Saturday, June 25, 2011

Voter Suppression: Thoughts on Independence Day

US Independence Day, is an apt time to give serious thought to attempts currently underway to abridge our most important right as Americans, the right to choose our elected representatives, including the president of the United States.  Thirty Republican-controlled State Legislatures within the United States have either already passed, or are in the process of pushing through legislation that would dramatically restrict the voting access of racial and ethnic minorities, college students, rural voters, senior citizens, people with disabilities, anyone who has moved within the past year, and those who are homeless

The US Constitution allows for election of the President, members of the House of Representatives and Senate by a process of election by the People (i.e. you and me).  In the case of the President, the use of electors for each state based on population is used instead of direct election of the president.  The Fifteenth Amendment (Amendment XV) to the United States Constitution prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "racecolor, or previous condition of servitude" (i.e., slavery). It was ratified on February 3, 1870.  the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Echoing the language of the 15th Amendment, the Act prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the integral role that transparent and open elections play in ensuring the fundamental right to participatory government. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 21 states: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures.

 As part of an effort to suppress voting, new photo identification laws that would suppress turnout of Hispanic and other minority voters are in the process of being passed.  In some states people who have moved or changed addresses or names (e.g.married women) will be unable to vote. Plans are being developed to systematically deny large segments of the United States electorate access to free and unfettered voting in the 2012 elections via organized state action led by the Republican Party and their wealthy donors.

Laws in several states, such as Arizona, would even make it difficult for President Obama’s name to appear as a candidate on the ballot. This has arisen from false claims that he is not a U.S. Citizen.  While those claims are absurd on their face, some states may nonetheless make it very difficult for the President to satisfy all of the criteria required to be a candidate for president. That is yet another way to attempt to rig the election.

Republican state legislators are screaming warnings about alleged voter fraud.  A 2007 thorough study by the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University concluded "It is more likely you will be struck by lightening than that someone will impersonate another person at the polls."

Within the United States, a variety of techniques are being greatly expanded again for the 2012 Presidential and Congressional elections, including:

Creating Unrealistic Hurdles to Voter Registration:  In Florida, a new law is making its way through the legislature that would make it nearly impossible to conduct voter registration drives, which greatly affects voter registration in Hispanic, racial minority and other low income areas.  Same Day registration is being outlawed in many states. 

Voter Deception: Deceptive practices include misinforming voters about whether they can vote, where to vote, when to vote and how to vote. A Common Cause report on the 2008 election pointed out that these practices have expanded from flyers and phone calls to include online practices. From the report,

"Most of these emails said that given the high turnout expected, Republicans were to vote on Tuesday, Democrats on Wednesday. An email went to the entire student body of George Mason University that appeared to be from the provost of the school making this same claim.”

Partisan Election Administration: In many states, the officials responsible for overseeing elections are themselves partisan elected individuals, some of whom also hold positions of responsibility in the same campaigns they are charged with overseeing. This creates a natural conflict of interest. The most well-known instance of this is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the 2000 election, who was also co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida; she oversaw the removal of tens of thousands of names from the voter rolls based on admittedly-inaccurate lists, the vast majority of whom were minorities or from primarily Democratic precincts. Many Americans continue to believe George W. Bush was not legitimately elected president because of partisan interference with the electoral process in Florida.

Inequality in Election Day Resources:  By providing more polling places, poll workers and/or voting machines in some precincts than others election officials can create long lines that discourage people from voting, while making voting easy for others. In Ohio during the 2004 elections minority areas were provided with fewer resources than areas that tended to vote for conservatives, resulting in very long lines.

Felon Disenfranchisement , the policy of not allowing those with felony convictions to vote. The United States is one of the only democracies in the world with this system, and laws vary from state to state. It disproportionally affects African American men, with approximately 13% of the total population nationwide unable to vote, seven times the national average for other groups.

Voter Purges: Officials strike voters from the rolls through a process often shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.  Manipulation of the process can be a way to deny potential opposition voters access to the polls. Partisan election officials have been known to use the process to remove large numbers of targeted voters from districts that heavily represent the opposing party from the voter rolls.

What can you do?  (1) Write to your Senators and Congressional Representatives expressing concern about these limitations being placed on the voting (2) Write to Honorable Erich H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001 with a copy to your Congressional representative and Senators (3) Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper expressing concern about this infringement on voting my millions of Americans, (4) Email President Barrack Obama expressing your concerns:


Justin Levit (2007) The truth about voter fraud,  Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law

Common Cause, Deceptive Practices 2.0: Legal and Policy Responses

Right to Vote, Human Rights Library, University of MInnesota;

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Four Fathers

My father, William R. Thompson was born February 26, 1904 in Berlin, ND, a forbidding flat plain mostly populated by German immigrants, unlike his family that had come from Ireland in 1764 setting originally in upstate New York.  Prior to their time in Ireland they had lived in Scotland but clashed with locals over their religious beliefs. My father Bill Thompson was the sixth William Thompson.  His family moved to a rock pile of a farm in north central Minnesota south of Milacs Lake where he grew up and until he was 26.  His father RR Thompson made him quit school in 8th grade to work full time on the farm.  My father was soft-spoken with handsome features my mother likened to the actor Clark Gable.   My mother later told me that my father was frequently whipped by his father with a razor strap when he as a child. When I was a teenager my father told me that he didn’t think “the Race problem” in America would be solved until everyone was light brown.  In the 1930s he was beaten up every Friday night as he came out of the Union Hall by goons hired by the Citizens Alliance, a businessmen’s organization. They were eventually unionized.  I learned most of my basic values from him, altruism, the virtue of hard work, tolerance toward others, persevering in the face of adversity and honesty.  For many years after his death, when faced with a difficult decision I would ponder, “What would Dad do?”

My wife had three fathers, her biological father, Erich Kohnke, Johannis Blacquiere, a Dutch Christian man who took Anneke into his family during WWII and saved her from the Nazis, and Erich Leyens who brought her to the US and served as her surrogate father in New York when she was growing up having been orphaned during WWII.  Erich Kohnke was born in Berlin, December 1, 1900.  Erich Kohnke studied music with several of the foremost musicologists, composers and music professors in Germany.  Erich Kohnke graduated from the Berlin Conservatory. From August 1926 through early April 1933 Erich Kohnke resided in Chemnitz at Henriettenstraase 42, (a Stolperstein, i.e. a memory stone, will be placed in front of his residence in his memory in October 2011 by the City of Chemnitz) approximately a mile and one half from the municipal theater where he performed (Jürgen Nitsche, personal communication, 6-8-11). He was initially recruited to perform as a solo pianist with the Chemnitz Theater Orchestra.  His job at the Municipal Theatre also included solo vocal coach. As such, he rehearsed with the musicians and singers on stage works, he was transferred to the musical director for shows at the Playhouse. In operas and operettas, he was responsible for the choir, so including in the new production of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin" (1932) and Paul Abraham operetta "Flower of Hawaii" (1932). His contract was 1926-1933 extended several times, increasing his salary. As an active member of the Jewish community, he also became involved as a choral conductor in the synagogue choir club, who devoted themselves to the care of Jewish song in worship.  Erich Kohnke was forced to leave Germany with most other Jews at the beginning of the Nazi era.  Later he and his Wife Leni Leyens Kohnke sought help from the Dutch resistance to hide their  18 month old child with a Dutch Christian family, Johannis and Jacoba Blacquiere. That child grew up to be my wife.  Erich and Leni Kohnke went into hiding in rugged eastern Netherlands, but were capture by the SS, eventually murdered in Auschwitz about 9 months later.  Our son Peter resembles Erich Kohnke and he and my wife Anneke, like her father has musical gifts.

Anneke's third father was Johannis (Jan) Blacquiere, Jan (Johannis) Blacquière, a 31 year-old man when he took Anneke into his family, originally from Geertruidenburg, in the far south of the Netherlands. Jan had married Co (Jacoba) Henriëtta Tissot van Patot, 30 years of age, who was from  Halsteren, in southwest Netherlands.  Jan had  several technological jobs before the war.  Co had been a teacher before her marriage with Jan and continued to use her training and commitment to young children in her daily care for Anneke and her own children. Theirs was a remarkable act of courage and kindness by taking this young Jewish girl into their family.  The Blacquière’s daughter Ron was 8 months older than Anneke, son, Fred, who was 11 months younger than Anneke, and Christa, three years younger than Anneke.  The Blacquière family told neighbors that Anneke, was a Dutch child orphaned in the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, which was one of the more common ways of hiding Jewish children.  Anneke nominated Johannis and Jacoba Blacquiere for recognition by Yad Vashem as Righteous of the Nations for non-Jews who saved Jewish people during WWII, a ceremony will be held in their honor August 4, 2011.  Here is Jan in his backyard in 1944. 

My wife Anneke’s third father, Erich Leyens was born in Wesel, Germany in 1898.  He was Anneke’s uncle, his mother Leni’s brother.  His father was a successful commercial building contractor and mother was a benefactor of human service organizations.  Erich Leyens and his brother Walter fought for the Kaiser in WWI where he won the equivalent of the Silver Cross for valor and a Purple Heart.  He was 16 years old when he enlisted.  After the war, he and another Jewish German man purchased a department store in Wesel, which was confiscated by the SS within a year after the Nazi Boycott day April 1, 1933.  Eventually he narrowly escaped to Switzerland, then Italy, then Spain, then Cuba and finally was permitted entrance into the United States in 1942.  He lived in New York City most of the rest of his life until a year or two before his death in Konstanz, Germany.  His sister, Greta served as my wife Anneke’s “mother” and he as her “father.”  He was an exceptionally bright man with enormous courage,  broad interests and vitality until shortly before his death.  I have very fond memories of Erich who shared a great interest in art with me. Here he is in Konstanz around his 100th birthday.

We remember our fathers with great affection and admiration.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Political Leadership and Business Experience

Some Republicans question Barrack Obama’s qualifications for presidency because they say he “hasn’t done actual work,” meaning that he hasn’t run a business.  They usually fail to mention his 12 years as a law professor at the University of Chicago (apparently that wasn’t work), focusing derisively instead on his years as a community organizer in poor inner city areas of Chicago.  None of them bother to explain what the term “community organizing” means.  At its heart, community organizing is a quintessential democratic activity that involves generating durable power for a group of people within a community that is under-represented, allowing it to influence key decision-makers on a range of policy issues affecting their community. Republicans demean community organizing because they fail to value the people being helped by community organizing.  Barrack Obama’s activities in Chicago are now being replicated as President, except the community is on a much larger scale in his present job, the American people.

Two recent American public opinion polls of large cross-sections of socieity on the value placed on various occupations are revealing.  In the first, people were asked to indicate whether they considered various occupations as having prestige.  Depending on whom you ask, the definitions of occupational prestige can change.  Many equate job prestige in terms of money, while others base it on education, and a third group bases it on how much a person's job helps other people or society at large or some combination of the above.  Firefighter, scientist, doctor, nurse, military officer, teacher and police officer came out at the top of the list in that order.  Only 23% of those surveyed ranked “Business Executive” as having high prestige. College or university professor wasn’t included in that survey.  In the second study by the National Opinion Research Center, one of the oldest and most respected organizations of its type in the country, “Member of the President’s Cabinet”, “Physician” and “College Professor” came out at the top (1, 2 & 3) with “Business executives” ranking far down the list.

How important is a business background to successful American political leadership?   According to the Rasmussen Poll the most admired American presidents, in order, have been George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, John Adams, James Madison, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, none of whom came from business backgrounds.  Washington and Eisenhower were military heroes, as was JFK to a lesser degree.  TR was an outdoorsman, hunter and writer, and Reagan was a Hollywood actor, most of the rest were attorneys but had limited experience practicing law (though FDR worked in corporate law on Wall Street for a time), and were thrust into political leadership roles by circumstances or family history.

All of this leads me to wonder, “Why is the American news media so obsessed with the idea that successful business people have special qualifications for political leadership?”  It does not appear to be either the basis of how we rank America’s most successful past presidents, or public opinion about the value placed upon various occupations, that indicates business people are held in especially high esteem by most Americans.  What gives? Makes little sense. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: Really?

The American news media is obsessed with the notion that fairness requires that every issue, not matter how absurd a comparison between “the two sides” may be, requires that balanced coverage be given to the two opposing views.  The tobacco lobby hired fake scientists for years to counter the scientific claims of many hundreds of highly qualified scientists. The oil and coal companies hire fake scientists to say there is no truth to Global Warming while many thousands of climate scientists have strong evidence that  Global Warming is a fact. And of course there are the Holocaust deniers. 

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like if television had existed before the video screen became a permanent fixture in our homes in 1951, like during World War II?  In 1941 and -42 stories surfaced in the US newspapers and on radio (and on our pretend television) about the horrors the Nazis were visiting upon Jews in Europe.  But prominent Americans, including William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy (JFK's father), Charles Lindbergh, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon spoke out against American involvement in the War, saying the stories about Nazi atrocities were exaggerations.  Hearst’s publications, the Reader’s Digest, and Better Homes and Gardens, helped promote a positive image of the Nazi party in America. 

Let’s play “what if” and suppose Fox News decides to send a crew headed by Geraldo Rivera to prepare an investigative report on the reality on the ground in Europe about the Nazis and Jews in Europe.  Geraldo arranges to interview a Nazi prison camp guard and is permitted to interview one Jewish inmate at the Auschwitz camp in Poland.  Geraldo decides to shoot the interviews in front of the famous Auschwitz gate with the sign overhead, Arbeit macht frei “work will set you free,” in the background, with rows of barracks receding in the background. The arm of the red and white striped gate is lowered behind them to prevent entry to or exit from the camp.  The sky is overcast and the smell of the crematorium fills the air, with smoke rising from its chimney in the distance.

Facing the camera, Geraldo Rivera is dressed in a leather American pilot’s jacket and is wearing a fur cap, as vapor emanates from his mouth in the frigid air as he speaks.  He reads a quotation from William Randolph Hearst arguing that the US has no business getting involved in Europe’s internal affairs. He goes on to quote Charles Lindbergh who says that the atrocity claims are gross exaggeration.  Geraldo then shifts to a statement that had been published and widely disseminated in 1942 condemning the German policy of extermination of the Jews on which Roosevelt joined with Churchill, Stalin, and ten Allied governments in exile in signing. Facing the camera again, Geraldo Riversa says, “We have come to Auschwitz to discover the truth,” and the camera cuts away to an ad for Weight Watchers.  

After the break Geraldo is standing alongside a tall, blonde Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike and says, “Our first guest is Heinrich Muller, a guard at the Auschwitz Labor Camp, officer in the Totenkopf Division of the SS-Oberabschnitt Donau, the Austrian division of the SS.”   Herr Muller is dressed in a dress uniform black leather jacket featuring silk-faced lapels, SS shoulderboards and collar patches, and a Totenkopf breast pin and knee length polished black boots. He stands erectly at attention.  Geraldo continues, “Mr. Muller, in America we hear stories of mistreatment of Jews in Auschwitz, even killing and cremating Jews.  What can you tell us about the truth of these stories?”  Herr Muller vehemently replies, “Lies! Nothing could be further from the truth. These people volunteer to work here to on behalf of the War effort, nothing else.  They are treated well, given nutritious meals and comfortable sleeping quarters.  Occasionally a worker dies of disease, and we have no choice but to cremate them for sanitary reasons.”  Geraldo continues, “I understand you are from Linz in Austria. How do you happen to be working as a guard at a German camp?”  Muller replies, “Linz is one of Der Fuhrer’s Model Cities, and I volunteered and had the great honor of being selected to represent Austria as a camp guard.  We Austrians are intensely loyal to Der Fuhrer.”

Geraldo turns to an emaciated man who appears to be about five foot four inches tall, dressed in a black and white vertically striped prisoner’s uniform. His feet are bound in cloth holding the remnants of leather shoes in place.  The man’s face is gaunt with sunken cheeks and unshaven, as he stands with scrawny hands bearing abrasions, folded in front of him as he looks down at the ground. He has what appears to be a bruise on one cheek and an abrasion on his forehead.  His eyes appear sunken in their darkened sockets.  “Our second guest is Erich Bernstein, formerly of Essen in Germany. Mr. Bernstein, how do you happen to be working at Auschwitz?”  “I was doctor in Essen. My wife Hannah, who was a nurse, and I had escaped from Essen after Krystalnacht and fled to Holland,” Bernstein replied. “Utter foolishness!” Muller interrupted, “There was no need to leave Essen. It was perfectly safe for Jews.”  Geraldo intervenes, “Please allow Mr. Bernstein to answer the question, Mr. Muller.”

Bernstein continues, when “The Final Solution” was announced, we hid in the Velue, a great park area in Eastern Holland, but were discovered by SS Men hunting for Jews.” Geraldo continues, “And how did you make your way here to Auschwitz?”  “We were packed into railway cattle cars, 80 or more per car, and travelled across country for three days with no heat, food or water in the midst of winter,” Bernstein replied.  “Absolute lies,” Muller interrupted. “They were given ample” food and water at each stop between Nijimen and Auschwitz and had a pail to take care of personal matters.”

Geraldo intervenes again, “Mr. Bernstein, tell us, how living conditions are here at Auschwitz?” “Auschwitz is a death camp, not a labor camp,” Bernstein began.   Muller explodes angrily, “Complete lies, people are brought here for one reason, to work.”  Bernstein continues,  “There are 400 bunks in each barrack, two men per bunk ” Bernstein began.  “There is no heat most of the time and we are given water once daily in a bucket. Sometimes the water is frozen.  For breakfast we have a slice of raw turnip, a slice of bread for lunch every other day, and a piece of boiled potato for supper. On Sundays we are given a small piece of animal fat.”  “That doesn’t sound like much food,” Geraldo says, “have you complained to the guards about lack of food?” “Once,” Bernstein replies, “but I was beaten first by one of the Kapos, and then with the butt of a rifle by a Totenkopf guard.”  Muller interrupted again, “We have no choice but to keep order here, these Jews are an unruly lot.”  “And Mr. Muller, what do you say about the lack of food for the prisoners?” Geraldo asks.  “Silliness.  On religious holidays we have special meals for our workers.  Only last Christmas we had a special chicken meal with seasonal vegetables.”  “Yes,” Bernstein adds, “boiled chicken feet with a radish, on Christmas.”

The camera angle changes and Geraldo Rivera is standing alone beneath the sign, Arbeit macht frei.  He begins, “Conditions do seem harsh here at Auschwitz, but as usual, there are two sides to every story.  The German government says it needs assistance with its war effort, and is providing food and housing for the workers here.  No doubt many of the workers would prefer to be in more comfortable surroundings, but the German government has plans to repatriate the workers here at Auschwitz at the War’s conclusion. You have the feeling the German authorities are doing the best they can with a difficult situation. This is Geraldo Reivera reporting for Fox News from Auschwitz, Poland.”