Monday, September 18, 2017

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Big Bang Theory,’ on Unexpected Sexism in the Sci-Tech World)

Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons): “Actually, I'm here to file a complaint. Someone has used sexual language that I found to be offensive.”

Janine Davis (played by Regina King): “And who would that be?”

Sheldon: “You, you dirty birdy! I've been thinking about those things you said to me yesterday, and I've come to the conclusion that they've made me very uncomfortable. So be a dear and grab me one of those complaint forms.” — The Big Bang Theory, Season 6, Episode 12, “The Egg Salad Equivalency,” original air date Jan. 3, 2013, teleplay by Steven Molaro, Bill Prady and Steve Holland, directed by Mark Cendrowski

Sunday, September 17, 2017

This Day in Federal History (Compromise-Carved Constitution Signed)

Sept. 17, 1787—After meeting for nearly four months behind closed doors amid a muggy Philadelphia summer, 38 of 41 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed a document nearly all had grave reservations about, including the two men that later generations would hail as its “father” and “author.” But all clung to the hope that the institutions set up for the new government—an untried experiment in federalism, blending central and state government—would cool the unruly passions of men.

There is no federal holiday celebrating the U.S. Constitution, as there is for the Declaration of Independence. It is far from a perfect state paper. But were it not for the Constitution and the relative stability it created, Americans would probably be in no position to recall the Declaration at all, and if it did not ensure a “more perfect union,” it allowed the young republic to continually move toward it.

Just about the one point of agreement among the delegates meeting in the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) was that the new federal government would be in good hands in the short run because of the man expected to lead it as President—the same man who had presided over their often stormy confab, George Washington

The Revolutionary War hero was almost revered because of his sense of resolution throughout the war, his refusal to become a king or dictator afterward, and his good judgment at all times. The delegates feared that too much power vested in the office of the Presidency would tempt demagogues to exploit recent outbursts of mass discontent such as Shays’ Rebellion, but also did not want to restrain the President so much that Washington would be impotent to lead the new government.

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” Alexander Hamilton, one of New York’s delegates at the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers. Within a dozen years, he felt so alarmed that events were already undercutting this optimistic contention that he persuaded Federalists in the House of Representatives to support Thomas Jefferson—with whom he had clashed repeatedly over the prior decade over the direction of the government—rather than Aaron Burr, whom he had come to regard as utterly unprincipled.

(I myself will make no comment on the worthiness of the current occupant of the White House, other than to direct the reader’s attention to a Slate article this past spring, whose title and subtitle say volumes: “Trump Is a Stress Test for Democracy; We Are Failing.”)

Much of the uneasiness felt about the Constitution by the men who created and signed it—as well as those attendees who could not support it in the end—stemmed from what it was: from first to last, an elaborate series of compromises. Nobody got all that they wanted, including the Virginia delegate who was its prime mover, James Madison. Worried that the new federal government would not have the authority to overrule state legislation, he pessimistically predicted to his Virginia friend Thomas Jefferson that the new plan, “should it be adopted will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts agst the state governments.”

For all his misgivings about the final form of the new government, no other Founding Father has been associated more with its creation than Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” It wasn’t just that he proposed the so-called Virginia Plan desiring proportional representation, which would benefit large states such as his own. 

No, Madison also had created a painstaking list of the problems with the Articles of Confederation ("Vices of the Political System of the United States") that served as a point of comparison with the desired government he and others wanted; he spoke more than 100 times during the proceedings; he secretly kept detailed notes on the secret debates among the delegates that serve as historians' primary source of what went on; he interpreted the document (along with Hamilton and John Jay) in The Federalist Papers; and, as Secretary of State and President within the next generation, he applied what he learned.

Over 30 years after the convention, John Quincy Adams, disgusted by one of its compromises—the refusal to confront the evil of slavery—groused privately in his diary, “The Constitution is a compact with Hell, and a life devoted to its destruction would be a life well spent.” About the best that can be said of the framers’ work on this point is that events would nudge politicians to discover a solution that they couldn’t.

One delegate who dared to broach the matter of slavery was Madison’s fellow member on the convention’s Committee of Style, Gouverneur Morris. Most people know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; far fewer know that Morris had the same task with the Constitution. 

He was, in many ways, Madison’s polar opposite. While  Madison was reticent, serious, and painfully shy around women,  Morris was urbane, humorous, and a ladies’ man. No delegates spoke more often at the convention than Morris. 

The two men had deep, serious disagreements: Madison charged Morris with desiring a monarchy in the United States, while Morris, during the War of 1812, felt so strongly that President Madison had initiated the conflict to enlarge the lands of Southern slaveholding states that he supported the Hartford Convention, a foolhardy attempt to hasten the secession of New York and New England.

Nevertheless, even Madison felt it necessary to acknowledge the Pennsylvania delegate’s role in the final document. “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris,” wrote Madison. “A better choice could not have been made.”

One telling exhibit of Morris’ craftsmanship: The draft supplied by the Committee of Detail simply began: “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . . ” and so on, through Georgia. Morris pared it down to the simple, but crucially important words, “We the people of the United States.” 

It was not simply an enormous stylistic improvement, but an essential statement on the source of sovereignty in the new republic. In other words, the nation derived its authority not merely from a confederation of individual states that might leave at any time, but from the ordinary citizens who gave rise to the states--and who could not so easily depart.

Quote of the Day (John Wesley, on God-Given Ability)

"Use all the ability which God giveth, and He will give you more.”— Methodist founder John Wesley (1703-1791), Aug. 2, 1776 letter to his sister, Dorothy Furly Downes

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Quote of the Day (Francis Bacon, on Reading, Meeting and Writing)

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”—English essayist, courtier, and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), “Of Studies” (1601)

Song Lyric of the Day (Morrissey and Johnny Marr, on the Necessity to ‘Save Your Life’)

“Oh, save your life
 Because you've only got one.”— Morrissey and Johnny Marr, “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” from The Smiths’ UK album Hatful of Hollow (1984)

I seem to have missed out on a whole stratum of rock music after about 1982. Whether it was because, having just graduated from college, I was spending more time than previously on establishing myself, or because my favorite local radio station, WNEW-FM, was gradually moving away from its free-form format, I missed out on many of the newer bands rising to prominence during this time, including The Smiths.

This particular lyric came to my attention courtesy of actress Julia Stiles, who is quite a fan of Morrissey. Just this afternoon, on a local public radio station, WNYC-FM, she cited the lyric above as among her favorite by the British singer-songwriter.

I was immediately intrigued by these lines; they seemed to offer a kind of blunt, tough-love wake-up call, tinged with existentialism (the thought that you’d better make the most of your life, because this is all you’ll get). But as I looked further into the tune, I wondered if that was really all to it.

A Rolling Stone magazine article pointed to one principal influence on Morrissey: the playwright Shelagh Delaney, whose influential late-Fifties comedy-drama, A Taste of Honey, dealt with a smart but lower-class teen left pregnant by a visiting African-American sailor. (The late, lamented Off-Broadway troupe, the Pearl Theatre Co., mounted a production last year that I reviewed here.)

Viewed in this context, Morrissey’s lyric now seems focused more tightly not on the choice to go on that every human being must make, but the decision of the play’s young heroine, Jo, on what to do with her unborn child. In the song, she may be coached to abort the baby. Is the voice in these lines simply any older person, urging Jo to free herself from a yoke that will prove burdensome if she hopes to break the cycle of poverty? Or is the voice an older male with self-interest here, who would not under any circumstances want to accept the responsibility of a child, whether his or not?

In a sense, this song reflects back on the play that inspired it. The two, after all, are alike in their ambiguous, ambivalent consideration of a very complicated situation in which all too many people still find themselves these days. (Upon Delaney's death in November 2011, Morrissey wrote this brief but eloquent tribute to the writer for evoking a world of "sagging roofs, rag and bone men, walk-up flats, derelict sites, rear-entrance buses, and life in tight circumstances.")