Traveler’s Evening Song

Just feeling meditative, as the weather declines, days get shorter, and even younger people fall away from us.

J. W. von Goethe (1749-1832), Wanderers Nachtlied, II

Über allen Gipfeln
ist Ruh,
über allen Wipfeln
spürest du
kaum einen Hauch:
die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur! Balde
ruhest du auch.

Traveler’s Evening Song, II

Over all the hilltops
comes peace,
up in all the treetops
sounds cease;
there breathes only you:
the birds in the wood end their song.
Wait! Before long
you’ll be still too.

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Now what do I do with those political signs and wickets?

Winners exult, losers lament, and all of us wonder what to do with our growing collection of political signs and their metal support rods (AKA wickets).

They were so important to sway voters’ minds… maybe… and now??

If your candidate might ever run again for the same office, one or more years from now, save the sign in your garage or basement. A little rust won’t hurt; in fact, it makes them more secure in the ground and less easy for evil-doers to pull out.

256px-2008-08-03_White_German_Shepherd_supporting_Barack_ObamaPhoto by Ildar Sagdejev from Wikimedia Commons

You might wish to keep one sign as a memento of each campaign of historic importance… for a future collage on your garage wall, maybe?

Otherwise….

• The sign, perched on its wicket and slanted at a judicious angle, is great for shading delicate plants and transplants from hot summer sun.

• A sign can also temporarily block holes in picket fences where rabbits and rodents might otherwise enter your back yard (e.g., while you’ve removed pickets for repainting).

• The paper or plastic part of signs makes a good paint drop cloth. Add more signs to cover more area. Or cut the plastic signs at the sides and fold them out to be twice as large.

• Lay plastic signs on the ground under your eaves to prevent water infiltration, and cover them with dirt or stones.

• In messy weather, use signs to protect carpet underfoot in your car (just be sure not to give a ride to the candidate in question during that time).

• The wicket is excellent for propping up floppy bushes and flowers. For lower plants, cut or bend the wicket supports. The type of wicket that looks like a ladder, with two prongs extending up into a corrugated sign, are great for supporting plants, which are held in place by the arms.

• Here’s a remedy for those clothes hangers that dry cleaners send back pants hanging on, and whose sticky cardboard crosspiece tends to sag on reuse: cut a piece of wicket to the right length and insert it inside the cardboard. That one won’t ever sag again!

• Use a wicket segment to stick between a window sash and the frame above (e.g., above an air conditioner) to prevent it from being raised from the outside.

• Insert wicket lengths between studs to hold up wall insulation and prevent sagging.

• I’ve used a wicket folded triple ply to insert inside a bamboo pole and then into a flag holder whose opening was too small for the bamboo. The metal made a strong link where wood and thinner bamboo had collapsed under the strain.

• To stitch together segments of chicken wire or garden netting to keep off birds and rodents, whether vertically or horizontally: straighten out a wicket (they are surprisingly long in a straight line) and thread the resulting steel rod through the two adjoining segments.

• In art works. No kidding, I’ve seen in museums what looked to me like vertical clumps of campaign wickets with pieces of wood or corks jammed onto them. Adaptive reuse at its most esthetic.

How to cut regular metal wickets by repeated bending? Some wickets are thinner and much more bendable than others. Be careful; use gloves and eye protection. It can be done by brute hand strength, or by pliers: bend repeatedly until the metal fatigues and breaks. Hack saws take too long; this is tough metal! I guess a bolt cutter would work.

If all adaptive reuse fails, an enterprising person or organization can collect wickets and sell them to the scrap yard for a few pennies a pound and the satisfaction of recycling metal and thereby reducing carbon emissions.

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Interview with Bret Binder

I had a chance last week to interview Bret Binder, an East Bradford attorney who is running for the position of Magisterial District Judge in West Bradford, East Bradford, and West Chester wards 3, 6, and 7.

Why are you running for MDJ?

Too many people have lost faith in the Pennsylvania judiciary because of a series of scandals from the Magisterial District Courts up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Given that most people’s only experience with the law is in the Magisterial District Court, I would like to bring accountability, transparency, professionalism, and respect to this Court. I believe there is a chance to make a large impact in my community as well as to attempt to implement changes in the court itself that could help all Pennsylvanians receive a better, fairer judicial system.

What does an MDJ do?

A Magisterial District Judge handles small claims cases (under $12,000.00), landlord tenant cases, traffic citations, summary offenses, and emergency protection from abuse orders. He or she also issues arrest and search warrants and sets bail and rules on preliminary hearings for those charged with felonies and misdemeanor. These cases range from routine to quite serious and require a judge familiar with rules of procedure, evidence, and applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

Why should the average voter care who is their MDJ?

Most people’s only court experience will be at the Magisterial District Court level, for either themselves or friends and family. People want their judge to have a deep knowledge of the law as well as empathy born of experience in representing clients in court and knowing the issues that face people going into what is often one of the most important experiences of their life. Although people can appeal decisions from the Magisterial District Court, most cannot afford the time and money to do so, and the Magistrate District Judge’s decision usually winds up being the final say. It is important for the Magistrate Judge to show a commitment to community and fight for changes to benefit citizens.

What background do MDJ’s need?

Currently, MDJ’s need to either have a law degree or take a four-week course and pass an exam. Recent cases like the Penn State hazing scandal, in which manslaughter charges were dismissed by a magistrate judge, highlight some of the important decisions that MDJ’s must make and the importance of having had the benefit of a full law school education and experience of practicing as an attorney. However, that background and experience is just as important for issuing a protection from abuse order, setting bail, and ruling on whether somebody is owed money or can stay in their home.

Why do you think your background is the better one in this race?

I do not fault the background of my opponent but believe our system is outdated in allowing non-attorney judges. I simply do not believe that an individual should rule on whether a felony case proceeds, decide a case involving somebody’s life savings, set bail, or any of the other important MDJ functions without the benefit of a law school education and having represented individuals and businesses in court.

I have been lucky to attend Villanova Law School on a partial scholarship, to clerk for the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court, to run my own law firm for a decade representing a wide range of businesses and individuals, and to donate a significant amount of time in free legal work. In addition, I have been fortunate to be able to serve on the West Chester School Board, the Board of the Chester County OIC, and other local non-profits — giving me an insight into the variety of people that make up this district and their needs.

What did you learn from clerking for the PA Supreme Court?

My experience clerking for the PA Supreme Court may have been the most enjoyable of my career. Getting the chance to deliberate with the judges and discuss decisions that would affect the lives of Pennsylvanians was both weighty and exhilarating. At that level, you see the effects of lower court’s decisions in ways intended and not, the problems with poorly worded laws, and the need to approach every case thoroughly and with respect.

Actually, why isn’t a legal background required? Is that some historical fluke?

The role of this court has changed over the years, as have some of the practices. In Philadelphia, the judges used to keep a portion of the traffic fines! As this court has taken on more and more of an important role in the community, it is important that we keep up with the times by requiring that our judges all have thorough legal training, have graduated from law school, and have passed the PA bar exam.

We’ve all seen a lot of campaign signs around the area, especially for your race and West Chester Mayor; do you think signs are useful?

Signs are useful as a way of building name recognition; however, they don’t tell a message about the candidate. A voter can’t determine the educational or professional backgrounds of the candidate from a sign, but you can hope that voters are encouraged to seek out more information when they know the name of the candidate. They always say that signs don’t vote, so I do not believe that many signs are necessary — just enough to remind people who the candidates are.

We’ve all heard that elected office-holders sometimes use their position to pressure residents into endorsing them or displaying their signs; is that possible?

We’ve seen that issue arise in elected politics too often; Rob McCord may be the most high profile race where pressure was explicitly exerted when he reminded donors of his power as (then) State Treasurer. However, that pressure is often implicit in knowing that you may not get an audience with a lawmaker if you don’t donate or display their sign or knowing that a judge may not be as favorable to you if you don’t donate or display their sign. I certainly have had individuals tell me that they feel uncomfortable saying no to displaying a sign for a sitting judge or a sitting legislator, whether or not that individual meant to exert pressure or not.

Signs are being stolen, including from County Democratic headquarters, and police are investigating. Has that happened to your signs?

Unfortunately, like many other candidates, it has happened to my signs. Not to a tremendous extent but signs go missing, get thrown down in the grass, or are moved. I wish that there were a better and fairer method of governing the display of signs and monitoring who takes them. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t exist.

I saw that a local non-profit organization was displaying your opponent’s sign; I thought that wasn’t allowed.

Such a non-profit could be in danger of losing their tax-exempt status if they take part in political campaigning (unless they are a political PAC). I have had offers from non-profit groups with whom I am associated to display signs, highlight me at a function, etc., but I have always reminded them that it is not part of their permitted activities. I feel similarly about businesses that have offered to display my sign: although they may be allowed to do so, I fear that showing political favoritism (particularly in today’s environment) could only harm their business. I ask owners and employees that they support me as individuals and not as a business.

Some positions are term-limited; should that be the case for MDJ?

I think that it is important for new ideas to come into the system with many positions, including MDJ. When one starts a position, there is a passion and a search for innovation that are harder to maintain over the long haul. Additionally, I think it is important for an MDJ to have had recent experience arguing in court and remembering what is like to represent clients and to remember what those clients are experiencing.

Any closing thoughts?

I have gone to community events or knocked on doors almost every day since I started this campaign in February and I want to say thank you to all of my supporters as well as to all of those who support my opponent but gave me time to talk with them about the issues and the changes that I would like to see in our judicial system. I hope that some of my ideas for helping working individuals through expanded court hours outside of the work day, keeping children in school by having judges hold truancy court at the school, and expanding the veterans’ court program are adopted by others. It would be an honor to serve the community as its next Magisterial District Judge.

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Moby-Dick and American democracy

Way back in high school, I had English teachers who were as obsessed with Moby-Dick as was Captain Ahab with the great white whale.

Rereading it now, I see a lot of things I missed before, like Herman Melville’s rhetorical mastery and variety, his sense of humor, and how well he represents the ethos and ideals of the middle of the 19th century.

1851, the year of Moby-Dick‘s publication, was only 75 years after our Declaration of Independence; the 166 years since 1851 have not laid to rest the deep-rooted issues of our history. But one can forgive Melville’s and his era’s youthful optimism when he writes (chapter 26):

“… [M]an, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. [T]his august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God….”

And in an almost Homeric passage: “If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities,… then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!…”

Those were the days, when a novelist could ascribe greatness, to the point of a divine connection, to all men, without regard to race or class! (Yes, Moby-Dick is a story of men; whaling was not a profession open to women.)

Through his persona Ishmael, Melville expresses a true admiration for the accomplishments of men of all origins, brought together in the hardships of the sea, symbol of deep concentration of the mind and uplifting of the spirit. He pays particular tribute to the three harponers (chapter 27).

After Queequeg, a South Pacific islander, who is Ishmael’s friend to the point of sharing a room and bed (which was not uncommon in the inns of the time) and the enjoyment of a pipe fashioned from a tomahawk, we meet Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard,… an inheritor of the unvitiated blood of those proud warrior hunters.”

And then there is Daggoo, an African, a noble giant of a man: “There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress.”

Melville notes that “at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born.” Native American (in today’s terminology), African, South Pacific native, crew members picked up in the Azores–all, to him, blend their efforts in a common enterprise.

I don’t mean to be nostalgic (and I hate to think of whales being killed for lamp oil or, today, pet food), but I am choosing this great American novel to contrast the spirit of a young democracy to whatever it is we have today, perhaps well symbolized by the malignant force that underlies the destructive white whale, an age of fear and loathing by all appearances… unless that Just Spirit of Equality and that great democratic God care to exercise their favorable influence among us, and quickly!


By I. W. Taber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Moby Dick: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.

PS A subsequent article by Paul Street in truthdig, 10/18/17, depicts the whaling industry as akin to slavery for the sailors, rife with racism, and exploitative of both man and nature. Whatever the historical merits of the case may be, Melville’s message seems to me to be the fundamental brotherhood of men striving together to overcome a malign destiny and the underlying brutality of their own nature. as brilliantly shown in The aged black cook’s sermon (chapter 64) to his (and all of our) “fellow-critters,” the sharks.

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H. G. Wells and the long view of history

This week I found, put out for the taking with a bunch of old crockery, a copy of H. G. Wells’ “The Outline of History,” started in the last year of World War I and updated off and on till the posthumous 1955 edition that I’ve started reading.

For many years the famed British writer, founder of science fiction (as in “The War of the Worlds,” whose 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles sowed panic in the United States), had been taking notes and writing memoranda toward a personal synthesis of world history, and the end product is fascinating, a real tour de force of human knowledge and vision.

Of his “Outline” he writes in the preface:

“Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling towards consciousness, gathering power, accumulating will, through millions of years and through countless billions of individual lives, until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.” (p. 5)

As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sometimes we just have to apply a sense of humility and remember that all of us alive today, whatever our condition, our aspirations and distresses, are just bit players in the the story of human evolution. As Wells puts it in his pages on Alexander the Great (to which I turned because I just finished reading Mary Renault’s novel about him):

“We are beginning to understand something of what the world might be, something of what our race might become, were it not for our still raw humanity. It is barely a matter of seventy generations between ourselves and Alexander; and between ourselves and the savage hunters our ancestors, who charred their food in the embers or ate it raw, intervene some four or five hundred generations. There is not much scope for the modification of a species of four or five hundred generations. Make men and women only sufficiently jealous or fearful or drunken or angry, and the red hot eyes of the cavemen will glare out at us today. We have writing and teaching, science and power; we have tamed the beasts and schooled the lightning; but we are still only shambling toward the light. We have tamed and bred the beasts, but we have still to tame and breed ourselves.” (p. 354)

Wells, who fought against militarism and class stratification, also foresaw long in advance the release of enormous destructive power from radioactive decay and the rise of autocratic governments in Europe.

As a prophet with many successes, he should still be listened to today, in his cautions about the irrational underpinning of the human personality, particularly the expressions of fear and anger that threaten our own public life and discourse today.


H. G. Wells, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

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Nixon, Haig, Trump, and the 25th Amendment

There comes a point when you need to stop making excuses for the unfortunate behavior of a relative who is starting to lose it. And then you take measures to minimize the damage and keep the family safe and assure its future. Is the country reaching that point with its current president?

Perhaps it is time for people who work and live with him to start taking his spur-of-the-moment declarations, his inability to keep a stable staff, his confusion between the functions of family and public employees, and much more as signs of a failing mind. That does happen to people in their 70’s (and younger).

Our presidents, fortunately, aren’t absolute dictators. The whole constitutional structure compartmentalizes power, just as family members eventually need to invoke the right to discuss alternate arrangements among themselves when a grandparent, used to calling the shots, stops making sense.

Some of the safeguards we have, as a nation, are the US Senate and House, the court system, the professional staff of the executive agencies, the press, and the military. We aren’t used to thinking about the military as a safeguard of democracy, but you can find historical examples of it, as until recently in Turkey.

One of the reassuring moments in American history came when General Alexander Haig, Nixon’s last Chief of Staff, advised, or is rumored to have advised, the U.S. military to disregard any unusual military orders from a president under severe pressure to resign (History Commons, under August 26, 1974).

That could be the situation envisaged by the Australian academic who asked the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet whether he would conduct a nuclear attack on China if the President so ordered (New York Times, 7/27/17. Adm. Scott H. Swift said “Yes” and:

“Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as the commander in chief appointed over us.”

Of course, but things aren’t always that clear, especially if the officers and president happen to see things differently.

Although it’s not really constitutional, it doesn’t seem a bad idea for a White House Chief of Staff, in 1974 probably with the Secretary of Defense (James Schlesinger), to forestall a “beleaguered” (to use a current term in the news) or unstable president’s possibly ill-advised and disastrous military orders. They, or whoever did transmit such an order, were certainly acting in the spirit of the 25th Amendment, the crux of which is:

“Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President….”

Thus the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, essentially allows a president who isn’t up to the job to be temporarily or permanently sidelined for rehabilitation.

Might Gen. John F. Kelly, sworn in yesterday as White House Chief of Staff and the first retired general in that position since Alexander Haig, play a prominent role in planning such a transition?

Congress has not named any “other body” for the job, so currently the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet have the power to declare the President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” At that moment, Vice President Pence would become Acting President.

Such an eventuality would not really surprise those of us who remember the Watergate crisis, whose denouement gave power to Gerald Ford, the only President who was never elected either President or Vice President.

Gerald R. Ford on August 27, 1974, 18 days after being sworn in as the 38th President, by David Hume Kennerly. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

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No surprise: Civility and trust down nationally since November

The chart below is from “Americans Say Civility Has Worsened Under Trump; Trust In Institutions Down” by Jessica Taylor, NPR.org, July 3, 2017.

It would be interesting to have figures for Chester County. It would be a good bet, though, that residents here overall are fairly satisfied with their county and municipal governments, with law enforcement and the courts system.

In this swing county, which had the good taste to give Trump under 43% of its vote (national average: 46%), people remain engaged, as we’ve seen from the profusion of rallies and the number of candidates running for office this year and already lining up for 2018. We go to public meetings (witness the outpouring regarding the proposed pipeline cutting through the County), talk with our elected representatives, and speak at Borough Council and supervisor meetings (the PA Sunshine Act is taken seriously here).

Voter turnout was relatively good in the May primary, and one can hope for a larger than usual vote this coming November. A lot of Americans, last November, found out what happens when they don’t vote!

Civility remains the norm, even in public rallies, and it is heartening to see a targeted elected official emerge on occasion for a (civil) chat with demonstrators.

About the fairness of elections, Chester County is also fortunate, thanks to a lot of local effort several years ago, to have optical scan voting machines whose results can be verified on paper (and that is a very good thing, with 2 recent margins of under 30 votes in the 156th PA House district).

Some current mistrust probably has to do with gerrymandering; if the PA constitutional amendment being promoted by FairDistrictsPA is eventually adopted, that will no doubt increase confidence in the voting system, since majority incumbents will no longer be able to carve up counties to suit themselves and often deprive voters of meaningful choices.

As far as the print media, we are pretty favored: we can readily buy the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily Local News and its regional variants, and we can consult local online media like The Times of Chester County and Chester County Press and their variants.

Anyone who consumes news knows that any media article or post must be read with care and evaluated; but we are fortunate not to be exposed here (unless we go farther afield on the internet) to the kinds of willful false news that probably contribute to Americans’ mistrust of their own institutions.

Nationally, not so good, and it’s surprising to find media rated even below Congress and Trump:

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