Saturday, January 11, 2014

I’ve Been Thinking #2

[Note: this is the second of an occasional series called I’ve Been Thinking; these posts will share some thoughts about what I’ve been—well, thinking about …]

I’ve been thinking about individual and public morality. Or maybe I’ve been thinking about national sovereignty and states’ rights. Or maybe I’ve been thinking about working from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down or vice-versa.

Or maybe I’ve been thinking about all of those things since they seem to me to be related.

While I am neither a historian nor a constitutional scholar nor a middle school civics teacher, it seems to me that we live with a pretty squirrelly (no offense to squirrels intended) situation here in the good old U.S.A.

I can use myself as an example of what I’m talking about: I am simultaneously an American and a Georgian. Got it? The national government has its laws and policies; the state government has its own.

Lately, there have been some high profile tensions between national laws/policies and those of the states. For example, the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land but many states, including my own, have declined to participate fully in the implementation of the law by setting up a state health insurance exchange and/or by expanding Medicaid coverage (which they are permitted by the federal law to decline). For another example, while the use of marijuana is still a federal offense, its sale and use for medical purposes is now legal in twenty states and the District of Columbia and for recreational purposes in Colorado and Washington.

It strikes me as odd that something that is illegal on the national level can be legal on a state level. We also hear all the time the contention that certain matters should be left up to each state. While I understand that such is the approach of federalism, that there is value in having more local control over policies, and that there always has been concern about the power of the national government, such an approach still feels odd to me.

After all, somewhere along the way (many historians seem to trace the change to the War Between the States, although it’s not that simple), we moved from saying “The United States are” to saying “The United States is.”

I recently watched a documentary on the Pivot channel that had been produced by ABC News in 1963 about that year’s desegregation of the University of Alabama. Entitled Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, it mainly consisted of footage (in beloved black & white) of President Kennedy and his teams in Washington and in Alabama navigating the process of enforcing the federal court order allowing two black students to enroll at the university. There was also footage of Gov. Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door and reading a statement in which he interpreted the federal action as an intrusion of the national government at the expense of his state’s rights. While the central government prevailed in that matter, we still hear the matter of states’ rights raised quite often (although the term is not used much because it has become a synonym for an insistence on racial segregation).

Here’s an interesting question to ponder: had Gov. Wallace prevailed, how long would it have been until Alabama’s (or other Southern states’) public universities would have been integrated? Does anyone—can anyone—seriously believe that such progress would have been achieved without the intervention of the federal government? Does anyone—can anyone—believe that we would have made the advances we have made in civil rights had the federal government not acted to implement policies? Would we have come anywhere near as far as we have come in fostering racial equality had the states been left to their own devices?

Change, many people say, should begin in the individual heart and then at the grassroots level and should then move up the ladder until it becomes public policy. Perhaps that is best. But it seems to me that we can’t always wait that long …

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