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A new and dangerous paradigm in American politics was reached yesterday when Wisconsin Senate Republicans used parliamentary procedure to pass a bill which would strip almost all aspects of collective bargaining rights from public workers (teachers, government employees, police and firemen, etc.). This action should be a wake-up call for Americans, but it took place while the top 13 American Idol contestants were murdering songs we thought we knew and loved, so this political stroke will go almost completely unnoticed and with little challenge. This is appalling because this act, while scary in many ways, has potential to change how legislation is passed and have massive negative long-term fallout if the language in the bill becomes law.

Those that have been following the goings on in Wisconsin have been missing half the story. The news media have been doing their best to get their “message” out, which is incomplete and bereft of the detail required to educate the public in general. At best, the news media have provided enough details to polarized the debate over what is going on. At worst, they have been muzzled by their corporate masters and have not been able to give the general public the information they need to challenge this draconian legislation or educate them as to how this is bad for our country.

On the surface the Wisconsin Republicans will have you believe this is about balancing the budget. They have been very good at sticking to their talking points about the state employees being the primary cause of the budget shortfall. These same talking points have focused on the collective bargaining rights of public employees as the primary cause of all the state problems. The Republicans argue that many of the benefits (pension and health care insurance plans) created through past collective bargaining agreements have caused this budget crisis. These Republicans argue that if you eliminate collective bargaining rights that you eliminate the root cause of the budget crisis. It’s a great story but is completely fabricated and based on nothing but nonsense.

So what makes these goings on so draconian? What makes them dangerous? Several issues immediately come to mind.

First, this highly unpopular bill was rammed through the state government machine with surprising efficiency. Using a very questionable parliamentary procedure this extremely restrictive bill was pushed through to the Governor’s liking. This bill is a massive clawing back of rights earned through decades of negotiation and mutually beneficial give-and-take. This is an ideologically driven politician saying that this history means nothing and his perspective, or that of his extremely wealthy corporate benefactors, means more than agreements negotiated in good faith. It also says that government can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and the employees have to accept that. If the government can make these sweeping changes, with little regard for what is right, or their own employees, imagine what other ideologically driven changes they can make that affect us all?

Secondly, this bill is a very large slippery slope. If the government can outlaw collective bargaining, essentially crushing the largest union in the state, what will that do in private industry? What is to prevent private entities (corporations) from banning collective bargaining in their organizations within that state? The legal precedent is now on the books and will allow private enterprise to use similar behaviors to their benefit. Conservatives love to talk about trickle down economic theory and in this instance there is a trickle down effect. When unions lose benefits in an industry those same benefits are restricted in the rest of that same public sector. This law is a gift to corporations hoping to restrict or eliminate benefits to their employees.

Thirdly, elimination of collective bargaining rights eliminates many of the protections afforded to labor. The government and the corporations will always have their cadre of representatives and lawyers to argue on their behalf. Taking that same benefit away from labor removes any expertise which may protect the worker from abuses and points to impartiality going out the window. Because many states are moving to the “right to work” model of law, the old adage of “you can’t fight city hall” will soon extend to “you can’t disagree with who you work for”. Without collective bargaining there to protect the rights of the workers employers will be able to bully their employees into a state of endured servitude.

Fourthly, and this is the argument that needs to be understood, this is an attack at our fundamental constitutional rights. Our first amendment rights guarantee us the rights to free assembly. Assembly is the process of gathering for the purposes of acting as a collective. Because every person at a collective assembly cannot have their own say, or share their own voice, we allow for representation on their behalf. This is the foundation of our government and our representative process. Collective bargaining is the basis of our governmental process. This is inherent to the function of our democracy. Elimination of collective bargaining rights and fair representation is challenge to our protected freedoms afforded through the constitution.

Finally, a few words about collective bargaining and what we could possibly lose because of this political action. Any of the benefits received through collective bargaining are a result of give and take. That is the way the bargaining process works. One side gives a benefit (salary) to receive another (pension or insurance). These benefits targeted by the conservatives are a direct result of giving immediate benefit, in the shape of salary, for long term benefit, in the shape of pension and health care insurance. To the rich and famous, this type of benefit is many times referred to as deferred compensation. The employee is giving up salary now so they may receive it downstream, when they retire and need it to survive on. This is an extremely important concept to understand. The employees gave up salary to invest in future compensation comprised of other benefits. A contract was struck, agreed to by both parties, for these future services in lieu of paying more money out in salaries. The state recognized the benefit of such an arrangement for their interests and readily signed the agreements. This is where things get really scary.

These benefit plans are reservoirs of cash. The state pays money into them, in lieu of paying salary. The employee has the option of paying into the same program, increasing their long-term benefit by fortifying the account. The benefit for the employee is obvious. The benefit for the state is largely unknown. As mentioned, these benefit plans are huge deposits of cash. They are liquid capital available for the state to use. And use these funds they do! States will go and borrow money from these benefit plans and use them for all sorts of state funded projects or reinvestment. Imagine what happens when the state finds it can’t pay its bills or the investment vehicle they placed those funds in hits a brick wall and crashes? Which payment do you think might be skipped or scrapped all together? Fortunately, Wisconsin is not currently in this situation. The Wisconsin State Employee Retirement System is healthy and stable. But, based on the Governor’s actions, this $80 billion pool of cash could become a target of his use and abuse.

So why should this all matter? Because this is not a budget balancing act we are watching unfold in Wisconsin. This is an attack on the little guy. This is an attack on workers. This is an attack on you and me. Governor Scott Walker, and the Koch brothers who finance him, are attacking one of the last protections we have from corporations. Collective bargaining is what prevents corporations from owning their employees, like they did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m not a union guy, but I do recognize their function and contribution to our society, and collective bargaining is one of those contributions. This function ended child labor and created the 40 hour work week. It contributed to the rights of workers and made sure employees had safe working environments and insurance against injury while on the job. It provided for mothers to have maternity leave and the birth of the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). This improved the working conditions and livelihoods of every man and woman in this country. Eliminating collective bargaining puts these freedoms at risk and hands the power to prohibit our freedoms to the corporations and their bought and paid for politicians. If there was a political event that should get you up out of your seat and out in the streets this is it. This is not about balancing a budget like the media narrative presents, this is an attack our rights to assemble and work as a collective!

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The United States is a divided country. Much of the limited discourse that does take place is poisoned by divisive rhetoric. Rational thought is cast aside and ridiculous arguments based on unintelligible talking points rule conversation on any important issue of the day. Those talking points can be reduced to several core ideas, believed to be originated by the founding fathers of this country, but instead bastardized by politically motivated think tanks and shyster wordsmiths. To better understand the damage being inflicted upon our nation by these contemptible entities these core ideas will be examined in a series of essays, each focusing on one of the base terms that find their way into our national dialogue, attempting to find greater understanding of the idiom and those who use it as a shield.

The Constitution

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Thus begins the greatest, and most contentious, document drafted in American history. The constitution frames the institutions that we embrace as the core of our society. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, defines the rights of the individual. This document gives us insight into the ideas of the founding fathers and the highly complex ponderings they wrestled with to build our government and protect the people. The constitution is filled with brilliance. It features enough detail to use as a roadmap to achieve domestic success. It contains enough ambiguity to allow argument over its content and amendments from the day it was drafted in 1783. It is claimed by many to be the perfect document to use for the establishment of a thriving democracy and second only to the bible in historical importance. The constitution, which was once considered the document to bring all peoples together, has become the text that may forever drive Americans apart.

Interpretation is everything. The ambiguity of the constitution and the two hundred year old vernacular make the document difficult to take literally in the 21st century. Unfortunately there are many in our culture who do interpret the constitution literally and apply that twisted understanding to our new world. This makes reasoning difficult as the United States has changed dramatically from when it was 13 colonies and the black powder musket or heavy cannon were the weapons of mass destruction of the day. Interpret we will try, attempting to bring some critical thought and display some of the cognitive dissonance to some of the contentious passages, especially in the first few amendments in the Bill of Rights.

There is an endless firestorm surrounding the first amendment and the number of rights lumped into the single paragraph. Religion, the press, non-censored speech and providing for assembly and demonstration are all ambiguously addressed. Each foster interesting arguments that feature many contradictions.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The popular misinterpretation is that this sentence entrenches the ideal of separation of church and state in the constitution. In that same vein another popular misinterpretation is that the government will have no action in restraining religion. Both are wrong at odds with the all inclusive nature of the constitution.

There is no constitutional separation between church and state. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, about the intention of the first amendment to act as a protection for the people, and government, to and from religious or political engagement in each enterprise. While the concept makes sense it does not appear in the constitution as it is currently written. To have true separation of church and state, guaranteeing that neither will interfere in the matters of the other, a new amendment will have to be added to the constitution.

Similarly the constitution does not provide blanket protection to any religion which will allow for that entity to operate in any manner it so desires. The constitution guarantees that the government will not establish any one religion as the basis for our democracy, establishing our nation as secular collective, and promises any spiritual calling is honored and respected. That is an individual right, not a collective right. Religious establishments must still abide by the laws of the land and do not have free reign to operate as political action committees or incite social discord. Respect of the other citizen’s spiritual belief is guaranteed.

The most important facet of this section of the first amendment is lost. We are to respect each other’s spirituality and not try to force our theological beliefs, or what we interpret to be the moral teachings of that religious experience, upon other citizens. You may feel that what you learned in Sunday school is the righteous way to live your life, and you have the right to believe just that, but you have no right to force that morality on anyone else simply because it may be counter to the spiritual philosophy of another citizen. The first amendment not only guarantees an individual’s right to practice his or her religion, but it also guarantees another individual’s freedom from religion in the event their spirituality (or lack thereof) demands it.

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

Kierkegaard famously said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” That is never more evident than in 21st century America. People demand the right to speak but rarely use their brains before engaging their mouths. We all have the right to say what we want, when we want, and how we want, right? Yes and no. There are decency laws that prevent us from crossing certain moral and social lines. An individual may say what they like in whatever fashion they like in a private setting. In a public setting we must abide by the law and practice a level of social decorum. We cannot call for the assassination of a public figure any more than we can shout “fire” in a crowded theater. When a Pat Robertson publically calls for the assassination of a world leader his first amendment rights should go out the window. No person or entity should be allowed to promote a lie, especially when the lie has been completely discredited. Respect of the freedom of speech does not mean respecting stupidity. When a position is so egregiously wrong it is best to mute that point. Abraham Lincoln provided the best free speech advice anyone could when he said, “Tis better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.

There is no law that mutes the press but there are ownership laws and regulations that have been recently removed from the books that has allowed for this media restriction to take place. The press was to be the people’s oversight of government. They were to have the access, to ask the questions the people couldn’t, and to hold the political machine in check. That is what Jefferson and Madison believed and what was established. Diversity of opinion was prevalent because ownership of the media was regional and distributed amongst hundreds of entities. Deregulation and new ownership laws allowed mega-corporations to gobble up media outlets and consolidate them under the umbrella of corporate interests. This eliminated diversity of opinion, killed the regional perspective and replaced it with a centrally managed singular perspective. This essentially muted the media, silenced the voice of the citizens and restricted the daily oversight on the body politick. No law was passed that restricted freedom of the press. Instead a whole series of regulations that guaranteed that freedom were removed and allowed the restriction of the press through ownership consolidation and assimilation into a corporate culture that eliminated all perspective but that of management. This is a constitutional battle that should be waged as it weakens our democracy.

Another hot button issue that really screams for some examination is the second amendment and the endless gun ownership battle.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The two polar sides of this battle have valid points. A list could be built that would outline each position and a reader could find positives and negatives in each and every point. Of course that would be considering our 21st century perspective and focus on specific points of the amendment. Examining the amendment and appreciating the context is the intent of this criticism.

We must understand that the 18th century was different from the 21st century. The heavy cannon and frigate were the weapons of mass destruction of the day. The United States was collective republic where each state had actual autonomy and their own institutions of government, including standing armies and militias. As the country expanded and our institutions evolved we founded a series of socialistic mechanisms that provided services across the entirety of the nation. A professional army with massive budgets and incredibly powerful weapons was established and took over the protection of the nation. All of the regional militias and guards were absorbed and managed federally. The only militias that exist today are rogue or extremist organizations, most of which harvest a paranoid anti-government resentment and reside on the fringe of our society. Our security is managed nationally and for many good reasons.

Understanding that 21st century context, and the 18th century context, the second amendment now becomes out-dated and on the edge of reason. The amendment was written so that the professional militia in each sparsely populated colony would be able to immediately conscript locals to support their numbers in the event of attack from a foreign or domestic entity. In an effort to support the militia the people were expected to keep and bear arms when called upon. Those days are gone. The militia is gone. Battle tactics eliminate the need for the common citizenry to support the militia. The conventions of war also suggest that targeting civilian populations is verboten, but in the event of the military retreating into civilian areas that rule of engagement goes by the wayside. The public participative support with the militia pretty well insures this rule of engagement is eliminated. In the event of a military engagement, all the small arms in the world will not protect the home owner from a stray mortar round. The gun ownership argument of supporting the militia is specious at best.

The militia argument also removes the need for many of the weapons front and center to a lot of arguments. Assault type rifles and large caliber rifles have no purpose other than killing people. Weapons easily converted to automatic also have no other purpose that to expand the potential carnage when used. No hunter is going to take his AR-15 assault rifle or MAC-10 machine pistol or 50 caliber sniper rifle deer hunting. Game hunting is a one shot one kill type of activity, not a spray a target field with 20 rounds hoping to hit something with a kill shot. The sniper rifle is for one purpose only; assassination. Unless a hunter is planning on killing, cleaning and quartering Bambi in one swift and messy shot the 50 caliber is not a weapon of choice. These are the types of weapons that need to be restricted as they can be very dangerous in the hands of the wrong people.

On a personal note, being a gun owner I am naturally not anti-gun. Guns don’t kill people, bullets do, and usually only fired from a gun in the hands of someone not in complete control of their mental faculties. Taking guns away from people is not a solution to anything. The Swiss have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world and have very little gun related crime. It has nothing to do with a deterrent from gun ownership either. It has everything to do with personal responsibility, another concept in our constitution which is continually ignored by ideologues. If people were responsible gun owners and used best practices in securing their weapons, like the Swiss are required to do, we would have less gun crime. With a national registry of weapons citizens would be much more proactive in securing their weapons because the responsibility would be placed on them to control their property. Sale and disposal of weapons would be handled in a more secure manner if owners could be held accountable for their gun being used in a violent crime.

Each amendment could be ripped apart and examined endlessly. The goal of the exercise was to point out some of the contradictions of the arguments available in our discourse. What is most bothersome about the on-going rhetorical battle being waged over the constitution is the matter of complete context. Without reading the document with the base principle behind the text in mind it is muddied and difficult to comprehend. Each passage must be read with the preamble in mind, and with an interpretation that fits even in the 21st century.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…

Our country is not perfect but we should continue to strive to improve on the society that has developed and the institutions we have established. We have been blessed with an idea, a concept of how a democracy should be managed, and it is up to each of us to ensure that inspiration is not lost and the practice is improved upon with each iteration or generation.

Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…

We are expected to foster an environment that allows all the citizens to have access to the same possibilities. Thomas Jefferson said, “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” Each American should have the positive enjoyment of social, political and economic rights and privileges regardless of birthright or class. Whatever situation that evolves during our short time in control of the institutional reigns, we should be sure to leave future generations with a greater promise than that which ourselves received.

Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The united states of America. Forget the name of the country, focus on the words themselves. United. Working together in harmony. States. We were never one entity but several small provinces with different ideas as to how the New World should be managed. We should never forget that our country was founded as a collective of independent colonies who worked together for the common good of all. That is the basis of our constitution. It is about working together to provide for the common good of all individuals. We work together to provide for those who may not be as fortunate as ourselves knowing that by making the weak links stronger we make the chain less resistant to failure. The United States of America that the world holds in the highest regard is the one that lives by an excerpt from The New Colossus on Lady Liberty’s inscription.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This inscription is not about the moneyed class. Our ancestors came to these shores after America was born because of the constitution and the inclusive nature the document promised to all who lived under our flag. Americans need to get in touch with the constitution once again and learn what a great document it is when the context is complete. We need to learn to live up to the inclusive promise the constitution made when it was drafted.

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