Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Letters


4: 2006 - Hobbits with Guns


Well, the last week has been very hectic.




For a start, I am getting used to rain happening again.  It rains here all time of the day and night, often unexpectedly and often quite heavily.  It has been unseasonably warm – which means that it hasn’t snowed much yet, and you can still go outside and not freeze to death instantly.  So I have been learning how to use a bbq on the porch – which seems to be where the gentle folk of Massachusetts use their bbq’s. 

In thinking about them cooking on their porches, I am unsuccessfully resisting the urge to think of people from Massachusetts as hobbits.  Most of them here have never left their home town or state.  They know the world exists – but are supremely indifferent to it – living instead in a confusing whirl of ceremonies, malls, forests and freeways.  This aside, they are nice hobbits.  Hobbits with guns. 


In addition to the rain – and the hobbits - there were elections and the election aftermath.  Perhaps it would have been easier if the elections had not brought much change, but this year has seen a change in the mood of the electorate.  Massachusetts, like the rest of the progressive New England states (the states north of New York) has become less conservative.

Mind you, when the local moderate was re-elected, she put down her win to having attended all the right church dinners –and she held her victory dinner at the local rifle range.  So, less conservative is not quite the same thing as a social libertine. 

The elections here are quiet different to Australia.  Americans love banners.  So the party faithful get into the spirit of election day by showing their preferences using lawn banners. 

There are very few permanent lawn decorations here – no garden gnomes for example.  So there is plenty of room for seasonal lawn decorations (like witches, or huge blowup turkeys… a horror just about to be unleashed for thanksgiving).  In fact, as I write, the election material is being replaced by corn stalks, a celebration of the bountiful harvest (viewed suspiciously by one local preacher as another throwback to hidden pagan sympathisers).  

With Halloween out of the way, briefly there were election lawn-banners for everyone – even the fringe green-rainbow party (although there were very few banners representing this particular brand of politics – and those that did put up green-rainbow banners looked like they might well put out gnomes as well if giving any encouragement).

Very few people bother registering to vote, and less than half registered vote.  But that might be about to change.  The religious right, spooked about the resurgent interest in neo-paganism and Darwinism, is gradually mobilizing throughout the states.  In its wake, lots of moderates are treating the option of voting as a necessary inconvenience. 

And those coming to vote, did not just vote for lawmakers.  They voted for key members of the executive government (the Governor, the Attorney-General, the Secretary of State, the Treasurer and the Auditor-General).  They also voted on constitutional questions calling for an expression of the popular will.  In some states, they voted for judges.  They also voted for local officials – selectmen and sheriffs (real sheriffs with guns).

So many moderates came out this year, it turned into a terrible defeat for the religious right and conservative politicians.  The vote was enough to propel into office the first black governor of Massachusetts (Devel Patrick – by a landslide), and defeat an attempt to introduce a complete ban on abortions in otherwise conservative South Dakota.  The new popular Democrats (who will not take office till early in the new year) are flexing their new power – they appear to be independent of existing party machines or power brokers (a matter of some anxiety in the financial press).

In the aftermath of the elections, came the analysis and tears.  And this year, there was more. 

The same sex debate rages in Massachusetts – in a strange and rarified battlefield.  I get the strong impression that politicians of both persuasions seem keen to keep the issue out of the public arena – it was not an issue that any of them relished dwelling on in the recent elections.  But all their efforts may be slowly unraveling around them.

The republicans (conservatives) and the democrats (moderates) have differing views on the recognition of same sex relationships.  Unique in the USA, democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts legislated a couple of years ago to recognise same sex marriages.  A number of other states have extended recognition to same sex relationships – while the majority have or are attempting to legislate to preclude any form of recognition.  About 8500 marriages have been celebrated in Massachusetts since gay marriages were legalized in May 2004.

Republican lawmakers in Massachusetts publicly support simple recognition of same sex relationships – but privately they have a range of bewildering views on the issue.  The religious right have circled republican candidates waiting for opportunities.  Gillmeister, writing in the Spencer New Leader summed up the approach of the right neatly – “In the religious debate, Christians must keep sight of these dual admonitions, often captured in the phrase ‘love the sinner, not the sin’.”  To their surprise, Republicans have discovered a couple of sinners in their ranks just recently, together with some who are inclined to think it is not a sin.  

In Massachusetts, the constitution permits petitioners to seek to put a referendum question on an issue directly to the voters.  As mentioned earlier, in the elections earlier this month there were a couple of matters on the ballot – including one that would have allowed wine to be sold in supermarkets (it was rejected by the electorate).

To start this process, a fairly large number of people must sign a ballot petition for a constitutional amendment.  About 170,000 Massachusetts electors have petitioned for an amendment defining marriage to be a union between a man and a woman.

The ballot petition came, with a couple of other issues, before a joint sitting of the Massachusetts Senate and Representatives.  The 200 legislators sat on November 9 as a constitutional convention.  For the measure to be passed through to a referendum, 50 of the legislators had to support the amendment in each of two consecutive votes. 

However, in a rerun of previous maneuvering, the convention voted to go into recess rather than to vote on the measure, effectively sidestepping the issue.  A recess vote, until the day before the end of the present term of members effectively frustrates the petition. 

The 109 – 87 vote for a recess has attracted mixed reviews.  Many people hoped the lawmakers were simply reject the measure on principle – the Boston Globe said, of the amendment, “…it’s discrimination, it’s wrong, and it has no place on the ballot or the constitution.”

The outgoing republican governor, Mitt Romney, criticized the vote, accusing lawmakers of flouting their constitutional duty to vote.  Romney, a well-liked politician, is in the ‘lame duck’ part of his term, which ends in January, but is widely rumored to be a likely republican candidate for the presidency.  He is considering legal options to force lawmakers back into the convention to take the vote.

Democrats have mixed feelings about the position they find themselves in.  They regard the issue as having been finalized.  Some say that the issue is not one for referendum – arguing that gay marriage “…is a civil right that should not be subject to the popular will”.  None of them have any wish to see the issue go onto a referendum ballot for 2008 – and the associated media campaign that would be waged by those (mainly out of state bodies) supporting a ban on same sex marriages.

The vote to recess is now likely to be contested in court – an uncomfortable result for all concerned. 

So, a busy week.  But that wasn’t all.

There was a gun robbery at nearby supermarket-bank and a sighting of a black bear (unrelated).  The police put up helicopters for the first (the suspect was a white male in his early 20s -  I have an alibi) , and a patrol car on the bear (a stronger measure given some criticism about their response to a bobcat sighting earlier in the week). 

And finally I read 2 articles about Australia in the local press.  One was about how the Australian Senate OK’ed cloning – and contained the following observation that struck me as an acutely accurate observation about our political process “The decision – a rare conscience vote in a country where lawmakers are expected to follow the party line…”.   The article went on to blow its credibility by talking about the (Australian) Democratic party position as though it mattered.  The second article, from memory, was a short piece on an Australia cleric who apparently has advocated the rape of women wearing skimpy clothes - a matter of deep shame.    

All in all, a full week.  And as it turned out, when I went to the local supermarket yesterday, I was rather pleased that the shopkeeper identified my accent authoritatively as Indian.  In the circumstances, I let the dear hobbit have it her way.

Peter
Spencer
Massachusetts

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