Monday, December 27, 2010

States' Rights

 Our newly-elected governor of Maine, Paul LePage, promises to protect states’ rights and get the federal government out of regulating how the state spends the federal money collected from its taxpayers and given back to the state in the form of social welfare and health care reimbursements, social security and veterans’ benefits, defense contracts, educational and infrastructure grants grants (Maine Sunday Telegram 12-05-2010).   Across the nation, the mantra of states’ rights echoes from the right which won landside victories in the recent election.  

I get mad at government, too.  Beginning with family, that primal dispenser of civilization’s control, and fanning out to community institutions—church, school, town, state, nation—I get mad at them all at times.  That is Sigmund Freud's point in Civilization and its Discontents.  The great impediment to human happiness is the control exercised by civilization over individual action, desires, and impulses.  He doesn't see a solution to the problem, and neither do I.  But does state government do a better job of providing for the people’s interests and individual happiness than the federal government?  There appears to be plenty of blame to go all around in our history. 

From Columbus onward Native Americans were viewed as an inferior race but good for work.  When they resisted attempts to enslave them, the federal government made war on them, attempted to get them out of the way, made promises via treaties which were not kept, forced the removal of children from their homes to boarding schools where they attempted to educate their culture out of them, squeezed them on to reservations, forced thousands on a long-distance trek in the dead of winter from the East Coast all the way to Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears. 

The states have an even sorrier record with their legal practice of racism.  The secession of the south that led to civil war was a states’-rights issue.  It took federal intervention to abolish slavery.  And it took more federal intervention and over 100 years to abolish the subsequent segregation (Jim Crow) laws that continued to oppress Afro–Americans. See 

We still live with the unhappy hangover of legally sanctioned racism and sexism by both Federal and State Government.  The recent DREAM Act proposed by Congress would have provided a path to citizenship for children of immigrants, most of them Latinos, who have lived here most of their lives if they go to college or join the military.  It failed to pass.  Women did not have a legal right to vote until well into the 20th century.  And, first proposed in 1923 and passed through Congress in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment for women has still not been ratified by the needed 2/3 majority of the states to become law. 

When it comes to social justice issues, neither states nor feds by themselves have a great record.  But they can be and have been influenced by grass-roots movements that led to the major advances in civil rights legislation of the 20th Century.  It takes great numbers of morally committed and passionate individuals and leaders to make such advances.  And it requires continuous vigilance and struggle against the forces of greed and power lust that strive to dominate governments.

Judging by the rhetoric from tea partiers and others on the far right responsible for President Obama’s shellacking, I suspect that those currently seeking to take back states’ rights from federal control, including our governor-elect Paul LePage, are driven by forces of greed and power and not by a moral commitment to seek equality and justice for all.   They are opposed to the DREAM Act, opposed to gay rights, opposed to meaningful health-care reform that might reduce profits of insurance companies, opposed to spending and taxing priorities that seek opportunity and justice for all that includes poor, differently abled, disenfranchised.  Do I sound here like an advocate for someone you know, or should know:  “the poor,” “the meek,” “the persecuted,” the peacemakers?”  I hope so.  I’m not trying to be original.

For better or worse, until something better comes along, we need government.  Rather than fighting over turf, I would like to see better cooperation between states and feds and much more public dialogue about the morality of governmental attitudes and actions on all levels.  I would like to see a “trickle-down” theory of morality put into practice, one that promotes peace, justice, and equality for all.

© Alice Bolstridge, 12-27-10

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