Thursday, November 11, 2004

31. Preamble not always true

The Constitution begins with the phrase "We the people," which upon current reflection would seem to be decisively inclusive of all people. As our history tells us, this certainly wasn't the case- especially pertaining to voting rights. Many of our forefathers felt that voting rights ought to be restricted in order to maintain stability. Thus, voting rights were both left to the states to decide and, in nearly all circumstances, extended only to white male property holders. This debate on voting rights, while in a sense is still an issue today, was certainly an issue through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thus, unbelievably, the greatest democracy in history maintained the disenfranchisement of women, African-Americans and other minorities for over 178 years.

The 2004 election will be remembered as the election in which Americans seemed to regain their spirit in democracy and exercised their privilege to vote. With voter turnout around 72%, candidates were forced to reach more and more voters. To disenfranchise one segment of the population could be costly for those bidding for election. No longer can candidates court the vote of the wealthy and influential, for as many have noted, each vote is worth exactly the same. I was particularly interested in the turnout of women and minority voters, for as I will detail, their right of suffrage was a long and arduous journey.

The right to vote for African-Americans began in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled against citizenship for Negroes. After the Civil War, the thirteenth amendment was passed outlawing slavery, and subsequently in 1868, the fourteenth amendment was ratified- making all persons born in the United States citizens thereof. However neither, although inclusive of equal protection of rights, explicitly prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Finally in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was ratified, granting African-Americans the right to vote. However, alas, what should be the end of the story is only the beginning in the plight of African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.

Although not directly related to African-American suffrage, the case that set the tone for disenfranchisement, especially in the south, was Plessy v. Ferguson. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled protecting state-mandated segregation, which is infamously known as the "separate but equal" doctrine. While again this case had little to do with voting rights, (it is much more relevant in school segregation, until Brown v. Board of Education) it did set the tone for racial prejudices. For like the issue of school segregation, every right afforded to African-Americans was swiftly undermined by legal loopholes and technicalities, new laws, and even blatant disregard for the law.

Voting rights for African-Americans from the time of the fifteenth amendment until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a period of ninety-five years, was hindered through a number of deplorable tactics. African-Americans were met with not only social pressure against voting, but also threats of violence from organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Southern states ran "white primaries," in which white candidates were elected by white voters before the general election. African-Americans also faced poll taxes, literacy tests and property qualifications- all aimed at disqualifying otherwise eligible voters. So great was the disenfranchisement in the south that in 1965 only 29% of African-Americans were registered to vote. That year, Martin Luther King Jr. led the famous 50-mile march for voter registration in Dallas County, Alabama, where only 2% of the eligible African-Americans were registered.

The right for women's suffrage, in some ways, began at the time of the American Revolution when Abigail Adams, wife of future President John Adams, warned, "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Unfortunately, this advice fell upon deaf ears for nearly 150 years until the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920 and the right to vote was no longer denied based on account of sex.

Women tried to argue for their right to vote, most notably under the fourteenth amendment and its equal protection of rights clause. The Supreme Court however ruled narrowly upon these rights as applicable to only federal laws and in Minor v. Happersett stated that the fourteenth amendment did not protect women's right to vote. The court ruled that women's suffrage was a state issue. One of the most famous petitioners for women's suffrage was Susan B Anthony, who in 1872 was arrested for voting. In 1890, Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote, and by 1919, just prior to the nineteenth amendment, 30 states permitted women to vote.

Finally, in 1964 the twenty-fourth amendment was ratified which prohibited poll taxes after statistics showed that in states that had poll taxes, the voter turnout was 50% less than that of states that did not have a poll tax. And, as I have mentioned, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, ending discriminatory voter registration tests, such as literacy tests, and electoral redistricting. In addition, voter rights were now to be under federal supervision and subject to federal action.

In the 2004 election there were still incidents of alleged voter discrimination, through intimidation, such as the verification of police records or the purposeful underutilization of voting machines in African-American communities. However, voting rights have improved significantly from prior decades, and should continue to improve in the future. And through the enfranchisement of women and minorities, our Constitution now means as it reads, "We the people..."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

30. Conscience creates rights

On the surface, many regard me as an animal rights activist. And although I might fit the common profile, I think this to be a misnomer. I think "rights activist" to be the wrong words, for I believe more than anything or anyone having "rights," they should have a fair chance. In a way, that is what "rights" is about as, for example, civil rights are the duty to give others a fair chance in life- whether it is employment or freedom from oppression. I haggle at the definition, both as it applies to animals and how it should be applied to humans- but maintain that there is a difference.

Population genetics as it applies to nature is the understanding that more things will be born than can possibly survive. Nature's state of equilibrium requires that a balance be created between prey, predator and environment. Populations test these parameters by, in most cases, producing more offspring than will survive (to reproductive age), based on the resources available, such as water, food, and breeding grounds. Understanding population genetics allows a certain degree of tolerance to nature's seemingly cruel system of survival of the fittest. By that I mean, even though the death of any animal is tough for me to deal with, I understand that is just the way it is. I note this because every time I mention my affection for animals, people immediately ask me if I am a vegetarian- and I am not. However, with that comes a bit of an asterisk because there are some foods I cannot eat, or have trouble eating. Furthermore, I would have an exceedingly difficult time hunting my own food, because even though I grew up on a small farm, I would have to be very hungry before I killed anything.

Noting as I have that animals living and dying as part of life, essentially being the energy transfer required for all life, I return to the issue of animal rights. As I said I believe this to be an issue of equal chance more than any ordained series of rights. So the question then becomes two: 1) As current titleholder of evolutionary design, do we owe anything to our conquered earthly co-inhabitants and, 2) What is to be considered an equal chance?

One could argue that since the evolutionary game is of the most adapt species "calling the shots" that we owe no pity on other species. Consider other species, does a wolf feel pity on a sheep; does it care for any other species than its own and perhaps that of its pack? Nature's rules are such that all individuals are destined to live, attempt to reproduce and die. For nearly all species, the game is passing on one's genes, not compassion. In this manner, we can argue that we are entitled to do whatever it takes to whomever- to best ensure our survival. Thus the raising of animals acts to best enhance our survival as a consistent food source, as does testing human cures on animals. With this understanding, what obligation do we own, if any, to other species? Should we say if one is born a cow, chicken or lab rat - too bad, sorry about your luck?

The problem with this argument is that humans have the ability to ask why the world is the way it is, to feel compassion, and to understand pain and death. And we can ask, for what human cause are we entitled to strip an animal of its chance to live, reproduce and die like every other living thing on this planet? I believe that animals, even those destined for human consumption, should have a life. They should be able to do whatever it is they do and live to a decent age before "humanly" suffering their fate. Often this does not happen. These animals often live and die in the most profitable manner, without regard for quality of life.

On the other hand, those animals fortunate enough to be born in the wild face numerous adversities. Without humans, their life is tough enough always having to look over their shoulders for a possible predator. Have you ever watched a deer eat in an open field? It's almost painful to watch as they react to the slightest environmental activity. Beyond their natural dangers, many animals live in the human world, in a habitat designed for human convenience. Granted, some species have adapted to thrive in this environment, but, for most, humans are but another obstacle in the quest to reproduce. Humans have thoroughly engaged in not only habitat destruction, but also resource depletion. Species are becoming extinct at a rate such that one-fifth of all species will be extinct in 30 years, and there is nothing worse than witnessing animals suffer as a result of human greed or development. How fitting is it that the new development on Oak Point is named Deerfield, perhaps mockingly after the habitat it destroyed. This is not giving animals a fair chance.

Neither is, by definition, lab rats, zoo animals or feeder mice. Humans have adapted a hierarchy for animals- deciding which are desirable and which are not. We have decided which lives we value such as dogs, cats, horses and those that we do not such as mice and rats. Animal abuse is illegal, but hunting is permitted? The issue is across a spectrum of values such animal testing for human cosmetics and killing for profit like furs and tusks. With our understanding of fear, pain and death, what right do we have to abuse an animal for fun or profit?

The compassion for animals that many others and I suffer from is a curse. As much as my wife and I would like to save every animal, we know we can't and we know it is not meant to be. As to the question of animal rights, I believe animals are to have a fair chance to live a decent life, to have the opportunity to compete against nature, and be free from human greed, development and cruelty.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

29. Change is slow and costly

Fredrick Douglas believed that without struggle there could be no progress. With this, let us never underestimate the power of ideas. Progress is the acceptance of change, the release of biases and prejudice, brought about first by ideology. Unfortunately, many have suffered for what they believed to be right, and out of necessity, for change would not have occurred otherwise.

History is full of those that fought for what they believed to be right, against some sort of authority and against some sort of establishment. The establishment becomes entrenched in their own ideas, and, most notably, their own interest. Those who presented unpopular ideas are criticized, labeled, harassed, and often murdered. It takes a while for a new idea to develop, to become accepted, because most resist change, and most don't want their beliefs challenged.

One of history's earliest sacrifices begins with the death of Socrates in 399 B.C.E. Studied now in universities across the globe as one of philosophy's greatest teachers, Socrates was sentenced to death for influencing the aristocratic young citizens of Athens. Through discussions on topics such as truth and justice, Socrates challenged the certainty of popular opinions and ancient steadfast ideas. The parents brought Socrates to trial where he was convicted of "corrupting the youth and interfering with the religion of the city." Socrates, in graceful spirit, accepted his fate, refused to sacrifice his principles, and drank hemlock with friends and disciples.

Galileo Galilei dared to challenge the notion that the earth was the center of the universe. At the time, this scientific breakthrough conflicted with the prevailing religious ideas and, inadvertently, sought to question man's significance in the universe. Pope Urban VIII censored his book (Dialogue) and referred Galileo to the Inquisition. After weeks of imprisonment and interrogation, Galileo plead guilty to an erroneous theory in order to receive a lesser sentence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest for heresy. In 1992, the Catholic Church finally admitted to the errors made by the theological advisors in the case of Galileo Galilei.

Many civil rights leaders have suffered, first to end slavery, then toward equal rights. Martin Luther King, who practiced peaceful demonstrations, fought against poverty and for the right to vote. He spoke out against Vietnam and for the right of workers to organize. He led "marches" and "camp-ins." For his effort, because of his ideology that one day we could have a truly integrated society, he was assassinated. He was one of many that were murdered for his or her civil rights activism.

Still others have endured in order to have their ideas considered. Susan B. Anthony was arrested in her quest for women's suffrage. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail because he objected to his poll tax dollars being spent on the Mexican War and the enforcement of slavery laws. Millions have died for speaking out against their governments or defending their religions. They have been slaughtered, beheaded and hung for expressing their ideas or fighting for their cause. Millions have been arrested for protesting wars, demanding equal rights, as well as singular causes like protecting the environment or saving the rain forests.

It is called progress because usually, eventually, society gets things right. These men and women were ultimately right; it just took awhile for people to erase their prejudices, biases and fears. Where once tyranny ruled, democracy is preferred. Whereas once only a few believed in equal rights for minorities, now one is labeled a racist if he or she does not believe it. Most women are now educated and work, no longer is their "place" in the kitchen. We've come a long way in the last few hundred years but there is still a lot to accomplish. And that is sometimes the problem with a democracy; it takes a long time to change the minds of a majority whose beliefs are based on some sort of ancient philosophy. What progressive ideas of today will be readily accepted in the future?

Although this country, in my opinion, took a couple steps backwards in the recent election on a number of issues- society, I am confident, will continue to make progress. Progress will continue and someday people will welcome and understand some of the few issues that they have yet come to accept. And maybe, just maybe, someday a good idea will simply be reasoned, considered and accepted- without the struggle, or the sacrifice.