Nov. 24, 2005

Good People

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem:"Good People" by W. S. Merwin from The Pupil © Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

Good People

From the kindness of my parents
I suppose it was that I held
that belief about suffering

imagining that if only
it could come to the attention
of any person with normal
feelings certainly anyone
literate who might have gone

to college they would comprehend
pain when it went on before them
and would do something about it
whenever they saw it happen
in the time of pain the present
they would try to stop the bleeding
for example with their hands

but it escapes their attention
or there may be reasons for it
the victims under the blankets
the meat counters the maimed children
the animals the animals
staring from the end of the world

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Thanksgiving Day. The American Thanksgiving tradition originated with the Pilgrims. As early as 1621, the Puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest.

It's the birthday of the novelist Lawrence Sterne, born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713). He's the author one of the most revolutionary novels in English literature: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760). The novel was revolutionary because it was a fictional autobiography in which the narrator is unable to tell his own story, constantly interrupting himself with various absurd digressions on all sorts of subjects, questioning received ideas in ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics.

Laurence Sterne said, "I am persuaded that every time a man smiles—but much more so when he laughs—it adds something to this fragment of life."

It was on this day in 2000 that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case of Bush Vs. Gore, to decide whether the hand recounts of the Presidential election in the state of Florida were lawful.

The first recount had been done by machines, and in that recount George W. Bush's lead had shrunk from 1,784 votes to only 327. But there had been problems with thousands of ballots in four counties: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade. Al Gore asked for manual recounts in three of those four counties, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, which also happened to be heavily Democratic counties.

What became so controversial was the fact that there were many so-called undervotes in these counties that had been disqualified and never counted. In the case of punchcard ballots, some of them simply hadn't been punched properly, and election workers had to determine the voter's intent.

The Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who had helped campaign for George W. Bush, tried to stop all the manual recounts. She announced that she would certify the election for George W. Bush before the recounts were finished. After a series of court cases, the Florida State Supreme Court ruled that the Secretary of State had to give time for the recounts to be completed, and the court set the deadline for Sunday, November 26.

The day before Thanksgiving, the Bush legal team turned to Supreme Court to try to stop the recounts. The Bush lawyers claimed that the Florida State Supreme Court had violated an obscure law from 1887, prohibited states from changing the rules after the date of that election, and that the Florida Court had usurped the Florida legislature's exclusive powers to set the procedures for selecting electors, as provided for by Article II of the United States Constitution.

At the time, most legal commentators believed that the Supreme Court would not get involved in the case, because a majority of the justices believed strongly in states' rights. It was Justice Anthony Kennedy who made the initial decision that the court should hear the case.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled twice. First, they ruled that the Florida State Supreme Court had to clarify its own ruling. But when the Florida Sate Supreme Court responded by ordering a statewide recount of undervotes, the Supreme Court intervened and stopped the recount from going forward. It eventually ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that a statewide recount would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, because there was no statewide standard for counting undervotes. The decision effectively decided the election for George W. Bush. As a result, 60,000 undervotes and 113,000 overvotes were never officially examined or counted.

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