Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Letters


6: 2006 - Constitutional Crisis


It has been very mild here.  Until about 2am last night, when the furnaces here and in all the nearby houses suddenly fired, as the temperature outside plummeted.  This morning the lakes were frozen over, and it was wicked-cold outside.


Wicked is a common New England expression, which is used to give emphasis to ones communication.  It implies no moral call on the matter.  So it is common hear New Englanders say that the day has been wicked nice or that the price of chicken is wicked good.  Unfortunately, because the young also use it to describe their own mundane experiences, it is commonly used to describe the most inconsequential of events.  No doubt, because of this, it will eventually loose any significance it may have had.  But today it still serves some linguistic purpose, and I feel justified in using it because it felt like my skin was being torn from me by the cold.  And then the snow flurries started and by days end it had deceptively covered field and lake alike.


Surprisingly, in the midst of the storm, in downtown Worchester life went on – albeit with a different set of parameters.  The homeless in the decayed urban center of this large industrial city travel with many layers of clothes, often in the company of 5-10 trolleys rigged a little like trapper sleds.  The less destitute wear technologically advanced clothing, that reduce the bulk but not the safety, of the clothing.  And then there was me – probably the only one stupid enough to go out without long johns, gloves and a beanie. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have learnt how to understand, but alas not articulate, the New England accent with a degree of proficiency.  I find a couple of American words, like wicked, starting to slip into my vocabulary (I choose however not to misuse words like grinder or trolley – burger and train carriage will continue to suffice). 

But it is not only accent, but also phrases.  The most ubiquitous of all is the deceptive question “All set?”, often not put as a question but as a statement closing a conversation.  The more direct “Whats the deal?” is used indiscriminately with friend and foe whenever someone appears to be getting off track or do addressing the issue in point.  That is, if the people having the discussion are listening to each other at all.  It is not at all uncommon to see two Americans talking loudly at each other, in blissful disregard of the ordinary conventions associated with civil communication.  So the snow posed no impediment to the two young American women this morning talking at each other as I passed them near the Massachusetts turnpike, close to the Worchester public library.

Massachusetts is not only in the grip of snow – it is also in the grip of a constitutional crisis.  But like the impending blizzards (people still talk about the hard winter of 1778), the citizens of Massachusetts have seen it all before, and will continue to talk loudly at each other without attempting to engage in discussion. 

The outgoing governor, in the lame duck part of his term, appears in full flight and, so far, outside the range of the Democrat guns hunting him, and his presidential ambitions.  He has cut back spending on social initiatives and now has sought a court ruling about gay unions.  His application asks the State Supreme Judicial Court to order that there be a legislative vote on a proposal to hold a referendum to amend the Massachusetts constitution restricting the concept of marriage to one man and one woman.

A visitor from another country (or world) might be bemused by such a proposal, having regard to the wide variety of domestic relationships enjoyed by the citizens of this (and other Western countries).  But this issue has been a peculiar feature of Christian thought for many centuries.  It was a persistent thorn in the side of Byzantine and European dynastic ambitions (the struggle involving Henry VIII eventually claimed his chief law officer, and led to the creation of the Church of England).  In America, the Christian churches have been united in opposition to the wicked polygamy of the early Mormons and have been scandalized by the portrayal of different social structures by feminist and other writers.  (I use wicked here in its non-New England sense).

Christian churches have opposed alike the early feminist suggestion that the natural family unit consisted of a woman and her children, the radical portrayal of sexual alternatives by science fiction writers in the 50's and the more thoughtful description of the ‘S Marriage’ by Heinlein (a marriage between 2 or more couples). Still, the actual emergence of a lobby seeking recognition of marriages between gay couples caught many by surprise (including some in the gay community who are strongly opposed to it).  Despite bitter opposition from Christian conservatives, the proposal was supported by Massachusetts Democrats (with strong support from the judiciary and the Boston press) – and today Massachusetts is the only Western polity to have legally recognized gay marriages.

The Christian conservatives, unlikely to get a majority, have taken a different tack to reverse this proposal.  They have sought an amendment to the State constitution, using the citizen initiated referendum process adopted in this state many years ago.  Under this process, when a sufficient number of electors sign a petition, the combined Senate and Assembly must meet as a Constitutional Convention and consider the proposal.  If one quarter of the members in the Constitutional Convention support the inclusion of the proposal going to the electors, the question must be put on the ballot paper for consideration at the next elections.

Opportunistically, when it met a couple of weeks ago, the majority of members decided to frustrate the petition by deferring a vote on the question.  But although the adjournment debate was passed by the majority, it was clear that the question would have been supported by the required one quarter of members.

As the cold of winter approaches, the Governor Mitt Romney (and ten others) have sought a court order against the president of the Senate who presides at meetings of the Constitutional Convention.  The application seeks an alternative order, requiring the Secretary of State to place the question on the next ballot.  The application forces a close examination of the “meaning and intent” of the citizen initiated referendum provisions.

But this is not the first time that the citizen initiated referendum provisions has been thwarted.  This has now happened five times.  Unlike the previous occasions, the approach by members is now being litigated.

Massachusetts is the most socially progressive of the New England states – but that social progressiveness is skin-deep.  The politicians that meet in the old State House in Boston are elected by a fraction of those entitled to vote.  Many people here never register to vote, and less than half of those registered showed up to vote at the last elections (although by Massachusetts standards the last elections were a sell-out, with many inner city booths running out of ballots). 

The fear held by the socially progressive Democrats is that, if the question is placed on the ballot, a huge influx of out of state election campaign money will flow into the state.  The largest source of this money will be the religious right from the southern states – and it is feared that this will payroll a concerted effort to enliven those not troubled to vote in the past to vote at the 2008 elections to stem the tide of immorality.  This may pay large dividends to conservative politicians – and may see a return to relevance of the religious right.

Supporters of gay marriages have taken a low profile.  But they are opposed to the question being placed on the ballot.  Some see the issue as a fundamental human right – something beyond a popular vote.

So - whats the deal?  As the snow starts to fall, I hear an echo across the ages – part of the age-old non-dialogue between those who know the true path and those bent on delivering the will of the mob.  A wicked interesting fight, which may propel the conservative Mitt Romney into the White House. 


All set?

Peter
Spencer

Massachusetts

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