Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jefferson on Generations

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having written memorable words for commonplace ideas.  One of these ideas is:  “the earth belongs to the living, the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”  This quotation comes from a letter he wrote to his friend James Madison on 6 September 1789.  The context for his remarks is the new U.S. Constitution.  Jefferson was registering his concern that a piece of paper composed by one generation might bind the next generation.

Put our quasi-sacred Constitution out of your mind for a moment and consider how you feel about this idea: that the laws of one generation should not bind the next generation, that each generation should make up its own rules for living.  I’ll wait while you consider your own position on this question.

Some historians believe that Jefferson had personal motivations for this idea: his father in law’s death left him with a legacy of land and slaves – and debt.  And he resented the debt being left for him to pay off.  Consider now how you would feel if your father left behind debts for you – his only son – to pay off.  Should a single son be responsible for his own father’s debts on his father’s death?  This time I will quit the essay and wait while you consider this question.  Please do not read the next part of this essay until you have thought this out.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


It would be wrong not to comment on this sad story, wouldn't it?  So here goes.

Here is what I don’t know.  I don’t know if Michael Brown assaulted police officer Darrell Wilson.  I don’t know if Michael Brown ever had his hands up in surrender or if he ran away.  I don’t know if Officer Wilson’s life was threatened or if he had reasonable cause to believe it was.   I don’t know a lot of things.

Here is what I do know.  I know that Officer Wilson did not know anything about a robbery or Michael Brown’s role in it, as the police chief made clear weeks before the Grand Jury was impaneled.  I know that Michael Brown was unarmed and that officer Wilson knew it.  I know that Michael Brown was shot dead by officer Wilson and that he was shot several times.   I do know that Officer Wilson is alive and that he will not stand trial for anything, not even involuntary manslaughter (the penalty for which is typically a year in prison).  I do know that a) a Grand Jury is not supposed to hear argument or testimony from both sides, it is supposed to hear only the prosecution’s side; and b) a Grand Jury is not supposed to rule on guilt or innocence as that is the job of the Trial Jury.   I do know that the prosecutor's team did not attempt to win an indictment – which is its sole job – but rather that it acted as a defense team; and I know this out of the prosecutor’s own mouth.  I do know justice was not done because it never got that far, and it never got that far because the prosecutor was determined that justice not run its course.  What I do know is that we will never know what really happened, because out of a court of law anyone can say anything with impunity; it is only in a courtroom that someone is bound by laws against perjury.  And, sadly, I do know that cops sometimes get away with murder, literally murder, and that nearly always it is a white cop murdering a black person.

Our Civil War took some 600,000 or 700,000 lives.  It ended with the Union intact and slavery ended.  But it seems that we are not done fighting it yet.  The old Confederacy is alive and well and living in the United States of America.

This is my country and I am sad for her.