Monday, May 30, 2011

Birth of a Nation Undone

This weekend I watched “Birth of a Nation,” and I was saddened by the director D.W. Griffith’s confidence that the Civil War had resolved the issue of state’s rights, After all, that’s what he meant by his title: the War Between the States had birthed a united nation and ended the belief that states were not bound by federal law. But today we live in an era where the issue of state’s rights has taken on a new power and threatens the future of this country. The refusal of many states to take federal stimulus funds, and more seriously the threat not to participate in health care reform measures are two recent examples. In today’s New York Times the lead editorial, “Inching Closer to State’s Rights,” warns that we are one Supreme Court vote away from allowing states to violate federal law.

Chief Justice John Roberts is one vote short of moving the Supreme Court to a position so conservative on states’ rights that it would be to the right of the Tea Party’s idea of limited government. That chilling possibility was evident in the court’s recent ruling in the case of Virginia v. Stewart. The principle at stake dates back to a 1908 case, Ex parte Young, in which the Supreme Court held that federal courts have a paramount role in stopping a state from violating federal law. Despite the 11th Amendment’s protection of a state from being sued in federal court, all state officials must comply with federal law, which the Constitution calls “the supreme Law of the Land.”

Our federal system is useful for allowing states to try out governing ideas on smaller scales, like universal health care in Massachusetts and death with dignity laws in Oregon. But it is vitally important that there be laws that cover the entire United States that cannot be flouted by an individual state.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How to Die in Oregon

I just watched a stunning documentary on HBO called “How to Die in Oregon.” The film made a powerful argument for “Death with Dignity” laws, by showing intimate portraits of people who were terminally ill and had chosen to die on their own terms. As one volunteer put it, our culture has this mistaken belief that courage means suffering; that to cherish life means a person has to endure excruciating agony and intrusive medical procedures to forestall death at any cost. The people in this film show that courage also means choosing to say “no, I’ve had enough. I cherish life too much to spend my last weeks in the hospital hooked up to machines or throwing up from chemotherapy. I want to die with dignity.” What becomes clear is the ability to choose their death is their final gift to their families.

Two people even shared their deaths with the filmmaker, and with us, and both deaths were incredibly graceful and moving. The second half of the film mostly tracks the last year of a remarkable woman named Cody. She was a 54-year-old mother of two, married 36 years, and she had aggressive liver cancer. Cody, in particular, through her eloquence and honesty, was persuasive that the right to choose one’s own death is a necessary component of a compassionate society.

Another powerful story was that of a woman in Washington state whose husband had died a horrible death from brain cancer. Before he died he asked his wife to promise to change the law so no one else would have to suffer as he did. The film shows her activism after his death, leading to Washington State passing a death with dignity law in November 2008.

I honor the individuals and the families who were willing to share such a difficult and intimate part of their lives, because they have given an enormous gift to all of us.

I highly recommend this film. It will make you cry, it will move you, and it will probably make you a believer in death with dignity laws.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Endless War Part Two

When I wrote the previous post, "Endless War," I had no idea about the latest outrage that Republicans are cooking up in Congress.

A provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, approved last week by the House Armed Services Committee, would allow the president to use military force anywhere in the world where terrorism suspects are reported to be present, even if no U.S. citizen has been harmed or the United States has not been attacked. It allows the president to detain “belligerents” until the “termination of hostilities.”

The New York Times editorialized yesterday,

"That deliberately vague phrase could include anyone who doesn’t like America, even if they are not connected in any way with the 2001 attacks. It could even apply to domestic threats...Since it does not give a plausible scenario of how those hostilities could be considered over, it raises the possibility of endless detention for anyone who gets on the wrong side of a future administration...As more than 30 House Democrats protested to Mr. McKeon, a declaration of “global war against nameless individuals, organizations, and nations” could “grant the president near unfettered authority to initiate military action around the world without further Congressional approval.” If a future administration wanted to attack Iran unilaterally, it could do so without having to consult with Congress."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Endless War

I watched Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" again recently. During the first few minutes of the film a narrator describes how during the Cold War, U.S. bombers flew at "fail-safe" points, ready to strike at targets in the Soviet Union. These planes flew 24/7/365 for decades. As my mind was reeling with the calculation of the dollar cost of this madness, it occurred to me that the United States has been continually at war for 70 years, with only the slightest break during the 1990s.

As soon as World War II was over the Cold War with the Soviet Union began (actually you could probably date the start of the Cold War to some time before the end of the Pacific campaign). There were hot wars during the next fifty years, notably Korea and Vietnam, which lulled people into believing there were years of peace, but that was a delusion.

In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cold War came to an end. Silly Americans dreamed of a "peace dividend": the defense budget could be slashed and all that money devoted to education and health and building a more prosperous world. How naive.

The military-industrial complex spent the next decade figuring out how to keep the peace dividend disaster at bay. The breaking apart of Yugoslavia provided a handy justification for military action, and the Iraq no-fly zone kept American jets in the air, but these weren't good enough.

On 9/11 Osama bin Laden provided the perfect excuse to begin another war without end. This one will be better than the Cold War, because the Soviet Union was an opponent that could disappear. Terrorism is a tactic and there is no worries about that disappearing anytime soon.

We naive Americans dream that with the death of bin Laden the war in Afghanistan will end and that peace dividend will finally show up. Fat chance.