Friday, March 8, 2013

No Longer Ignorant or Blissful

We’re all indebted to Thomas Gray for coining the phrase “ignorance is bliss” in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College ( Twice this week I came away feeling less than thrilled upon finding out some realities.

I celebrated my 64th birthday Wednesday (thanks, all who Facebooked me or sent notes the old-fashioned way—by email—and the even more old-fashioned way, by snail mail). For years whenever asked about my birthday I would say March 6, the day the Alamo fell. Now, however, thanks to one of those annoying “15 seconds in time” Geico radio commercials, I learned that March 6 is the day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its most infamous ruling, the Dred Scott decision, in 1857.

While Geico did perform a public service in bringing this bit of historic news to my attention, I was less than pleased to hear how the insurance company framed the decision. It took the safe explanation, merely stating the judges ruled slave owners had the right to take their slaves into Western territories, that the federal government did not have the power to regulate slavery in those areas. 

What Geico did not point out is that in the Dred Scott decision the Court held that slaves were personal property, that people of African descent, whether free or slave, were not protected by the Constitution, that they had no rights as a U.S. citizen, that they had “no rights which any white man was bound to respect.” According to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott was the property of his owner, and property could not be taken from a person without due process of law (

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution basically have voided the Dred Scott decision, but disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and other minorities, has been a tragic legacy still weighing us down as a nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its subsequent renewal, helped expand voting rights, but the current challenge by Shelby County, Ala., to Section 5 of the law raises the prospect of another ignominious decision by the Court. 

Which brings me to my second enlightened disappointment of the week. I had followed coverage of the Supreme Court arguments. I remonstrated against Justice Antonin Scalia’s bigoted views and the absurdity and hypocrisy of a conservative judge advocating judicial advocacy to do the work of Congress. No, my reversal of ignorance is of a more personal nature.

Thanks to a clip on The Colbert Report Wednesday night, I once again was embarrassed to hear my cousin, Bert Rein, argue before the Supreme Court in favor of the entitled, in favor of those who would repress the rights of the disadvantaged. While the history of this country has been the (gradual) expansion of voting rights to all citizens, my cousin, representing Shelby County, stood for the belief that “the problem for which the Voting Rights Act was addressed is solved.” 

Did Bert sleep through the last election cycle? Did he not witness attempt after attempt by Republican elected officials in state after state to restrict voting access to minorities? 

Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss. 

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