Monday, September 28, 2009

Four Jeffersonian Reasons to Support Farmers' Markets

Eating a meal composed of ingredients purchased entirely at farmers' markets is one of the most Jeffersonian acts a person can take part in. Here are five reasons why.

1. Every dollar spent outside the corporate-dominated economy is a good thing. If Jefferson were alive today, he would see the influence corporations have over our lives as a greater threat to our freedom than the federal government, especially due to the manner in which it robs us of our self-sufficiency. By getting our food from farmers' markets, we can cut out the corporate middlemen who have done so much to usurp our economy and use their power to degrade the state of American freedom. It's a way of voting with our dollars for a Jeffersonian republic and against a corporate-controlled society.

2. Locally-grown food is healthier, fresher, and better. The produce at a corporate grocery store comes from fields sprayed with chemicals and grown in soil that has been contaminated with artificial fertilizers. It has been picked weeks before, frozen, and transported over a thousand miles before arriving on the shelf. By contrast, the produce at a farmers' market was likely grown organically, with no chemicals or artificial fertilizers, and was very likely picked within 24 hours of arriving at the farmers' market.

Compare the taste of a tomato from a corporate grocery store with the taste of a tomato purchased at a farmers' market, and the latter will win hands down, every time. Try it.

3. Farmers' markets strengthen the community. Corporate grocery stores are pretty bland places and there's little reason to any more time in them than absolutely necessary. Farmers' markets, however, are magical places. People seem more friendly and comfortable, perhaps because they sense their freedom from outside control as they exchange cash for produce or meat directly with farmers and ranchers.

4. Farmers' market helped support farmers. The decline of the independent farmer under the crushing weight of corporate-run factory farms is a trend that must be reversed. By allowing farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers, farmers' markets provide a mean for farmers to avoid the enormous operating costs that would otherwise be imposed on them by agribusiness corporations. As more and more farmers' markets are opening each year, it provides proof that the death of the independent American farmer has been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, September 21, 2009

United States Should Sign Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Landmines

Thomas Jefferson was a humanitarian far in advance of his time, standing out among the great men of his age for his constant advocacy on behalf of prisoners-of-war and civilians caught in war zones. In 1779, in a celebrated letter to Patrick Henry, dealing with British prisoners-of-war captured at the Battle of Saratoga, Jefferson said, "It is for the benefit of mankind to mitigate the horrors of war as much as possible."

The amelioration of human suffering was a key element of the Age of Enlightenment in which Jefferson lived. The Founding Fathers tried to infuse America with Enlightenment values as they created it. The early 21st Century is, in many ways, a more brutal and less civilized time than was the 18th Century, and 21st Century Jeffersonians have a responsibility to do everything they can to alleviate suffering in our time, just as Jefferson tried to do in his.

One cause of great human suffering in our age is the deployment of massive numbers of antipersonnel landmines during conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and Latin America during the 1980s. These devices are specifically designed to maim rather than kill, the sickening logic being that it requires an enemy to spend more resources caring for a badly-wounded soldier than to dispose of a dead body. Vast swaths of land remain infested with these minefields, usually long after the conflict for which they were deployed had ended.

Every week, hundreds of people are maimed and killed, many laid decades before for use in conflicts long since over. Almost all the people being killed by landmines today are innocent civilians with no connection to any combatant force. A very large proportion of those injured or killed are children.

Adding to the miserable human toll are numerous other costs. Landmine fields often prevent refugees from returning to their homes after the end of a conflict, hindering the economic redevelopment which might prevent a future war. Livestock are often killed by landmines, contributing to poverty and starvation. The long-term negative impacts of the deployment of antipersonnel landmines, both direct and indirect, boggles the imagination.

On December 3, 1997, 122 countries came together in Ottawa and signed a comprehensive treaty banning the production and deployment of antipersonnel landmines. Since then, many nations in Africa and Asia have made great progress in clearing their minefields, returning the land to productive use, and allowing people from war-torn regions to begin to rebuild their lives. The total number of countries that have signed the Ottawa Treaty now stands at 156. The movement to free the world from the scourge of antipersonnel landmines represents one of the most glorious episodes of the last few decades of human history.

But despite innumerable requests, the United States of America has refused to sign the treaty. Indeed, antipersonnel landmines are still being produced in American factories.

The fact that America has not joined the movement to ban antipersonnel landmines would have shocked and saddened Jefferson. He would have seen is as a failing of the American people and a black mark on the honor of the United States. Having an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of humanity, yet not taking it, is a failure of us to live up to the Enlightenment values on which the country was founded.

It is high time for the United States to join with the rest of the world, submit its name to the Ottawa Treaty, and join in the effort to rid the world of antipersonnel landmines. Rather than selling weapons to undemocratic regimes, our government should be dispatching teams of specialists to clear landmine fields.

Contact the White House and contact your Senators. Tell them that the United States should sign the Ottawa Treaty, and should do so immediately. Doing so is one more step in living up to Jefferson's vision for what our country can become.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It's September 17. Happy Constitution Day!

Thomas Jefferson personally celebrated just two holidays: New Year's Day and Independence Day. He also didn't believe it was the business of the federal government to officially proclaim official holidays, or days of observance of any sort. Still, September 17 was the day that the men of the Constitutional Convention signed the document, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should set aside a few moments to reflect on just how important the Constitution is.

The fact that 55 flawed men could craft such a brilliant intellectual achievement as the United States Constitution almost defies belief. The further fact that it has continued to function, almost unchanged, for more than two hundred years simply seems miraculous. Observers of the time, Jefferson included, would have been astounded. Certainly it is the most successful written constitution in the history of the world.

But it's not a perfect document, by any means. The Electoral College is archaic and should be thrown away, the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" needs to be clarified, Supreme Court justices shouldn't serve for life, and there are other problems. And while many constitutional problems within our current system, such as the overwhelming superiority of the Executive Branch, are not the fault of the Constitution itself but rather our flawed interpretation of it, they could be solved were the wording of the document somewhat different.

Jefferson was not involved in the creation of the Constitution, as he was then serving as the American Minister to France. Madison sent a copy of it immediately after it was made public, and Jefferson didn't much like it at first. He objected specifically to the lack of a bill of rights and the lack of presidential term limits. The first was corrected almost immediately, thanks to James Madison steering the Bill of Rights through the First Congress. The second was largely corrected by Washington's decision to step down after two terms, thus creating a firm tradition of serving only two terms that wouldn't be broken until Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. It was permanently solved by the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years or so, as he felt no generation should have to live under a constitution it had had no role in crafting. Jefferson would be very surprised and disappointed to learn that, over two centuries, the American people would only amend the Constitution twenty-seven times. Were he alive today, he would be calling for an immediate constitutional convention, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should do the same.

Larry Sabato, one of the most respected political commentators in our time, has authored a wonderful book entitled A More Perfect Constitution. The book lays out 23 proposed amendments to the Constitution that would essentially update it for the 21st Century. Among the proposals Sabato lays out, which Jeffersonians should support, are:
  • A Balanced Budget Amendment
  • Nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts
  • Term limits for members of Congress
  • Giving the President a line-item veto
  • Limiting Presidential war powers
  • Abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices in favor a single, 15-year terms
There are many other interesting proposals and Sabato's book is highly-recommended for all 21st Century Jeffersonians.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-Jeffersonian and need to be corrected. Human nature being what it is, we cannot expect the members of Congress to pass the needed amendments, no matter how much political pressure may be brought to bear. It will likely be only slightly easier to make use of the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which state that a constitutional convention will be assembled if two-thirds of the states (34 states, in other words) call for one. Either would take many long years of intense lobbying and campaigning, involving substantial grassroots organizing on the part of 21st Century Jeffersonians. And there would be no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Still, the fact that it will be difficult is no excuse not to try. At the very least, it will be easier than the task the Founding Fathers faced in 1776.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Supporting Independent Bookstores

Few institutions are as Jeffersonian as the bookstore. In a letter to John Adams late in life, Jefferson said, "I cannot live without books." Although he distrusted large cities, Jefferson haunted the bookstores of Paris and Philadelphia, eventually accumulating what may have been the largest private library in the New World. A visit to a bookstore is a Jeffersonian act.

A good bookstore, however, is more than just a place to buy books. A good bookstore provides a meeting place for the community, where groups of people can come together to discuss anything from politics to gardening. It hosts authors, known and unknown, for book-signings and readings. It provides assistance to struggling local writers by giving them preferential treatment on the shelves. A good bookstore a pillar of any local community.

There are many bookstores across America whose connection with their community has become famous. There is City Lights in San Francisco, Tattered Cover in Denver, BookPeople in Austin, Strand Bookstore in New York, and hundreds of others. These independent stores glow with literary culture, and they are places where Jefferson would have been right at home.

Unfortunately, for the past several years, independent bookstores have been fighting a battle for survival against the corporate chain bookstore giants, Borders and Barnes and Noble. Able to draw on unrivaled financial resources, these two corporations have opened thousands of bookstores across the country, often strategically choosing store locations with the deliberate intention of driving nearby independent bookstores out of business. Across the country, hundreds of independent bookstores have been driven out of business over the last few decades. Every time one is forced to close, a little bit of the Jeffersonian fire is extinguished.

In contrast to independent bookstores, the chain bookstores are fairly bland and lifeless. Each store looks more or less identical to every other store, with no local uniqueness in their character. There is little real interaction between a chain bookstore and the local community, as the activities at a chain bookstore must be approved by some corporate bureaucrat higher up in the organization. Books by local authors are not highlighted in any way, as the choice of merchandise for sale was decided in a corporate office far removed from the community. Everything is geared merely towards maximizing sales; even the music played at a corporate bookstore is designed only to advertise the record in question, rather than provide pleasure to the customers.

In the early 21st Century, the greatest threat to the freedom of the American people does not come from a foreign enemy, but rather from the gradual sapping of what Jefferson called "the sacred fire." One element of this is the encroachment of corporate standardization on pillars of our communities like independent bookstores and, for that matter, independent coffee houses, restaurants, and other types of stores. We need to vote with our dollars by shopping only at independent bookstores, shunning those corporate establishments that would destroy these citadels of Jeffersonianism if they could.

Monday, September 7, 2009

NASA's Dawn Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Roughly two years from now, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around the asteroid Vesta. It is one of the most exciting missions of space exploration currently underway, venturing into regions of the Solar System that have never previously been explored. It will become the first spacecraft to orbit multiple worlds beyond the Earth, and will utilize advanced new technologies. The objective of the Dawn mission is to go into orbit and intensively study two major asteroids: Vesta and Ceres, the latter technically being defined as a dwarf planet.

The mission was launched in 2007, and has been sailing through the Solar System since then, powered by its remarkable ion engine. It flew past Mars in February of 2009, using its gravity to "slingshot" it along on its orbital path. If all goes well, Dawn will arrive at Vesta in September of 2011, depart a few months later, and arrive at Ceres in February of 2015. The information that will be sent back by the Dawn spacecraft will be a scientific treasure trove.

Studying the asteroids serves three major purposes. First, scientific knowledge is good in and of itself, contributing to the greater human understanding of the universe. Second, asteroids represent a small but real risk to the safety of Earth, and knowing more about them might one day prove priceless to the human race in the event that we discover that an asteroid is on a collision course with our planet. Finally, as the human race expands into the Solar System, the resources of raw materials present in the Asteroid Belt will prove to be of great value. The more we know about them, the better.

Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of exploration and discovery, which is why he sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition, among many other missions, to explore the American West. If he could see the activities of the modern American government, he would disapprove of a great deal, but he would excitedly approve of the activities of NASA. The 21st Century Jeffersonian should follow the course of the Dawn mission with great interest and excitement.

Watch this short documentary, made a few months before the launch of the Dawn mission, that provides an excellent background to the mission and its goals.