Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The whole story 2

Before I resume the tale I began on Monday, let me comment on a couple of developments from yesterday.

I ‘d never been in the West Virginia Supreme Court’s “temple” before Tuesday morning, so like any new visitor, I was awed by the grandeur—the beautifully sculpted and painted plaster ceiling, featuring a design of 16-pointed golden stars in a 4-square pattern, and the massive marble columns, four on each of three sides of the room, in front of deep maroon drapes. The justices sat at a long, dark, impeccably crafted bench, looking down at us.

My friend from the Attorney General’s office told me afterward that it was unusual for litigants to sit at the attorneys’ table, but I didn’t know that, so I just walked up there with Bob Bastress, our attorney, when the case was called, and took furious notes the whole time.

The legislature’s argument was primarily a confirmation of the observation that Shepherd University history professor John Stealey had made in his 2006 article, “Quiet Revolution in Hampshire County: Who Says County Government Has to Be a Three-Member Throwback to Virginia’s Old County Court System?” The attorneys said that, in the state’s 1872 constitutional convention, southern Democrats wanted to throw out the “township” model (which is similar to what we want to do in Hampshire County) that the Yankees set up in 1863, when the state “seceded” (it’s a complicated story) from Virginia. But they kept the provision giving county citizens the right to form their own government in the amended Constitution, as a concession to win support. But, the lawyers argued, the 1872 framers always intended for the legislature to oversee the county reform process, so the WV Supreme Court erred in its unanimous 1981 decision, Taylor County Commission v. Spencer, which requires the legislature to act on a county petition.

Our entire argument hinges on the Taylor decision, the centerpiece of Bastress’ presentation to the Court. He read from the decision:

“The use of the word ‘shall’ connotes a mandatory duty on the part of the Legislature. Its role in the reformation process is to expedite, within constitutional parameters, the will of the citizens of the county by producing enabling legislation which reflects the stated preference of the petitioning voters and provides the other voters of the county an opportunity to approve or to reject that alternative to the existing form of government. In effect, the Legislature is obliged by the constitution to vindicate the desires and designs of the voters of the county. This it is constitutionally required to do and beyond this it cannot act.”

In order for the legislature to win its appeal, the Court will have to overturn its own clear language.

Only two of the five justices asked many questions, so it was hard to tell where they would come down. I talked with a friend of mine on the Court staff later, and he said it would depend on whether the justices decide on principle or politics: if on principle, it favors us; if on politics, it overwhelmingly favors the legislature. He was glad to hear I didn’t have my hopes up.

I stopped off at the Charleston Gazette afterward, and they want an op-ed on the issue ASAP. The editor is under the correct impression that there’s a relationship between what we want to do, and Kanawha County’s attempt to consolidate the city and county government there, so I’ll talk about that. I’ll post it on the blog later. The Gazette’s got an AP story about yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing online today.

The other thing I wanted to briefly mention was the second presidential debate last night. It’s no surprise that virtually all the immediate post-debate polls gave the clear edge to Obama. McCain may think he does okay in town meeting formats, but maybe that’s when he’s the sole center of attention. The stunning contrast between Obama’s mature and leonine grace and McCain’s spiteful, doddering old stumblebum is no joke.

People have whispered about McCain’s mental deterioration. I’ve been watching him for years, the most frequent guest on Meet the Press, and this doesn’t look anything like the McCain of ten years ago to me. The erratic behavioral tics and Snidely Tonguelash routine he’s developed over this campaign are worrisome, especially with the Pentecostal fanatic (and her Zealot followers) he’s got slavering to take over from him. God help us all, if all the voting machines are rigged.

Now, back to our story.

It’s impossible to convey how devastated I was by the sense of hurt and betrayal I felt when Charlie refused to print my letter to the editor. All I was saying was something he’d heard me say a dozen times, at least: that I was as sick (probably sicker) of the vicious and ugly partisanship that was going back and forth between me and my counterpart in the column as the readers were.

But it was a trap that I hadn’t been able to escape. Sometimes I felt like I was in Thunderdome, tied at the wrist with a guy who I couldn’t get rid of until either I killed him or he killed me, with a crazed crowd cheering us on, lusting for blood. One local official once proposed to me that Scott and I stage a public boxing match, as a fundraiser for some charity. It was unnerving sometimes to see the sadistic glee in my friends’ eyes as they recited some of my more piercingly cruel comments.

I hated it. But what was I going to be—Alan Colmes? I had understood early on that in the Scots-Irish culture that prevails in this region, I couldn’t let insults go unanswered. And as a “liberal,” I was long tired of being bullied by ignorant fascists—which is essentially what my counterpart was. (I had heard rumors that he was connected with local Nazis—we have a chapter in this county—but never got any confirmation of that.) But the plain fact was: American mainstream media at every level (except on the Internet) is severely proscribed to a narrow range of political opinions that can be published (I call it the tyranny of the center), and I felt like I owed it to fellow progressives to hang on.

The most emotionally painful part of Charlie’s refusal to print the letter was the personal betrayal of our friendship. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let me defend myself from this attack by simply and openly explaining my feelings. We had sat in his office once a week for seven years, sharing confidences and laughs about everything, and now he was letting me share equal blame for an ugly situation he could have stopped at any time, by editing Scott’s falsehoods. But he didn’t. And now I would be tied at the wrist with Scott in people’s minds for the rest of my life. It was too terrible to bear.

But really, I shouldn’t have been caught so off-guard emotionally, because Charlie had betrayed me once before. It was during the 2000 election, and the only time I was ever allowed to take photographs for the Hampshire Review.

My reporter friend who covered county arts events at that time was going on vacation, and he knew that I was planning to go to this “alternative” bluegrass festival in the county, featuring David Grisham and other big names. So he asked me if I would use his company camera to take some pictures.

A few months before, the county commission had tried to stop the permit for the festival, to be held at this funky and beautiful resort/campsite called Buffalo Gap, because they’d heard that a large number of “undesirables” tended to show up at this particular production company’s events. I had written a satirical column about this affair, describing a meeting of the “Hamster County Commission” in an alternative universe. This allowed me to read the thoughts of the commissioners as they conducted their ridiculous deliberations. Most people thought it was funny. But as it turned out, the county poobahs weren’t going to let their negative feelings about the festival go unexpressed.

It was a beautiful weekend. But on the road out of Capon Bridge going up to Buffalo Gap, a task force of the sheriff’s department and state police had set up a roadblock, and pulled over along the side of the road were about a half-dozen cars and vans, with all their contents—sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes, food, tents—spilled out on the gravel next to their vehicles. The occupants were being questioned by officers.

I couldn’t believe they were doing this. It was so patently unconstitutional (as the US Supreme Court itself ruled, several months later). I was furious, and embarrassed for the county, and incredulous that they would pull a move this stupid, this death blow to the tourist industry—because this story was going to get around (a few years ago, Buffalo Gap, unable to prosper, was turned into another subdivision). But they didn’t bother to stop me, alone in my pickup with West Virginia tags, so I continued on to the festival.

I had a great time that day, my fury quickly subsiding in the festival’s omnipresent good vibes. I ran into some old friends, and really enjoyed my first real experience with a camera, trying to incorporate all the ideas about balance and composition I remembered from art school days. This gave me an opening to talk with a lot of people, too, some of whom had been stopped and searched. Despite the good vibes, there was an undercurrent of anger about how the festival had been “welcomed” into the county.

I had such a good time, and the world-class music was so good, that it wasn’t until almost midnight that I left. So I was amazed, at that hour, as I was driving back down the road, to see that the police still had the roadblock up, and had several vehicles pulled over. Obviously, this was a job for Super-photojournalist, who, having quaffed a couple of beers, was feeling pretty brave.

I pulled over on my side of the road about fifty yards in front of the roadblock. As I walked toward it, I wondered if the digital camera would focus itself in the sharply contrasting shadows of the roadblock’s lights. As soon as I got close enough, I started snapping pictures, and would snap one every few yards until I came up to the deputy interrogating three kids looking down at their feet, and took a picture of the interrogation.

“Hey, you can’t do that,” he says. “Who are you?”

“I’m Michael Hasty,” I answer. “I’m taking pictures for the Hampshire Review.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, in a tone that makes me think he’s probably a Republican, “I know who you are. You can’t take pictures here.”

It’s funny. I only thought for just a second before I replied, “What—you figure since you’ve already trashed the fourth amendment, you might as well trash the first one, too? Who’s in charge here? I want to talk to him.”

The deputy regarded me silently, with a kind of confused look on his face, for a minute, before he pointed at my feet and said, “Wait right here. No pictures.” Then he turned around and went over to caucus with the other deputies and state police.

The kids were all looking at me, wide-eyed. I apologized to them, on behalf of Hampshire County, for the way they’d been treated by some of our more overzealous ideologues, and hoped that they wouldn’t go away thinking everybody here is an asshole, because there are a lot of good people in this county. I asked them about what had happened. They were starting to tell me when the deputy came over and handed them their summons to the magistrate’s office, and told them to leave. Within a few minutes, the whole roadblock had closed down, and the only ones left were me and a couple of deputies.

I don’t remember how it started, but we had a rather earnest and vigorous conversation about the meaning of the Constitution for about twenty minutes, and then we left, too. The next day, I wrote a column about my outrage about this event (just titled “Amerika,” as I recall) and talking about how ironic it was that, if this had happened thirty years before, the roadblock could have snagged two of the three major presidential candidates, the exception being Ralph Nader, who despite his own teetotalling ways, nevertheless called for the legalization of marijuana—the Green Party platform.

When I took the column into the office on Monday morning, anxious to tell Charlie about the incident, the proverbial feces had already hit the proverbial fan.

You know, when I started telling this story, I didn’t really expect it to take this long. And now I seem to find myself caught in a diversionary thicket. But since this is supposed to be the “whole” story, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s gone on like this. I know how it ends, but I’m as interested as I hope you are to find out how I’m going to get there. So here’s my commitment: I’ll keep going until we arrive back in the present, and then we’ll all find out together if it was worth the trip.

Seeya tomorrow.

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