Our democracy lost

Every year for the past 40 years, the State Department has issued annual human rights reports as mandated by Congress.  It falls to each U.S. Embassy to prepare the draft country report, based on news clippings collected and interviews and meetings held throughout the year.

Each country report follows a standard format with sections that address topics ranging from protection of individual liberties, arbitrary arrest, freedom of the press, and elections and political participation.

These reports invariably generate controversy, from foreign governments that chafe over the criticism and from human rights organizations who complain that friendly or strategically important countries are not criticized enough.  Most object to the U.S. setting itself up as the arbiter of human rights practices around the world, and a few, including China, have started preparing their own reports on human rights in the United States.

We don’t need reports from other countries, though, to appreciate the flaws in our political system or to understand that we now have a minority run government, in all branches.

The evidence is clear.

Popular vote.  At the executive level of government, for the second time in five elections, the candidate that lost the popular vote has won the election, thanks to the archaic apparatus of the Electoral College. The original framers of the Constitution were nervous about direct democracy and set up mechanisms to limit the vote to white men owning property and to create indirect elections for both Senators and the President.  Only once since 1992 have the Republican candidates for President won the popular vote, but by the end of Donald Trump’s term they will have run the Executive branch for 12 years.

Redistricting.  In the legislative branch, redistricting has allowed the Republicans to put themselves in a near-permanent majority.  New census data each ten years requires legislatures in states with changing populations to re-draw districts.  The result has been a patchwork of districts drawn to protect incumbency and isolate racial and ethnic minorities.   Justin Lewitt from Loyola Law School who tracks redistricting has identified which party controls the process in each district.  He estimates that Republicans “unilaterally control the process” for 210 congressional seats in 18 states, while Democrats have primacy in 44 congressional seats in 6 states.

This resulted in an election where a total of 380 incumbents were re-elected to the House of Representatives out of 393 who ran, for the highest percentage of incumbency since 2004.

Voter suppression.  Redistricting is just one factor in a minority maintaining political control.  This year was the first Presidential election since 1968 held without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.  In the last six years, 20 states have enacted new voter requirements that effectively suppressed the vote by requiring photo IDs, by curbing voter registration efforts or by limiting early voting.  The lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities, helped ensure a Trump victory and the retention of a Republican majority in the Senate.

Take the case of Wisconsin. With a new voter ID requirement, voter turnout was its lowest in 20 years, with a 13% drop in Milwaukee.  More than 300,000 people who voted in the last Presidential election could not vote, in a state that was decided by a margin of less than 20,000.

Supreme Court.  Before the election, the New York Times referred to the Senate Republican failure to act on President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a “coup against the Supreme Court.  The Constitution provides the President with the authority to make appointments with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Prior to the election, when Senate Republicans were convinced of a Clinton victory, they indicated that they would reject any of her nominees, for the duration of her term.  With a Trump minority victory, Republicans can now protect a solid conservative majority on the bench that can sustain these efforts to maintain minority control by suppressing voting rights further or preventing curbs against unlimited financing in campaigns by businesses and political action committees.

Even more egregious than the redistricting or suppressing votes or failing to act on the Supreme Court nomination were the separate, unprecedented interventions in U.S. electoral politics by two entities: the FBI and the Russian government.  To the clear advantage of the Republican party, both influenced the outcome of the election more than a Watergate break-in intended to find out campaign strategies of the opposition.  That we were powerless to prevent either of these from influencing our elections does not mean that both should not be fully investigated, especially since Rudolph Guiliani, a prominent Trump supporter, boasted that he had inside information that the FBI was going to announce its re-opening of the e-mail investigation.

These are systemic flaws which, if they occurred in another country, would find their way into the human rights report and raise questions as to the integrity of the political process.

Since the election, the political discussion has moved away from these systemic issues, reviewing the real and repeated mistakes of the polls, the media and the campaigns.  We are reminded of the need to unite the country behind the winner and are deep into the machinations of a transition and a parlor game on appointments to the new administration.

An annual human rights report gets away from the daily news and focuses on broader systemic issues.  Even though there is no provision to write a report on our own country, it is obvious we need a longer term review of our flawed electoral processes.

Fifty years from now, historians will not be reviewing the transition and appointments.  They may, though, be reviewing this election as one of the steps on the way to the erosion of our democracy.

This article originally appeared in History News Network and the Berkshire Eagle.

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

Leave a comment

The Doughnut Tour

Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield’s old mills (milltour.org).   The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks.  These buildings still dominate our landscape.  We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors – men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living.  Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like the Berkshire Eagle.

Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board for a new one where St. Mary’s stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian’s task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016.  That tour might be called doughnuttour.org.

The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-through, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.

Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin Donuts franchise.  Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, since Cafua razed the 100 year-old building before they could get their drive-through plan approved.   What motivated Cafua to tear down the school would remain unmentioned since there was no record of an explanation.  Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a leading 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum.  The inquiring future reader might be able to find out why a second Dunkin Donuts was needed less than a block away.

The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street.  Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new “religion.” The map would once again show two Dunkin Donut restaurants within walking distance.  Our grandchildren might wonder how many people actually stopped at each doughnut shop in the same outing.

We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake.  Plaques might tell how this actually was a Dunkin Donuts at one time, before the franchise owner broke with the company and started his own business.  Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.

Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the doughnut tour, but they will be happy to know there’s more.  They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy-eating.  If future historians would want to get out and walk, they could find that the high school is actually equidistant between this Dunkin Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street.  Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!

The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks.  But, they would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated.   The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.

At different stops, there might be recorded oral interviews with employees who could talk about their wages that start (on average) at $8.39 an hour but could go all the way up to $11.06 as an assistant manager.[1]  Next to that, there could be the text of the Boston Globe article on the Cafuas, who owned 215 stores, some of which were pulling in $40,000 a week. [2]

Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire (courtesy Googlemaps).

I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London.  I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of  National Doughnut Day (June 3).  My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card.  I’m not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives.  That’s what the 19th century mill owners and workers did – make money and eke out a living.  The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.

While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions.  We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history – not one of doughnut shops.

[1] https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/Dunkin-Donuts-Salaries-E19153.htm

[2] https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2014/09/17/the-secret-world-dunkin-donuts-franchise-kings/pb2UmxauJrZv08wcBig6CO/story.html

 

This story originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

Leave a comment

25 hours

Reading from the pulpit at Seamen's Bethel.

Reading from the pulpit at Seamen’s Bethel.

My first Moby Dick Marathon.  It had been several years since I learned of this event where the book is read aloud from cover to cover each year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  After conflicts ruled out prior attendance, my wife and I finally resolved to participate this year, the 20th anniversary of the marathon.

And it was worth it, in so many ways.

No, I did not listen to every word, in fact only about four or five hours.  But, when the museum handed out certificates to those who did sit through all 25 hours, the line looked to be easily over 50 people.

While not reading, we attended two sessions to chat with Melville scholars who covered a wide ranging array of subjects from the many-layered and evolving interpretations of the novel to their own personal accounts of encountering Melvlle and how their study has shaped their lives.  Of interest to those of us at Arrowhead was the discussion on how Melville spent his first year in Pittsfield re-working his book.  In his letters, we were told, he anticipated finishing his book about the whale by the fall of 1850, but after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne and moving to Pittsfield, he spent another year working on the book.  One scholar told us that were it not for that year at Arrowhead, we would not have been attending the marathon, for it would have likely been another of the books Melville turned out to help finance the expenses of his growing family.  We also spent a fair amount of discussion time on the difficulty of the book, and how students today react to it.

The reading shifted away from the exhibit hall twice.  First, we moved across the street to read (and sing) the chapters that took place in the Seamen’s Bethel.  Melville includes the words of a hymn in Chapter 7, so we all sang it, and then listened to Father Mapple read his sermon on Jonah.

The second time, we moved to the auditorium to watch a dramatic presentation of Chapter 40, Melville’s play within his novel of life on the deck of the Pequod.

My own ten minutes of reading took place at the civilized time of 7:50 on Sunday morning, almost 20 hours since they started reading.  To my surprise there were quite a number of people present.  The organizers had written saying this time would put my reading in or about Chapter 104, one on Melville’s description of whale size.  The references to Barbary travelers and Egyptian temples caused me to trip over the words, but one quote reminded me of why Melville may have included such details as the size of the whales: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.  No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Many of the people present seemed to be teachers, but there were also people like Amalia, a Venezuelan who we sat with at lunch and who read her ten minutes in Spanish.  Amalia had fallen in love with Melville after coming to the U.S..  She visited Arrowhead this past fall on her quest to know more about the author and the book she had read many times.  In fact, others read in French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch, Swedish and too many more to remember.  For the first time, five hours in a parallel session was set aside for Portuguese reading.  Other readers included Nathaniel Philbrick who kicked off the event and several descendants of Melville.  I met many people who go every year.

The hall was packed for the final chapters, and the applause when the Epilogue concluded seemed to never end.

What sticks most in my mind from the weekend was the sense that there’s always something new in Melville.  One university teacher said there’s a lot of repetition in academia, and scholars enjoy teaching Melville because each time they read him they discover a new layer, a new way to “enter the book,” whether through the environment, through race or gender, or politics.  He seems to reach across the generations and speak to current concerns.

Leave a comment

Is there a role for apology in U.S. foreign relations?

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes.  Photo, courtesy of Truman library

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes. Photo, courtesy of Truman library

The apology that a U.S. sailor gave after being detained by Iranian security forces in Iranian waters has set off a firestorm of criticism over the humiliation of our military. The video that was taken by Iranian soldiers saw the man identified as the commander of the U.S. vessel as saying, “It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”

Cries of a “disgrace” and “humiliating” were heard by those who could not bring themselves to credit the diplomats with the sailors’ release and the avoidance of an international incident that could have derailed not only the nuclear deal with Iran, but also, we have since learned, an exchange of prisoners that had been the subject of negotiations for well over a year.  One Congressman, Tom Rooney, from Florida and a member of the House Select Permanent Intelligence Committee, implied that the State Department had instructed the sailors to “make that kind of statement.”  The State Department was vigorous in its denial that an apology had been issued in order to obtain the release of the sailors.

Absent from the back and forth of accusation and denial is any discussion of the merits of apology, either as national policy or behavior, towards foreign or domestic parties.

The rush to reject apology makes one wonder what happens to the approach to family disputes.  Is an apology under those circumstances a sign of weakness, or is it a recognition that the path towards resolution might require an apology?

For sure, foreign policy is not marital reconciliation.  Yet, history shows apologies have been an element of U.S. behavior, at home and abroad.

Coincidentally, the sailor’s apology came within days of the anniversary of the U.S. overthrow of the legitimate ruling monarchy of Hawaii.  On the 100th anniversary of that event, a bipartisan majority in Congress issued a resolution apologizing to “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893” and for the “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”

Other examples spring readily to mind: the issuance of apology to and even compensation paid to the Japanese-Americans sent to detention camps during World War II (an event that Donald Trump cited as justification to ban the entry of all Muslims into the U.S.)

Less well known was the first visit to Mexico by a sitting U.S. President, Harry Truman, in 1947.  Truman did not have to utter the precise words of apology as he laid a wreath at the Mexican monument to their Niños Héroes on the eve of the centennial of the war with Mexico which saw the loss of nearly half of its territory.  Mexicans not only took the gesture as an apology, but, instead of seeing it as weakness, they received it in the way it was offered.  They enthusiastically embraced Truman as a “new champion of American solidarity and understanding,” in the words of Mexican Foreign Minister Ramon Beteta.  Others went further, as one eyewitness was quoted as saying, “one hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute.”  The response led President Clinton to repeat the gesture in 1997 when he visited Mexico City.

U.S. allies around the world are less reluctant to abjure apology as a component in their foreign relations.  In 2007, the British government expressed regret and authorized payments of £20 million to compensate victims tortured by its forces during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s.  Just last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered “apologies and remorse” for the “immeasurable and painful experiences” suffered by women in Korea forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the World War II.  As part of a settlement with the government of South Korea, Japan agreed to make payments to a fund for victims.  Other examples include Canada’s apology in 2008 to First Nations peoples for the system of Indian Residential Schools and Australia’s apology in 2014 to Indonesia for naval ships straying into Indonesian waters without permission.

The apology last week in the Persian Gulf differed from other examples in that it was likely a spur-of-the-moment decision by the commander, as opposed to national policy arrived at after considerable discussion, and in the Hawaii and Mexico examples, after 100 years has lapsed.  More recently, though, we have the cases of the U.S. and NATO forces who apologized for military operations in Afghanistan that result in civilian deaths.

Presidential politics make the issue of apology harder.  Taking a cue from Mitt Romney’s 2010 campaign book titled, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, candidates and pundits on the eve of the Iowa caucuses rushed to criticize weakness, claiming as well that the Iranians violated the Geneva Convention and its clauses related to treatment of prisoners in wartime.  Such short memories.  Less than ten years ago, these same individuals were trying to back away from and even rewrite that convention to suit U.S. methods of interrogation.

A refusal to accept any measure of accountability for U.S. behavior implies that no actions have been taken that have been either mistaken or misguided or immoral.  Or that they were justified to make America great.

In discussing the negotiations that Secretary Kerry and his team had with Iran over the prisoner exchange, he recalled that the Iranians repeatedly raised the 1953 coup organized by U.S. intelligence to overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mossadegh as President of Iran.  The Iranians remember, and we deny.

I do subscribe to the notion of greatness for my country that I served for almost 30 years.  It is a greatness, though, that has the strength, confidence and wisdom to hold itself accountable for its errors and to aspire to do better.

This post originally appeared on History News Network.

Leave a comment

Present at the Creation – The Stone Marker at Pontoosuc Lake

Inscription on Keeler Dam Stone Marker.  Photo, the author,

Inscription on Keeler Dam Stone Marker. Photo, the author.

The stone marker lies face up just inside the chain link fence near the dam at the outlet of Pontoosuc Lake, the headwaters of the west branch of the Housatonic River.  There on the ground, it’s easily missed for the exercise conscious and soul refreshers who pass by on their way to the lake, the ancient stand of pines and their commanding view up the valley to Mt. Greylock.  Now with a layer of snow and frozen ice, it’s impossible to read the inscription underneath: “The top of the iron pin is 50 inches above the old dam.”

Of course, no iron pin is in sight, since this marker is dated November 1, 1866, a year after the Civil War ended.  Another date is on the green bridge railing, speaking to an upgrade that took place in 1994, shoring up the dam, adding new barriers and stone lining to the canal and redirecting its water  back to the river in order to prevent further erosion on the hillside.

The 1866 marker points us back to an “old dam,” fifty inches lower.   Perhaps there are other stones somewhere still to be found that indicate the 1866 dam was itself raised in 1824, 6 feet higher than the original dam, built in 1763.

More than 250 years have passed since the original construction of this dam that harnessed the falling waters of the Housatonic to power the industry that drew jobs and people to the city and the region.

Imagine what Pittsfield in 1762 looked like to Joseph Keeler who, approaching the age of 50, uprooted his family of ten from Ridgefield, Connecticut to settle here.  Perhaps what drew him here was the news of Pittsfield’s incorporation just one year earlier in 1761 and the promise of jobs and wealth for his coming of age sons.  He settled first in present day Lanesboro, and, after a year of checking out the region, he saw his opportunity on the south shore of the large lake just across the town border.  He might have called it Lanesboro Pond, or the unwieldy Shoonkeekmoonkeek, but not Pontoosuc yet, since that was what the whole settlement had been called prior to incorporation.

Keeler purchased over 200 acres from one of the town’s original settlers, Col. William Williams.  His new plot ranged from the southernmost tip of the lake extending over 100 yards further south.  There, in 1763, Keeler and his sons built the first dam, in order to power two mills he also constructed, a grist mill for grinding flour and a saw mill.

In one respect, it was an ideal spot since his neighbor, Hosea Merrill ran a lumber operation taking advantage of the abundance of tall white pines, still in evidence in the area.  On the other hand, it was far from ideal, since there was no road between the center of the new town and this outpost.  It took four more years for another entrepreneur, Charles Goodrich, to build that road, only to receive the news that the town refused to reimburse him for the cost.  Goodrich had started an iron forge downstream, perhaps taking advantage of the swiftly moving water from Keeler’s dam to fuel the bellows for heating the coal fires at the forge.  He would also have needed the water as a supply to cool down the newly shaped iron pieces of saws and scythes, axes and axles for wagon wheels and other assorted metal work.

From these origins, from this dam, Keeler’s mills and Goodrich’s iron forge spawned the early industry of the town.  As ownership passed from these two men on to others, the advantages of the upper reaches of the Housatonic attracted still more enterprising and innovative men.

Goodrich’s forge eventually became a gun shop that was sold in 1808 to another recent arrival from a Southampton Massachusetts blacksmith family, Lemuel Pomeroy.  Securing a government contract, Pomeroy expanded his business to produce 2000 muskets a year until 1846.  His business acumen was not limited to guns, however, as Pomeroy built one of the town’s first textile mills, on the site of yet another grist mill southwest of the town center.   When Pomeroy stopped selling guns, his factory was converted into one of the largest woolen mills in Pittsfield, the Taconic Mills, whose complex stood at the corner of Wahconah and North Streets.

The Keelers had unloaded their properties by 1813, selling off parcels, including one to James Strandring who set up a tool-making factory about 300 yards south of the dam.  His manufacture of comb-plates and spindles for carding and spinning wool drew the inventor Arthur Schofield to set up shop in his attic.  Schofield had brought to Pittsfield the makings of a carding machine that would transform the production of wool from a hand-spun, cottage industry to the heavy industrial output from the massive brick factories that dominated Pittsfield’s landscape over the next 150 years – all powered for many years by, you guessed it, water.

The first upgrade to Keeler’s dam accommodated a group of investors who bought the site and Strandring’s small factory and, half-way between the two, they started the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill in 1826.  This mill outlasted the ten other woolen mills in the town, which before the Civil War helped make Berkshire County the largest producer of woolen cloth in the nation, and helped attract to the region the thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Quebec, Poland and elsewhere who make up so much of our population.

The second upgrade came as our stone marker suggests in 1866, at the end of the Civil War, when factories sought to ramp up their production with the new peace dividend.  And the last upgrade was actually a downgrade that came in 1994, 21 years after the last woolen mill, Pontoosuc, then named Wyandotte, closed down.

It’s a simple inscription on this stone marker, that hardly anyone sees.  But it tells a story, our story.

This also appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

2 Comments