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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 1/12/21

Good morning, Today we are all Patriots. Bill Belichick, the long-time New England Patriots’ coach, has declined to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Trump after last week’s riot at the Capitol. It seems somehow apropos that a coach of a team called the Patriots would do something so patriotic. IN PRAISE OF PICARESQUE ADVENTURES One of the joys of the pandemic is not having to commute to work and not having to travel on business (and occasionally avoid the news). This has freed up time to read and to watch. I am a big fan of stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. To that point, I like British police dramas that run for six episodes or so. And I like a finely crafted novel. What I don’t like is a story that goes on and on—for season after season—sequel after sequel (like the typical sitcom or a long series like Lost or Game of Thrones, with insufficient “pay off” for sticking with it all those seasons...). Then again, sometimes a meandering story with colorful characters and situations—a grand tapestry that is more about the journey than the ending—offers a wonderful diversion. And in these times, broadly painted storytelling that provides escape and optimism is just what the doctor ordered. There is a whole genre of picaresque novels that do not necessarily lead to any particular end but, rather, are most beloved for the series of adventures that they recount—the journey through various challenges that tell a great deal about the main characters, their place within society, and the times in which they lived. Usually the protagonist is a bit of a rogue or outcast from society. One of the earliest of these is Don Quixote. And of course Mark Twain was a master of this form, with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. A modern version might also be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. THE LEGACY OF DICKENS The works of Charles Dickens are among the best examples of picaresque novels, with experiences that are not necessarily about a single conflict but, rather, a lifetime of experiences. The Personal History of David Copperfield, currently a film on Netflix, is a novel spin on the great Dickens novel. Dickens is not terribly deep, but that was by design. His stories initially appeared for the masses in serialized form, the “mini-series” of their time. The various characters the hero meets and his adventures are like patches of quilt that, taken together, create an epic story of a life. Dickens’s novels are great in that they are stories of the downtrodden, the working classes, and the forgotten during a period of great economic growth and industrialization in England, when people like those populating his novels were often left behind and were not the focus of most literature. A Christmas Carol offers similar commentary on the fairly rigid British class structure and worship of capitalism of the time, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. THE MUST-NOT-MISS GENIUS OF JAMES MCBRIDE The works of James McBride seem similar to me in their painting a picture of interesting characters and events with an overarching message. He describes an era and a people caught up in the inequities of society. Deacon King Kong, a 2020 bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book and one of Obama’s recommended books, is the story of an alcoholic church deacon known as “Sportscoat” in the projects who “does what’s right” in ways we might not initially comprehend. But the picture of an entire rich culture, with differences between the law-abiding and the lawless, the elderly and the young, and how a single act of violence affects everyone, is a great picture of a moment and a people. McBride is a modern-day Dickens or Twain. He does a masterful job painting a picture of the antebellum period, the abolitionist cause and the tragedy of “Bleeding Kansas” in this story of John Brown in The Good Lord Bird. I consumed this story by reading the book concurrently with watching the Showtime version (which closely follows the book). The story offers a commentary on celebrity at the time, how White and Black Americans saw themselves and each other, the roles abolitionists playing within the rules and those not, and the plight of slaves and freemen. The story is told through the eyes of Henry/Henrietta, a young Black teen whose father is killed in front of him and Brown and who, as a result, is swept away with Brown on his adventures. There are stops in Boston and Canada along the way, including visits with Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman. Sometimes the action can be comical or absurdist, which often offers a more easily digestible way to consider the cruelty of slavery. It all culminates in the raid on Harper’s Ferry that presaged the Civil War. It’s a beautiful novel and a brilliant miniseries starring Ethan Hawke, who took the production of this book on as a mission. DC SHOULD BECOME A STATE It is time. The organization of the District of Columbia is an anachronism of history. It can’t defend itself and it must. Its citizens must have representation in Congress. The Democrats control Congress. It takes only a majority vote of both Houses of Congress. It will enfranchise hundreds of thousands of—largely Black—citizens. A small lesson from the violence at the Capital was the sheer ineptitude of the City government, which lacks the legal authorities enjoyed by states. D.C. needs a governor. The great things about statehood:

  • Relative ease. It won’t take the consent of the states. It requires only the Congress and the President.

  • Enfranchises citizens. What is the intellectual argument against enfranchisement?

  • As opposed to a more radical attempt to change the allocation of senators, this can weken—slightly—the imbalanced of power between rural and urban America.

The arguments against are specious:

  • It’s political. Well, yes. But it is a political response to a prior political decision, namely, that small rural states receive disproportional representation.

  • The Constitution establishes the District. So what? The founders probably didn’t think that this tiny backwater would become a burgeoning metropolis with such a large population. They envisioned DC as a place in which people would reside temporarily when serving in the federal government. The District wasn’t going to have representation but it also was presumed to be largely a government enclave.

  • You can’t change the Congressional plenary control over the District. While the Constitution provides for how the District is governed, it does not mandate the borders of the District. Simply reduce its footprint to the National Mall (as proposals to create the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, and it’s all good. And I do love that “DC” is retained by honoring Frederick Douglass, one of my heroes.

  • It’s too small. Well, its population is greater than both Wyoming and Vermont, which are states. And while I’m not discussing Puerto Rican statehood here, Puerto Rico has a population that would make it the 31st largest state by population (it should become a state too, but there are other issues).

  • It would unfairly skew the Senate to the left. In the short term, perhaps a tiny bit. But it’s already unjustly skewed to the more conservative rural states because of the anachronistic way in which the Constitution allocates Senators. That said, perhaps it will force the Republicans to have to appeal to the middle in order to win more seats in purple states, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

It’ll make singing that song, “Fifty Nifty United States From Thirteen Original Colonies” a little tougher to sing but it’ll be worth it… Only eight days until Inauguration Day! Glenn

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