Declaration of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

I am an American patriot.

I have been to war in the service of my country.

I vote each and every time.

I pay my taxes.

I do not pledge my allegiance to colored cloth.

That is the flimsy cloak of sunshine patriots.

I do not believe “My country right or wrong.”

If I see something wrong with my country it is my duty to try to put it right.

I do not believe that God’s law is America’s law.

We make our own laws, thank you very much.

I have been alive for 72 Independence Days.

This one is decidedly different from any 4th of July in my lifetime.

And not just because of canceled fireworks and parades and closed beaches.

Or because masks threaten my freedom to infect my fellow Americans.

Covid-19 isn’t the only threat to America’s health and well being.

Nor even the greatest threat.

No, I fear in my heart that this may be America’s final Independence Day.

Not to put a fine point on it, but we have put a hate-mongering, bigoted man-child in the White House.

And we have stacked the Senate with his enablers.

And as much as we might like to think otherwise, his election was no fluke.

We knew what he was.

He told us.

And we still elected him.

Out of hate-spite-fear-defiance-anger.

Choose your preferred poison.

Moreover, we created the conditions that allowed this spewing goblin to ascend to the highest office in the land.

In my lifetime I have seen Americans divide themselves against Americans.

By race.

By income.

By party.

By city/state/suburb/rural zip codes.

We have for a generation elected politicians who campaigned on the premise that government is incompetent.

And then, having been elected, they proceeded to make government ever more incompetent.

Delivering on their self-fulfilling prophecy.

Too many or us didn’t bother to vote when we should have.

And while we weren’t voting, the government-is-bad elite quietly passed suppression laws to keep as many of us as possible from ever voting again.

We helped ourselves to government entitlements.

While we cut our taxes and paid for our entitlements by saddling our kids with the IOUs .

We segregated ourselves, one against another; in our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods.

We militarized our police, created a money-sucking prison-industrial complex, and threw ever larger sums at a bloated military to keep us from harm abroad.

Even as we cut funds for schools, colleges, social services and health care.

And now we wonder why we lead the world in coronavirus cases.

We became the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization.

Ostensibly to protect ourselves from the police/incarceration/military state we paid so much money to create.

And then we wonder why it is that self-proclaimed militias wielding military-grade hardware – and often waving confederate and Nazi banners – have suddenly appeared outside our state houses demanding the surrender of the very people we elected.

And we ask:

What went wrong?

How did this happen?

But the fault, my fellow Americans, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

But I am an American patriot.

And I do not yet despair.

I believe that we have it in our collective power to right this foundering ship of state that we call the United States of America.

We have one more chance.

This is my declaration.

On Nov. 4th we Americans will turn out the bloviating autocrat and his enablers.

And we will do it decisively.

And then we will begin again.

Or we will not.

In which case the American idea, the great American experiment, will be well and truly dead and buried.

This will be the most important election in my lifetime.

In my 72 years.

But even if we do the right thing on Nov. 3, we cannot expect things to magically turn around.

America will not suddenly become great again.

We have so much work to do.

The healing of deeply ingrained racial, religious and economic schisms.

The reclaiming of government that has for too long been for the wealthy, by the wealthy and of the wealthy.

I do not expect all of this this to happen overnight.

I don’t even expect this renewal to be completed in my lifetime.

America remains, as it has ever been, a work in progress.

But I do expect it to happen.

Because I am an American patriot and I believe.

I believe in the vitality of the American dream.

And I sense, at long last, a sea change occurring in the American spirit.

This is our moment.

This is our destiny.

This is our new Declaration of Independence.

Our best days lie ahead.

But only if we have the courage and the wisdom and the fortitude to take our country back from the exploiters and the opportunists and the haters.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…

Discarded monuments

I originally wrote this piece in the summer of 2017, when I was traveling in Russia. It seems a good idea to revisit now that confederate monuments are coming down all across the U.S. Give the Russians credit where credit’s due. RC

Stalin’s got a busted nose.

Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced.

His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.

In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.

He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths.

Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to.

And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face.

“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.

Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”

But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials.

Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”

In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.

Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.

Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”

The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.

And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.

I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.

Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.)

The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.

But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy.

Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,

After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park.

Not to be glorified, however.

Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.

Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.

Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown.

Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.

And then there’s the giant hand.

Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.

Moscow does not believe in tears.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.

It’s just so complex(ion)

What gives?

Why are the cops so tough on some people?
And so solicitous toward others?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe the police are afraid of these guys because they are armed to the teeth.
While these people are armed with nothing more than righteous indignation.
Maybe it’s because these people are rude.
And these people are courteous.
Perhaps it’s because these people are rabble.
While these people have friends in high places.
It could be because these people are complaining about police misconduct.
While these people just want death for politicians.
Or that these people wave the flag.
And these people don’t.
I dunno. It’s such a conundrum.
Really, it’s such a complex(ion) question.

The unmasked man

When you think about it, wearing a mask in these infectious times is the ultimate act of selflessness.

Alas, selflessness is not deemed an American virtue these days.

I think it’s tucked into the Declaration of Independence somewhere: Life, liberty and the freedom to infect my fellow Americans.

That codicil coming right before: Suppress votes, not germs.

Which, when you think about that, is pretty much the ethos of the Party Of Trump.

So it wasn’t surprising to read state Sen. Keith Perry’s condemnation of Alachua County’s face mask mandate in last Sunday’s Sun.

It “sends the wrong message to local business owners that the government can operate their businesses better than they can,” Perry wrote.

Which is also a great argument against restaurant sanitation inspections, fire prevention codes and policing bars to make sure they aren’t serving 17-year-olds.

As Perry assures us, “In the absence of a mandate, businesses can still implement health and safety measures as they see fit and allow the consumer to shop where they are most comfortable.”

Of course, we know from his history that Perry objects to lots of things cities and counties do.

He objects to Gainesville selling electricity. He objects to Alachua County banning gay conversion therapy and buying land that he had his eye on. This coming session he wants to crack down on local occupational licenses.

And let’s not overlook the political propaganda embedded in Perry’s call to liberate Alachua residents from the tyranny of county mask enforcement.

“While not yet as loaded as a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown,” reports the Associated Press.

Listen, with an election year unfolding in the face of widespread joblessness and an ever-steeper body count, pretty much the only thing Republicans have left on which to hang their re-election hopes is the party’s time-tested “government is the enemy” rant.

Trump sets the example: He doesn’t like masks, won’t wear one and urges armed protestors to “liberate” their states from the pro-maskers (Democrats).

Not to forget Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva’s recent tweet that “we are past the limit of acceptable government intervention in a free society.”

Olivia asks: “We measure Covid cases but who is measuring the wide spread destruction of people’s personal and financial lives?”

He might have strengthened his case by pointing out that, despite all of this unwarranted government intervention, America still leads the world in COVID-19 deaths.” Except that might lead to uncomfortable questions about why Trump, his party’s standard bearer, sat on his hands for so long while he tried to wish the virus away.

There will inevitably be real casualties in this war of words.

Like the security guard in Michigan who was shot in the head for presuming to enforce face mask compliance in a Family Dollar store. He left a wife and eight children.

“If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, COVID-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one twelfth the number of infections—compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks,” reports Vanity Fair, citing new research.

Maybe. But saving lives at the risk of making America bluer would be a selfless act indeed for Trump and his Freedom To Infect Party.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.

Red and our right to know

J. Emory “Red” Cross was a maverick in the Florida Legislature who believed that his constituents ought to know what their government was doing in their names.

(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)

What’s in a name?

If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.

Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.

“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.

“My name is Red Cross.

“That might have won me the election.”

Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.

And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”

But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:

Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.

And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.

In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.

Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.

And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.

“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.

“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”

And therein hangs a tale worth telling.

Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.

“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”

Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.

“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”

Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.

“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”

How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.

And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.

Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.

“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.

Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.

When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”

Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”

That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”

“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”

What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.

Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.

“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”

Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”

Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.

Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”

In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”