Less than one year ago 19 denoted the previous century and the end to one’s teenage years. If 19 had ever caused me any emotional response at all it was probably nostalgia for the bucolia of high school or, perhaps, of trepidation for adulthood. Otherwise 19 was benign. I do not know why the Corona Virus is called COVID-19. Hey, I changed my major from physics to humanities my freshman year of college after I got my first semester grades. I have long since left science to the upper half accums. Therefore, I, and I suspect most folks, just repeat the current pandemic’s appellation as given to us by those with thick glasses and white lab coats.
But this column is not a lament for a lost opportunity to spend my life watching some Algernon race some Charlie in a maze match. It is an acknowledgement that in spite of ’Ole 19 the world is still turning thanks to a lot of dedicated people. The list is almost endless and so I will not attempt to exhaust it. But every day I am amazed by the appearance of water from the tap, electricity through the lines, groceries on the shelves, education via the Internet and imaginative educators, medical care, police and fire protection, one-click banking, governmental services, road maintenance, trash pick-up, fuel supply, house construction, property repair and, of course, online shopping and delivery. You might have noticed that I have not mentioned cable news.
If I was brought to reality by my experience with college physics, I am absolutely blown away by the way our society has persevered in the face of ’Ole 19. Much as people regrouped after the Crash of 1929 or WWII and Korea or polio, AIDS, Vietnam, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the Gulf War and Iraq we have carried on. As our first cousins the British might say, “We are muddling through”, and it is said with justifiable pride.
Peg and I talk every day about how impressed we are that our lives can continue on due to the courage and sacrifice of so many complete strangers. We know we will eventually all win because so many of you refuse to give up. Thank you!
As described by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst political system except for all the others”. And as we suffer through our ongoing political pandemic and naively hope for a November 03 cure the political sausage making gives evidence of Churchill’s observation. On the other hand, if we step back from the splattering mud, we might find some passing amusement in the process. Of course, that is only if we personally or people we care about are not running for office.
The first political campaign I cared about involved the presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater in 1964. As I was active military at the time I was quite interested in each candidate’s position on the “police action” in Vietnam. Also, 1964 was my first chance to vote as I had just turned 21 and the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was not ratified until 1971. You may recall, if you lived through the ’60’s, or you may have seen old black and white TV images of that famous political advertisement run against Goldwater showing a little girl plucking a daisy as a mushroom cloud rose in front of her. Well, I saw it in 1964 and heard Johnson promise not to send “American boys to die in an Asian war”. As I was one of those American boys, that sounded good to me so I voted for Johnson. That was my first lesson in political reality.
1964 temporarily cured my faith in voting but I relapsed in 1972 when as a young lawyer I decided to save the criminal justice system by supporting a friend of mine in his bid to be elected county prosecutor. Another idealistic attorney friend of mine and I dove head first into election day politics. We stayed up all night making political signs then at o’dark-thirty started putting them up at polling places. We were involved. We felt virtuous.
Then we pulled into a large precinct where many people were lined up to vote. As we each grabbed a sign with our champion’s name on it and jumped out of my old Ford sedan a large woman hustled up to us and asked if we had been sent by “Headquarters”? Neither of us knew what a political party’s headquarters was so we stared at her blankly as she loudly proclaimed, “Well, you better get some ‘supplies’ out here as these people ain’t voting right!” We headed home.
No, democracy is not perfect but it is not all bad and you have to admit it is often interesting. Peg and I still vote every time we have the opportunity even though we are aware our government is staffed with humans, not Plato’s recommended Philosopher Kings. Do we sometimes get disappointed by our choices; certainly. Do we get discouraged; yeah. Do we want any other political system; nope!
One day I met up with my friend Tim “Turtle” Smith in the parking lot of a golf course. “Hey, come look at what I found yesterday when I was out deer hunting.” I looked in the bed of Turtle’s pickup and saw two sets of deer antlers intertwined. Tim said, “I cut these off the heads of two dead stags. They must have starved to death after their battle for which one would gain the prize doe. I guess it is a metaphor for the old saying, ‘Don’t lose your head over.…’ ” Tim is kind of a colloquial philosopher. We do not know what other stag defaulted to winning the mythical doe, but surely a wiser one was lying in wait.
For some reason my encounter with Turtle came to mind after observing the Presidential Debacle last Tuesday evening. If the goal of a leader is to have his or her constituents adopt and follow a particular vision, when it comes to debating, the leader may want to concentrate on setting out elements of the vision and not fall into the quagmire of ad hominem. President Trump and Former Vice President Biden surely both have a vision for America but they both kept their visions well disguised Tuesday.
Usually in a debate someone is declared the winner. However, in the Presidential Debacle of 29 September 2020 there was no winner but there were three losers: President Trump, Former Vice President Biden and the electorate. We learned what we already knew; the candidates hate one another and the national news media loves only itself. Where was what Socrates called for over two thousand years ago when he cautioned, “The unexamined life is not worth living”? And Joseph Campbell’s only unforgiveable sin, that is “to be unaware”, was committed by both candidates and the moderator repeatedly.
If Americans are the prize and leadership is the goal, I suggest our presidential candidates each eschew both mudslinging and mud wrestling and spend their time and ours setting forth their plans for our future and explaining cogently how their plan is superior to their opponent’s. We can decide for ourselves if we like a candidate. What we need is knowledge about which aspiring leader is truly inspiring and not merely exasperating. Of course, if Donnie and Joey continue to act like scuffling school boys, perhaps we will see both of their denouements via the ballot box and a contested election. Then someone else may end up with the prize as declared by a handful of unelected judges.
Investigative journalism that uncovers and publicizes official corruption has an American tradition going back to John Peter Zenger who was born in Germany in 1697 and died in New York in 1746. Zenger was a printer who wrote exposé articles about our English cousins’ ham-fisted governance of New York, especially by the Royal Governor William Cosby. Cosby took umbrage at these early efforts to inform Americans about government malfeasance. Cosby had Zenger charged with libel but in 1735 a jury refused to convict Zenger because the jury determined that what Zenger wrote about Cosby was the truth. What Zenger printed about Cosby related directly and only to Cosby’s actions as governor. Cosby’s personal life was not in issue. Such subjects as the state of his laundry or personal habits were not material to Cosby’s official actions. There was no “need to know” any salacious scatology.
The First Amendment is our best protection from bad government but it should not be cited in support of mere muckraking. Gossip is fun, if it is about others, but it is not germane to curing our body politic of corruption or bad decisions. And a bipartisan cooperation on matters of national importance would be most welcome. We have certainly been blessed many times before with such attitudes. For example, Republican President William Howard Taft appointed Republican Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950) as Secretary of war (now Secretary of Defense) in 1911-1913. Then later two Democratic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, appointed Stimson for the same position (1940-1945). Stimson had the experience and knowledge America needed. His political party affiliation was irrelevant to understanding and meeting the threats to our country from Japan and Germany.
But even though Stimson was not naïve about foreign designs on American assets he famously eschewed delving into personal matters. Stimson’s most famous quote relates to secret Japanese dispatches. Stimson explained trust cannot be established by distrust. He succinctly posited: “Gentlemen do not read one another’s mail.”
As story after story and book after book come out about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Donald Trump and Mike Pence the muckraking inundates the investigative journalism. We do need to know our politicians’ philosophies, positions and past performances. But such information is sometimes obfuscated by “revelations” about their personal lives and peccadilloes.
COVID-19 has killed about 200,000 Americans since it took our first citizen in early February 2020. It has cost us millions of jobs and thousands of businesses. Before we finally defeat it, and we will, ’Ole 19 will have cost us many trillions of dollars of our personal and public treasure. It is difficult to contemplate there may be anything worthwhile to be gleaned from this world-wide pandemic. However, we humans are a resilient species. We have learned better hygiene from past plagues (Typhoid Mary?), better agriculture from past famines (the Dust Bowl?), and better technology from past wars (too numerous to name). With the corona virus we are rapidly developing better, cheaper and more ecumenical delivery systems of social services, including legal services, in response to social distancing.
As Jeff Bezos rides Amazon into the financial stratosphere we now can get groceries and education without leaving our homes by simply using our thumbs and televisions. While we complain about the pervasiveness of the outside world into our lives we can now consult with our medical providers at lower cost and with greater convenience. We can even have our “day in court” and never go to court. And the courts we no longer have to go to may have changed their attitudes more in this year of 2020 than they changed in the transition from ecclesiastical models to secular ones over the last few hundred years, or, at least, since I began practicing law in 1970 and judging in 1981.
Just as Walmart encouraged southern ladies to eschew high heels when shopping and Rural King and Atwoods relaxed the clothing bar even further for men than their wives thought possible, socially distanced court proceedings have proved that justice need not be pretentious to be administered fairly. A live-streamed video decision that grants a divorce or closes an estate is just as valid and just as readily accepted as a stuffy proceeding presided over by some self-important potentate in the presence of three-piece suits and tasseled loafers.
“Zoom”ed legal proceedings are quickly proving what some in the judiciary have been asserting for years, it is the facts and the law of a case, not the “majesty of the law”, that are the essence of justice. We judges are discovering thanks to COVID-19 what the Wizard of Oz was so rudely apprised: litigants do not need to tug on their forelocks and beseech their “betters” for justice. In an American courtroom even if that courtroom is one’s living room, “Justice is to be administered freely and without purchase, speedily and without delay”.
What we are discovering is that American citizens can save time, money and inconvenience by attending court electronically while sipping coffee and wearing casual clothing and still accept judicial decisions as just. It is the fairness of a judge’s ruling, not the judge’s robe or periwig, that is the woof and weave of our judicial system. If we judges concentrate on the evidence and properly apply the law, we need not waste time and resources enforcing arcane rules designed to stroke our egos. Legal proceedings do need proper structure but two of our most honored judicial precepts should always be followed by judges: (1) De minimis non curat lex (don’t sweat the small stuff), and (2) When the reasons for a rule no longer apply, do not apply the rule. A casual but mutually respectful atmosphere and the ability to ignore behaviors that do not impact a just outcome in court proceedings may be an unanticipated “symptom” of ’Ole 19 and electronic court.
With electronic court the days of waiting for years to get into a court should be over. Every judge, lawyer and litigant has instant access to a court; there is one in his or her hand, home or chamber. And since 95% of all cases are eventually settled without trial why delay justice due to everyone having to use the same brick and mortar building? Socially distanced justice has been forced upon us. Of course we must address the health issues but we need never go back to the Wizard of Oz days. The curtain has been raised and up it should stay.
When I have nothing to do that’s what I do. When my wife Peg has nothing to do Amazon’s stock rises. I do not recall a promise to love, honor and spend countless hours schlepping around Peg’s mail-order treasures but she assures me it was in the fine print. And when Peg shops I get blessed with packages that must be unpacked and inscrutable assembly instructions. I do not know if China deserves any blame for ’Ole 19 but it seems everything that UPS or FedEx or Amazon, etc., etc., etc., ships to us comes with the warning “made in China” and “easy” guides that are “Greek” to me. Let me ask you, did ancient Greece once fill the current China role of world-wide shipping of products accompanied by Tower of Babble type assembly manuals?
Peg’s most recent “essential” on-line purchase was a log futon; it came in three large cardboard containers. But even though it was plainly labeled with Peg’s name and our address it was dumped by some overworked FedEx driver at an address four miles from our home. Julie and Wayne Brown, the nice people who found our packages propped against their front door, contacted us and we picked them up. Actually Wayne Brown, an innocent victim, helped me load the heavy and cumbersome articles into our SUV then Peg and I had to unload them at JPeg Osage Ranch. I had just a glint of uncharitable satisfaction when Peg could barely lift her end.
Once we removed the cardboard and located the sixteen-page assembly booklet we understood why the furniture company did not offer, at any price, the option of fully put together delivery. On the face of the assembly manual was a large red STOP sign that notified us we could not return the items to the store that sold them but, we had to deal with the manufacturer. Then we were directed to a website for a “video tutorial”. My heart sank as I realized my Labor Day weekend was over and the “holiday” was aptly named.
Peg is the daughter of an engineer and is amazingly adept at technical stuff. I am better at more sanguine pursuits such as watching football and writing newspaper columns. However, I am highly experienced in the realm of lifting heavy objects and following Peg’s orders. Therefore, together we are usually able to navigate the choppy waters of arcane mail-order living during these unusual days of social distancing; however, not so fast on this Gordian Knot puzzle dumped on the neighbors and then us. It is a testament to our pure stubbornness, the potential waste of hundreds of dollars and our total lack of options that we did not simply add these finished wood parts to our burn pile. If I were not acutely aware of “the Law’s Delay” and the almost always unhappy experience with lawsuits, we would have just thrown up our hands and sought out a lawyer. Surely the sadists who came up with both the futon and its accompanying assembly manual(s) ought to be held liable for our two (2), that’s right, days of frustration before our “Mission Accomplished” was.
One good thing that happened was Peg was so ticked off at Kodiak Furniture and FedEx she may not order anything else for a week or so.