Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I once asked my friend Roger, a landscape architect, how he managed to keep his ficus plant so healthy looking…and it wasn’t plastic. He told me his secret: Go to a nursery and pick out the greenest, sturdiest plant, water it properly, give it some sun and nutrients, talk nice to it, play Paul Desmond’s mellow sax or Mozart’s clarinet concerto  ... and when it starts to droop and look sick throw it out and buy another one.

When your vacuum cleaner breaks you bring it in for repair. When your computer crashes you call your son-in-law or better yet, your grandson. When the government breaks you get even more cynical and disengaged, exactly as Republicans would have it.

There is nothing so broken as a broken government. Our damage is systemic and the prognosis is to call the Neptune Society. The site of trouble is in the 224 year-old immutable document called the Constitution, unsuited to this age of urban concentration, multinational corporations, media saturation, instant messaging, commodification, insatiable consumerism and a profoundly new demographic. These are just a few faces of modernity beyond the imagining of James Madison.

Originalists on the high court are the equivalent of fundamentalists by holding our constitution as sacred text...an American Testament in line with the Old and New Testaments.

Well-conceived as it was by an enlightened elite many were slave-holders whose concept of inalienable rights, suffrage and liberty did not extend to women, the un-propertied and those in bondage. It was a compromised arrangement drawn up to appease certain states for certain ratification.

A bicameral Congress provides senators with constituencies of grass, desert and swamps (scrub, shrub and bubbas) as voting equals to those representing millions of people. We don’t need two Houses; we certainly don’t need sequestration or filibusters and a gerrymandered chamber sitting in stolen seats. Washington has become the place where legislation goes to die.

What was the wonder of the world in the 18th century has since devolved into a dysfunctional legislature, paralyzed executive and ossified judiciary. What we call checks and balances is a model for gridlock, a body of mostly old men who take dictation from lobbyists and are generally disconnected from the American people. They don’t look like America and no longer speak the same language. In an historical moment of accelerated change Congress resists change like a punitive headmaster. They are blind to societal movements and deaf to the voice of science.
As new nations emerge and others throw off colonial rule the United States is no longer the model of representative government. I know of no country in the world that has chosen our division of powers with three branches as their blueprint. Instead, countries have instituted the European parliamentary system of democracy. Representation is more proportional and the heads-of-state more accountable and better able to respond to shifting events.

Does our unique democracy have the capacity for self-correction? Perhaps I’m too close to the ficus plant watching it shed its green vibrancy. Maybe it is calling out to be shocked into new life with major pruning. Is our Constitution sufficiently organic to aerate its soil and bend toward the light? Is a new Constitutional Convention possible? I doubt it. Will government as we know it from civic classes wither away to be replaced by global conglomerates? Now there’s a scary thought. Show me the way to get out of this world into a grove of ficus trees. Love those roots.

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