Thursday, May 29, 2014

Life and Death in a Civilized Place

Executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect. . . .
—Mary Wollstonecraft, Letter 19 (1796)

It makes you proud to be an American. I mean a lesser country wouldn’t give any of these things a second thought. During the week of May 18, 2014 we learned of two different decisions, each of which proves that we keep on trying to be the world leader in showing respect for human life, in both the preserving and the taking. The first decision pertained to Guantanamo.

On May 23, 2014 a federal court entered an order permitting the folks at Guantanamo to continue force-feeding Abu Wa’el Dhiab so that he won’t die. Mr. Dhiab, a Syrian national, was captured in Pakistan 12 years ago and has been at Guantanamo ever since. He has not been charged with any crime and was cleared for transfer five years ago. At first he was not released because the government worried about how he’d be treated in Syria and later because of the civil war taking place there. Mr. Dhiab does not want to be at Guantanamo. He would rather be dead. Accordingly he has engaged in a hunger strike. The United States does not want Mr. Dhiab to die. The procedure used by the government to keep Mr. Dhiab alive is not done in a hospital and is very painful. Mr. Dhiab has gone to court to ask the court to permit him to die or, alternatively, require the government to force-feed him humanely at the hospital at Guantanamo Bay. The judge who considered Mr. Dhiab’s request for a restraining order observed that Mr. Dhiab was willing to be force-fed if it were done in the hospital and “he could be spared the agony of having the feeding tubes inserted and removed for each feeding, and if he could be spared the pain and discomfort of the restraint chair.” Were that done, the judge observed, the litigation over whether he could be force fed or permitted to die could be litigated in a “civilized and legally appropriate manner. The Department of Defense refuses to make these compromises.” She went on to state that: “Thanks to the intransigence of the Department of Defense, Mr. Dhiab may well suffer unnecessary pain from certain enteral feeding practice and forcible cell extractions. However, the Court simply cannot let Mr. Dhiab die.” And thus we have an example of the compassion that is ingrained in our culture.

From Guantanamo where we show our compassion by keeping people who want to die alive, we go to Tennessee where the state government is looking for compassionate ways to help people who want to live, die. In a number of recent executions in the United States, the person being executed has been manifestly uncomfortable during the procedure and his discomfort has then caused discomfort for the society that imposes the punishment. For some time Tennessee executioners used a combination of drugs to execute the condemned that could not be used when euthanizing animals because of the Tennessee “Nonlivestock Animal Humane Death Act.” That Act banned the drug being used to assist in human executions from being used on nonlivestock animals because of the pain suffered by the animal during the procedure.

Tennessee has now concluded that it does not want to get caught up in the dilemma facing many state executioners when the drugs that humanely dispatch the unwanted are unavailable. Accordingly, on May 22, 2014, the governor signed a bill bringing back the electric chair or “old sparkey” as it was fondly called. Under the new law, if the desired drugs for a lethal injection are unavailable, the convict is to be seated in an electric chair from which he is dispatched to the hereafter.

There is a reason the electric chair has not been a prominent part of the execution scene for many years. It is because of botched executions. During two Florida executions in the 1990s, flames shot out of the masks of the persons being executed greatly upsetting onlookers. As a result, the electric chair has not been used in Florida since 1999. Its bad reputation notwithstanding, it will enjoy an encore appearance in Tennessee.

During the debate in the Tennessee legislature prior that body’s approval of the chair’s return, one legislator said he not only supported use of the electric chair but would support hanging and the firing squad as alternate methods of execution. Dennis Powers, the sponsor of the bill reintroducing the electric chair explained why its reintroduction into the Tennessee death chamber, notwithstanding its checkered background, did not give him legal or ethical concerns. He explained that: “It’s not our job to judge. That’s God’s job to judge. Our job is to arrange the meeting.”

And there you have it. In Guantanamo, authorities try to postpone the meeting of Mr. Dhiab and whatever deity may be awaiting his arrival. In Tennessee authorities take steps to hasten the meeting. Go figure.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Higher Education South Carolina Style

D’ye think th’colledges has much to do with th’ progress iv th’wurruld?” asked Mr. Hennessy.
“D’ ye think,,” said Mr. Dooley, “’tis th’ mill that makes th’ wather run?”
—Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley’s Opinions

The woolly mammoth has company. It went extinct some time back. Higher education in South Carolina is hot on its tail. The woolly mammoth, it will be recalled, made news this year when a young girl suggested that the South Carolina legislature should name it the state fossil. The effort was thwarted by some of the woolly mammoths’s direct descendants who are serving in that body. They were intent on including language in the designating statute that stated that its creation took place over the 6-day period when lots of other things were being created a few thousand years back. Because of the inability of legislators to agree on whether or not that language was really needed to create a state fossil irrespective of how it came to be, the bill was put off to be considered another day. The woolly mammoth hardly noticed.

Higher education has now joined the woolly mammoth in attracting the attention of the state legislature. That body has reduced its funding and quietly anointed itself the appointing authority for the president of the College of Charleston. It has appointed a direct descendant of the woolly mammoth, Glenn McConnell. First things first.

The College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate each made what some South Carolina legislators considered bad decisions when selecting books for incoming freshmen to read. One of the books that was assigned to incoming freshmen at The College of Charleston was Fun Home. In an extensive review this book was described in the New York Times Book Review as the “most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced “ and a “pioneering work pushing two genres . . . in multiple new directions. . . .” Its fault, as far as South Carolina legislators were concerned, is that its author is a lesbian and her sexuality plays a large part in the book. The legislators were not concerned with its literary virtues.

The University of South Carolina-Upstate also selected a book for incoming freshmen. It was Out Loud, a collection of stories that have been broadcast by an AM radio station in the Deep South about the lives of gay and lesbian Southerners.

Republican Rep. Garry Smith was an outspoken critic of asking students to read the books. He said the schools should have assigned books that examined all aspects of homosexuality, not just the perspective of members of that community. In speaking with NPR Mr. Smith said that assigning those books and attributing their assignment to “academic freedom” was the equivalent of running into a movie theater and shouting “fire” when there is no fire.” Of course in South Carolina, as in the rest of the world, there are gays and it is unclear why learning about their lives is like shouting fire when there is no fire.

In order to let the schools know what it thinks of those books, the House cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s budget and $17,000 from the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s budget. The Senate left the funds intact but decreed that the funds were to be spent for teaching the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

The legislators did not limit their interest in higher education to curricula. They also helped the College of Charleston select its next president. Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will assume that post on July 1. Prior to his appointment the Board of Trustees of the College had hired a search committee to find a new president for the College. At a meeting of the board on February 28, 2014, the board voted on the list of candidates that had been presented to it by the search committee. The chair announced that the five candidates receiving the most votes “will be invited to become a presidential finalist” and will “be asked to participate in interviews on campus with various campus constituencies.” Mr. McConnell was not among the five. He didn’t need to be. On March 22, 2014, the board announced that Mr. McConnell would be the institution’s next president. Mr. McConnell is not an educator. He is a politician who spent more than 30 years in the state Senate before becoming Lt. Governor. He is a Civil War buff and as a member of the legislature was a strong supporter of keeping the confederate flag flying over the state capitol. He participated in many events celebrating the confederacy and has been frequently photographed dressed as a confederate general. Probably one of the nicest photos shows him in his confederate garb with two African Americans (my words not his) dressed as slaves, standing next to him. They are all smiling broadly indicating what a great time they’re all having at what was clearly a gala event.

Rumor has it that legislators pressured the trustees to hire Mr. McConnell. These are probably the same legislators who refused to give the woolly mammoth the recognition it so richly deserves unless its supporters acknowledged that it had been created on the sixth day of creation as described in the Book of Genesis. They are probably the same legislators who believe asking freshmen to read literature pertaining to our gay population is like crying fire in a non-burning theater. The woolly mammoth whose descendants in the legislature did what they did is probably embarrassed. For good reason.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

60s Style Divorce

Marriage is a noose.
—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha

Acrimonious divorce may be making a comeback thanks to the actions of enlightened state legislatures! This does not refer to the process of splitting a finite number of children and a finite number of dollars between two parties, a process that has always had the potential to be acrimonious. It refers to the simple act of ending the marriage. And that’s great news for the lawyers, the private investigators and the tabloids, all of which made big bucks out of the unhappiness of unhappily married couples when acrimonious divorce was the rule. The more prominent the divorcing pair, the bigger the bucks. It was a win win for all but the principals.

Until 1969, most state legislatures decreed that unhappily married couples should not be rid of one another until periods of time varying from a few months to more than one year had elapsed. In addition to imposing long waiting periods, in days gone by the person seeking the divorce was forced to make specific allegations about the misconduct of the other spouse, allegations that were often salacious, even more often fictional and in many states, absolutely essential if the divorce was to be granted. In those states the proof could be provided by a private investigator equipped with a camera and the ability to follow a wandering spouse into the confines of a hotel room and a non-spouse’s arms.

Unfortunately for those profiting from the divorce business, the legal system slowly acquiesced to demands that it reform, recognizing the absurdity of forcing unhappy couples to make up reasons for bringing their marriages to an end. People thought reform made great good sense and what became known as no-fault divorces became the law of the land.

The first state to adopt no fault divorce was California under Ronald Reagan in 1969. The last state to adopt this common sense approach to marital discord was New York in 2010. Lengthy waiting periods and the need to fabricate reasons for the divorce became vestiges of a bygone era. If it all seemed too good to be true, it may prove to have been.

No-fault divorce was not intended to lessen the importance of marriage nor its beneficial effects. During the 2012 presidential campaign Rick Santorum explained the virtue of marriage at a campaign rally in Iowa. Addressing the crowd he said: “What two things, that if you do, will guarantee that you will not be in poverty in America? Number one, graduate from high school. Number two, get married. Before you have children. If you do those two things, you will be successful economically.” Although not articulated in that particular speech, it follows that to fully enjoy the prosperity that accompanies marriage, people should stay married and the best way to insure that happens is to make it harder to get divorced. And many states are now considering how to do that. Oklahoma is one of the leaders in that movement.

Oklahomans know the importance of marriage as demonstrated by the fact that, according to the Pew Research Organization, 10% of all ever-married adults in that state have had at least three spouses,. That is twice the national average. Recognizing that, and because Oklahoma has the second highest divorce rate of any state in the country, (you can’t have had “at least three spouses” without having had at least two divorces) a state representative introduced a bill in early 2014 that would impose a six-month waiting period for most divorces. Another bill was introduced that would eliminate incompatibility as a ground for divorce. Although those two bills have not advanced, a third bill introduced a 90-day “cooling down period” following the filing of a divorce petition. That bill has passed the Senate but has not yet been considered in the House. Oklahoma is also considering extending the time between filing for divorce and getting a decree to six months. In Kansas a legislator has introduced a bill that would remove incompatibility as a ground for divorce. If incompatibility is no longer a ground for divorce, divorcing couples can once again come up with creative reasons for splitting up. In 2011 Arizona enacted a law that enables either divorcing spouse to extend the process by four months. In 2013 three North Carolina state senators introduced a bill they called the “Healthy Marriage Act” that would replace the existing one year waiting period from the time a proceeding is begun until a divorce is granted, to two years following the date a spouse give the other spouse written notice, duly notarized, that he or she intends to file for divorce at the end of the two year period. That has not yet been enacted.

Today a steadily increasing number of people are cohabiting rather than marrying. According to the National Health Statistic Report in 1995 39% of women in the United States between the ages of 15-44 entered into marriage as their first union. In the 2006-2010 period that percentage decreased to 23%. Those cohabiting as their first unions went from 34% in 1995 to 48% in the later period. Thanks to the efforts of legislatures in states like Oklahoma and Kansas, these numbers are sure to increase. One can’t help but wonder if those trying to make it more difficult for unhappily married couples to get divorced know what they are doing. The answer is, probably not.