The First Amendment Spreads


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From Greenlee School web site, picture of ISU First Amendment event.

I’m pretty excited about next Tuesday night, when America celebrates Constitution Day.

MMU is hosting a panel discussion on how the First Amendment freedoms, especially of the press or speech, are related to the upcoming presidential election.

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On that night, at 7 p.m. in Betty Cherry Heritage Hall, a panel will discuss how the First Amendment is a key to our political system and the election. We’ll consider questions like: Why is freedom of the press in the Constitution? At a time when the U.S. president calls journalists “enemies” and the best of their work “fake news,” what is the role of the new media? Why the distrust between the media and the public?

From the famous Ben Franklin line about whether the United States would be a monarchy or republic (“A republic, if you can keep it”) the panel event is called: “If You Can Keep It: The Election of 202 and the First Amendment.” It will feature the Executive Editor of the Gazette Zack Kucharski, retired Executive Director and Editor of Iowa Watch Lyle Mueller, MMU Assistant Professor of Political Science Richard Barrett and me.

I’m looking forward to the event, which I hope will be popular and also be part of the important, ongoing conversation we need to have in this country. In our republic, in my opinion, we have lost our way and need to reconnect and learn to speak with rather than shout at each other.

And in an era when the First Amendment is under attack, the fact that MMU is not alone in marking the First Amendment is some comfort. A number of Iowa colleges will be teaching about and celebrating freedom of expression and other First Amendment freedoms next week. I’ve seen pamphlets for events at Des Moines Areas Community College and Simpson College.

I credit Iowa State for starting us on this adventure. The Greenlee School of Journalism holds an annual springtime celebration of the First Amendment, and in April I attended a workshop they offered for educators to plan such events.

I think the September anniversary of the Constitution drew many of us Iowans to plan fall events, and DMACC and Simpson were, like MMU, inspired by ISU.

Well, good going, Cyclone nation.

Next week is also “Mercy Week,” when Mount Mercy celebrates its founding by the Sisters of Mercy and continued commitment to their legacy.

Which is cool. Celebrating the First Amendment as other Iowa colleges also do—makes the cool week way beyond cool. The coolest.

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Celebrating My 61st Birthday


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Aug. 31–Just in time for family birthday party, the Monarch caterpillars have a party, too.

Another year on the globe. Besides mowing the lawn, I’ve also dedicated part of this Labor Day weekend to celebrating my 61st birthday. The actual day was Friday, while a family party was Saturday.

It’s been good. My wife got me a cool GPS bicycle computer and an interesting-looking grammar game. My children got me a copy of the class board game Risk, a hibiscus bush which should have huge, pretty pink flowers next year and a birdhouse for my backyard nature oasis.

Friday featured some breakfast scones that my wife got up and made for me. Lunch was in the school cafeteria at the university where I teach—which does not sound all that special, but I take my lunch most days and consider eating in the cafeteria a special treat. Supper was Thai food at a nearby restaurant we like.

And Saturday’s birthday feast featured the last summer day meal—brats, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans—and brownies and ice cream for dessert.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. It was great to have my youngest son, who is headed overseas for a couple of years for a post-doctorate position at a university in China, home for it, and it was great for my other nearby kids to make it.

Thank you, universe, for another year. I’m not much into resolutions, I don’t typically make them at New Years, but I think birthday resolutions make as much sense as any others, so here are some resolutions or goals for my 61st year on this planet:

  • Vote for a Democrat who wins. That way Tangerine Hitler can fade into the trash heap of history. Really, I know, suddenly this happy birthday post got all political—but the Dunce-in-Chief said today that he’s not heard of a Category 5 hurricane before. Someone please check his meds? And vote him out.
  • Re-watch a substantial part of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I started with season three the day after my birthday. I won’t be able to re-watch much more during the semester, but these are annual goals, right? And that show just so often make me smile, even if it is very ’90s.
  • Learn something new. I just downloaded a new language ap, and plan to work a bit on my rudimentary Spanish. I also may try to learn to count in Hungarian—my father’s family were all Hungarian, and I would like to visit that country. Can’t make that visit a goal yet for this year—it probably will be a retirement trip and I’m not there yet—but I can start learning a bit of the language. And I’ve already visited some Spanish-speaking places—it seems like I would not be hurt at all to improve on language skills.
  • Get some kids to like Tessa Violet. To be fair, not all college students go crazy when I start playing my Tessa tunes in the newspaper office—one editor a few years ago learned to love Tessa when she went through a tough breakup and saw herself in “Sorry I’m Not Sorry.” But I’m always a bit surprised so few of the new generation listen to her I like the idea of her.
  • Learn to appreciate some new cuisine. I like many international foods—Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian. But there’s a lot of the globe that, culinarily speaking, I have not explored. I like to try new foods and want to find the next taste. Any suggestions, readers?

Well, that’s it, for now. I may be getting older, but I enjoyed myself this weekend. But I still want to have more fun. Maybe it’s time for the next episode of Buffy.

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First Fall Series Presentation is a Feast for the Mind


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Dr. Anna Waterman, associate professor of biology, Mount Mercy University, talking about food.

Food changes everything. The way we live, where we live, how we live and the fact that we have “the man” to please and to defy—it all starts with food.

For the first several million years that our species walked on this planet, we foraged and hunted. We gathered the leaves and seeds and roots that we wanted to consume, and killed our fellow creatures and ate them.

It wasn’t an ideal life, but it was a life we were suited to. We already had fire—cooking predates our species and, along with the ability to make and use tools and weapons, is part of the legacy we get from our related hominid ancestors.

Then, about 12,000 years ago, starting in the fertile crescent of the Middle East but also independently developing in South America and China, humans began to fundamentally change the way we had lived.

logoThat fascinating history—how we are creatures of food and how our relationship to food changed everything about our lives—was the topic of Dr. Anna Waterman’s presentation “How the Agricultural Revolution Transformed Human Diet, Culture, and Society” that she gave Aug. 22 at Mount Mercy University. It was the first event in the 2019 Fall Faculty Series.

It is a bit weird to think that for most of the time we homo sapiens have been around, we shared this globe with other kinds of humans—literally other homo species besides ourselves. No more. Our spread worldwide happened before agriculture and “civilization,” and we either out-competed or eliminated our nearest relatives. (Dr. Waterman didn’t go into this point, but we also incorporated some of their DNA into ours—Neanderthal and Devonians, for example, didn’t all die out, some joined our clan).

People some 12,000 years ago began slowly to tend the plants that they like, and in what was wetter grasslands of the Middle East at that time, some of those grasses became selectively bred into cultivated grains. Those grains fueled dramatic changes in our diet—the invention of bread and beer as staples of what we eat and drink.

And with cultivated grains came larger populations, villages, hierarchies—eventually, nation states. Bosses. Work. Specialization. Organized religion. And, as formerly nomadic, now fixed peoples, we started to find that tending animals was more convenient than hunting them—chickens, pigs, cows, goats were bred from wild animals into the domestic creatures we care for and consume today.

Suddenly land wasn’t something you moved over and foraged on, it was property that was owned by some rich people. The concept of “stuff” was invented as we had fixed residences to store valued objects in.

In the blink of an eye, in the grand scheme of things, the globe was transformed. Today, there are still nomadic hunter gatherers in our human family, but they are rare, located in isolated pockets of land that typically are not that good for raising crops.

Where we can farm, we farm. Thus Iowa is carpeted with corn and soybeans from river to river, a dramatic change in the landscape from what it was 200 years ago. Our immigrant ancestors conquered the New World because residents already here did not have immunity to European diseases—caused, partly, by Europeans living in such proximity to their domesticated animal sources of protein.

Family size was dramatically changed. Nomads carry what they can, and usually can’t have more than one “carry” child at a time, so their norm was to breastfeed for three or four years, which was a form of birth control. With grain, you can make soft food that an 18-month-old can slurp down, so you can wean her and make another baby sooner. And if you’re farming, you tend to want more babies because those kids are farm labor.

The vast, varied ways that agriculture has shifted our environment, our social structures and our ways of life were interesting to hear Dr. Waterman speak about. The changes have had plusses and minuses. I’m not against having a computer to type this blog post on, nor being able to microwave my lunch.

But Dr. Waterman played an interesting game. “How many of you,” she noted, “could go out into your back yard and find stuff to eat?”

There are edible plants there, probably. If we were hunter-gatherers, we would know which roots to dig and which leaves to pluck. Today, our lives are divorced from our sources of food.

Not that I want to trade places with my great, great, great nomadic ancestor. They had cookies with this presentation Thursday night—something those ancestors never saw.

And afterwards, pizza with some brews. Beer and bread, man. They changed everything.

There are eight presentations in the fall series this year, come on down. The next presentation on Sept. 4, by Dr. Normal Linda Mattingly, will cover the history of school lunch programs.

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The Mixed Summer of the Monarch


milkweed

In June, one kind of Milkweed in my gardens in bloom. I have at least three different varieties growing now.

Last year, for the first time, I had a several Milkweed plants that got established in my gardens.

This year, I was surprised that the common Milkweed that got established last year didn’t bloom—but the plants did come back and did grow larger.

Sadly, they were not as eaten by caterpillars this year. Yes, I did see some, but some plants almost had all leaves eaten off last year, and that did not happen this year. And I don’t know if any of my caterpillar guests survived to become pretty butterflies—it was common for me to see caterpillars one day, but not the next, this summer.

The life of a wild caterpillar is a precarious thing.

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August–caterpillar eating leaf on common Milkweed in my front garden.

Still, the Milkweed plants grew this summer. The swamp milkweed bloomed nicely. And I did see caterpillars.

I guess my overall project to introduce Milkweed to my gardens made progress this summer, and that’s a good thing. I needed some good news, as I read with some trepidation that the Trump administration is making changes to the Endangered Species Act, signed over four decades ago by another Republican (Richard Nixon).

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Earlier this summer-I hope things will be looking up for these butterflies.

I could well believe the act could use some transparency and rules changes. But no, I don’t trust the Trump administration to do it well.

Well, I’ll do what I can. And I hope more of my pretty flower plants get eaten by Monarch babies next year.

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Glad I have planted cone flowers. Monarchs appear to like them.

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Light a Candle and Make a Change


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I wish that there had been more people there, but at least some people were there, and I hope it’s a start of something.

I attended a candlelight vigil in a parking lot across the street from the Federal Courthouse in Cedar Rapids Thursday night. It was a bit informal, two speakers, the reading of names of victims from El Paso and Dayton, a moment of silence.

The location was just across the street from the handiest local symbol of the federal government, and the building where U.S. Senators from Iowa have their offices.

Memo to members of Congress: It’s 2019. 2020 is coming, and I sincerely we don’t forget what you say or fail to say at this moment.

Anyway, I took my camera, hoping a few images can help boost the signal. It was nice to see my sister and sister-in-law there, and I’m glad my wife decided to come down with me. I also ran into some Sisters of Mercy, who were nice to see.

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But my candle kept going out. Somehow, it felt like a symbol of the whole advocacy effort for sensible policy steps to reduce gun violence—our President says there is no political appetite for that at the moment. Sadly, he may not be wrong. If Democrats are to be elected next year in Iowa, we have to hold on, hold together, speak up and fight the headwinds of violent status quo.

It’s not time for gun reform now? Not after El Paso, Dayton, The Pulse, Sandy Hook?

My candle keeps going out. But I will keep on relighting it. The winds blow, but I will not be moved.

Enough. Time for change.

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Debating Guns on the Margins


We have a Second Amendment in this country that guarantees the right to bear arms.

But it’s not a right to bear military assault rifles. Control of the kinds of weapons citizens may keep, as long as those regulations fulfill reasonable public ends and are not too broad, would be constitutional. The right to bear arms is not absolute; the Second Amendment itself is the one right in the Bill of Rights that is qualified—it mentions “a well-regulated militia” and the need to defend the United States.

The First Amendment, in contrast, simply says “Congress shall make no law” that abridges freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly and the power of the people to petition government.

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First Amendment text, Philadelphia, from Wikimedia Commons by Zakarie Faibis.

Yet, even the apparently unqualified rights of the First Amendment sometimes have to be balanced against other rights. For example, speech that is used to commit fraud, to extract money from victims under false pretenses, is not legal expression even under our Constitution.

This weekend saw horrific mass shootings in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio. Right now, I’m watching a pretty good MSNBC two-hour special on these shootings. Inevitably, it raises the question of gun control, and equally inevitably, it will take time before anything is done.

Well, we saw today a sharp contrast between presidents. Teleprompter Trump showed up to give one of his carefully correct, robotic speeches. Once during the speech, he said the nation must condemn white supremacy (note that he didn’t personally condemn it, he left that work to the nation). But he didn’t acknowledge that his own anti-immigrant language clearly seemed to be embedded in the motives of the El Paso shooter.

And he blew some regular Republican smoke, blaming:

• Violent video games. I’m no fan of violent media, and don’t like glorification of violence in games, movies or any entertainment. It feels like we humans have not learned much since bear baiting in medieval times, or the gladiator contests of ancient Rome. But the link between media violence and violence in life is not that clear. We’ve had years of social science on this point. Violent shooters do indeed seem to like violent video games, but the reverse is not true. Most gamers who play first-person shooter games are not violent people at all. As children in the 20th century, we were not corrupted by Road Runner cartoons, and today most gamers can distinguish between fantasy and real life. So no, Mr. President. Awful presidential racist language may contribute to violence, but not fantasy video games. I don’t want to let them off the hook—I am perfectly comfortable attacking violence or misogyny in games—I just don’t think trying to pin El Paso on that scapegoat works.

• Mental health. Just, no. Granted, a mentally ill personal may be violent—but that’s like saying sharks are dangerous. They are, but shark attacks are not a great threat—they are quite rare. A mentally ill person snapping and going on a rampage is a false cultural fear. There is a sickness of the soul that may lead to violence, but sickness of the mind is not so associated with it. Stop stigmatizing mental illness—and besides, if you are so concerned about this false link, how about better mental healthcare in general? I can agree that would be a good thing, even if I think it’s not really part of this particular public policy debate.

Besides those tired old smokescreens, on Twitter, President Trump found a new cause of mass shootings. It was done by the “Fake News.” I don’t know how that link is supposed to work. Like so many of Trump’s random tweets, it means nothing.

Contrast Trump’s lame statement with former President Obama’s statement today:

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The former president is a writer who can use words powerfully. The current president barely can read a teleprompter script and makes things worse whenever he goes off script.

Another point about these mass shootings: Where was the good guy with the gun who would stop it? It’s a fantasy. The good guys with guns who stopped the Dayton shooting (after too many had died) were trained police, who can’t be everywhere all the time. Amateurs with pistols are not a solution, and in fact can be part of the problem because too many gun deaths in this sick society are by suicide.

So, what is to be done?

First, let’s quit blaming the scapegoats. Let’s get the CDC to research gun violence as a public health problem. Let’s ban assault rifles, without taking lawful guns from citizens. In the long run, we can have a debate about the Second Amendment, but for now, nobody should pry anything but weapons of mass killings form anybody’s fingers. For now, lets Make American Great Again by putting back in place reasonable gun regulations that were repealed, and let’s go further. Universal background checks are something I would think most gun owners could endorse.

Second, elect Democrats. Enough is enough. As a country, we should be done with the current, fake GOP and done with the influence of the NRA. Not all Democrats are great on this issue, and electing Democrats is not in itself a complete cure—but it’s a key first step. True conservatives are pro law and order, and mass shootings are not lawful and don’t contribute to order. We need the GOP to suffer some horrific defeats to prompt that party to do some much needed soul searching. I look forward to the day when there is an effective Republican Party that deals with reality, doesn’t traduce science and can be a true conservative counterweight to the Democrats. That party does not exist today.

Third, call racism for what it is. Racism is ugly, irrational and deeply embedded in American culture. Mexico is not “sending” anybody. Anti-Hispanic rhetoric has been a feature of Donald Trump’s demagoguery, as well as casual attacks on African Americans. I say enough. In the Depression, to its shame, the U.S. even rounded up American citizens and deported them to Mexico in a racist act of racist times. (I know, I know, Hispanic or Mexican are not “races,” but the attitudes that led to this action was still racist in its nature). Trying to overcome racism is one of the longest arcs of American history. We’re not there yet, and Trump’s racist rhetoric is part of our dark past, not our better future.

Fourth, stop the religious bigotry on both sides. No, putting “God” back in schools, the protestant Christian God who dominated public discourse in the 1950s, is neither desirable nor legally practical—and it’s not an answer to this problem. As a Christian, I resent other Christians who are so bigoted and narrow-minded that they think a particular brand of Christianity should be promoted by government.

No. Freedom of religion is important to religious people of all types. We get to worship as we choose, and that is a right I hold dear. It also allows a person to be free from religion, should they so choose. On this matter of religion, government should have no role.

And, on the other hand, please, there is nothing wrong with “thoughts and prayers.” They can be empty, if they don’t motivate action, but for people of faith they are important, and sometimes in tragedy they are all that can be inadequately offered at first.

I share the frustration with politicians who offer thoughts and prayers and stop there—vote them out. I did pray in the wake of the shootings this weekend. I don’t apologize for that, nor should I have to. If you weren’t motivated to speak with your God, fair enough. If you want politicians to go beyond offering empty thoughts and prayers, I am with you.

But many social movements that have led to change had a strong prayer component. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was, among other things, a preacher. So was Bishop Desmond Tutu. Prayer can be a powerful binding force that helps unite people behind needed social change.

Anyway, it has been a depressing weekend and day. Throughout the weekend, I had that horrible “not again” reaction. Today, the president left me feeling cold, as he so often does.

But even if we are discouraged, we cannot be disengaged. The fact that change is not quick and easy is not a reason to avoid acting for change.

Thoughts and prayers for more sane public policy. Plus, please, action and votes.

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My Take: Trump is a Crook, Clearly a Crook


mueller reportI know I’m late to the party—the Mueller Report came out months ago. And I missed Bob Mueller’s public testimony on the report because I was pedaling a bicycle across Iowa.

But, early in the RAGBRAI ride, on Sunday night, I finished it—I am one of those American citizens who has taken the time to read the redacted Mueller Report.

And Trump and his “best” people are dirty—filthy, filthy dirty. They make the dark Clinton camp look like angels.

Consider:

Trump’s associates repeatedly tried to get dirt from Russia in order to beat an American political enemy. They didn’t legally conspire, mostly because they were too clueless to violate American election law, which requires the violator know that they are violating the law.

The report states: “The Office ultimately concluded that, even if the principal legal questions were resolved favorably to the government, a prosecution would encounter difficulties proving that Campaign officials or individuals connected to the Campaign willfully violated the law.”

The other elements of the crime are not difficult to show—but there was technically no crime only because prosecutors could not establish that Jared, Donald, Don Jr., etc., have any clear understanding of federal election law.

In other words, they are protected by the brain bone spurs. They could not have done it because they were too ill-informed to do it.

Let’s not forget that the investigation did result in many guilty please and prison sentences, even if Mueller concluded he could not indict a sitting president.

The real chilling part of volume one of the report, however, is the main point that is not talked about—that Russia launched a well-orchestrated cyber campaign to corrupt the American election. We can argue from here to eternity whether that flipped Michigan and Pennsylvania and Florida and gave Trump the presidency—but we know for sure that the Russians are coming. They are already sticking their cyber tentacles into our vast and leaky state-run election systems to influence the next campaign.

And Trump is such a cry baby that he insists he won a great victory on his own, and his party and administration refuse to take action to secure our elections. Democracy is endangered not by whether Trump was aided by Russian disinformation—after all, American idiots are perfectly capable, on both the left and right, of spreading garbage online—but by Russian hacking.

Volume one lays out in excruciating detail that we were attacked by a foreign power in 2016, and we already know it’s underway again in the 2020 campaign. Shouldn’t someone who is upholding our Constitution do something?

America, our democratic republic is on fire, and the firefighters are too busy bullying each other to get organized and do something about it. I would even buy into a grand compromise that put GOP minds at ease over their fake nightmare of voter fraud–tackle both problems. Even if fraud is not real, the appearance that fraud is possible is not acceptable, either.

Volume two is more personal to Trump, and more damning. He is a crook, repeatedly and clearly a crook. He did everything he could to try to obstruct a legal investigation, and still mocks it as a “witch hunt” even as he continues his black-magic verbal gas-lighting.

Trump depends on noise and amnesia. When the investigation was going on, it was a “witch hunt.” When Trump’s toady, Attorney Gen. William Barr, released a slanted summary that seemed to exonerate Trump, suddenly, for about 24 hours, Donald loved Bob.

It was bound not to last, this immature crush. Bob’s not a bloody dictator, and poor Don has a way of picking boyfriends poorly.

It seems clear that the law allows a special prosecutor to investigate obstruction of their own investigation—so labeling the second half of the volume “political” or “illegal” is the Trump team being unable to counter the facts. The president lied, tried to get a long-time Republican respected prosecutor fired and otherwise sought to constantly change testimony by witnesses in his favor.

I don’t know if any of that was clarified by Mueller’s testimony—I suspect not. But he has always said his main points are in the report.

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White House portrait of the crook-in-chief.

I read it. I don’t understand how anybody could read it and think Donald Trump should continue as president. He is manifestly unfit.

But more than that, again, the larger point is that the election of 2020 is already at risk. And Republicans reject the notion that they need to do anything about it, because these fire fighters are fine with fire, as long as they think they are not the ones getting burned.

Trying to fix our fractured politics was hard enough before Donald Trump. It is not getting any easier. Between Trump and Mueller, if you’re trusting Trump, I don’t want you making any hiring decisions for me.

Because you’re backing the crook.

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