Sunday, June 17, 2018

Speaking in Tongues (of Quantum Physics)

Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962)
wikicommons photo ca. 1927
“Local causality is the idea of what we do here in this region of space has no immediate effects in a different region of space. In fact, it has no effects until a lapse of time which is limited by the velocity of light. That was an important principle in Einstein’s relativity. It was one to which he was strongly attached. And it is one which is not presentin quantum mechanics because quantum mechanics doesn’t give you this analysis of the world into different space-time regions. The whole thing is treated as a unified thing.”
                         --Stewart Bell, recorded in a short laudatory documentary uploaded on Vimeo, December 7, 2014.
“We’ve got to take the world as it is given to us and live with it. In fact, as you know, physicists have for 60 years or so worked very successfully with this situation. The formalism of quantum mechanics, using it how we know how to use it, has been fantastically successful, and it shows no sign of running out. I want to make that clear, that the conventional developments that I, most of the time, and most of my colleagues all of the time, are devoted to, are extremely impressive. So it is a very intriguing situation that at the foundation of all that impressive success, there are these great doubts.”
                          --Stewart Bell. Id.

Waves, particles, time travel, multiple universes, action at a distance: the fundaments of reality are mysterious stuff indeed. We read these words and our imagination runs wild. I doubt that our imagination in this regard is a reliable facsimile of the underlying mathematics that is the real language of quantum physics.

But English is the best we can do. It (or whatever your vernacular tongue may be) is all that is available to us. This occult mysteriousness of quantum physics in English fascinates all the more. Can it tell us something about life?

Tim Maudlin puts the question to the test in the Boston Review of Books in his recent article: The Defeat of Reason. At the heart of this article, Maudlin reviews a new book by Adam Becker that attempts to convey the current state of Quantum Physics in English: What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics. Becker is a writer and astrophysicist, so he knows whereof he speaks. Maudlin, too, is an expert: a professor of philosophy at New York University focusing on the foundations of physics, metaphysics, logic, and philosophy of science. Me, I’m just a reader. Can these experts tell readers like us something meaningful, understandable, and relevant to our lives about quantum physics, in English? Can this kind of writing do more than titillate?

History “Yes,” up to a point; Science “No”

Becker’s book describes a dispute in science between Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Einstein, and others. Maudlin and Becker, based on this review, succeed on the level of story. I don't think Maudlin succeeds at conveying the science in this (not short) review. To me, the discussion soon devolves into occult mysticism when it comes to describing the actual science in English. It can’t be helped, I suspect, because the real language of quantum mechanics is mathematics that is mastered by perhaps a few dozen human beings. And I don’t think any of them can adequately translate their mathematics into English. [Tim Maudlin disagrees. See his comment, which I've appended, and my response][This paragraph revised in light of TM comments]

A Definition

Here is one person’s definition of quantum mechanics: “the branch of mechanics that deals with the mathematical description of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles, incorporating the concepts of quantization of energy, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and the correspondence principle.”

O.K. then.

The Planetary World of the Atom

We begin on solid ground in terms of story. In 1913 Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, modeled the atom—a basic building block of matter—proposing that electrons revolve in stable orbits around an atomic nucleus, and that the energy levels of these electrons are discrete. Electrons can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another, noted physicists.

When electrons jump orbits they emit light. This presented a fundamental problem of quantum mechanics: how do electrons jump orbits, and how do we predict the light (spectra intensity) that will be emitted?

Non-Classical Physics and Problems of Measurement

After more than a decade of attempting and failing to discover how the electrons change orbits Bohr and Heisenberg concluded that they could not visualize the electron changing orbits because the electron changing orbits cannot be visualized in principle. Bohr called the study of that portion of the world that was visualizable “classical physics,” and the study of non-visualizeable objects—like electrons jumping orbits and emitting light—“non classical physics.”

How does science measure and account for non-visualizeable stuff?

In 1925 Werner Heisenberg invented matrix mechanics, which managed to solve the problem of predicting the light intensity emitted when an electron jumps orbit; but this added nothing to explain how the electrons change orbits.

In 1926 Erwin Schrödingercame up with wave mechanics, a different mathematical model, to account for electrons changing orbits. Waves may not be particles, but they are relatively visualizeable objects from everyday life.

Schrödinger’s theory was more intuitive and thus easier to use than Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics formulations. Schrödinger and Paul Dirac proved that Schrödinger’s wave mechanics and Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics accounted for the same observational effects. They concluded that, therefore, they must be the same theory.

This idea that if two mathematical models account for the same observational effects, then they are the same theory, is called “logical positivism.” This philosophical rule of “logical positivism,” says Maudlin “has been killed many times by philosophers,” but it keeps cropping up in physics because physics is concerned with and based on observable consequences. If two mathematical models (like matrix mechanics and wave mechanics) account for the same observable consequences how can physicists distinguish between the two? If a theory can extend beyond its observable consequences (the distinguishing feature in this case) how can the correctness of a theory ever be settled? Better to call it the same theory.

So this left physics in the peculiar situation where electrons jumping orbits and emitting light were both particles and a wave. It’s troubling because, using Heisenberg’s mathematics to derive a particle matrix, physicists can not know how the situation associated with the matrix will appear. They have a problem of prediction. Alternatively, if physicists use Schrödinger’s mathematics of wave mechanics, they can predict and measure, but physicists encounter the problem that matter presents more as particles, they aren’t observing waves.

Although physicists commonly refer to this as a measurement problem, says Maudlin, “it is not really a measurement problem.” The problem is that physicists don’t know how the world we live in manifests in the mathematical theory. For Bohr and Heisenberg the measurement problem is how the unobservable can influence the observable; for Schrödinger the measurement problem is how waves can constitute solid objects because in wave mechanics the neat planetary electron circling a nucleus gets smeared into a cloud surrounding the nucleus.

The Spookiness of “no particular location” and Superpositions

If quantum mechanics provides a complete description of the electron—as Bohr insisted—this diffuseness of the electron is not a reflection merely of our ignorance of where the electron is, it is a reflection of the electron itself. The electron is in no particular location!

In English we are approaching the occult.

The mathematics of quantum mechanics suggests that an elementary particle, or a collection of such particles, can exist in two or more possible states of being at the same time (a “superposition”). An electron, for example, can be in a superposition of different locations, velocities and orientations of its spin. Yet this mathematical hocus pocus—to us laypersons at any rate—does not seem to comport with observed reality: anytime scientists measure one of these properties with precision, they see a definitive result—just one of the elements of the superposition, not a combination of them. Nor do physicists ever observe electrons and photons in superpositions. “The measurement problem boils down to this question,” says Peter Byrne in a Scientific American article: “how and why does the unique world of our experience emerge from the multiplicities of alternatives available in the superposed quantum world?”

The notion of the electron that is “nowhere in particular” gave rise to Schroedinger’s famous and fun thought experiment in 1935 about a cat that is dead and alive at the same time. Absurd! Said Schroedinger and Einstein. Both of them reasonably took this as a sign that something had gone wrong with the theory: that the theory was incomplete.

For Bohr, the interaction between the classical physical world (observable) and the quantum world (not observable) must itself be not observable. When these two realms interact, the most physicists can point to is a probability of different outcomes (e.g. live cat or dead cat). Physicists cannot point to a definitive prediction. “The deterministic world of classical physics has been lost,” says Maudlin.

Here is Peter Byrne’s description:
“Physicists use mathematical entities called wave functions to represent quantum states. A wave function can be thought of as a list of all the possible configurations of a superposed quantum system, along with numbers that give the probability of each configuration’s being the one, seemingly selected at random, that we will detect if we measure the system. The wave function treats each element of the superposition as equally real, if not necessarily equally probable from our point of view.”
If you are like me, we are now listening to a Shaman chant his incantations.

Bohr was left with another problem, says Maudlin. He could not say with certainty what counted as the interaction point between a quantum system and a classical system. Physicists were left with a mystery: under what conditions does an interaction (a measurement of a quantum state) occur? Is a human observer, or some other conscious device necessary?

That is hip sounding, yes? It sounds like something deep and meaningful is going on…, but I feel very much like a non-initiate.

Collapse of the Wave Function

Schrödinger had a different problem with his wave mechanics: although we can visualize the micro-world as waves, at some point these waves must manage to appear as particles, with a definitive position in space and time. This “collapse of the wave-function” presented its own measurement problem: how and when does the wave function collapse? The tentative—and entirely unsatisfactory answer—is “upon measurement.”

In 1927, at the 5th Solvay International Conference in Brussels (the “Solvay Conference”), Einstein reasonably demanded a clear and comprehensible account of what is going on in the physical world—at every level. “God does not play dice,” he said. Bohr insisted that reality could not provide this certainty. But it was not the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics that bothered Einstein, says Maudlin, what really vexed him was the non-locality in quantum mechanics, and the notion that the mathematics seemed to suggest there could be action at a distance. “Beam me up, Scotty” anyone?

When physicists seek to test the collapse of the wave-function they channel an electron wave through a very narrow hole, setting up a hemispheric screen on the other side in order to catch an electron. What they see is a single bright flash in a very definitive location, like a particle hitting the screen. This transition from extended wave to localized particle (observing that sudden appearance of the flash at one spot) said Einstein, implied that there could not be a flash at any other spot, no matter how far away. Einstein looked at this and saw nothing spooky. All you had to believe, he said, was that the electron—contrary to the mathematical theory—was always in some precise location of which we are ignorant, and that this electron “takes a humdrum path” (Maudlin) from the source to the screen, causing a flash.

Is the Theory Complete or Not?

Accepting Einstein’s common sense view implies that the quantum theory is not complete, says Maudlin. Einstein won this logical argument, but Bohr and the Copenhagen school around him won a propaganda campaign for the notion that quantum mechanics was complete, and indeterminacy was unavoidable.

The myth of indeterminacy at the heart of quantum mechanics spread, suggests Maudlin. This occurred despite a paper by Louis de Broghie, also presented at the Solvay Conference, which showed that quantum particles are bothwave andparticle, with the wave-function guiding the particles along their paths, but in a fully deterministic manner, leaving only the problem of prediction.

Multiple Universes?

In 1956, Hugh Everett, a PhD student at Princeton, wrote a long paper entitled Wave Mechanics without Probability.Everett’s analysis broke apart a theoretical logjam in interpreting the how of quantum mechanics. But it did so with another counter-intuitive leap. Everett looked at the mathematics of quantum physics and saw that it implied many-worlds—existing at the same time.

Everett addressed the measurement problem by merging the microscopic and macroscopic worlds. Breaking with Bohr and Heisenberg, he dispensed with the need for the discontinuity of a wave-function collapse. He introduced a universal wave function that links observers and objects as parts of a single quantum system. He described the macroscopic world quantum mechanically and thought of large objects as existing in quantum superpositions as well. Ergo, parallel universes.

Everett may have solved a mathematical problem in quantum mechanics, even if many parallel, simultaneously existing universes do not meet the Einstein common sense test. The idea of multiple parallel universes, says Byrne, “is by no means universally accepted even today.” But Everett’s contributions have lead to “the concept of quantum decoherence— a modern explanation of why the probabilistic weirdness of quantum mechanics resolves itself into the concrete world of our experience.”

“Weirdness” I can relate to.

Action at a Distance

John Stewart Bell queried whether Einstein’s dreaded spooky action at a distance could be avoided. Copenhagen and the pilot wave theory had both failed this test. “Bell proved that the non-locality is unavoidable. No local theory—the type Einstein had sought—could recover the predictions of quantum mechanics,” says Maudlin. “The predictions of all possible local theories must satisfy the condition called Bell’s inequality. Quantum theory predicts that Bell’s inequality can be violated. All that was left was to ask nature herself. In a series of sophisticated experiments, the answer has been established, says Maudlin: Bell’s inequality is violated. The world is not local.”

In theory, teleportation (“beam-me-up Scotty” like in Star Trek) is possible, says some authoritative sounding fellow at the World Science Festival. But listen to what he says:
“People have been teleporting particles of light from here to over there (for 20 years): you have a pair of entangled photons, you bring in another photon, you make a measurement of this photon with half of the entangled pair, SEND some classical bits of information over here, MONKEY with this other photon, and voila!—it is the same.”
Now this fellow may think he is saying something in English. But, of course, he is not. He is making hip sounds. He has everyone’s attention, but he says nothing that has any actual meaning in English. He leverages and preys on our imagination.

“Send some classical bits” and “monkey with the photon.” Uh-hu.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Monday, June 4, 2018

An Anomie Borne of Factionalism

James Madison (1751-1836)
Ours is a republican form of government. It means sovereignty lies with the people and their elected representatives, not with a monarch or a particular class or party. We proudly contrast our republican form of government with that of the Plantagenet kings with their divine right to be arbitrary, with aristocracy and its myopic self-interests, and that of “socialism with Chinese Characteristics” which seems to lodge sovereignty in one political party comprising six percent of the population.

And when we think of the “genius of our founding fathers,” we point to the separation of powers in our constitution. Alexander Hamilton, says Brad DeLong in a short but important reminder at Project Syndicate, advocated for the “regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; and the representation of the people in the legislature.” Yet, separation of powers is not sufficient, and it is not unique to our republican form of government, notes DeLong. Monarchies, aristocracies, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” all can be improved by establishing regular distributions of powers into distinct departments, introducing legislative balances and checks, and granting a degree of independence to judges.

So James Madison added two additional ideas that distinguish our system of government: “’representation,’ which he welcomed; and ‘faction,’ which he warned against.”


“With respect to representation,” says DeLong, “Madison surmised that ‘The public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” But “Madison,” notes DeLong, “expected elected representatives to look outward, assessing the people’s interests and (draw) on their knowledge and ideas (while also looking) inward, to the government and to one another to ensure that policies were well crafted.” In other words, good republican government—not unlike good government by kings—depends on the quality and good intentions of the people who are doing the governing. To make republican government work we need prudent and informed representatives.

Madison realized that majority rule can easily turn into a tyranny of the majority. To guard against tyranny of the majority, we have our constitution with its guarantee of individual rights. But this is not sufficient: we also need prudent and informed representatives; and we need them to keep factionalism to a minimum.


Madison, says DeLong, defined factionalism as that “common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” A factional majority can become a tyranny. It is malignant factionalism, suggests DeLong, that maintained slavery for nearly 100 years of the republic, that brought us the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, and the internment of the Japanese during World War Two. When we look at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department of Tom Homan today we look at the sword’s edge of factionalism. It is factionalism that suggested to a Republican candidate for Speaker of the House that it would be a good idea to reveal to Sean Hannity that the (seven) House Republican hearings on the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi (resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other Americans) were not a search for truth and lessons learned, but a partisan political strategy to undermine the credibility of the Democratic front-runner for president. Factionalism like this won’t do, warned Madison: we need prudent and informed representatives who will take into account the greatest variety of parties and interests possible. We must avoid factionalism to maintain a healthy body politic.

For a half century our politics has been sliding into an anomie of factionalism. Nixon’s southern strategy set the tone echoed by George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad (“Weekend prison passes; Dukakis on crime”—which seems mild by today’s standards). Our parties have fanned the flames of passion and prejudice in order to win elections. Recognizing the problem, some partisans with short memories say “it all started with Nancy Pelosi.” But the truth is, for the past 50 years the descent into our current factionalism has been disproportionately and asymmetrically driven by the GOP. Legislative districts have been gerrymandered ever more extremely, to the point where the GOP has a substantial majority of House Seats with the support of only a minority of voters. Yes both parties are guilty, but the fact that the Republicans are such overwhelming beneficiaries of the practice is an objective sign of who has done it more. Fox News has fanned the flames of this factionalism by entering into a symbiotic relationship with the GOP. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative firebrand of factionalism, and his many imitators, have exacerbated the problem. It has all lead to where too much of our electorate is in thrall of a pussy-grabbing factionalist and dissembling president with illusions of autarky in a global world. 

Beyond the second and 14thAmendments, our democratic tradition has been blessed with enough prudent and informed representatives to muddle through. As Brad DeLong and Stephen S. Cohen describe in their excellent short book Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy, the true political genius of our republic has been the absence of a rigid ideology among enough of our representatives to permit the energies of our people to push forward for the common good.

It’s time to start electing less ideological, more pragmatic, more open-minded, less loud, and less factional representatives. When we enter the voting booth we must listen more to the voice of our 6th grade civics teachers and less to the factionalists in our media and government. Our republic depends on it.

You can find DeLong's article HERE.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Our Positive Constitutional Values as an Organizing Principle for the Left

Corey Robin/from "This is Hell" website
Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, urges the Left (in terms of U.S. politics) to develop a central organizing principle. Liberal politics, he says, lacks an “organizing synthesis, an ideology, story, and narrative, that brings together and makes meaning of” the various policies that make up the political left. Robin attributes this in part to the fact that the left is “loathe to think that any one idea should be organizing all the rest. Pluralism remains our central conceit, our animating spirit.”

The lack of an organizing principle is bad, suggests Robin, because without a central organizing idea, policies can go in a thousand different directions. Policies without an organizing principle are incoherent. So he invites us to think about what our organizing principle might be.

But I think we do have an organizing principle in our Positive Constitutional Values. By "Positive Constitutional Values" I mean the values outlined in our Declaration of Independence, in the pre-amble to the constitution, in Aritcle I, Section 8 of the constitution, and in the 14th Amendment of constitution as developed by our courts in the past 100 years as "substantive due process." I distinguish these Positive Constitutional Values, which are about what our government can and should do for our common welfare, from the other excellent values enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which are all about individual rights and what the government can't do vis a vis the individual.

We have rightly focused on and championed the individual rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights—from freedom of speech, to the right to bear arms. But if we have rightly crowed about these rights at the top of our lungs, we have for too long been sotto voce about our Positive Constitutional Values.

Here are the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence that every red blooded American can  and should relate to:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
We have fleshed out these concepts with our constitution and its amendments, and with 229 years of legislation for the common welfare and constitutional interpretation and implementation by our courts. This legacy includes a lot of Positive Constitutional Values.

“We the people,” says the constitution, have formed the constitution in order “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and (to) secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

These Positive Constitutional Values suggest a collective enterprise. It’s all about “us,” not about “me.” Positive Constitutional Values are more Bernie Sanders than Walt Whitman. We are part of this project together: we strive for a more perfect union together, we strive to establish justice together, and we provide for the common defense and domestic tranquility together. As a wise woman once recognized, “it takes a village.”

We have a progressive income tax, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, universal education, free roads and infrastructure, and armed forces because we are in this together.

In order to promote the general welfare, Article I, Section 8 of the constitution authorizes Congress to collect taxes and fees, to create post offices and postal roads, to grant patents and trademarks and promote the progress of science and the arts, to raise an army and navy. It recognizes that we are a country of immigrants and Congress is charged to make “uniform rules of naturalization.” We are not a country that is “closed,” as Trump said this week. And Congress is charged with making laws that are “necessary and proper” to carry out these powers and our collective enterprise for the common good.

Because we are all created equal, Article I, Section 10 prohibits the granting of any nobility. It's also why we care about the least among us.

Article II, Section I specifies the president’s oath of office: he or she must uphold and defend the constitution—that is to say, he or she must uphold and promote our Positive Constitutional Values. Section III directs the president to periodically take stock of the state of the union and to recommend measures to Congress that he or she deems necessary and expedient. What’s implied here is “necessary and expedient for promoting our Positive Constitutional Values.”

Are Democratic Party Values really “incoherent?” If we look at the Democratic Party platform from 2016, here are some of the policies they say they stand for:
  • increase the minimum wage to a “living wage” of $15.00/hr; 
  • make it easier for workers to organize in unions; 
  • fight to secure equal pay for women (for equal work); 
  • increase supply of affordable housing; 
  • support/expand Social Security; 
  • use a redistributive tax system to reduce income inequality; 
  • provide for equal opportunity by fixing immigration laws; 
  • work to reduce discrimination against suspect groups (LGBTQ, racial minorities, religious minorities, disabled);
  • guarantee civil and civic rights (voting rights act enforcement, work place protections); 
  • direct federal funds to areas where at least 20 percent live under the poverty line; 
  • promote arts funding and education; 
  • combat climate change and promote a clean energy economy; 
  • protect public lands and waters; 
  • provide quality schools for all; 
  • enable debt free college attendance; 
  • secure affordable universal health care. 
Call me a Democrat: these all sound like worthwhile goals to me; and they don’t strike me as incoherent. They flow naturally from our Positive Constitutional Values.

What Robin is looking for is an organizing principle that is sufficiently abstract to work throughout the land. He suggests “freedom.” A difficulty, however, is that agreement on an abstract term like “freedom” doesn’t easily translate into agreement on specific policies. [I look forward to reading what he comes up with] But why not look to our Positive Constitutional Values?

We musn’t expect too much specificity in our organizing principle. In our first-past-the post two-party system, the meaningfully organized political “left” in the US is confined to the Democratic Party. Jill Stein and Ralph Nader are irrelevant. And in a two party system, policy will by nature be wishy-washy and lacking in clarity, because, as others have pointed out, what may be politically successful in Des Moines, Iowa, is different than what may be successful in San Francisco, California; what may be politically viable in Houston, Texas is different from what is viable in Burlington, Vermont. A party that is national in scope, therefore, is necessarily vague in its messaging, and thus in its thinking.

We should also not bee too hard on our politicians. Forces that exist—economic, cultural, political—will have a grip on any politician and party in power. This means a party in power will often not be able to act on its professed or advertised policy choices. That is not because they are sell-the-farm-hypocrites; it’s just a fact of life: the influence of entrenched powers doesn’t just go away when there is a change in party leadership.

But let’s hear it for the Democratic policy platform. It is a cogent articulation of our Positive Constitutional Values. And let’s crow at the top of our voices for implementing these Positive Constitutional Values that we've been trying to perfect for 242 years and counting.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Notorious R.B.G.

Documentary produced & directed by
Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Released May 4, 2018

The loving and excellent documentary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently playing in theaters, is balm for our bleak political times. She is an American success story entirely beyond politics. You can see it in the admiration she garnered at her confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court in the summer of 1993. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was smitten: he voted to confirm with evident admiration despite her strongly articulated support for a woman's right to choose an abortion. "Every abortion kills a living human being," is Hatch's view. Nevertheless, he has remained a supporter of Ginsburg right up to the present. He came to her aid after R.B.G. made some ill-advised and intemperate comments about candidate and then President Elect Trump. Her friendship with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was no accident. They both loved Opera, but more importantly, they both loved the law. Their friendship and love of the law was beyond politics.

We should all take heed.

Ginsburg's life traces the progress of the women's movement. She attended Harvard law school as one of just nine women in a class of 500. When the Dean of the school hosted the women for a dinner he suggested that they should not be there: "how do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?"  As one of the top 25 students in her class after completing her freshmen year, she wrote for the Harvard Law Review. Yet when she graduated from law school no major New York law  firm would hire her. "We don't hire women," said a hiring partner to male colleagues who had recommended her.

So Ginsburg gravitated to academia, first at Rutgers, then at Columbia law school, where she became the first female professor to gain tenure. In the 1970's she headed the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project. She was appointed as the ACLU's general counsel in 1973.  She wrote the brief in Reed v. Reed (1971) wherein the Supreme Court extended the protections of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to women for the first time. Between 1973 and 1978 she argued six gender discrimination cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, winning five, and established the equal protection clause as a sharp tool for attacking laws making arbitrary distinctions based on gender. The film does a good job describing and illustrating a number of these cases: Frontiero v. Richardson (1973)(gender allowance in military), Weinberger v. Weisenfeld (1975)(survivor's benefits under the Social Security Act), Craig v. Boren (1976)(disparate drinking age based on gender--establishing intermediate scrutiny for review of gender based cases), and Duren v. Missouri (1979)(exempting women from jury service). Ginsburg chose her cases well: she was methodical, strategic, and steady. It's "like knitting a sweater," noted one observer. The documentary gives us an accurate and inspiring depiction of how the law can be used to achieve social change.

President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit on April 14, 1980, where she gained a reputation as a careful and moderate jurist, often finding common ground with her conservative colleagues, including Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.* Her preparatory work in winning five cases championing gender equality before the court, enabled her to bring along a majority of the court in U.S. v. Virginia (1996)(7-1) to rule that the male only admissions policy at the prestigious Virginia Military Academy was unconstitutional. [Ted Olson of Obergefell fame argued on the losing side for the State of Virginia]

After the departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (she retired to take care of her sick husband in 2006) the political balance of the court moved markedly to the right with the arrival of Justice Alito, and the subsequent appointment of Justice Gorsuch instead of Merrick Garland to replace Scalia. As a result Ginsburg has found herself more often in the minority in politically charged cases. Her role has shifted from carefully "knitting a sweater" to battling vigorously to prevent the sweater from unraveling. It is her pointed and forceful dissents in recent years that have made her into a liberal icon.

In Bush v. Gore (2000) she calmly and carefully pointed out the unprincipled nature of the majority's decision in putting an end to the election of 2000. "The extraordinary setting of this case has obscured the ordinary principle that dictates its proper resolution: Federal courts defer to a state high court's interpretations of the State's own law," she said. She dissented in Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007)(statute of limitations on equal pay litigation under Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964), the case that became a cause celebre during the 2008 Obama campaign. "[T]he Court," she said, "has strayed (far) from interpretation of Title VII with fidelity to the Act’s core purpose." She strongly dissented from the Court's ruling upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007). "Today’s decision is alarming," she opened.  "It ... tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It blurs the line ... between previability and postviability abortions. And, for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health." She--of course, say her admirers--joined the vigorous dissent by Justice Stevens in Citizens United (2010). Her language became stronger in her dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014)(holding that Hobby Lobby stores could opt out of the Affordable Care Act's requirement to provide health insurance plans with coverage for FDA approved contraceptive methods because of the owner's religious beliefs). Read this:
"In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises ... can opt out of any law ... they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Compelling governmental interests in uniform compliance with the law, and disadvantages that religion-based opt-outs impose on others, hold no sway, the Court decides, at least when there is a “less restrictive alternative.” And such an alternative, the Court suggests, there always will be whenever, in lieu of tolling an enterprise claiming a religion-based exemption, the government, i.e., the general public, can pick up the tab. The Court does not pretend that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause demands religion-based accommodations so extreme, for our decisions leave no doubt on that score. Instead, the Court holds that Congress... dictated the extraordinary religion-based exemptions today’s decision endorses." (Internal references and citation omitted)
But it was Shelby County v. Holder (2013) that launched a thousand ships of "notorious R.B.G." memes. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 subjected (mostly southern) states to submit to federal oversight in order to make any election law changes. The court upheld this law in 1966 as an extraordinary remedy to address historic discrimination in voting based on race. Fifty years later, the Court in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts said "this seems like enough." Ginsburg (joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagen) would have none of it:
"In the Court’s view, the very success of §5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy. Congress was of another mind. Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated. The question this case presents is who decides whether, as currently operative, §5 remains justifiable, this Court, or a Congress charged with the obligation to enforce the post-Civil War Amendments “by appropriate legislation.” With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, §5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against backsliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation. ...  But the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination." 
To emphasize her disagreement, Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench. "It's the equivalent of shaming your spouse in front of dinner guests," says Jennifer Senior in the New York Times.  "Notorious R.B.G." is a play on Notorious B.I.G, the rapper who was murdered in 1997. Ginsburg embraces it. She sends T-shirts to her friends. "We have things in common: we were both born in Brooklyn . . . ," she has quipped.

Ginsburg the pugilist
published by Pekosa Peligrosa 3/8/18
But while her role as leader of the resistance on the Supreme Court has made her a liberal icon, it's her personal story that makes her a universally inspiring figure. A month after graduating she married Martin Ginsburg and followed him to Oklahoma where he was stationed with the Army Reserve and gave birth to a daughter there in 1955. The couple returned to Cambridge where Martin continued with Harvard law and she started Harvard law school. Martin developed testicular cancer but survived with two operations and heavy doses of radiation therapy while finishing law school.

For Ginsburg to finish at the top of her class in law school, with a new born and a sick husband at home. . ., that is not an every day thing.

The film includes family footage and photographs. We see Ginsburg in her high school photo, we see her and her husband as a young couple. There are interviews with colleagues and her children. But at the heart of this film, what shines through is someone with uncommon drive, dedication, devotion to the law, and love for the law. That transcends political orientation. It's what Orrin Hatch saw.

I imagine that when her current colleagues on the Court watch this film, all of them, they will see a little something of themselves reflected there. I trust Scalia would have too.

Undated photo from film
"Every day when we meet in conference," says Ginsburg, "we start with shaking hands; it keeps things collegial." Stay collegial and don't lose your cool. It's good advice for all of us.


* Scalia was approved unanimously (98-0) to sit on the Supreme Court in 1986. Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to serve on the Supreme Court, and the Democratic Senate's politicized hearings and rejection of his nomination in October 1987, arguably kicked off the the partisan wars over Supreme Court appointments. The highly contentious Thomas nomination followed in 1991. Thomas was narrowly approved 52-48 following the Anita Hill hearings--decades ahead of the #metoo moment. Ginsburg ('93) was approved with just three dissenting votes; Stephen Breyer ('94) drew 9 dissenting votes; John Roberts ('05) drew 22 dissents; Samuel Alito ('06) had 42 dissenting votes; Sonia Sotomayor ('09) had 31 dissenting votes; Elena Kagen ('10) drew 37 dissents; and Neil Gorsuch ('17) drew 45 dissents.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Murder as a Way to Make a Political Point

Gaza is a small, densely populated sliver of land whose 1.8 million inhabitants have been suffering under an Israeli blockade for the past 11 years (with Egyptian cooperation). Half of Gaza’s population is under 16 years of age. The unemployment rate is 44%. Knowledgeable people call it an open air prison controlled by Israel. It is a prison for children without hope.

Here is Noam Sheizaf, writing in Slate in July 2014.
“I[I]f I had to explain the whole thing briefly, I would use the following metaphor: We’ve built two giant prisons. Let’s call them “West Bank Prison” and “Gaza Prison.” The West Bank Prison is similar to a minimum-security facility, where prisoners get to run their own affairs as long as they behave. They are entitled to vacations from time to time, and once a year they are even taken to the beach. Some lucky people get below-minimum-wage jobs in nearby factories, and when you consider the low prices in the prison canteen, it’s actually not a bad deal.
“Gaza, on the other hand, is a maximum-security facility. It is difficult to visit and impossible to leave. We allow in essential food, water, and electricity so that the prisoners don’t die. Apart from that, we don’t really care about them—that is unless they approach the prison fence, or the “forbidden” perimeter, where anyone who wanders too close is shot, or if they try to throw something over the fence.”
We’ve been witnessing this past month what happens when Gazans attempt to approach the fence of their prison in numbers. Last Monday alone, Israeli snipers wounded 1350 protesters with live gun fire and killed 60 as they approached the Gaza fence. More than a hundred protesters have been killed in the past month, among them women, children, and journalists.

To carry Noam Sheizaf’s metaphor forward, the Gaza prison is controlled by a prison gang: Hamas. This past month the prison gang encouraged the inmates to approach the prison fence in order to breach the fence. Their purpose (or fantasy) was to see a column of men, women, and children walk out of this prison. And here, we must note, most of these men, women, and children are not criminals, and Gaza is a peculiar kind of prison made up of an oppressed civilian population that suffers from collective punishment, and that suffers because Israel is unwilling to grant them political representation in the body politic.

If this Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) population is allowed to march out of its Gaza prison and return to the land of Israel, and become politically involved there, that would undermine the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. A Jewish state depends on its ability to keep Arabs from political power, forever.

Dr. Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset, is well aware of this. She knows firm measures are required to force Palestinians to accept this. She wrote in the Forward (5/15): “As much as it seems counterintuitive, peace becomes more possible to achieve the more it becomes clear that the ‘hope’ of Israel’s temporariness is a costly delusion. This is the core issue, and the closer we come to touching it, with all the pain it entails, the closer we will come to peace.” In other words, our politics for a Jewish state requires that Palestinians remain locked in their Gaza prison, with all the pain this entails—and the sooner they accept that, the closer we will come to peace.

And consider David French. Without knowing any of the facts, he feels free to make them up in National Revue. It’s impossible, he says, for any army to “effectively and reliably control hostile armed mobs with exclusively nonlethal means. In other words, tear gas won’t get the job done.” But where is the evidence that what we saw this past Monday was an “armed mob” that could not be controlled by any means other than by shooting 1350 protesters with live ammunition and killing 60.  Haggai Matar points out that there is in fact no evidence that any of those who were shot posed an imminent threat to anyone. In an article, What Does the IDF have to Hide about the Gaza Killings? he points out the IDF’s failure to explain itself.

Every country has the right to protect the integrity of its borders, and to exercise self-defense against hostile foreign powers, says David French. But the prison population that is Gaza is not a "foreign power." This prison is inside the borders claimed de facto by Israel. The inmates are a civilian population who are the direct descendants of Palestinians from the land of Israel/Palestine. Israel controls the airspace and borders of Gaza. Israel controls the population registry for Gaza. Israel enters Gaza at will for security operations. Israel controls who enters and leaves Gaza. Gazans are disenfranchised and imprisoned, but they are not a foreign power.

So French eventually gets to Wilf’s point as well. “The Palestinian resistance,” he says, “is … more vicious and violent — with ultimate eliminationist goals — than well-meaning leftists want or believe it to be. Take, for example, objections to the American embassy in Jerusalem. The real root of much of the Palestinian rage isn’t that the location of the embassy disrupts a (largely illusory) ‘peace process,’ but rather that American action is yet another step toward solidifying permanent Israeli control over most of Jerusalem.” He means permanent Jewish control that will not (ever) share power with Palestinians.

Einat Wilf and David French, along with most Israelis, are comfortable with murder in order to drive home the point that Palestinians must get used to the fact that “Jews are here, and will never ever share power with Palestinians.” It got Anne Coulter to thinking: “Can we do that (too)?” Can we shoot some refugees and immigrants at our southern border to make the political point that they are not wanted?

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Our Zeitgeist: A Politics of Resentment and Contempt

Kanye West/the Atlantic

1. The Spirits of Kanye West

Eighty-eight percent of black voters were on the side of the angels in the 2016 election, they voted for Hillary Clinton. Kanye West, the pop idol with 28 million Twitter followers, was among the eight percent of blacks who voted for Donald Trump. He’s a #MAGA kind of guy.

It’s sparked quite the controversy recently. Which, of course, was the point. That’s how you get 28 million followers on Twitter.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in The Atlantic showers contempt on West. The trouble with Kanye West, he says, is West wants to be white. Not a Mr. Rogers kind of white, but a Donald Trump kind of white. He seeks Trump’s freedom: “freedom without consequence, … without criticism; freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next,” suggests Coates. He seeks “a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, … freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.”

In a moderated spectacle on TMZ the other day, West championed the right to practice indiscriminate and unfettered love. Stupid love. But Coates is right: West also wants to transcend his black identity. “My daughter was free, not black,” West said on TMZ, until some misguided teacher disabused her of the notion. “I’m not black, I’m Kanye,” says the title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article.

Coates considers West’s embrace of Trump treasonous to Black America. Blacks cannot transcend their blackness, Coates suggests: Michael Jackson destroyed himself trying to become white, and in doing so he “endorsed the destruction of those built in similar fashion.”

West’s embrace of Trumpism, suggests Coates, is an endorsement of everything Trumpism stands for. The planks of Trumpism, are clear, says Coates: “the better banning of Muslims, the improved scapegoating of Latinos, the endorsement of racist conspiracy, the denialism of science, the cheering of economic charlatans, the urging on of barbarian cops and barbarian bosses, the cheering of torture, and the condemnation of whole countries.” Indeed, and, we should add, the undermining of respect for law and the rule of law, and the abandonment of truth and integrity as a virtue.

Kanye West raps: “And I basically know we get racially profiled/cuffed up and hosed down, pimped up and hoe’d down,” says Coates, but he seeks freedom from the dictates of that we. But despite his fame and riches, Coates suggest, West cannot get free of his black we

This sounds like intramural criticism to me. I’m not in a position to judge. West is a rapper. “I’m not the best interpreter of what I do,” he says. This is not unique. Surely this was true of Bob Dylan. It may be true of all supreme artists distilling a Zeitgeist.

I prefer the Zeitgeist of the 60’s to the Zeitgeist of today.

“I’m doing what the spirit calls on me to do,” said West. And recently the spirit has called on him to say and do some crazy shit: he’s pasted a confederate flag on his jacket, he has embraced neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville with his love, he has suggested that blacks shouldn’t complain about getting shot by police since they don’t protest about black-on-black violence, he’s implied that there is an element of choice by black people in 400 years of slavery, and he’s embraced Trump.

Coates wants West to channel the Zeitgeist of 1860. Because he’s black.

2. The grievance of Trump voters

Most white voters (58% vs. 37%) voted for Trump, including a lot of educated, managerial elite whites. In fact, Trump’s share of the white vote was the same as Mitt Romney’s. Yet when we want to lay blame for the shit show that currently occupies the White House, we don’t blame whites as a whole, we contemptuously lay it at the feet of “racist,” “mysoginistic,” “white nationalist,” non-college educated whites in the opioid addled rust-belt of America: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. “Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980. Two-thirds (67%) of non-college whites backed Trump, compared with just 28% who supported Clinton, resulting in a 39-point advantage for Trump among this group,” reported Pew Research.

These non-college educated whites share a common grievance: they resent our contempt. In a new book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, UC Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams argues that this class resentment is a problem for our democracy. [For an earlier, and shorter version of this, read Williams’s excellent article in the Harvard Business Review HERE]

In an article in the New York Review of Books, Taxing the Poor, David Cole argues that the problem of the privileged being too condescending toward the working class is directly connected to the historically extreme income and wealth gap in the United States today. Across the gap between the educated elites and the working class poor flow resentment and contempt. It’s caustic for our democracy.

But resentment and contempt is not all about race, and it’s not all about income disparity, or even education. Trump is an educated and successful guy who garners much contempt. It’s deserved contempt. Earned contempt.

The fact that contemptible Trump resonates with Kanye West, and is popular with black rappers in general, according to West, suggests that Trumpism is about more than White racism and poor white resentment: West is neither White nor poor. Although the planks of Trumpism are all those ugly pussy grabbing things Coates has outlined, Trumpism is not synonymous with Whiteness. And the embrace of Trump may not be synonymous with the miserable, and contemptible planks of Trumpism.

David Cole ends on an optimistic note: perhaps the legacy of Trump will lie in the reaction he has sparked. Perhaps this reaction will lead the way towards policies that shrink the income and wealth gaps, and that will lead us away from our current politics of resentment and contempt.

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Getting Oriented in the Great Northwest

Selling a house, buying a house, and moving 850 miles north has put a crimp in blogging, as you may have noticed. But the sun’s out and we’re getting settled.

We recently moved from San Francisco to Port Townsend, Washington. “We’re bubble hopping, from one liberal enclave to another,” I tell friends. From a tulip mania sized bubble that is the pulsating, thriving, financial, commercial, cultural, artistic, and cosmopolitan hi-tech hub of the Bay Area, to a soap bubble sized happening little town of 9,500 white people (92.4%) on a far-flung corner of an isolated peninsula.

Where San Francisco has a Spanish influenced heritage and flavor; Port Townsend is decidedly English and Scottish. It has wooden boat building, poetry, writers, bow makers, blues and fiddle festivals, creative boat races to Alaska, hip community radio, and enough old buildings, shops, restaurants, and galleries to sustain a robust tourist trade in this scenic Victorian Seaport on the National Historic register.

Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

We marked our crossing of this cultural divide in Lincoln City, a sleepy coastal town in Oregon, half-way between the equator and the North Pole. The solar eclipse of August 2017 entered the United States there at 1700 mph last August. 

In order to get a sense where we've landed, we look through binoculars backwards.

Competition in The Age of Discovery and Exploration

The different cultural flavors of California and the Pacific Northwest is the outcome of a 400 year competition between Spain, Britain, Russia, and eventually the United States. The competition commenced when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered a new world. Two years later, in the Treaty of Tortesillas, the kingdoms of Castille and Portugal deigned to split this world between themselves. The maps attached to this treaty must have seemed like pirate-treasure-maps: Spain and Portugal did not know what it was they proposed to divide in 1493, with the Pope’s blessing.

The British were unimpressed by this division. Queen Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake to the Pacific to raid Spanish galleons. He landed in California in 1579, probably in modern day Marin County—west of the elusive entrance to San Francisco Bay. There, he claimed the land for the Holy Trinity and his queen. Nevertheless, for three hundred and fifty years after the Treaty of Tortesillas, the coast of California remained a domain of the Spanish crown. As a result the California landscape bears the names of Spanish explorers, priests, and ranchers: Cortes, Ulloa, Cabrillo, Vizcaino, Portola, Bautista de Anza, Serra, and many more. They founded Spanish missions, and ranchos: San Pedro, Los Nietos, San Rafael, Los Feliz, Simi, Buena Vista, Las Pulgas, Las Salinas, Las Virgenes, San Pablo, Yerba Buena ….

The Pacific Northwest, by contrast, was an isolated backwater for the European powers for two hundred and fifty years after Columbus. When they finally did turn their attention to the Pacific coast north of the 45th parallel, the British took the initiative and the land acquired mainly British names.

In 1776, eight days after 13 rebellious colonies along the eastern seaboard declared their independence from Britain, James Cook set out on his voyage to the Pacific Northwest. He sailed east around the Cape of Good Hope and was instructed by the Admiralty to make landfall above the 45th Parallel of North America in order to stay clear of the area settled by Spain. Indeed, Spain established a fort in San Francisco that year.

Looking to find the longed for Northwest Passage to connect the Pacific to Hudson’s Bay, Cook reached Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. There he stayed for a month in April 1778, repaired his ships, and traded trinkets for sea otter pelts. He sailed as far as the Bering Straight, fifty years after Catherine I dispatched Vitus Bering to discover that North America and Asia were not connected, and returned to Hawaii, where he was killed by an altercation with the natives. His crew returned to Asia without him where they profitably traded the sea otter pelts on the Kamchatka peninsula and in Macau. [Today Sheldon Adelson is pursing riches with gambling casinos in Macau, which is located across the bay southwest of Hong Kong] 

Nootka Sound after sketches from James Cook voyage
In 1785 James Hanna, seeking to capitalize on this success, brought iron bars from China to the Northwest and traded them for fur skins, which he sold a year later in Canton for twenty thousand Spanish dollars, about $300,000 in current value. This set off a gold-rush in the Pacific Northwest fur trade.

In 1791-95 Captain George Vancouver set about to explore and chart the Pacific Northwest in earnest: from Alaska to the Oregon Coast. He entered Juan de Fuca Straight and explored the Inland Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland, as well as Puget Sound. He tagged the region with British names after himself, his lieutenants, his friends, and his ships: Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Puget Sound, Port Gardener, Port Susan, Whidbey Island, Discovery Passage, Discovery Island, Bellingham Bay, and Port Townshend (now Port Townsend) are just some of the points he named.

Vancouver named Port Townsend after his friend, the Marquis of Townshend (who commanded British troops late in the battle of the Plains of Abraham, outside of Quebec City—1759).

On his travels, Vancouver encountered Robert Gray, captain of the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, and discoverer of the Columbia River and Gray’s Harbor.

The Spanish did not entirely abandon the field north of the 45th parallel. A Greek named Apostolos Valerianos, commonly known as Juan de Fuca, falsely claimed to have discovered the NW passage in 1592, where the Straight of Juan de Fuca lays. [Captain Charles Berkeley made the first indisputable European discovery of the straight in 1787] In 1789, Spain sent Alejandro Malaspina to conduct a scientific expedition up the inland waterway east of Vancouver Island. Malaspina straight bears his name. In the summer of 1789 a Spanish expedition erected a post in Nootka Sound. When an English ship commanded by Captain James Colnett arrived a short time later and constructed a trading post, the Spaniards seized the vessel, arrested Colnett and his crew, and sent them to Mexico as prisoners. It was the first cabinet level crisis for America’s first president, George Washington (1789-1797). War was averted when Spain and England signed a convention wherein Spain paid reparations for damage done at Nootka.

In 1790, Manuel Quimper (with officer Lopez de Haro) sailed down Juan de Fuca Straight and discovered the San Juan Islands. Port Townsend is located on the dragon shaped Quimper Peninsula. Haro straight is the main channel through the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands that marks the international border between the United States and Canada. The expeditions of Dionisio Alcala Galiano (1792), Jacinto Camaano (1792), and Francisco de Eliza with Juan Martinez y Zayas (1793) were the last gasps of Spanish pretensions to lands north of the 45th parallel. In 1819 Spain formally ceded all lands north of the 42nd parallel to the United States in the Adams-Onis Treaty.
American--Spanish Treaty of 1819
In colonization, as in war, you need boots on the ground and, in the great Northwest, Spain could not keep up with Britain, and, increasingly, the United States in placing boots on the ground. “Oregon Country,” an area that included modern day Oregon, Washington, and much of British Columbia, became an area contested by Britain and the United States.
Oregon Country: larger than we normally think
The Transformative 19th Century

In 1805 the American Lewis and Clark expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia River, travelling from St. Louis. It took another 35 years for the first family to move to Oregon along what became known as the Oregon Trail for the express purpose of establishing a home. Thereafter events moved swiftly.

Between 1840 and 1860 more than 80,000 pioneers traveled out West along the Oregon trail. It was a manly affair: in 1860 men outnumbered women 9:1 throughout the West.
The Oregon Trail: 80,000 by 1860
In June 1846 Britain and the United States settled the destiny of the disputed Oregon Country by a treaty that established a border along the 49th parallel to the middle of Georgia Straight, hence to the middle of Juan De Fuca Straight, which left the boundary through the San Juan Islands ill defined. Uncertain fences make poor neighbors, and in this case it lead to the great pig war on San Juan Island in 1859 (so named because one pig was shot). Bismarck of Germany arbitrated the border to its present position in 1872.

By 1851 prominent settlers in the Puget Sound Area began to agitate for self-government and Congress separated the Washington Territory from the Oregon Territory in 1853. Six years later, on February 14, 1859, Oregon was admitted as the 33rd state of the Union. Forty years later, Washington was admitted as the 42nd state of the Union on November 11, 1889.
Washington Territory & Oregon Territory (1853)

On September 8, 1883, 14 years after the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads joined California to Illinois, a railroad connection was completed from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. The contours of the West were set.

Tragic Collapse of Indigenous Population

Like everywhere else in the Americas, contact with European settlers was catastrophic for the native populations. Indian communities lived in family groups, spread along protected bays throughout the Northwest coast from Alaska to California. They were master woodworkers carving elaborate totems—which acted like family crests. From Alaska south, there were fourteen subdivisions of Tlingits, the Haidas of the Queen Charlotte Islands (renamed Haida Gwaii in 2010), Tsimishians, Kwaikiutls, Bella Coolas, and Nootkas—in British Columbia—and the Salish coast people in WA; the coast Salish included Makahs, Quinaults, and Puyallups; stretching south from Coos Bay, Oregon, there were independent Athapaskan-Speaking bands, such as the Tolowas and Chetcos. These were interspersed with linguistically diverse Penutian-speaking Chinooks of the lower Columbia River. Life could not have been easy for these native tribes because, collectively, their numbers were not large: perhaps 200,000 in the 1770’s. And their immune systems were ill equipped for their encounter with the Europeans. According to some scholars disease (smallpox, malaria, measles, and influenza)  reduced native populations after the 1780’s by as much as 80%, to approximately 40,000 in 1874. The actual rates of depopulation are a matter of dispute among scholars due to a lack of adequate documentation and records.

Racist Exclusion of Blacks, Chinese and Japanese

In addition to disease, the white colonial settlers brought with them racists prejudices. In 1844 an Oregon territorial statute outlawed slavery but also forced freed slaves to leave the territory under the threat of lashing (later hard labor) if they did not leave. Another law, passed in 1849, prevented black immigration into the territory. An exclusionary law aimed at blacks was embedded into the Oregon constitution upon statehood. Although voided by passage of the 14thand 15thAmendments to the U.S. Constitution, these exclusionary laws remained on the books in Oregon until 1927.

The California Gold Rush in 1849 triggered significant Chinese migration to California, and from there up to the Pacific Northwest. By 1880, 3,176 Chinese had entered the Washington Territory, about 4 percent of the total population.

Chinese migration consisted primarily of male manual laborers who arrived in the West Coast for agricultural, mining, railroad construction, and other low-skilled jobs. By 1882, in response to virulent anti-Chinese public attitudes and pressures from labor unions, Congress enacted the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely limited future immigration of Chinese workers and barred Chinese residents from obtaining U.S. citizenship. The law was not repealed until 1943. Anti-Chinese hostilities reached a fever pitch in the mid-1880s and whites expelled Chinese from both Tacoma and Seattle in 1885 and 1886.

With the exclusion of the Chinese immigrants, many of the jobs filled by Chinese were replaced with immigrant labor from Japan. The Japanese workers tended to immigrate in families.They were entrepreneurial and successful. According to one report, by 1910 there were 70,000 Japanese in the United States and 3,000 of them owned businesses, a ratio of one business for every 22 people. In Seattle in the early 20th century, immigrants from Japan worked in hotels, restaurants, barber shops, pool rooms, tailor shops and shoe shops and they formed a self-sustaining economic community in the Nihonmachi neighborhood of Seattle. By 1921 there followed a white racist backlash against immigrants of Japanese heritage, says Nicole Grant at the University of Washington. On March 8, 1921, Washington Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) signed an Alien Land Bill, which barred non-white immigrants from buying, owning, or leasing land in the state of Washington, and that mandated confiscation without compensation of any lands purchased before or after passage of the act. It was aimed squarely at Japanese Americans. This was followed by the internment in Puyallup (south end of Puget Sound) of 7,600 Japanese from Washington state and Alaska during World War II.

When Donald Trump says he wants more immigrants from Norway and fewer from “shithole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa, he is channeling an ugly but familiar aspect of our recent colonial past.

We're in a new chapter of our lives, exploring a new chapter of the Great Pacific Northwest.  We are looking forward to the festivals this summer . . . 

Port Townsend Street Scene
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