Just like the movies

The Red Sox are really, really bad.  No pitching, no hitting, no defense.  Just losses.  Who would have thought just a week ago that the Sox would go into last night’s game 4-9.  4-9! 

How bad is it?  Look at this from the Boston Globe Extra Bases.  Sox batting with men on base.

0 for 7: Jeremy Hermida

0 for 5: Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro

0 for 3: Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis

0 for 2: Bill Hall, David Ortiz

0 for 1: Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek

That’s everybody on the roster, except for Jacoby Ellsbury and he hasn’t played since April 11. The last player to get a hit with a runner in scoring position was Hermida, who had a three-run double against the Twins on April 14.

As a team this season, the Red Sox are 16 for 99 (.162) with runners in scoring position including 1 for 8 with the bases loaded. Of the 15 home runs the Sox have hit, eight have come with the bases empty.

So what to do?  Put Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron on the DL and bring up Josh Reddick and Darnell McDonald.  Reddick we know about, but who is McDonald?  We will soon find out.  Amalie Benjamin writes in the Globe

McDonald, who began the day not on the team’s 40-man roster and the game on the bench, did what the Red Sox have failed to do so often this season. With Jason Varitek having doubled his way ahead of McDonald, the pinch hitter slammed a 2-2 pitch into the seats above the Green Monster, pulling the Red Sox even with the Rangers at 6, inciting that crowd, and helping erase the memory of the nine stolen bases the Sox had given up earlier in the game

And those fans certainly knew his name by the time he came to bat in the ninth, with the bases loaded and two outs. They stood for him then, hoping and praying he could halt Boston’s five-game losing streak, and six-game skid at home. He did. McDonald’s high drive scraped the wall, sending Kevin Youkilis home for a much-needed 7-6 win

Darnell McDonald watches as his pinch-hit, two-run homer sails out of Fenway in the eighth.

Sox win!

Peter Abraham writes in his wrap up in the Globe

There are 100 reasons we all love baseball. Guys like Darnell McDonald and nights like tonight are right up there, aren’t they?McDonald was in a hotel in Boston this afternoon, waiting for a call he wasn’t sure was going to come. But when Jacoby Ellsbury had a painful round of batting practice, he was put on the disabled list and McDonald was summoned.

He joked before the game about being in an undisclosed location and that he had saved his receipts to bill the Red Sox for the snacks he had while waiting.

McDonald came off the bench in the eighth inning to pinch hit for Josh Reddick and cracked a two-run homer to tie the score. Then in the ninth, he delivered a two-out RBI single off the wall with the bases loaded. How cool is that?

His excited teammates — some who barely knew his name — chased him out to left field in their celebration.

McDonald is 31 and the Red Sox are his seventh organization since 2004. A former first-round pick of the Orioles in 1997, he has been kicking around pro ball for 13 years. The Sox invited him to spring training as a minor-league free agent. McDonald pulled an oblique muscle and ended up with only 17 at-bats.

It is just like the movies.  Veteran minor leaguer gets his chance and comes through.  Maybe he’s broken the evil spell on the Sox.

So let’s end this happy story with a this interesting factoid

* The Sox have won 100 of the 123 games Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon have both appeared in.

The realist in me says one win does not a season make.  Can they win again tonight?  And who will Dice-K play replace when he arrives from rehab?

Oh, yeah.  the Celtics also won last night to take a 2-1 lead in their playoff series.

Thinking about the Supreme Court

I’m not going to speculate (at least in this post) on who President Obama will nominate in a few weeks, but I am going to talk about  two pieces discussing the Court itself and how decisions are made. The first by Geoffrey R. Stone in the New York Times, the second posted by William Forbath  this weekend on Politico’s Arena in response to Stone.

Stone begins

AS the Senate awaits the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice, a frank discussion is needed on the proper role of judges in our constitutional system. For 30 years, conservative commentators have persuaded the public that conservative judges apply the law, whereas liberal judges make up the law. According to Chief Justice John Roberts, his job is just to “call balls and strikes.” According to Justice Antonin Scalia, conservative jurists merely carry out the “original meaning” of the framers. These are appealing but wholly disingenuous descriptions of what judges — liberal or conservative — actually do.

As both Stone and Forbath remind us, the Constitution is an 18th Century document.  I believe that the vague yet sweeping language is why the Constitution is still a living and useful document.  The question addressed by Stone and Forbath is how one interprets it to meet the modern age. Neither thinks much of the way the current conservative majority uses the constitution.

Stone

Rulings by conservative justices in the past decade make it perfectly clear that they do not “apply the law” in a neutral and detached manner. Consider, for example, their decisions holding that corporations have the same right of free speech as individuals, that commercial advertising receives robust protection under the First Amendment, that the Second Amendment prohibits the regulation of guns, that affirmative action is unconstitutional, that the equal protection clause mandated the election of George W. Bush and that the Boy Scouts have a First Amendment right to exclude gay scoutmasters.

Whatever one thinks of these decisions, it should be apparent that conservative judges do not disinterestedly call balls and strikes. Rather, fueled by their own political and ideological convictions, they make value judgments, often in an aggressively activist manner that goes well beyond anything the framers themselves envisioned. There is nothing simple, neutral, objective or restrained about such decisions. For too long, conservatives have set the terms of the debate about judges, and they have done so in a highly misleading way. Americans should see conservative constitutional jurisprudence for what it really is. And liberals must stand up for their vision of the judiciary.

Forbath

… Conservative judges use history to claim that when they strike down a law, they are merely applying the “original understanding” or “intentions” of the framers of the Constitution. This is bunk. But it is reassuring. It enables conservatives on and off the Court to claim that what liberal judges do is something different and illegitimate. Liberals are “judicial activists.” When liberal judges strike down a law, they are “making up” new law. They are “betraying” the Founding Fathers. This is also bunk. Conservative and liberal judges alike bring their own present-day values and convictions to bear on interpreting and applying the Constitution. Conservatives are wrong to deny it. But they are right that appealing to history and “keeping faith with the past” is an indispensable part of our constitutional tradition – and one that helps mobilize popular support behind the constitutional commitments a judge, lawmaker, or citizen may prize. So, liberals need to get a better handle on the way to use history.

So what should the role of history be?  And how can liberal justices use it more to their advantage?  Stone points out that

So, how should judges interpret the Constitution? To answer that question, we need to consider why we give courts the power of judicial review — the power to hold laws unconstitutional — in the first place. Although the framers thought democracy to be the best system of government, they recognized that it was imperfect. One flaw that troubled them was the risk that prejudice or intolerance on the part of the majority might threaten the liberties of a minority. As James Madison observed, in a democratic society “the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended … from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” It was therefore essential, Madison concluded, for judges, whose life tenure insulates them from the demands of the majority, to serve as the guardians of our liberties and as “an impenetrable bulwark” against every encroachment upon our most cherished freedoms.

Conservative judges often stand this idea on its head. As the list of rulings above shows, they tend to exercise the power of judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society. They employ judicial review to protect the powerful rather than the powerless.

Liberal judges, on the other hand, have tended to exercise the power of judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage racial and religious minorities, political dissenters, people accused of crimes and others who are unlikely to have their interests fully and fairly considered by the majority. Liberal judges have ended racial segregation, recognized the principle of “one person, one vote,” prohibited censorship of the Pentagon Papers and upheld the right to due process, even at Guantanamo Bay. This approach to judicial review fits much more naturally with the concerns and intentions of people like Madison who forged the American constitutional system.

Where Forbath disagrees is with Stone’s reliance on James Madison and original intent.  He points out

So, judges today must attend to the text the framers gave us, the general principles it enshrines, the Amendments Americans have added, and the meaning and range of applications generations of judges, lawmakers and citizens have poured into them. And judges must consult their own conscience and experience as they sift through these materials that history provides and decide how best to keep faith with the past.

As long as they hew to this honest approach to history, liberals often draw compelling lessons from it. But lately, liberals are being drawn into the fictions and falsities of the “framers’ intentions” in order to sound just as “true” to the Founding Fathers as our conservative foes. When we liberals play the “framers’ intentions” game, however, we end up sounding silly and disingenuous.

Take for example constitutional scholar Geoffrey Stone’s important op-ed piece in last Wednesday’s New York Times. Looking ahead to President Obama’s soon-to-be-announced nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice, Stone urges “a frank discussion .on the proper role of judges in our constitutional system.” He laments that for thirty years or so, conservatives have dominated the national conversation about the Constitution and the Court, and he rightly points out that they have done so “in a highly misleading way” by claiming that conservative judges just “apply” the Constitution by enforcing the “framers’ intentions.” Stone goes on to contrast the kinds of laws that liberal judges strike down – laws that burden racial minorities, the poor and the powerless, with laws that conservative judges strike down – laws that “disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society.” And he suggests that liberal judges surely have a wiser vision of the role of judges in a constitutional democracy, since they wield the power of judicial review to safeguard people most at risk of being shortchanged in the ordinary political process, while the conservative judges conjure up new safeguards for those who already enjoy ample sway in the political arena.

So far so good. But along the way, Stone proves unable to resist the siren song of “framers’ intentions.” He tries to turn the table on the conservatives. He goes to some lengths trying to cloak liberal constitutional values and commitments in the mantle of James Madison’s “intentions.” Stone has dressed up James Madison as a Great Society liberal. Says Stone, the “intentions of people like Madison who forged the American constitutional system” was to safeguard minorities like African-Americans, undocumented immigrants and the Guantanamo detainees against the tyranny of the majority. That is what liberal judges do. Conservatives, Stone declares, stand Madison’s “idea on its head.” They wield judicial review to overturn affirmative action, gun control, and restrictions on corporate speech; they “tend to exercise. judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society.”

Stone’s James Madison is bunk too. The real James Madison was largely hostile to any kind of judicial review. More important: while Madison did craft the Constitution to safeguard minority rights against the tyranny of the majority, and while Madison, the wealthy slaveholder, was concerned about protecting religious minorities, he had no concern for the rights of “racial minorities,” and it was mainly the rights of the wealthy over against the majority of Americans of modest means that Madison hoped to protect! Thus, the conservatives on today’s Court have about as good a claim to Madison’s mantle as we liberals do.

I think Forbath is right about history and original intent.  As long as we argue about which view of original intent is correct, liberals will never prevail.  We need to move on to take into about all the history since 1787.  Forbath writes

History is on our side; but that has much less to do with James Madison and much more to do with the bloodshed of the Civil War and the Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments that made the Constitution a charter of equal rights for all Americans, including the former slaves. It was the Republicans of the Reconstruction Era, the New Dealers, the Civil Rights Movement, and the twentieth-century Court who gradually enlarged Madison’s original conception of minority rights and majority tyranny to make it a safeguard for the poor and vulnerable.

We do need “a frank discussion” on the Constitution and the proper role of judges, and we can’t be half-frank about it. There are good arguments why the liberals’ account is better. Stone offers a few. But wrapping ourselves in the mantle of the 18th century framers’ intentions as he tries to do is not one. Our constitutional commitments have emerged over two centuries of tumultuous change. The arc of constitutional history generally has bent toward a more inclusive and generous vision of rights-bearing membership in We, the People. Conservatives are bending it back. The 18th century framers might have agreed with them; but the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments, and much else have intervened in the mean time; and, in any case, the choice – about how to keep faith with our constitutional past – is ours.

We need a Supreme Court with Justices that are willing to grow, to learn and to change with the times.  President Obama could do worse that nominate someone in the Earl Warren or Justice Powell or Justice Brennan mold.  Those were men who learned to consider cases on their merits, who understood the need to connect decisions to real ordinary people.  They were men with empathy.

SNCC Celebrates 50 Years

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina.  SNCC’s founding conference was held April 18-18, 1060 also in Raleigh convened by Ella Baker of the South Christian Leadership Conference.  According to Claybourne Carson in his history of SNCC,  In the Struggle (Harvard University Press, 1981), Baker was the one who realize the student need for autonomy and encourage the founding of a separate student group.  Many founders and early workers are now legendary.  John Lewis, Robert Moses, Jane Stembridge, Marion Barry, Diane Nash, James Lawson, Ruby Doris Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, Willie Peacock,  Julian Bond, Bob Zellner, Charles Sherrod, the list could go on and on.  It is wonderful that they are all being celebrated.

SNCC 50th Anniversary Logo

According to the conference website

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “Snick”) emerged from the student sit-ins that erupted on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although just four students launched these sit-ins, within two months thousands of students across the south were engaged in similar protests against racial segregation. On April 15, 1960, some 200 of these campus-based activists began meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina on the campus of what is now Shaw University and formed SNCC. In 1961, a handful of these activists committed to full-time work in the southern civil rights struggle; some of them postponing their college plans. SNCC became an organization of grassroots organizers.

Historians characterize SNCC as the movement’s “cutting edge”. Its “field secretaries” worked in the most dangerous parts of the south seeking to both cultivate and reinforce local leadership. Its uncompromising style of non-violent direct action confronted racial injustice throughout the South and contributed to the elimination of racial segregation. And SNCC’s unique “from-the-bottom-up” approach to organizing led to the emergence of powerful grassroots organizations.

 With “One Man, One Vote” voter registration campaigns SNCC paved the way for a new generation of black elected officials across the south. By breaking the grip of “Dixiecrats” on southern politics they changed forever politics in America. It is this work that laid the foundation for the election of America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama.

NRP also had a story on Weekend Edition this morning.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee has its 50th reunion this weekend. The civil rights group dates back to the first lunch counter demonstrations in Greensboro, N.C., that quickly spread across the South. One of the goals of the reunion is to get young people involved in tackling social, political and economic issues.

The story of Elwin Wilson’s apology to John Lewis was broadcast on NRP on April 16 as part of the coverage of SNCC’s 50th Anniversary.

Bunt Gill wipes raw egg off his clothing during a civil rights protest in 1960 in Rock Hill, S.C.

Bunt Gill wipes raw egg off his clothing during a civil rights protest in February 1960 in downtown Rock Hill, S.C. Among the hecklers in the crowd is a young Elwin Wilson (center, wearing a football jersey). Wilson later admitted attacking John Lewis, now a Georgia Congressman, in May 1961. He has since apologized.

These photographs from the anniversary website were taken by Danny Lyon who was a photographer for SNCC and had an exhibit at the conference.

Photo Exhibit

Of course times were very complicated and there were divisions between black and white students, between northern and southern student groups and eventually between movement men and movement women.  I was too young to go south for Mississippi Summer, so I had to content myself with boycotting Woolworth’s and going to concerts by the Freedom Singers.  By the time I was in college in 1965, I joined an SDS group and was very briefly an organizer for the Southern Student Organizing  Committee (SOCC) in Virginia.   SOCC was a southern “affiliate” of SDS and was founded at the time that SNCC was becoming a more militant, black organization.  SOCC disbanded in 1969.

So it makes me happy to see that SNCC has come full circle and is welcoming an integrated  group of third grade students from Oakland, CA as future civil rights leaders.

Future Activists

Future Activists

Happy Birthday, SNCC!

Tea Party on Boston Common

Yesterday the Tea Party came to Boston.  About 5000 gathered to hear Sarah Palin give her talking points.  As I was going to work, I saw the booths being set up and the motorcycle police gathering.  The few black faces at that early point were Boston Police officers. We heard the helicopters circling all morning.  When I went for a walk at lunch the rally had ended and I saw a tea partier too busy trying to hang on to his sign to notice he was crossing a busy intersection against the walk light and in front of a bus pulling out from a stop.  The driver did see him and the man finally noticed, but to me it was emblematic of the tea party movement: oblivious to the reality of the world around them.

Yvonne Abraham had a great column in the Boston Globe this morning.

I was standing in the crowd at the tea party rally on the Common yesterday, enjoying Sarah Palin’s applause lines (Do you love your freedom? We’re not going to stand for it any more! Oh no ya don’t! Drill, baby, drill!), when a friendly woman asked me a question.

“We don’t look insane, do we, really?’’

Well, no, I had to allow. They didn’t. In fact, most in the excited crowd seemed pretty normal — unless you count Doug Bennett, the Boston City Council candidate whose giant grin and jolly handshake show up so often around town it’s kind of creepy.

In fact, most of the people I spoke to treated me as if I were the one who was soft in the head, unable to comprehend elementary concepts. They patiently dedicated themselves to my enlightenment.

“Here, have a copy of the Constitution, so you know what we’re talking about,’’ one kind man offered. They even engaged in civil debate with some counterprotesters.

Donna Tripp was thrilled with this development. Holding a sign that read “No Matter What I Write, I Will Still Be Called a ‘Racist, Nazi, Tea-bagger . . . ,’ ’’ the Avon resident had just been interviewed on camera by a young man who works for Palin.

“It gives me the willies!’’ she told her friend. “He’s shooting for Sarah!’’

She loves Palin because “the Constitution is her mantra, and that’s what I’m all about,’’ Tripp said. “She’s done what all those women wanted to do in the ’60s. She earned everything she has, all on her own.’’

Like everybody else at the rally yesterday, Tripp hates, hates, hates the health care overhaul recently signed into law.

“This country is taking a hard right turn for socialism,’’ she said. “I don’t want to be told to buy a service I don’t want. America is about freedom of choice.’’

Tripp, 55, already lives in a state that requires everybody to buy health insurance, but she refuses to do it.

“I’m healthy,’’ she said. When her husband went to Canada for prostate cancer treatment five years ago, they paid $25,000 out of pocket.

But what if she got really sick — if she needed, say, heart bypass surgery, which could cost more than $100,000?

“I’d mortgage my house,’’ she said. And if that wasn’t enough?

“I guess I’d die,’’ she said. “But under our Constitution, I should be able to take that risk.’’

More likely, Tripp would get her treatment, and if she couldn’t afford to pay for it, the rest of us would pick up the tab.

That’s how this country is set up: According to the preamble in the little Constitution the kind man gave me, we are all about promoting “the general Welfare.’’

Scott Brown, our new Senator, didn’t show up.  Neither did Charlie Baker who is running for Governor as a Republican.  Wonder why?

Today the New York Times and CBS released a new poll about the Tea Party.

Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.

They hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans generally. They are also more likely to describe themselves as “very conservative” and President Obama as “very liberal.”

And while most Republicans say they are “dissatisfied” with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “angry.”

And I hate to burst Donna Tripp’s bubble, but the reason why she is perceived as racist is because many of her fellow tea partiers appear to be racist.  According to the poll, “Supporters of the Tea Party movement are more likely to be men, over the age of 45, white, married, and either employed or retired. Few are unemployed. They are more affluent and more educated than most Americans. Almost all said they are registered to vote, and most are Republicans.”

Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.

The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.

So this well educated, overwhelmingly white group obviously feels threatened by the way the world is changing and afraid they will lose theirs.

When talking about the Tea Party movement, the largest number of respondents said that the movement’s goal should be reducing the size of government, more than cutting the budget deficit or lowering taxes.

And nearly three-quarters of those who favor smaller government said they would prefer it even if it meant spending on domestic programs would be cut.

But in follow-up interviews, Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on “waste.”

Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.

Others could not explain the contradiction.

“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

It looks like the Tea Party is really the party of “I’ve got mine and I don’t want to share with anyone who is not like me.”

Nuclear Security

I grew up going to protests and vigils to urge President Kennedy to ban open air testing so I am thrilled that President Obama has taken the first steps to get the world talking about securing bomb-making materials from terrorists and other rogues.  And if you click this link, you will see him “dance” as he greets all the leaders.  Watch it full screen.

The New York Times reports

The meeting that Mr. Obama convened, and to a great degree stage-managed, was unlike any negotiations over arms control with the Soviets during the cold war or, more recently, the so-far fruitless talks to get North Korea to disarm. This was a far broader effort to persuade African, Latin American, Asian and European nations to agree on steps to deny terrorist groups the two materials necessary to make a bomb: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Mr. Obama began the session arguing that while superpower confrontation was far more remote, the risk of nuclear terrorism had never been greater, and he quoted the warning of Albert Einstein soon after the beginning of the nuclear age: “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison.”

Critics contended that this session was all for show.

“The summit’s purported accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy, and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” said Senator Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican who has vowed to oppose nuclear treaties Mr. Obama regards as essential.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that the commitments were voluntary, but he said the situation was nothing new. “If you are asking, ‘Do we have an international, one-world law enforcement,’ we don’t, and we never have,” he said.

Isn’t getting someone to do something voluntarily better than forcing them to do it? 

At the end of two days of meetings, Mr. Obama could claim two major accomplishments: The summit meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments.

A second summit meeting will be held in two years in South Korea, Mr. Obama said, to make sure countries are on track.

Some countries arrived with what Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s nuclear adviser, called “house gifts” that the United States had encouraged as signs of sincerity. For example, Canada, Mexico and Ukraine committed to eliminating their surplus weapons-grade materials or giving them to the United States.

This week, Russia closed a plutonium reactor it had used to make weapons-grade fuel. Other nations agreed to convert research reactors to fuel that could not be used for weapons.

 

Outside experts were optimistic. Sam Nunn, the former senator who tutored Mr. Obama on proliferation issues, said he thought “we are now closer to cooperation than catastrophe.” Graham Allison, a Harvard expert on nuclear terrorism, made the case that if countries “lock down all nuclear weapons and bomb-usable material as securely as gold in Fort Knox, they can reduce the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11 to nearly zero.”

As I said at the beginning, baby steps are better than taking no steps at all.  We have made a start.

Contemplating trees and allergy season

I have a terrible tree pollen allergy so I was amused to see that Olivia Judson picked the tree for her Life-form of the month for April.

Trees figure in our mythologies and metaphors — the tree of life, the tree of knowledge — and we often imagine them to harbor spirits and sprites. They also figure in a big way in our reality: forests (still) cover about 30 percent of the planet’s land, and may make up as much as 80 percent of Earth’s biomass. That is, if you were to put all the organisms on the planet on a giant set of scales, trees would account for 80 percent of the total.

Better yet, trees harbor plenty of non-imaginary beings. Birds like starlings or blue tits nest in tree holes; others, like magpies and crows, build their nests high in the branches. Chimpanzees sleep in trees. A number of fungi — truffles, anyone? — associate with tree roots. Insects like wasps make houses (galls) in the leaves. And so on.

Until last November, we had a huge Norway maple tree which covered the entire front of the house and reached to the 4th floor.  Over a hundred years old, it as beginning to learn away from the house and over the street.  It was also rotting from an old wound.  It had to come down.  I was wondering if taking it down would lessen my allergies, but so far it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.

Olivia Judson again

Yet although trees are familiar to all of us, many aspects of their biology remain enigmatic: because they grow slowly and live for so long, they’ve been hard for us to study in the laboratory. Which is why they are my nomination for Life-form of the Month: April.

What, then, is a tree? Precise definitions vary, but most of them mention the words “tall” and “woody,” and add that a tree has a single self-supporting stem (i.e., a trunk) that branches well above the ground.

The first trees appeared more than 375 million years ago, in several different plant lineages, in a burst of evolution that some authors have termed “the scramble for the sky.” If you’d been walking through the Earth’s early forests, you might have seen club mosses that were 40 meters (131 feet) tall, as well as giant horsetails. Both types of tree are now extinct. But what’s interesting about them is that they made wood differently from, say, pine trees. Pine trees grow outwards, forming a solid woody cylinder. In contrast, the trunks of tree-horsetails were hollow tubes, like bamboo. Tree-club mosses produced trunks with a hard outer casing, and a softer interior. Meanwhile, tree-ferns evolved a fourth type of woody structure: they grow several stems that are bound together by other tissues.

However you define a tree, they are beautiful, provide shelter, and are a renewable resource if harvested carefully.  I find looking at them restful – even if they make me miserable for a couple of months a year.

Still fighting the Civil War

I’ve heard people chuckle in amazement at factions in other countries who still feud over “ancient” injuries, but we have our own on-going civil war.  It appears that for many, the Confederacy was never defeated and the South can rise again.  Two smart women, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Gail Collins have written about this phenomenon each using the Virginia Confederate History Month as a starting point.

Harris-Lacewell writes of the “Two Virginias” in the Nation

Governor Robert McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his declaration Governor McDonnell called for Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

In his original declaration, McDonnell made no mention of slavery as a root cause for the Civil War. His insistence on remembering only “leaders, soldiers, and citizens” refuses to acknowledge the existence of black people in the South. There were some black soldiers who fought in the Confederate army, but the vast majority of African Americans contributed to the Confederate effort through the violently coerced, unpaid labor that was part and parcel of the their dehumanizing, totalizing, intergenerational, chattel bondage. McDonnell seems to believe that this reality is unworthy of remembrance.

It’s taken me nearly two days to respond to the Governor’s declaration of Confederate History Month and his flip erasure of black life, suffering, and struggle because this particular news story is profoundly personal.

On my father’s side we traced our family tree as far as we could follow it and discovered we are descended from an African woman sold into slavery on a corner in Richmond, Virginia.

Harris-Lacewell continues

My father and his siblings grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond. They attended racially segregated schools. Despite being nearly starved for school resources by the state, my father and his twin brother became the first in the family to attend college. Both became college professors. My uncle had a distinguished career as a student at the University of Virginia. My father went on to become the first Dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia in 1976.I grew up in Virginia. I had social studies teachers who referred to the Civil War as “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression.” My interracial family experienced harassment and abuse during the two decades we made our home in the Commonwealth. But Virginia is also the place where I made lifelong friends, found spiritual communities and was educated by many tough and loving teachers. I came to political consciousness in Virginia and distinctly remember listening to every word of Douglass Wilder’s inauguration address as the first black governor. I cheered on election night 2008 when Virginia turned blue just moments before Barack Obama’s presidential win was announced.

I share this personal history because it is not exceptional. Black Americans are, by and large, Southerners. Our roots, our stories, our lives, our struggles, our joys have a distinctly Southern flavor. Slavery and Jim Crow are part of our experience, but so are church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music. There is no Black American history that is not deeply intertwined with Southern history. It is extraordinarily painful to watch an elected official in the 21st century engage in an act of willful and racist historical erasure of our very selves.

I also lived in Virginia for many years.  My first job with the Commonwealth of Virginia was enforcing Executive Order Number One issued by a former segregationist governor, Mills E. Godwin.  E.O. 1 which was issued by every governor until Bob McDonnell forbids discrimination in state employment.  I had the day off for Lee-Jackson Day every January.  (That’s Robert E. and Stonewall.)  When Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a national holiday, the day became Lee-Jackson-King Day.  Virginia has always been different, but McDonnell seems determined to really turn back time.

Harris-Lacewell concludes

Without a hint of irony McDonnell suggested that he hopes to profit from Confederate inspired tourism. Clearly he hopes that the racial anxieties brewing in America will serve as a tourist boon for the former Confederate capital. Having profited for centuries from the forced labor of enslaved black Americans, Virginia seeks to further commodify black suffering in the 21st century. McDonnell is welcoming Rebel flag waving whites from rural Pennsylvania, downstate Illinois, and Southern California to come spend their money and steep themselves in Virginia past when white citizens, determined to keep black people as non-humans, fought back against the federal government.

Virginia has other histories that we can use to resist this false and frightening narrative. We must insist on remembering Jefferson’s Virginia that called us to be better than ourselves, to defend freedom, and to hold together our union. We must remember the histories of all the black families like my own whose struggle and strength cannot be erased from Southern history.

I have visited all the Civil War battle sites in Virginia.  I spent my honeymoon visiting the Shenandoah sites, Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg and most of the national parks try to recognize the role of blacks, free and slave, mostly on the side of the Union.  If the Governor really wants to promote tourism there are a lot better ways to do so.

Gail Collins writes in her New York Times column

April is the cruelest month. Or, if you live in Virginia, Confederate History Month.

The state is buzzing over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation urging citizens to spend the month recalling Virginia’s days as a member of the Confederate States of America. Although since McDonnell had previously turned April over to child abuse prevention, organ donation and financial literacy, perhaps it was O.K. to just pick your favorite.

The original Confederate History proclamation was a miracle of obfuscation. It did not even mention slavery. On Wednesday, the governor apologized for that and said that slavery “has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”

People, what’s our bottom line here. The governor of Virginia has decided to bring slavery into his overview of the history of the Confederacy. Good news, or is this setting the bar a wee bit too low?

The love affair with all things Confederate is way more worrisome. Once again, it’s in to talk secession. The Republican attorneys general are lining up to try to nullify the health care bill.

“Many issues of the Civil War are still being debated today,” said Brag Bowling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which led the push to get that proclamation in Virginia. That seems extremely depressing, as if we were Serbs stewing about what the Turks did at the Plain of Blackbirds in 1389.

Actually, a national discussion of Civil War history sounds fine — as long as we could start by agreeing that the whole leaving-the-union thing was a terrible idea. In the proclamations, it generally sounds as if everything went swimmingly until the part where the South lost and grudgingly rejoined the country.

I have been accused by at least one commentator on this blog of seeing everything in racial terms.  I think just the opposite is true.  People like Governor McDonnell and Representative Joe Wilson and, in fact, the entire “just say no” to anything proposed by President Obama is based on the President’s race.  We need to have a serious discussion about race.  I don’t know how that can happen as President Clinton tried to initiate one and failed and President Obama can’t initiate it.  Maybe Clinton tries again.  Maybe Clinton and President Carter together.  But no matter how much the McDonnell and Republicans want to go backward, the fact remains:  We have elected a black man as President and the population of the United States will soon have a majority population of people of color and there isn’t much they can do about those two things.