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Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take

Daily interviews and essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry.More from Michigan Radio: Jack Lessenberry: Jack's Take »

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Fixing the Constitution

There’s only been one president from Michigan, and I’d guess you know his name: Gerald Ford. But can you name the only justice he appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court?That would be John Paul Stevens, who ended up being one of the longest-serving justices in American history.He stepped down from the court less than five years ago, after nearly thirty-five years on the job. Thought to be a conventional conservative when appointed, his views gradually evolved as he grappled with the complexities of the Constitution.Today, facing his ninety-fifth birthday, he is still mentally agile, and last year wrote a short and brilliant book called“Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”For many years I’ve thought that if I could have dinner and a long conversation with one person, Stevens would be the one.For one thing, he wrote some of the most important and brilliantly crafted decisions, concurring opinions and dissents in the court’s modern history.Plus, he’s had a fascinating life. He knew Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. He was in the stands at the World Series when Babe Ruth hit a home run exactly where he pointed and said he would, back in 1932.And Justice Stevens always kept an open mind, and always remained civil, even when he deeply disagreed. Justices are supposed to interpret laws based on the Constitution, not radically depart from it.Stevens, indeed, always tried to do that, but after years of grappling with our most sacred national document, came to realize that the framers, like all writers, sometimes could have benefitted from an editor.His six amendments would seek to do just that. They’ve been described by one reviewer as “terse, surgical fixes” that fit the Constitution’s style of saying a lot with a few words.Probably his most controversial suggestion would be to add five words to the Second Amendment, making it read this way:“the right of the people to keep and bear arms WHEN SERVING IN THE MILITIA shall not be infringed.”That’s actually what scholars and the Supreme Court itself – prior to 2010 — believe the framers meant.Were that amendment in place, there would be no barriers to reasonable gun control. Some of Justice Stevens’ other amendments would make the death penalty an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, outlaw today’s insane gerrymandering, and allow government to impose “reasonable limits” on campaign spending.He would also make it easier to sue governments for violating the law. By the way, judicial decisions in general are supposed to be based on past precedent, and Justice Stevens doesn’t depart from that here. He explains the background and reasoning behind each of his proposals.I found his arguments and amendments overwhelmingly persuasive, and designed to make this, indeed, a more perfect union. Nor does Justice Stevens see them as science fiction.He wrote,“as time passes, I am confident that the soundness of each of my proposals will become more and more evident, and ultimately each will be adopted.”Today, in most of these cases, that would seem politically impossible. As impossible, that is, as the court ending school desegregation once did, less than a decade before that occurred.Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.



Sharia Law in Dearborn

For years, there’s been an absolutely stupid rumor that the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, birthplace of Henry Ford, is now under extreme Muslim Sharia law.Sharron Angle, a bizarrely ignorant Tea Party candidate, claimed this was so when she was running for the U.S. Senate in Nevada five years ago.Two weeks ago, Jerry Boykin, an anti-Muslim former U.S. army general, did it again. Boykin, now the executive vice president of something called the Family Research Council, went on a talk show to claim that radical Muslims were so firmly in control in Dearborn that Detroit police only enter the town in emergencies.Well, part of that is true. Detroit cops don’t go there because Dearborn is a separate city and has its own police. But Dearborn’s mayor is named Jack O’Reilly, and the city is no more under Sharia law than Roswell is under space alien law.I don’t know if Mayor O’Reilly gets sick of explaining all this. But I know that a delightful young man named Brian Stone came up with a great way to try to laugh this nonsense away.Stone, a 28-year-old Dearborn native, Navy veteran, and college student, has been posting pictures of himself holding a sign saying “Dearborn Sharia Law!” in front of some decidedly un-sharia landmarks in his city.They include a strip club, a Roman Catholic school, city hall and a Honeybaked Ham store.“We would have done more, but my friend Adam, who took the pictures, said we needed to have a beer. He’d be up for invading the moon if there was beer,”Brian said.Behind the theater-of-the-absurd humor, Stone has a serious message: “Muslims are Americans. They are just like everybody else,” he told me.“They don’t deserve to be treated differently.” Actually, he feels he has a personal stake in this. “I’m about as diverse as it gets for a white guy,” he told me. “I’m gay, I’m Buddhist and I’ve served in the military.”Stone had the guts to come out in high school. That meant a lot of severe harassment, including being beaten up. One day, it dawned on him that “even though school had been hell, I’d never heard a word against me from a Muslim.”In fact, a friend named Mohammed told him “somebody tries to mess with you, you tell me.”Gradually, Stone realized that his Muslim friends “were trying to defend their community of Americans from the same people that wanted to keep me from having equal rights.”Today, he said “Dearborn is the only place in the world where I feel like everybody is really welcomed home.”He feels that for both Muslims and gay Americans,“it is a place where people really value them for what they are.”Stone, who graduates from the U of M Dearborn this spring, wants to dedicate himself to making things better. “You can imagine how upsetting it is to hear people making generalizations about the Arabic community, Muslims, and my home town.”Someday, he may try to run for office. But for now, he feels that laughter is the best medicine. After all, it’s the one weapon with which fundamentalists of any kind are unable to cope.Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.



Biggest pothole of all

Last weekend I ran into the managing director of the road commission for one of our state’s mid-sized counties.She’s both an efficient manager and an intelligent observer of the pulse of her county, which is half urban, half rural. She knows better than most of us that our state's roads are falling apart.Last year, despite public outrage over all the potholes and broken axles, our legislators once again failed to fix this. All they would do is stick a sales tax increase on the May ballot, one that would provide some money for the roads, as well as a cornucopia of other things. I asked my friend if she thought the sales tax would pass.“No,” she said, looking somewhere between sad and grimly resigned. Her answer didn’t surprise me.What’s more, though I have been reporting on the need to fix the roads for years, I haven’t even decided how I will vote.But I do know this proposal is further proof of our lawmakers’ failure to do their jobs. The main culprit here is former House Speaker Jase Bolger, who refused to do what every responsible politician from Governor Snyder to former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville knew was necessary:Raise our taxes to fix the roads. That’s what representative democracy is all about. It’s not clear why Bolger wouldn’t agree. He was term-limited, and his checkered legislative past means his political career is likely over.All he would do is pass the buck to the citizens. This was a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this not the best or fairest way to get the money, it doesn’t raise enough for the roads.If passed, it won’t even really produce significant road revenue for a couple of years. The state will have to spend more than ten million to hold an election, and meanwhile, budget planning is on hold.Governor Snyder has admitted those forces supporting the road plan will need twelve to fifteen million to buy advertising to persuade voters if they are to have a chance to win.Yet as the Detroit News reports in a story today, the money doesn’t seem to be there. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce seems unlikely to help fund such a campaign. They were very much in favor of raising taxes on fuel.But some of its members would be hurt by the sales tax. The Michigan Manufacturers Association says it is broke and can’t help.Meanwhile, groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are gearing up to oppose the sales tax. Some Democrats and other groups who stand up for the working poor will back the proposal, but their clients are notoriously unlikely to vote in a spring election.If they were responsible stewards of our state’s best interests, the current legislature would immediately end our misery and the need for an election by raising the gas tax to fix the roads. With gas prices so low, this is the perfect time to do so.Sadly, that’s unlikely.The senate majority leader is busy instead trying to reduce construction workers’ pay. To paraphrase the old Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, “What a state.”Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.



Politics and Language

We live in an era of what seems to be one of increasing nastiness and pettiness, especially perhaps in politics.

Last week, for example, Michigan’s Speaker of the House denied a routine request from the minority leader to name a particular member ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Speaker Kevin Cotter refused to so designate Brandon Dillon, even though that wouldn’t have changed the balance of power one bit. This angered Democrats, and pretty much ensured that any chance of bipartisan cooperation ended before it began.

Why did Cotter do that? Well, it is no secret that Dillon is outspoken and known for sharp-tongued attacks on Republican policies. He also was in charge of Democratic House campaign efforts last year, and organized a challenge that brought Cotter himself close to defeat. So this was payback time.

But I noticed something else yesterday when Cotter’s press spokesman attempted to defend this, saying, “The Democrat committee members have chosen to stand together in abandoning their responsibilities to the people of Michigan.”

Forget the issue. What is this “Democrat members” language?  Why not “Democratic?” Simple. In order to demean the opposition, Republicans are now often refusing to call them by their proper name. Instead of saying the “Democratic Party,” they prefer the insulting and harsher-sounding “Democrat Party.”

Turning words into slogans is, of course, nothing new. George Orwell described the phenomenon in a famous brilliant essay, “Politics and the English Language,” nearly seventy years ago. There’s always been some of this.

Conservatives were largely correct years ago when they complained that the press was too quick to use the term “right-wing Republican.”  These days, however, the right seems to have gotten the upper hand in the language battle.

Probably the best example is the way in which virtually the entire media has adopted the anti-abortion side’s language in framing that debate.

Those in favor of banning abortion call themselves “pro-life.” The implication is clear. Those who believe a woman has the right to make that difficult decision for herself are somehow “anti-life,” even though the official term is “pro-choice.”

Actually, in the interest of fairness, we should call the anti-abortion activists what they are: Anti-abortion.

But somehow, that hasn’t happened. If you don’t think this sort of grammatical warfare has an impact, consider this:

Remember that the nasty Bolsheviks managed to triumph over the more moderate Mensheviks in their power struggle in Russia a century ago? 

There were a number of reasons for this, but the word Bolshevik in Russian means majority, Menshevik, minority.

They were both factions of the same party, and these were nicknames given them after one side got more votes than the other in one obscure vote over the composition of an editorial board.

Ironically, there were probably more members on the Menshevik side. But if you are saddled with the name “minority party,” I’d guess it doesn’t help your future prospects.

Years ago, a young member of Congress was rebuked by his leader for referring to the other party as the enemy. “Son, they aren’t the enemy. They are the opposition,” his senior said.

Whatever your politics, I think we would all be better off with a little more of that spirit today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.



Silly laws and serious consequences

Did you know that in Michigan it is against the law to try to get people to dance to the Star-Spangled Banner?

Nor is that all. They can arrest you for arguing in favor of polygamy, or promoting a walkathon, or for making fun of somebody for not accepting a challenge to a duel.

Well, the odds are that the polygamy police won’t bother you no matter what you say about it. But we have a vast number of other bad laws on the books that sometimes are enforced – even against people who have no idea that they are breaking the law.

Take poor Lisa Snyder, who six years ago, was caught in the act of helping neighbor children board the school bus every day. For doing this, the state Department of Human Services claimed she was operating an illegal day care center.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley was then her state representative. Fortunately, he got the legislature to fix this. But not everybody is so lucky. Twelve years ago, Ken Schumaker brought some scrap tires to a facility he thought was a legal depository.

It wasn’t. And the prosecutors went after him – even though Schumaker had no idea that he was doing something illegal. He ended up with a nine month sentence and a ten thousand dollar fine.

All this and more is in a Manhattan Institute study that came out in October, and which was brought to my attention by Phil Power, the founder and chair of the non-partisan Center for Michigan.

You can easily find the short, very readable study, “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State” online. Power, in fact, wrote his weekly column for his online magazine Bridge about what it means.

The authors noted that Michigan’s penal code is eight times the length of that of neighboring states. We have more than thirty-one hundred crimes on the books, and our lawmakers are adding, on average, forty-five new ones every year. What really concerned the authors of the study is that a vast number of these crimes don’t require the state to show that the accused person intended to break the law.

That was how poor Lisa the school bus helper and Ken the scrap tire man got in trouble.

The Manhattan Institute noted that many Michiganders are unknowingly committing crimes every day. Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but if an unmarried man seduces an unmarried woman, that too is against Michigan law.

The study calls on the legislature to either set up a bipartisan task force or a special commission to review Michigan’s criminal statutes and suggest cleaning up the books.

Laws and penalties should be made consistent, silly or outdated laws should be done away with, and people should not face prosecution for minor crimes they had no intention of committing.

Not only does that make sense, Power notes that this is a perfect time. A lot of budget and other decisions can’t be made until voters decide in May whether to increase the sales tax. The lawmakers may now have some time on their hands.

Otherwise, we’ll go on living in a state where you could become a convicted criminal for entering a horse in a race under a false name.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.