Amending the Constitution

The Bill of Rights

It was in September of 1789 that the First Federal Congress of the United States approved 12 amendments to the Constitution that had only been ratified two years earlier.

We have been hearing a lot about our Constitution in the news lately. People are talking about following it and interpreting it and violating it. There are those who consider themselves to be constitutionalists – adherents or advocates of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is defined as “a compound of ideas, attitudes, and patterns of behavior elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law.”

As much as we revere those “founding fathers” and framers of the Constitution, it didn’t take long for some of them to believe that the Constitution had some flaws and gaps that needed to be amended. It was not perfect. It could be improved.

George Mason was a statesman and delegate from Virginia and he was not happy at all with the United States Constitution. Now, he had helped craft it, but he saw too much power concentrated in central government authority. He didn’t see protections for individual rights. On September 15, 1787, the final vote was made to approve the Constitution, and Mason was one of only three who protested. Patrick Henry didn’t feel the Constitution offered enough safeguards against tyranny.

Mason and other “anti-Federalists” called for a “bill of rights” to be added to the document. They were able to, over the course of the next two years, bring Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison over to their view. Madison introduced a set of 17 amendments to Congress in 1789. Those were trimmed to 12 which were approved on September 25 and sent to the states for ratification. The required two-thirds of the states only ratified ten, which became our Bill of Rights.

Those amendments include a citizen’s right to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, a well-organized militia, and a speedy and public trial, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, the quartering of troops, and self-incrimination.

Article Ten declares that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The two failed amendments were about a formula for determining a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives, and one that prohibited Congress members from voting to raise their own pay without allowing their constituents to have a say in that raise.

There was no statute of limitations on ratifying the original 12 amendments, and that pay raise amendment finally got pushed through on May 7, 1992. It took more than 200 years after it was originally proposed, but those politicians got their right to give themselves more money without our permission. Yes, the Constitution is a living document.

Pandemics Past

plague mask

It’s hard to avoid news about the current pandemic from the coronavirus (COVID-19) and as much as I had planned to not write about it, I find myself thinking about it every day and it works its way into my writing (even the poems). Today I was thinking more about pandemics in the past and wondering what we have earned from them.

The 1918 flu pandemic is the one that is referenced most often.  It is still sometimes referred to as the “Spanish Flu” even though we know that it wasn’t really from Spain and that hanging the blame on a country was wrong. That didn’t stop President Trump from calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” which rightfully brought much criticism to him.

My mother was born in that 1918 flu pandemic that infected around 500 million people and killed 20-50 million people globally. The data collection then wasn’t very sophisticated so it’s hard to really say how great the losses were globally. That pandemic ran from 1918 to 1920. They weren’t sure that my mother or her mother would survive, but both did.

It was an HIN1 flu virus of avian origin. It was first identified in American military personnel at the start of 1918. This virus was particularly deadly in children under 5, 20-30-year-olds and the over 65s. There were no vaccines, no cure and pretty much no treatment.

Even worse, the “Black Death” emerged and re-emerged between 1346-1353. Again, data collection was poor, even worse than in 1918 but the death toll is estimated at 75 – 200 million. The Bubonic Plague seemed to originate in Asia and spread because infected fleas were hosted on rats. The rats stowed away on merchant ships and traveled to trading ports on other continents and eventually throughout Europe, There was no trade with North America so our continent was spared.

Signs of the plague included painful and swollen lumps around the lymph nodes known as buboes, hence it was called “bubonic” and because those buboes eventually turned black it was commonly known as the Black Death.

I learned more about the Great Plague of London (1665-1666) in my courses about Shakespeare than in any history courses. Those two years accounted for 75,000 to 100,000 deaths when the Bubonic Plague resurfaced in London in 1665. It spread rapidly throughout the crowded capital and killed 20% of London’s population.

People associated plague with the poor because it began in the city’s slums, but that was more because of the over-crowded living conditions there and the abundance of rat-infested areas including beds and mattresses made of straw which offered ideal breeding for the fleas. But it climbed up the socio-economic ladder. There were mass graves in and around the city. People escaped – or tried to escape – the plague by running to the countryside. Another tragedy, the Great Fire of London in 1666,  burned the rats and fleas and “cleansed” the city.

There was also an Italian Bubonic Plague in 1650-1656 that began in Naples that killed half of the city’s residents. In this case, though the poor people of the city contracted the plague, they were generally hardworking and in better physical condition than the rich upper-class who were well-fed, lazy and overweight and so had pre-existing conditions and were compromised.

In all of these earlier pandemics, the science and medicine was poor or non-existent. What were called plague “doctors” often had no medical training. Not knowing what really caused the plague, they didn’t really have any treatments and certainly no cure.

plague doctor

They became known for their odd outfits which included face masks shaped like bird’s beaks. It was believed that the plague was spread through bad air or miasma. That long beak in the mask held strong, “cleansing herbs” such as absinthe and wormwood to filter out the toxic air. They also wore goggles, long waxed coats, gloves and hats. They carried a long baton stick to point to things perhaps to avoid touching patients and because the mask made speaking clearly  difficult.

Since they could not cure those suffering, part of their job was to keep records of the death toll and those who were infected. As administrators, they could attend autopsies, and witness the signing of wills.

Scam “cures” and treatments became a business and included some of these doctors and they did a good business because of the desperation of those suffering and their families.

What stories will be told about how we handled the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the years to come are yet to be determined.

Your Right to Be Forgotten

   The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via, Public Domain

I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten.

We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name. But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their life to be forgotten.

The Internet is forever. Maybe. Many people have posted things they regret. They delete it but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet the damage is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.

For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured.

A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.

Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.

Do we have a right to be forgotten online?

The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.

It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret,  or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and revisionist history?

That is the focus of a Radiolab episode that looks at a group of journalists who are experimenting with being forgotten. They are unpublishing content – articles, photographs, names, entire articles – on a monthly basis.

As the Radiolab website says, this is a story about “time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.”

A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet

The title “A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet” is going to make some readers move on because they figure “I know all about the Internet. I’m no beginner.” Of course you are.

This is 1999. To a viewer who is under 20 years old, this may seem like a film from the 1950s. This is the World Wide Web. You know, the www is a web address. No social media, no streaming video, no blogs. Your web browser was Netscape Navigator or Opera or Mozilla or maybe the Internet Explorer that was pre-installed on your Windows computer.

Google was launched the year before, but no Chrome browsers, just a search page. And a competitor to guiding you along the information superhighway was the Internet portal company Lycos who made this film with John Turturro.

John Turturro was no unknown. The year before we saw in the cultish film The Big Lebowski. In this short film (38 minutes), he plays a history teacher (aspiring comedian) whose car breaks down in Tick Neck, Pennsylvania on his way cross-country to Las Vegas.

While he is stuck there, he stops in a diner, connects his laptop modem to the phone there and dials up his internet service provider’s number.

1999 was the end of the 20th century and just before the Internet (we used to capitalize it) exploded.

Where did you see this film? Definitely not online. A film of that length would have eaten up all my data for a month, and probably wouldn’t have loaded anyway on my dial-up connection. But you get a free rental VHS videotape copy of it at your friendly Blockbuster, West Coast Video stores, or a public school library. It was probably shown in some classrooms.

The film, funded by Lycos, was a good promotional tool and it might have help educate the public about the World Wide Web. Lycos was in 1999 the most visited online destination in the world. In 2000, Telefónica acquired it for $12.5 billion.

There are some now-funny lines in the film. A kid tells Turturro “My family doesn’t own a computer, and my dad doesn’t like ’em. He says facts are facts.” His dad was probably quite happy with the 2016 election result.

Walking on the Moon

July 20, 1969: the Apollo 11 moon landing. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of that event and I’m sure there will be some celebrations, but I thought about it the other night when I was staring up at that big Full Moon.

I remember the day and the live broadcast on CBS, with commentary by Walter Cronkite and former astronaut Wally Schirra and live audio from Mission Control in Houston and the Apollo 11 astronauts.

I went online and check my facts and put on The Police’s non-historical song “Walking on the Moon” in the background. “Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon…”

July 1969 was only about 8 years since the flight of the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and then the American Alan Shepard that started the “space race.” President Kennedy made the challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade was out.

NASA had made a rather bold decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to the moon using the new massive Saturn V rocket. But they didn’t land. On July 16, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center and 4 days later they would reach the Moon.

The Apollo 11 crew was Neil A. Armstrong, commander, Michael Collins, command module pilot and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. I felt bad for Collins at the time because he didn’t get to actually step on the Moon.

I recall sitting in my New Jersey living room staring at the small black and white TC with its “rabbit ear” antenna that was pulling in a signal from CBS News in New York City, but I felt like it was getting a signal from the Moon.

I was 15. It was an eventful summer: Woodstock, the Manson murders, the Stonewall riots. We were a year out from the “Summer of Love.” I had been a year since my father had died.

In the summer of 1969, I was listening to my two new albums: The Who’s double album Tommy which launched a bunch of concept albums, and The Beatles’ Get Back which was a sad release because we knew The Beatles were done as a group. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in” by the Fifth Dimension was a pop hit version of the song from the radical Broadway musical Hair.

I finally got to see the film Midnight Cowboy which made a big impression on me. John Schlesinger’s film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman was released with the dreaded X rating. I had to wait until there was a lazy teenager in the local theater box office who didn’t care if I bought a ticket. That year i also saw two other films that influenced me in very different ways: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider.

I know there are people who still say that the moon landing was faked. I suspect some of that silliness comes from the fact that CBS News did use animation and simulations in their coverage and labeled them as such. No one could transmit live video footage from the moon, so CBS made their own animations and a mockup model so viewers could see something and get an idea of what was happening on the moon.

There is also the actual film footage of the lunar landing and walk from the 16mm film cameras mounted on the module that landed on the Moon and from the window video camera onboard Apollo 11’s Lunar Module “Eagle.” But much of that footage didn’t get to us until they returned to Earth.

It as a tense program to watch. Neil Armstrong’s heart rate peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing, as compared to his resting heart rate of 60 bpm. At around 10 minutes to landing, the astronauts link to Mission Control cut out briefly, which was a terrifying moment.

It is worth noting for people who did not live through that era that there were also intermittent program alarms and error codes from the rather primitive computers on board and even back in Houston. The Lunar Module’s computer only had 4KB of memory. This article takes up more than 4KB. As is often pointed out, your smartphone is several thousand times more powerful than the spacecraft’s computer.

I added some video below and you can see the CBS animation showing the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing. They didn’t actually sync up with the real landing, so when Buzz Aldrin says “engine stop,” the animation had already landed us based on the scheduled landing time.

Armstrong and Aldrin walked around and collected samples for two hours. They returned safely to Earth.

Twelve astronauts walked on the Moon’s surface. Six of those drove Lunar Roving Vehicles on the Moon. Three astronauts flew to the Moon twice, of which two landed. None landed on the Moon more than once. None were women, so there is still history to be made.

The nine Apollo missions to the Moon occurred between December 1968 and December 1972. Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo mission left the lunar surface with these words: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind.”

The “Summer of Love” was past. Vietnam was in at full power and my draft registration and draft lottery was a few years away. August 15-18 would be Woodstock. I started out for the festival but hit a ton of traffic and NY State Troopers who discouraged us and so we headed home. I wasn’t one of the nearly 400,000 people who showed up at a farm in Bethel, New York and saw Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and so many others.

The events of 1969 would help define that era.

Influenza 1918

Today is Armistice Day Armistice Day which marks the armistice signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 between the Allies of World War I and Germany to end World War I – the “war to end all wars.” It is also known as Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

But 1918 was also the year of another kind of worldwide war against the Spanish influenza pandemic. There is no special day to mark this and I doubt that many Americans today know about it or think about it. You may have gone last month for your flu shot, but never thought about the fact that October 1918 was the deadliest month in United States history. 195,000 Americans died in that one month as a result of influenza.

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, 1918

By the time the pandemic had run its course, an estimated 500,000 Americans had died of the flu. It is hard to grasp that number. It is more deaths than the American combat fatalities in all the wars of the 20th century combined. And worldwide, the flu may have claimed as many as 100 million lives.

My mother was born in December of that year and it was feared that she or her mother might get the flu. The start of that flu season was in March with the first recorded case being a mess cook in Fort Riley, Kansas. There are still several hypotheses about how and where the flu pandemic began and no conclusive answer.

Though it became known as the “Spanish flu,” it did not originate in Spain. Spain seemed at the time to be particularly hard hit by the virus. I say “seemed” because the Spanish media covered it extensively, but the United States, the UK, France, and Germany deliberately underplayed the virus’ effect in hopes of keeping up wartime morale. Many Americans thought, as with many military wars, that it was something happening far from our shores.

Recent studies of the incomplete medical records from the time seem to show that this viral infection itself was not more aggressive than any previous influenza. Oddly, it seemed to affect healthy people more than would have been expected. Rather, factors such as malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection which killed most of the victims after a prolonged period.

There was what was called a “second wave” that year of the same virus. We know it was the same strain because those who had survived a first infection had immunity in a second exposure. But after the lethal second wave struck in late 1918, new cases mysteriously dropped abruptly.

In Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in the week ending October 16, but by Armistice day influenza had almost disappeared from the city. No one is certain why. Did doctors get better at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims had contracted the virus? Did the virus mutate extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain?

Could it happen again? That is the stuff of movies, like Outbreak, Contagion and World War Z, all of which make reference to the 1918 pandemic. Certainly our medical knowledge and treatments are much better today. Research done in 2007 reported that monkeys infected with the recreated flu strain has the same symptoms of the 1918 pandemic. They died from what is called a cytokine storm, which is when there is an overreaction of the immune system. That may explain why is may explain why the 1918 flu had a surprising powerful effect on younger, healthier people. A person with a stronger immune system would ironically have a potentially stronger overreaction than a less healthy person.