectly.

It turns out that the City episode was a point of great contention between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who thought producing the episode as Ellison wrote it would just be too expensive.  Ellison wasn’t happy with the changes that were made and asked that a pseudonym be listed as the script writer, but Roddenberry kept Ellison’s name on the episode — which then won Ellison a Hugo Award.  Ellison was still fighting, and writing, about the episode years later.

RIP, Harlan Ellison, and thank you for an impressive body of work that just happens to include an all-time classic idea.

The Bruising Battle To Come

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in Trump v. Hawaii turned out to be a kind of farewell message from the longtime jurist, who announced his retirement yesterday after the end of the Supreme Court’s term.  His call for care and adherence to constitutional principles in the statements and actions of government officials in that concurrence has a special resonance now, as the nation moves forward into what will undoubtedly be a bruising battle over the nomination of his successor.

1200px-ussupremecourtwestfacadeThese days, every Supreme Court nomination is a huge event, but the replacement of Justice Kennedy is a special moment.  He has long been seen as the crucial “swing” vote in important, hotly contested cases that ultimately were decided by a 5-4 margin, and a centrist who might side with the liberal position in one case and the conservative position in another.  As a result, Republicans see the nomination of his replacement as a chance to reorient the Court, eliminate the “swing,” and lock in a predictably conservative majority — which is exactly what Democrats fear.  And who can blame them?  These days, with Congress often rendered inert by infighting and inability to compromise and the Executive Branch governing by executive order, the Supreme Court is increasingly seen, and has increasingly acted, as the ultimate decider of all kinds of policy issues that used to be reserved for the political branches of government.

The upcoming confirmation process will not be a high-minded moment for our country.  With passions already at full boil, and with Democrats angered by fresh memories of the Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland in the last year of President Obama’s term and Republicans recalling the Senate Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” when the Democrats were in the majority, we can expect a heated, partisan, no-holds-barred process.

This means that the nominee, whoever it is, will receive the most exacting examination imaginable.  You can be sure that every organization, position, and activity on the nominee’s resume, from college days forward, will be put under a microscope, and every word in every opinion the nominee has written will be inspected and weighed for signs of intrinsic bias that could be used to argue against confirmation.  Can a President who has lots of skeletons in his own personal closet, and who has struggled to identify qualified individuals to fill positions in his Administration, actually select a nominee who can withstand the spotlight that will be directed at everything he or she has done?  And how many potential nominees — and their families — will quail at the prospect of such personally intrusive, withering scrutiny?

It’s not going to be pretty, folks.

The End Of Korematsu And Justice Kennedy’s Concurrence

Yesterday the Supreme Court upheld the latest version of President Trump’s travel ban, by a 5-4 vote.

The Court majority relied upon a provision of federal law that gives the President the power to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” as he or she sees necessary, noted that the provision falls within a recognized area of presidential powers — foreign affairs — and “exudes deference to the president in every clause,” and reasoned that the current version of the executive order was neutrally phrased and “expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices.”  The Court majority noted the anti-Muslim statements of President Trump cited by opponents of the travel ban — which were catalogued by the dissenting justices, who reasoned that the statements established that the President acted with anti-Muslim animus that should invalidate his travel ban order — but concluded that the statements were not sufficient to overturn a neutrally structured proclamation authorized by a broad federal law given the limited review the judiciary can give to such presidential acts.

Notably, the majority overruled Korematsu v. United States, an odious World War II-era Supreme Court decision that upheld President Roosevelt’s decision to forcibly move American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps — a decision that has long been a black eye for the nation’s highest court.  The Court rejected the dissenting justices’ argument that upholding the current travel ban was akin to the decision in Korematsu, saying that “it is wholly inapt to liken that morally repugnant order to a facially neutral policy denying certain foreign nationals the privilege of admission” because “[t]he entry suspension is an act that is well within executive authority and could have been taken by any other President—the only question is evaluating the actions of this particular President in promulgating an otherwise valid Proclamation.”  The Court added, however, that the dissent’s reference to Korematsu “affords this Court the opportunity to make express what is already obvious: Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—“has no place in law under the Constitution.”

9th_circuit_trump_84941_c0-45-1437-882_s885x516Also notable is the brief concurring opinion of Justice Kennedy, one of the “swing” justices on the Court whose vote was crucial to upholding the ban.  His brief concurrence ends with the following two paragraphs:

“In all events, it is appropriate to make this further observation. There are numerous instances in which the statements and actions of Government officials are not subject to judicial scrutiny or intervention. That does not mean those officials are free to disregard the Constitution and the rights it proclaims and protects. The oath that all officials take to adhere to the Constitution is not confined to those spheres in which the Judiciary can correct or even comment upon what those officials say or do. Indeed, the very fact that an official may have broad discretion, discretion free from judicial scrutiny, makes it all the more imperative for him or her to adhere to the Constitution and to its meaning and its promise.”

“The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion and promises the free exercise of religion. From these safeguards, and from the guarantee of freedom of speech, it follows there is freedom of belief and expression. It is an urgent necessity that officials adhere to these constitutional guarantees and mandates in all their actions, even in the sphere of foreign affairs. An anxious world must know that our Government remains committed always to the liberties the Constitution seeks to preserve and protect, so that freedom extends outward, and lasts.”

As Supreme Court opinions go, this is a pretty strong admonishment of President Trump to stop with the vituperation and vilification and start expressing the high-minded principles on which our nation was founded.  Nevertheless, many people have criticized Kennedy’s concurrence as empty words, and an abdication of the judiciary’s role to act as a check on the excesses of the executive branch, and others have called the notion that President Trump might actually be mindful of such sentiments a “fairy tale.”

I view it differently:  Justice Kennedy realizes that Supreme Court decisions must consider the long term, and can’t simply be motivated by the passions or personalities of the moment; he fears that a precedent stating that a president’s statements while campaigning or governing can be broadly infused into judicial review of otherwise neutral executive actions could have untold consequences in the future.  But he also felt it was essential to express what many of us feel — we want a President to act presidential in every sense of the word.  So he took the extraordinary act of calling out the President on that issue.  But will President Trump hear him?

 

A Tale Fit For Aesop

You may remember reading one of Aesop’s fables when you were a kid.  Aesop was the ancient Greek — believed to have been a slave on the island of Samos — who lived around 600 B.C. and wrote short tales, often involving sentient animals, that always imparted a simple, direct moral lesson.

rat-for-rat-info-page-on-website-14-15Some of Aesop’s best-known efforts include the Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant, in which the industrious ant works hard and saves for the winter while the shiftless grasshopper messes around and ends up starving (moral: look ahead and be prepared, or pay the consequences), or the Fable of Belling the Cat, where mice have a meeting to discuss how to protect themselves against a predatory cat, decide someone should put a bell on the cat so that the mice will know when the cat is approaching, and then realize that no mouse would be capable of attaching the bell (moral:  it’s easy to propose impossible solutions and harder to come up with remedies that actually can be accomplished).

I thought of old Aesop when I read this news story about a rat that somehow got into an ATM machine in India.  The rat crawled into the machine in the northern Indian town of Tinsukia, wasn’t detected by security cameras, gorged itself on $18,000 worth of Indian rupees — and then died.  It’s not clear whether the rat was killed by the ink and chemicals on the banknotes it chewed, or whether it became so bloated that it was unable to get out of the ATM after its feast.  In any case, the dead rat was discovered only after the ATM stopped working and technicians were sent to investigate.

Now, there’s a tale fit for Aesop!  But since he’s not around any more, we’ll have to come up with our own moral for this story of the money-loving rat.  How about:  “Gluttony is its own punishment”?  Or:  “A taste for money should only be indulged in moderation”?  Or:  “A rat with money is still just a rat”?