24 November 2010

Yet We Must Abide

I would like to respond at some length to a comment made on my previous entry, Thoughts on Scans and Pat Downs.  Kristin wrote:
"What's interesting is that your comment "when a decision is made" doesn't include any of our individual concerns when they make their decision, but yet we must abide. And even with this loss of individual rights, are we really that much more 'secure?'"
First, some may consider the fact that the head of the TSA, an executive branch appointee, has to be confirmed by the Senate.  Because both the President and Senators are elected, one might argue that the electorate has had a voice in who heads the agency which makes the rules under which the electorate must operate.  Take that for what it is worth, which is not much, substantively, in my thinking.

What drives the executive branch - in particular the agencies which would have to respond to events like another 9-11 or hurricane Katrina - to make the policy decisions is a desire to avoid a negative response from the electorate after an horrific event.  Heads roll after horrible events; they don't tend to roll before a potential event.  Thus, there is at least some self-preservation operating with regard to the rule makers.

This self-preservation is not, on their part, an irrational act by the policy makers - if keeping their jobs is highly important to them.  The idea, particularly in urban areas, that the federal government must respond energetically and omnipotently to a disaster.  Most notably was the outcry for the lack of federal response to hurricane Katrina, particularly from the people and politicians in New Orleans - never mind the total lack of response from the truly responsible parties at the city and state levels.  President Bush never recovered politically from the false impression that the lack of a federal response to Katrina caused the city to be decimated and the urban population to suffer.

As a result, politicians and policy makers don't want to get "Katrina'd" and therefore come up with preemptive measures which can be pointed to in case some horrific event does happen.  These measures are the "but we did (insert preventative measure here), so we cannot be blamed" tactic.

The sad truth is that the part of the electorate that demands an energetic and omnipotent federal response to tragedy bears much of the blame for such policies.  So, if the TSA does not want to have its collective head handed to it by the public, then rules, procedures, and policies become more and more stringent - just in case something might could happen.

I could go on to discuss the infantilization of the electorate, zero-tolerance culture and such, but it is sufficient to say that TSA frisks and such are a result of a not-so-uncommon desire on the part of the electorate to be protected from tragedy.  The TSA may not have asked explicitly for public opinion, but public responses to past tragedies and political self-preservation drive decisions.  I don't expect government agencies to change "safety uber alles" mantra any time soon, if ever.  But then again, that's just my read on it; I could be wrong.

23 November 2010

Thoughts on Scans and Pat Downs

There has been an overabundance of talk about the TSA’s new security measures – full body scans and frisks. The conversation ranges from “do everything possible to make sure that nothing bad happens on any flight,” particularly another terrorist attack, to “this is a violation of fundamental rights” and every shade in between.

The discussion is useful, I think, if there is an understanding that the real question lies underneath the security versus rights debate. There will always be a tradeoff between security and individual rights; the more safety one demands from the state, the more individual liberty one must relinquish to the state. On the other hand, if one is willing to accept a relatively less secure situation, one tends to be able to exercise more individual liberty.

There is also another important thing to understand, or be reminded of, when it comes to the government providing security: once the measures are decided upon, compliance is not optional. It is more important, I think, to consider how intrusive we want our government to become in our lives in exchange for safety from those who wish us harm. It is my estimation that the more we allow the former, the more indistinguishable the two will become.

09 November 2010

Of Happy Meals and Individual Liberty

In an article on CNN.com, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar attempts to explain why he felt the need to propose and push a city ordinance that bans the addition of a toy to any nutritionally suspect meal.  Mr. Mar cites child health costs, impact with regard to the city's budget, and states that "everyone must do their part" to fight child obesity.

It seems that Mr. Mar feels that his "part" is to tell others how to run their private restaurants.  It would stand to reason that Mr. Mar might suggest that restaurants like McDonald's "part" would be to offer government sanctioned meals for kids.  Mr. Mar might also suggest that the "part" parents should play is to expect restaurants to offer only nutritious, government sanctioned meals (which may include a toy) so that neither they nor their children are tempted by less healthy choices - the toy being a lure.

I might suggest the folks he's trying to help - according to his own words, "[c]ommunities of color and low-income families" - simply vote with their dollars rather than have rules imposed by government.  That would be an exercise in individual liberty (pardon the pun).  I might further suggest that if folks did take their business elsewhere that, over the long term, restaurants like McDonald's would offer more choices which would appeal to health-minded consumers (regardless of economic or ethnic "status").  Again, restaurant owners would exercise their individual liberty by freely choosing - albeit influenced by business concerns - to offer different food options.  But somehow I do not think that the Supervisor had individual liberty in mind when he wrote and promoted this law.

I might further suggest that if Mr. Mar is truly and deeply concerned about the health and welfare of the children of San Francisco that he devise a business plan and open a restaurant which offers healthy, inexpensive, fast meals.  That, however, would be a financial risk; one which I'm willing to bet Mr. Mar would not be willing to make.  Far easier to legislate, as political "capital" is made and spent far easier than real money.

08 November 2010

Who Should Drive the Car?

President Obama, among many other Liberals, has repeatedly likened the economy to driving a car.  The use of this metaphor reveals a serious misunderstanding on the part of the user.

Mr. Obama and his supporters, in order to cast blame on Republican lawmakers, state that the GOP drove the economic car into a ditch and therefore cannot be trusted with the keys.  The choice implied - the only choice available in our political system - is to leave the keys in Democrat (read: Liberal) hands.  But what the use of this metaphor shows is a fundamental misunderstanding of free-market economy.  By using this metaphor, Mr. Obama assumes that the government must be in the driver's seat.  That he and other Liberals repeatedly use this metaphor suggests that the assumption of government as economic driver is a fundamental one.  It is not, say, a conclusion reached, but rather a basis from which to develop policy.

Private parties, not the government, should be in the economic driver's seat.  The government's proper role is to set the "rules of the road", so to speak, and those rules should not direct the economy (as was done in home mortgage lending, for instance) but rather make it fairly safe for participants on all of the given highways and side streets.

27 October 2010

Thoughts Before Election Day 2010

Perhaps unlike many with whom I share common values – call us Tea Partiers, conservatives, Constitutionalists, whatever – I am hesitant to become too excited about the upcoming election day. I can best express my feelings of the prospects this election day with an analogy to watching Chicago Blackhawks hockey. The analogy isn’t perfect; no analogy is, I suppose. But it will suffice for the time being.

As a life-long Blackhawks fan, I had suffered through what some have called 49 years of futility. Most un-memorable, perhaps, were the teams of the early 2000s. Or rather, they were memorable for what they might have been.

It wasn’t that the Blackhawks did not ice good players during the early 200s. But it seemed that the team either expected too much from players or that certain players didn’t expect enough of themselves. A fan favorite like Kyle Calder eventually left Chicago after the 2005-06 season, bounced around the league, and never again approached the 20-goal mark he twice broke in the Windy City. While in Chicago, Calder was given first line time and put up bigger numbers as his career progressed, though his hard work in the ugly areas of the ice is his forte. The team expected a lot of Calder. Perhaps he did not understand how he would fit in elsewhere, or that his leading role on the Blackhawks was earned and would not transfer to elsewhere. In any case, Calder has not played in the NHL for nearly a year. On the other hand, Tyler Arnason was given every chance to become a star in the league. What’s more, he had the skills to be a star. But as is widely reported, Arnason didn’t have the tenacity to show up for every game and every shift. He would take shifts off regularly. He did not expect enough of himself. And so, Arnason also left the NHL, or rather, the NHL left him behind.

The Republican Party – the only party which has an abundance of candidates and officeholders who are conservative – probably suffers from both of the above symptoms. We, as supporters of the party, cannot ask too much of our elected officials. By that, I mean that we must not throw them under the bus if they are unable to do the vital things we are asking of them. If they plow ahead in a steady manner, if they do not deviate from the course (meaning “compromise” away the legislative exercise of our common goals), then we should allow them the time to continue their work. On the other hand, those who do not have the tenacity for the task at hand – the rebuilding of our government based on a non-living, non-breathing Constitution – must be left behind, and this must be done during the primary process. We must not allow unopposed reelection of all sitting Republicans simply due to their incumbency. Each and every candidate must be accountable for his record during the primary.

The post-lockout defensive re-tooling of the Blackhawks, through the signing of Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore, was supposed to provide the ‘Hawks with a steady, explosive core from which to build. Unfortunately, management had not factored in rules changes when these players were signed. The ‘Hawks had been rebuilt for a game which had existed before the lockout; the game – and many players on the way to the net – passed the Blackhawks by. It took years to rebound from that mistake. In fact, about four years.

If the “game” passes conservatives by, if it passes Republicans by, we need to keenly take note of that. Once in the majority in either legislative house, Republicans must begin the effort to repeal and replace, to de-develop the federal government. Those who would be passive because, and in truth, such efforts will be vetoed by the sitting President need to be challenged in their next primary race and thereby replaced. The process of replacing these folks whose time has passed will indeed take years, but that rebuilding effort will be well worth it.

Finally, there were many times in the early 2000s when, as a Blackhawk fan, optimism ran high – indeed, too high. Even within individual games, there seemed to (even if only occasionally) be a sort of “high” in every potential win. And yet all too often, the outcome would be negative. One common refrain between my sister and I when watching the ‘Hawks was, “That would have been cool.” This feeling ran so deep – the high expectations followed by dispiriting let down – that when Patrick Kane scored the Stanley Cup winner in overtime, I stood motionless in front of the television. I did not celebrate; I stood silently and waited for the play to be waved off, for the referee to blow the whistle for the next faceoff. I went so far as to, in the most pessimistic part of my mind, concede Game 6, Game 7, and the Cup. It would have been true to form for the ‘Hawks of the early 2000s – not their fault, just destined to happen. Only after Kane’s goal became official did I allow myself to believe.

The same stand true for my expectations for Tuesday night, 2 November 2010. It seems that all of the pundits and true electoral experts (like Barone) are predicting a Republican house and a split Senate. Given the history of the Republican Party, I won’t be all that excited with a win on Tuesday. I’ll be excited if, once in office, Republicans stick to the hard road of de-developing the federal government. Anything short of that will not be cause for celebration.

11 October 2010

A Comment on a Comment on Columbus Day

The night before Columbus Day, I read a comment on a social network that suggested each one of us celebrate the day by walking into someone’s house and declaring it ours, essentially kicking out the owners of the house. This post struck me as harmful for one reason in particular.

The comment reveals a belief that loathing history is more important to some than learning from the past. To think that Columbus – or Westerners for that matter – was unique in that his actions displaced indigenous people is contrary to reality. Indeed, throughout history the expansion of one people or country has come at the cost of another. There is a level of self-loathing, then, coupled with demonizing Columbus, his supposed ill-gotten gains being the beginning steps of the very country which allows folks to make comments on social networks. It is akin to despising the house in which one lives, declaring its builder and financer evil people, and yet refusing to move out of the house. Nevertheless, not a few Americans live within this contradiction. I see this condition as very unhealthy for the country because it seems to constantly point backward with a damning finger instead of seriously considering lessons which ought to be (and in some significant ways, have) learned and proceeding with greater wisdom.

On the other hand, the former is much easier and ideologically safer to do than the latter – which explains much. George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Thinking is a difficult business; it is human nature to avoid difficult tasks if they can be avoided. Orthodoxy provides the road. But, I think, it is healthier to question ourselves, our pasts, and our values not so that we can look critically backwards but so that we make a habit of carrying valid lessons forward.

02 October 2010

Education as a Privilege

In all of the ballyhoo about education "reform", about the need to transform our system of public education, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding regarding education. This misunderstanding may not exist in the day-to-day attitudes of many students, parents, or teachers, but it is deeply embedded into the maze of laws, regulations, and dictates which flow from the state and, more and more, the federal levels. The misunderstanding regards the acts of educating and learning.

The misunderstanding is that a child has a right to an education. This is a false statement, though it is easy to understand why some may believe it to be true. Saying that a child has a right to an education implies that nothing should get in the way of that education; that somehow, an education should be imputed upon him. This misunderstanding places - at least in theory - all of the responsibility for the outcome of education on forces outside of the student himself. He becomes the passive receiver of education. It disregards the fact that the student is active in his education; it may even attempt to diminish or negate the times when the student actively works against his own education (and the education of others, as well). In the end, it treats the student as a thing instead of a person - with all of the complexities that comes with being a person.

The Latin word for the verb "to learn" is discere. One of the important things about the Latin verb discere is that it has no passive form; it has only active forms. Therefore, one could not say, "I learned the students math today." Learning requires action by the person learning. And yet, because an education has become a right in the eyes of many, there is a corresponding belief in some (or many) that the gaining of an education can be - or should be - largely a passive exercise by the student. And so, laws are created ostensibly to put more and more emphasis on removing all barriers to this kind of passive learning. What laws and regulations of this sort may actually do is kick the can of "hard learning" down the road while simultaneously pushing off difficult learning tasks onto others - or simply neglecting them altogether. Thus, in pursuit of a right to education, many students may well have their education actively blocked by "well intended" laws and regulations.

This must change.

The only thing a student has a right to is an opportunity to gain a basic education - the ability to read, write, and work with numbers. The reason why my statement is limited to the very basics rests in the nature of equality of outcome. If we are to guarantee a right to something - even the guarantee of opportunity - it must always be at a minimal level, at least as these guarantees apply to the nation as a whole. To claim that every student in every corner of this large nation will have the same educational opportunities in total is to promise the impossible. Too much variety of resources, needs, and desires exist - even if one were to only look within a large school district. Thus, the guarantee of opportunity must be limited to the basics, to those things which can in reality be available for all students in all locations: mathematics, literature (fiction and non-fiction), and writing.

Outside of those basics, it should be up to localities to offer educational opportunities based on how they choose to use their time, money, and resources. This will, of course, result in vastly different educational opportunities for children; opportunities will vary based on location and culture, on community and family decisions, and on the relative importance that each individual puts on his education (or how much pressure each parent puts upon his child to gain an education). But this diversity - and I mean diversity in the truest sense of the word - has the potential to birth a creative, responsible, and intellectually curious generation in a way that our current top-down, authoritarian education apparatus may promise but can never fulfill.

23 September 2010

There is No “Right to Serve”

I just finished reading an article in the NYT which, among other flaws, bears the headline “Military Equality Goes Astray”. (It appears that the link requires registration, which is why no hotlink is presented.) While no form of the word “equal” appears anywhere in the article, the gist is that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is prejudicial in that it precludes openly homosexual persons from serving in the military.

Indeed, it is prejudicial. It is also only one of a myriad of ways in which the military selects servicemen and women. The military also discriminates according to age, intelligence, physical fitness, mental fitness, past behavior, ability to train, and probably dozens of other ways which don’t immediately come to mind. After beginning service, the military discriminates even more, based on the serviceman or woman’s ability to live by the UCMJ and all directives. These include prohibitions against adultery, alcohol abuse (and even alcohol use in some locations), and fraternization.

It is right and proper that the military does discriminate in these ways because in the final analysis, the “right” of a person to serve – if there is such a “right” which can be dreamt up under some lefty bo tree – should always be trumped by the requirements of the military.

What follows is a thought exercise only.
Let’s assume that everyone has a “right to serve” in the military. Let’s suppose that Gene (a completely fictional character) has convinced himself that he really wants to join the Army. Gene has a bit of a colored past…he’s written some bad checks. In fact, he’s written enough bad checks to be charged and hauled into court. Gene is also more than a bit out of shape – running two miles is not on the horizon for him – and has trouble with basic math – he freezes on math tests. Should this hypothetical person be “accommodated” (to use a euphemism from the world of public education) so that his theoretical “right to serve” is not infringed? Given only what is presented here, would Gene make a good soldier? Should he be trusted with a rifle or an artillery piece?

Let’s suppose the answer is yes; the military (whatever branch) gives Gene the opportunity to serve. Pardon me…bows to his “right to serve”. Going further down the road of this thought exercise, let’s suppose that Gene somehow cannot stop writing bad checks. Six months into his service, Gene has written so many bad checks that he is no longer able to write checks on base and is on restriction. The military then chooses to terminate his service, and Gene is discharged. If Gene has a “right to serve,” shouldn’t the military be required to keep him on even if he cannot conduct himself by the rules? How much energy should the military expend to keep Gene in the military so as to support his “right to serve”?

In my view, the hypothetical Gene would best not be allowed to serve if for no other reason than his habitual writing of bad checks. It’s a pattern. If Gene were to habitually get into bar brawls, he probably shouldn’t be allowed to serve, either. That Gene should have a right to serve is counter to the idea of service – where the person serving proves himself worthy based partially on his willingness and ability to live by set rules and regulations. (I would also suggest that this is true of any kind of service, not just military service.)

Now, I’m not equating open homosexuality with writing bad checks or being physically unfit. The point is that there is not, nor should there be, absolute equality when it comes military service; there is no “right to serve.” People who wish to serve in the military must submit to the rules and regulations of the military – rules, it should be noted, that Congress ultimately holds the hammer on. Even though this is completely counter to the current culture of spontaneously generated “rights,” the military is not a non-discriminatory institution, nor should it be.

20 September 2010

Redefining Diversity

(What follows is an incomplete idea which I’ve developed while reading F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit. My goal is to show the value of shifting the connotation of “diversity” or what makes up a “diverse group” from its current form to something more substantive. Comments, points of discussion, and disagreements are appreciated.)

If one were to ask for a working definition of the word “diversity,” one might reliably hear a mix of phrases involving sex, ethnicity, skin color, religious belief, and income level. Thus, a “diverse group” of people would consist of various combinations of the preceding individual characteristics. As a matter of practice, we are told that groups which achieve a certain, arbitrary level of “diversity” – as much of a mix of ethnicities, colors, etc. – are indeed more valid than less “diverse” groups.

Interestingly, several of the factors which go toward making up what passes for a “diverse” are not indicative or predictive of what an individual brings to a group.

A person’s color does not determine his behavior, his values, or his abilities; to think it does reduces the individual to a stereotype and is essentially negatively prejudicial. A person’s ethnicity is not determinative of his behavior, values, or abilities, either. While some cultures and ethnicities carry differing values and mores, these are not constant across an entire ethnic population. Thus, while understanding a person’s cultural background may be beneficial for initial interpersonal understanding – or at least the reduction of misunderstanding – it does not predict an individual’s character.

Just as cultural background may give a broad-brush feel for a person’s general character, but not his specific character, so too can religion. To hear that a person belongs to a particular religion may provide an initial basis for interpersonal understanding, but is not the final word.

Income level, I think, is the least predictive of individual behaviors. Some may assume that because a person is poor, he will act in a certain way or that he has some special needs that others do not. Similarly, some may assume that an affluent person maintains attitudes about those less economically well off or that, because of his economic status, he necessarily “avoids” certain difficulties in life. None of these makes sense outside of stereotyping and assuming. Indeed, assumptions of these kinds may well lead to interpersonal misunderstanding and alienation.

As an alternative to the above mentioned criteria, it might well be better to call a “diverse” group one which brings a number of different, discrete abilities to a group.

This kind of diversity can easily been observed in team sports. One look at the starters on a professional (American) football team shows quite a range of simple physical diversity. Along with the differences in physique come different individual capabilities and limitations. There are, to be sure, diverse intellectual attitudes toward the game as well, the various positions requiring somewhat different attitudes and facilities. But what is more important is that these abilities and limitations, these attitudes and facilities, have found their niche in the team structure as dictated by the game itself. Given this working explanation of diversity, teams which most completely engender it have the greatest chance of success (though certainly not a guarantee – there are no guarantees in sports or, for that matter, in life).

Thus, it seems paradoxical that basing diversity off of what might be characterized as “natural” factors which one might use to judge diversity actually result in a synthetic, superficial kind of diversity. Conversely, what might be characterized “developed” factors tend to create meaningful diversity. The difficulty, it seems to me, lies in the reluctance to make judgments about individual character. It is far easier to set an arbitrary benchmark for “diversity” based on bubble-filled personal characteristics: race, ethnicity, religion, sex, income level, etc. It is far more difficult in today’s world to build a group based on “developed” factors – abilities, limitations, attitudes, facilities, values, etc. – without being accused of some sort of negative prejudice, the accusation usually coming in an ad hominem attack. However, changing our view of what makes a group diverse would do much to relieve our culture of much “victimhood” and would move us closer to realizing Martin Luther King Junior’s ideal of judging each other not based on the color of skin – or any other “natural” differentiating factor – but by the content of character.

19 September 2010

A Comment Worth Considering – Keynes’ Long Run

Reading F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit has proven to be a valuable use of time – especially considering the brevity of the work (a slim 140 pages). I find Hayek’s consideration of others’ words especially important and interesting. One quote that bears significance to our current economic (and cultural) situation comes from John Maynard Keynes, whose economic philosophy has been out into active practice recently and most pointedly since President Obama’s inauguration.

Keynes is said to have “justified some of his economic views, and his general belief in a management of the market order, on the ground that ‘in the long run we are all dead” (57). There are a couple of potential explications of Keynes’ proposition.

One is that if the short run is not taken care of – in an economic view, if Keynes’ prescription for spending is not followed – then the long run doesn’t matter, as economic ruin will surely follow. This take would have the public and those who set policy concentrate on short term stability, apparently with the assumption that continual short term stability would necessarily lead to long term stability.

Another, and one which Hayek puts forward, is that the long term is not even a consideration for Keynes. Or perhaps better put, if foreseeable consequences in the long term are either “beyond our possible perception” or indicate failure of the desired short term goals, then it is best to dispose of discussion of the long term altogether (57). After all, if we are indeed all dead in the long term, then we can – perhaps even should – adopt a carpe diem fiscal attitude; make the short term as comfortable as possible and ignore the wall which awaits in the long term. This sort of fatalistic thinking would be only academically interesting, instead of worrisome, if it weren’t being put into practice today.

As our federal government expands spending, entitlements, and bureaucratic growth in pursuit of proving Keynes’ economic theories can pull the nation out of its current recession, it is instructive that Keynes himself dismisses the long run. I suppose that dismissing the long run is forgivable if a theory remains on paper only; if it is not put into practice, it never encounters the long run. But since the Obama administration and the Democrat congress has decided to pursue Keynes’ theory in the short run – to the tune of trillions of dollars – we cannot dismiss the long term impacts of such spending. Given the performance of such spending in the short run, one can only imagine the deleterious effects of the accumulated debt in the long run.

Work Cited

Hayek, F.A. The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1991. Print.

17 September 2010

Mort Kondracke’s Wacko Litmus Test

Tonight on Special Report, commentator Mort Kondracke made a stunning declaration that he has developed a “litmus test” (his words) to tell which Republican candidates backed by various Tea Party groups are “wackos” (again, his word). Mr. Kondracke says that if one of these candidates says that the Department of Education should be abolished, then that candidate is a “wacko”. Mr. Kondracke equates the term “wacko” with far-right wing extremists who are unworthy of holding office. Mr. Kondracke’s litmus test could not be more off base.

First, as Stephen Hayes noted on the same program, it would be worthwhile to have a discussion about how schools have performed under increasingly greater and greater interference – or direction, depending on one’s point of view – from the federal level. Mr. Kondracke claims that schools are horrible now, with the implication that the federal role should at least be maintained if not increased. But this is typical for supporters of big government; if something isn’t working, then the size and scope of federal intervention must be increased in order to “solve” whatever problem is perceived. The idea that government is the problem when it comes to education (to borrow a phrase from President Reagan) seems to never enter the mid of bog government types.

Mr. Kondracke’s point – that abolishing stacks of levels of federal administration is a “wacko” idea – suggests a counter to his litmus test. One might posit that any person who claims that government agencies and programs are entities which cannot, must not be reduced or eliminated is himself a “wacko” of a different sort – a big government sort (regardless of party affiliation). Attaching the “wacko” label, though, would be ad hominem, so it might be best left off.

What might be more productive than various litmus tests would be several analyses and debates about the real-world efficacy and constitutionality of the multitude of departments which have sprouted over time in the executive branch of the US government. Surely some of them are necessary (Defense, State come to mind immediately). Others invite debate. One thing is for sure: if the government is unable or unwilling to critically evaluate its various agencies and departments, it will one day grow so large as to crush itself from its own mass.

As an aside, I invite Mr. Kondracke to read J. Gresham Machen’s testimony regarding the proposed formation of the Department of Education, given in February of 1926. It is quite a read.

16 September 2010

Restraining Our Appetites

While reading F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, I came across the following quote from Edmund Burke: "Men are qualified for civil liberties, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their appetites: in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity." What struck me about Burke’s words are not simply that there ought to be a link between liberty and responsibility, but rather the universality of the negative aspects within men, those things which must be controlled in order to live a good life.

That all men have within them some basic, fundamentally negative aspects – or perhaps better put, selfish aspects – is reflected in a quote from Bob Dylan. Dylan captures something that is essential to remember about the human condition: “Human nature really hasn’t changed in 3,000 years. … It’s not meant to change. It cannot change. It’s not made to change.” Thus, there are aspects of being human which simply cannot be avoided; they must rather be confronted. For Burke, appetites – those things that individuals crave – need to be constrained and redirected (if not conquered).

I mention all of this because it seems that our culture may be at a pivot point. We may, as a culture, embrace our appetites and allow for far greater government control of necessities (food, shelter, individual security, physical health, etc.). We may, however, commit to control over our individual selves; we may choose “to put moral chains on [our] appetites” so that we may exercise personal liberty. I for one choose the latter. At least that way, if I purposefully fail, I can easily find the person to blame.

13 September 2010

Nihilism in Dostoevsky's Devils

Nihilism is significant issue in Dostoevsky's Devils.  It infects characters, especially younger characters, to a greater or lesser degree.  It is captured in the character of Kirillov, a civil engineer and eventual suicide.  He thinks his suicide is meaningful - indeed, the only meaningful suicide up to this point in histoy.  What it represents is the physical manifestation of his own philosophy.

Kirillov comes to represent an excellent culmination of nihilistic thought and being. As an atheist, he does not believe in the actuality of God, though it may be reasoned that the idea of god is a very real thing for him. Indeed, the idea of god is so lofty, so different in kind from man that it will take a sort of "new man" to become in actuality what God is as an idea. This "new man" will not "care whether he lives or dies" and will "[conquer] fear and pain" as he "become[s] God." According to Kirillov's theory, this "new man" will usher in a whole new world; he will be his own revelation. All of this seems far too lofty and important, too meaningful for a nihilist to handle intellectually while maintaining his philosophical position. This is where Kirillov's theory takes a bizarre, yet in my opinion functional turn (121).

Kirillov concludes that the only thing he "can do to demonstrate in the highest degree [his] own independence and [his] terrifying new freedom" is to kill himself (694). For him, this is no idle threat or intellectual exercise; he really and truly means to do it. The need to negate one's self is, according to his own theory, the obligation of a "new man" and the pathway to opening a new world. What I find so consistent in how Kirillov wraps up his theory is that it plants him firmly in the same spot where his intellectual roots - nihilism - are. The word nihil, in Latin, literally means nothing. The flourishes about God, god, and "new men" are more romanticism than philosophy, more a peek at the human need of (and, I would argue, the natural necessity for) something more, something greater than itself. Since his atheism forces him to reject God, Kirillov must put a man - himself - in the place of God. Kirillov's nihilism, in turn, deals with the man. In the end, Kirillov's nihilism makes him the embodiment of nothing.

Work Cited
Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  Devils.  Trans. Michael R. Katz.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.  Print.

10 September 2010

Remembering September 11th Through Poetry

While there will undoubtedly be countless hours of television remembering the events which took place nine years ago, I urge folks to take a few minutes to read a poem.  The poem is "The Names".  It was written by Billy Collins, who, as poet laureate, was compelled to compose some sort of memorial piece.  I for one am thankful for his circumstance; he composed a simple, elegant piece of poetry.

The poem can be found at several different sites, but I recommend checking out the PBS site (link here).  At the top of the PBS link, there are options to watch or listen to Mr. Collins reading "The Names".  Although at the time of writing the video link was broken, perhaps it will be fixed in the near future.  In any case, please take the time to read the poem and remember.

07 September 2010

Consistency of Argument – Can Versus Should

In the dust-up over the building of the Ground Zero mosque, several political types supported – and continue to support – its construction based on the First Amendment’s assertion of freedom of religion. Politicians like New York City Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama make the argument that the government cannot refuse the right to build on the proposed location simply because some (or most) Americans (or New Yorkers) feel it should not be built there. These political types, we are told, are doing the hard work of upholding the Constitution against a formidable foe: public opinion, or the tyranny of the majority.

I hope that in the next few days, the very same politicians who ardently support the building of the Ground Zero mosque as an expression of freedom of religion will also and with equal vigor support the burning of Muslim holy books in Florida over this coming weekend. If, as we are told, what is legal and constitutionally allowable cannot be denied to a person, then these two actions – the expression of religious freedom and the expression of free speech – must be equally supported. To not do so is transparently disingenuous.

On the other hand, those in the majority of everyday folks say that the Ground Zero mosque can be built, but given the special circumstances of the location and its special history, should not be built. It’s a matter of judgment, not a matter of rights. It would not surprise me if those very same people also firmly believe that the yahoo who wants to burn Qurans has the right to do it but absolutely should not – it’s simply wrong. What’s more, this consistency of argument poses no issues of disingenuousness.

03 September 2010

The Result of an Unexamined Life

There are plenty of times when things happen which could not be predicted beforehand. Then there are times when evidence exists which can indicate the general path of things, like the future track of a tropical storm, for instance. Given such evidence, one should be able to guess roughly what may happen in the future. Such evidence was available with regard to the Obama presidency during the campaign. That so much of it was purposely ignored is directly related to how disillusioned much of the electorate is with his administration now .

One such piece of evidence is Mr. Obama's belief that wealth should be redistributed based on government policy. From the famous - or infamous - Joe the Plummer exchange, where then candidate Obama claimed that spreading the wealth around is the right thing to do, one might logically assume that he would pursue policies to do just that. For some reason, many chose to ignore candidate Obama's off teleprompter moment and bought his hope-and-change vagueness instead. That was a mistake.

Less than two years into the Obama presidency, the county has massive government intervention into virtually all corners of industry and life. Not only did we receive a 2,000+ page health insurance mandate bill, but Mr. Obama recess-appointed an avowed wealth-redistributor, Donald Berwick, to head Medicare. Money has been redistributed to car companies (GM and Chrysler) and to individuals to entice them to buy cars (cash for clunkers). Money has been redistributed to too-big-to-fail quasi-governmental loan agencies (Fannie and Freddy) and individual mortgage holders (mortgage modification). All of that money comes out of regular, responsible American pockets at some point - either now or in the future. While the specifics might not have been predictable, the general redistributional drift certainly was if the off-teleprompter words of then candidate Obama's had been taken as his worldview.

It could have also been foreseen that Mr. Obama would verbally twist and turn, sometimes almost painfully, to avoid taking a strong, public stance on matters. Mr. Obama's record of voting "present" while in the Illinois State House is well documented. It is therefore no surprise that he would punt the particulars of policy matters so that he does not have to be tied up in deciding the details. This is true for the "stimulus" and health insurance reform, where Mr. Obama left the details to Congress. A more direct instance is his lack-of-stance on the so called "Ground Zero mosque." Mr. Obama has said that it is legal for the building to be built - a point which is not disputed. But he now refuses to take a stand on the propriety of building it. What's more, the matter is too big and has too many players for him to simply have a "beer summit" so that he can elucidate parties in a teachable moment and move on. So he ducks. This kind of tendency was also predictable.

Lastly, there is the illusion that Mr. Obama would be a president for all of the people. Then candidate Obama said that he would be a post-partisan president, a post-racial president; he would bring a new politics to Washington and would work with all interested parties. He even promised that his administration would be the most transparent, that unprecedented access would be afforded to the electorate. But this was not meant to be. Whereas Mr. Obama's campaign rhetoric seemed pivot on an inclusive "we", his history - and now most especially his speeches - revolve around the first person singular, "I". Mr. Obama has turned out to be an unprecedentedly first person singular president. But once again, this was predictable. Any man who writes two autobiographies (or self-focused books) before turning fifty should be suspected of thinking far too much of himself.

Mr. Obama's redistributive urge, his avoidance of particulars, and his self-centeredness were all evident while he campaigned for the office he now holds. And this very short list is not exhaustive; there are more aspects - some much more incendiary - which were clearly evident as well. The point here, however, is that he was able to sell the electorate a bill of goods which were not backed up by the evidence, they were rather only backed up by his teleprompted words. While there is danger in pulling out the microscope on political candidates, where flaws will certainly be found and may be needlessly magnified, getting the general drift, the philosophical underpinning, of a candidate is vital. If the candidacy and early presidency of Mr. Obama can teach us anything about how we go about evaluating our politicians, it is that we should look at the whole man, not just the teleprompted, sculpted words that flow melodiously from his mouth.

01 September 2010

Word Choice in Political Speech - Obama 31 August 2010

During one of President Obama's departures from what was supposed to be the central issue of his address on 31 August, he spoke directly to the issue of education. I admit that I'm a stickler for words, especially in a prepared speech such as this. With that in mind, I have a problem with one statement in particular. Mr. Obama claimed, "To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy."

The first problem I have is the idea that education is something which is given. This is absolutely not the case. An education is something that must be worked for. An education is not something which can be wrapped up and given like a present, like some gift. The Latin verb discere - which means "to learn" - does not have a passive form; it can only be an active verb. This may seem to be a minor point, but it is important nonetheless. Mr. Obama's coupling of education with the action of giving indicates a belief in a passive learner, one who can be molded as the teacher sees fit. It is a belief that does not meet reality. One may offer an education; it is the business of the student - be he a kindergartener or someone retraining for a new job - to grab and internalize that education. It cannot simply be injected; education has to be personally ingested, which is an activity of the learner, not the teacher.

The second problem is Mr. Obama's use of the pronoun "we" in this statement. One must guess who exactly he means, as the antecedent is not clear given the full context of the speech. If one looks back several paragraphs, one might deduce that Mr. Obama means all Americans - the "big" we. However, given the lack of a clear antecedent, he may mean the government. Or he may mean his administration and the various agencies within the executive branch. If either of the last two is the case - and I believe it is - then it is clear that Mr. Obama sees the federal government is the "giver" of education. This would be consistent with what appears to be his view of the role of government - centralized control should be exercised over as much as possible because, in the end, the government knows how to cure social problems. I strongly disagree with this view of the role of government.

31 August 2010

An Interpretation of Beck's Reclamation

The rally organized by Glenn Beck on 28 August 2010 is bound to be a political football for some time regardless of the lack of politics involved in the rally itself. And while the political impact of the rally may be contested, I think the roots of Beck's appeal has two major components.

First is the assertion that American social life - that is, life outside of the private realm of the individual or the family - is a subject which is within the intellectual grasp of everyday Americans. As it stands, "experts" would have us (the American public at large) believe that society is immeasurably complex, with so many subpopulations and comprised of innumerable racial, sexual, religious, and other identities, that the everyday person cannot navigate properly through everyday life without their "expert" direction. But this purposeful atomization of society can be defeated through individual application of Martin Luther King Junior's theme statement that we should judge people based on "the content of their character." Governmental agencies and "experts" need not inform the populace what this means; it is accessible to everyone.

Second is the declaration (or re-declaration) that Judeo-Christian ethics represent the core values of the country and, moreover, that Judeo-Christian ethics can be embraced in civil society by all citizens. This point informs the previous point. If we are to judge others on "the content of their character," then there must be some basis of good and bad, of right and wrong. Some "experts" would have us believe that culture, race, economic situation, sex, or any of a litany of other "factors" influences right and wrong. In their view, acceptable behavior - and even excellence of character - depends on one or more of these factors. What is more, assuming that there is an objective interpretation of right and wrong is a violation of multiculturalism. On the other hand, basing a society's concept of what is right and what is wrong, what should and should not be done, on Judeo-Christian ethics is far more egalitarian than the "expert's" way. It is so because it is not a moving bar; it judges all equally based on one set of ethics. Furthermore, it emancipates individuals from the box of whatever "factor" group he has been funneled into. He is his own man - a dangerous idea indeed for those "experts" who wish to fragment people into easily definable groups.

Every January, I have taught MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech; my students and I have analyzed the ideas that he put forward in that speech. The idea that men should, indeed must, be judged "by the content of their character" is, in my opinion, the most dangerous idea in the speech. It is dangerous because it requires us to judge others based not on any preconceived ideas about the person but rather on their words and deeds. In doing so, we must develop within ourselves a strong understanding of what is right and wrong, what should and what should not be done - along with a recognition that each one of us will always remain imperfect, will always be deepening our understanding. This is a real-world understanding and application of social interaction. The world of the "expert" would reduce man to a machine-level predictability under their guidance and tutelage - a very unreal world.

29 July 2010

The Rich Calling Out the Rich; Pot, Meet Kettle

Hardly a week goes by without some elected (or appointed) government official claiming that the rich are getting over in America, that the rich need to pay “their fair share” (according to Mrs. Clinton), that the rich are to blame for the economic woes of America (and, indeed, the world). But there is something which must be kept in mind when this flavor of demonization comes to pass: many, most, if not all of those who make such claims about the “rich” are indeed “rich” themselves.

Take Mrs. Clinton for example. Her and her husband earned more than $100 million in the period between 2000 and 2006, with after-tax earnings of about $57 million, according to an old Chicago Sun-Times article. Would Mrs. Clinton say that paying nearly half of her family’s income in taxes is not enough? Would she willingly and without provocation pay more? If her conviction is that the “rich” should pay more, surely an upstanding woman such as herself should lead by example.

Speaker Pelosi and her husband are also quite wealthy, according to the Washington Times. Between land and stocks, their wealth reaches into the tens of millions of dollars. And yet Mrs. Pelosi has repeatedly worked and called for tax increases on the “rich.” What there should be no doubt about is the fact that she and her husband are members of the very club that she – as Mrs. Clinton – claim must do “their fair share.”

The same Washington Post article lists Senator Reid’s wealth at about one million dollars – a relative lightweight among the tax-raising crowd. And yet he too would fall into the “rich” category under the squishy definition which the Obama administration employs.

One must ask, therefore, what are these politicians attempting to do? A few things to consider seem fairly straight-forward to me:

1)  Tax-and-spend politicians of any political stripe feel free to raise taxes in part because the personal benefit outstrips whatever personal cost – in this case, loss of capital – might come about. Thus, at least as much would come into their pocket as they would have to pay out due to higher tax rates.

2)  Politicians of any political stripe who point the “they’re rich” finger at someone else are confident that they themselves will not be judged as “rich” by the electorate. The politician merely directs the eye of the electorate at those to be demonized (e.g. auto executive, investment bankers, oil company chiefs, etc.) thereby diverting attention from themselves. Any corollary action taken by the politician can then be categorized as “protecting” the electorate from the “rich”; the politician can therefore proceed as in the previous point.

3)  There is power in money and there is money in power; politicians of any political stripe who are keen to enlarge their command of both realms are dangerous. And here, I don’t mean conspiracy-theory control – I mean real control. When Congress spews out 2,000+ page laws regulating this or that major economic activity, it gains for the federal government both power and money, power being the more precious of the two. The federal government can (and does) print more money.

So the next time you hear a politician – again, of any party affiliation – bleat on and on about the rich, the greedy, the ambitious, remember to consider just how rich, greedy, and ambitious the source is. Because while the kettle may indeed be black (it is not my purpose here to discuss that), there is no virtue or validity in the pot calling it such. Indeed, there’s something in the pot which – at that point in time – surely demands examination.

14 July 2010

The Change Mantra – The Risk of Removing National Character

Today in the New York Observer, an opinion piece by Joe Conason warns that voters ought to think twice (or thrice…or as many times at it takes) about voting for conservatives "because what they get may well be very different from what they actually want." Voters, he claims, must "be careful when they demand change." He then goes on to put forward his argument against current conservative candidates, which is all fine and good.

This mantra – beware of change; it may not be the change you want – is only convenient to liberals at the moment. Like all liberal arguments, it will be put back into the doublethink basement once its utility is gone, only to be resurrected immediately as needed.

The lure of "change" as a political hook has not only been employed in American politics; it was also the driving force behind the election of Labor Prime Minister Rudd in Australia. As I wrote back in 2007 – I was living and working in Australia at the time – it seemed that a majority of Australians got tired of seeing the same face as head of government, hearing the same message, voting for the same man (or party). The result was, then, change for the sake of change. Mr. Rudd came into power and change was inevitable.

Three years hence, for all intents and purposes, Australians are wary of the change which has taken place and perhaps even alarmed at the logical end to such change. One aspect of "change" which appears to have alarmed Australians (based on opinion pieces from Australia and America) is immigration. Julia Gillard, the lady who replaced Mr. Rudd as Prime Minister, has turned away from his less restrictive immigration policies because she sees a valid "concern that large-scale immigration and multiculturalism are threatening Australia's core values and identity." In order to keep Australia Australian, Ms. Gillard apparently understands the need to turn away from the "change" instituted by Rudd, as it amounts to removing Australia's national identity. It remains to be seen if Ms. Gillard will also shift away from Mr. Rudd's "climate change" initiatives; decisions have been put on the back-burner until after elections. But one may suppose that if climate change policies threaten to alter the national character of Australia, the electorate will reject them in the long term. Change for the sake of change, it seems, has a rather sour aftertaste.

In America, belief in "change" seems to be fading as well. Eighteen months into the Obama administration, the meaning of Mr. Obama's version of change has come fully into focus: epic-length legislative packages framed as "reform", astronomical debt levels, "emergency" spending sprees, and an arguably more divided population. Change means not understanding what impact legislation will have until long after it has passed – Speaker Pelosi said that the "health insurance reform bill" would have to be passed before we could find out what was in it; no one knows what rules will come as a result of the "financial reform" bill. Debt levels and the federal government's addition to spending (under both parties) go hand-in-hand. The unification of races and classes which was promised during Mr. Obama's campaign has turned into demonization of various groups – banks, car companies, oil companies, insurance companies, tea partiers, gun-owners, and so on. The recent spate of race-related news stories is further evidence of explosion of divisive speech, speech which lacks substance and therefore relies on simple differences to categorize as "good" and "bad". Divisive speech has created a balkanization based on race, income, and profession.

Getting back to Mr. Conason's point, understanding what "change" means for the future of a country, any country, is a very important aspect for the electorate to consider. America has now had a hefty drink of Mr. Obama's version of change. I would argue that the growth of government and the population's dependence on government, the growth of national debt, and the growing divisions within have made America less American. If the path our country is on is indeed taking away from our national character, a change is indeed needed.

25 June 2010

Arendt and the Necessity of the Transcendent

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt traces the emergence of totalitarian regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. she discusses the implication of making man the source of the rights of men and suggests the real implications of disconnecting rights and the rule of law with some thing (purposefully written as two words) above and different in kind to man as one of the final steps on the road toward totalitarianism. She writes: "A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for - for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number - becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority."

Some form of "religion or the law of nature" is necessary in the formulation of rights and responsibilities, and these must also necessarily be "transcendent" as well. If, in the final analysis, man is accountable to that which is beyond his full comprehension, then man must accept rights and responsibilities as they are. These rights and responsibilities simply are. They are beyond man to change. And while their source is ultimately incomprehensible to man - knowing the mind of God or the source of nature is beyond man's capabilities - the rights and responsibilities are nearly tangible and immutable. The stability of such laws are preferable to what inevitably occurs once man allows himself to shirk the divine and distribute rights and responsibilities as he chooses. As Arendt concludes:
"For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically - namely by majority decision - that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: 'Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.'"
Arendt's assertion that the final arbiter of human matters must have as its source that which transcends man - which is different in kind and which is as opposed to which is created by man - is just as important, indeed vital, today as when The Origins of Totalitarianism was first published in 1951. If man as a political entity is only answerable to himself, if man is the source of all law and all rights, then what passes for rights - even what Arendt calls "the right to have rights" - is arbitrary. Rights and responsibilities become fully mutable depending on what is needed at the particular moment by the designated giver of rights, be that one person or a political body.

There is plenty of evidence today that once the distribution of rights and responsibilities becomes the tool of whomever is power, all certainty is put into jeopardy. It is, at the moment, paradoxical that the US government is creating vast amounts of individual and communal uncertainty at the same time that it institutes policies which are supposed to ensure individual security. Car companies - sources of pollution and horrendous debt liabilities - are demonized, bailed-out, and taken over by the granters of rights in Washington. This is done supposedly to save jobs, the environment, the economical viability of the country. What is consumed by those in power thus is transmuted - it becomes a "good". The health care industry is demonized as well, while government bureaucrats craft the specifications of a "reform" law which will result in (at the very least) a stranglehold on health care nationwide, thereby internalizing it and transmuting it as well. This "reform" is deemed not only good for the every individual in the nation, but for the fiscal health of country as well. Banks have been demonized as well, and bailed out, and reformed (with the notable exceptions of semi-federal entities). These are piled on top of retirement assurance and insulation against all natural catastrophes - one a Ponzi scheme and the other an infantilizing fantasy.

The shift away from personal responsibility and toward government surety, which also becomes the grantor of rights, is sold to be a net good - good for the "little guy", whom the government claims to look out for; good for main street, which is supposedly always the target of Wall Street. Government, after all, can assure equality and evenness - even if it cannot ensure either in reality. The right to health insurance, the right to inviolable economic security, the right to never be inconvenienced by disaster - these instruments are results of man-generated rights and therefore cannot end in surety.

For just as the government of man by man-as-grantor-of-rights begins its headlong lurch forward in the US, it is clearly evident that the push is bankrupt - ideologically as well as economically. The country cannot afford, in a strict sense of dollars, what the government supposes it can accomplish though its programs. The country cannot ideologically afford what the government has instituted; the electorate cannot survive as a lively, innovative body if it simultaneously rejects higher law for the seemingly sure yet ephemeral rights as granted and guaranteed by man. What remains to be seen is if this push has already hidden the transcendent from the electorate so completely that it has nothing left to turn to but what it has before it now: man-as-grantor-of-rights, man-as-god.

18 June 2010

Do Not Follow the Bright, Shiny Thing

My mother sent me an email regarding President Obama’s speech on Tuesday and distractions. The lack of specificity in the president’s speech was there, perhaps, specifically to get attention away from the Gulf of Mexico and on to the next big thing. His presidency, after all, is founded a series of big things. Aberrations like the oil spill simply get in the way; they must be dealt with – at least rhetorically – quickly lest they grab too much attention. Thus the attempts to paper over the spill with a few presidential “I pledge to you” statements. If he promises to take care of it, then we can all get on to the next big thing.

In this fast-paced political environment, with all its moving and shaking, its hope and change, it would do us well to slow down and take stock of where the fundamental changes, where the big spending has taken us.

Evidence that the health insurance “reform” bill – I mean, law – will result in higher costs and fewer choices. It appears that if you change health insurance providers or if your provider changes your plan, you’ll be subject to the new legislation. So much for keeping your health insurance. Indeed, one report claims that 51% of workers will not be “grandfathered” under new regulations. What is more, according to the New York Daily News, “Obamacare is already proving costly to American businesses.” The article also reinforces the point that employees may well lose their current health insurance benefits because of the “reform”.

But that hurdle, that change is in the past for Mr. Obama. Health care reform has been achieved. He would have all of us focus on the next thing instead of taking a good, hard, analytical look at what this “reform” really has “achieved”.

To look further back, there is the stimulus. Mr. Obama claimed at the time of its passage that it would hold unemployment to 8%. Unemployment has hovered around 10% for some time now with few signs of abating – despite the amazing addition of hundreds of thousands of (temporary) census jobs. If one adds underemployed and those who have stopped looking for work, the unemployment rate (called the U-6 by the Labor Department) jumps to 16.6%.

But that spending – somewhere in the stratospheric neighborhood of $1 trillion – is still going on, jobs are still being created and saved, the administration would have us believe. And after all, Mr. Obama would most certainly add, the economy was an inherited problem. He is just trying to “clean up” someone else’s “mess”. Never mind Mr. Obama’s tenure in the Senate from 2005 – 2008. He would have us focus on Mr. Biden’s claims regarding jobs.

Health insurance reform and the stimulus are only the big, big things that Mr. Obama would have the public pay no close, analytical attention to. (Funny that an intellectual like Mr. Obama would not want intellectual examination of his initiatives; it speaks volumes.) Is anyone discussing the administration’s offering of jobs to politicians in exchange for dropping out of primary races? Will there be any response to Mr. Greenspan’s warning that the U.S. will soon hit a borrowing ceiling? Is there any urgency on the matter of passing a budget, which Congress still has not done (which is a pretty fundamental requirement of the government)? Or the vast number of foreign policy issues at the moment – from Iran to Afghanistan to Gaza? Will there be any explanation how Mr. Obama’s spending policies differ from those practiced in Europe which are crushing European economies?

No. Mr. Obama would have us all focus on the bright, shiny thing that he puts before us. On Tuesday, pie-in-the-sky renewable energy took its place as the bright, shiny thing. Mr. Obama wants the populace to focus on it – and never mind the men and women behind the curtain pulling the levers.

17 June 2010

Future Power Issue: Green Out?

It’s not often that I hear a new phrase and think out loud, “Now that would make sense.” While having an end-of-class discussion, a student asked what a brown out was. I explained as best I could; I’ve not had to suffer through one of them that I know of. While we were having that discussion, I heard, or thought I heard, a student mention a “green out” and it made pretty good sense at the time. Perhaps it will, unfortunately, in the future as well.

A green out, as I see it, would occur when a locality (or a state, or a nation) chooses to turn away in large from coal and gas in favor of “green” power sources, which are renewable. However, the urge to be green, to use mostly or exclusively renewable energy sources like wind and solar, hits a brick wall when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. These sources, barring serious battery backup, don’t have the constancy that coal, gas, and nuclear do. Thus, when the power goes out because of the inherent limitations of renewable energy sources, there would be a “green out.’ Like a brown out or a black out, but at least one might feel better that the whole process costs less in green guilt.

At the moment, the idea of a green out seems far-fetched. Surely the highly integrated power grid of the US would allow for even the most “environmentally conscious” of communities to avoid the real-world intrusion of a green out. Well, maybe. (Transferring electrical power over a line is not like sending an email over the internet.) And it may be that sentiments of green guilt would be waylaid by serious contemplation of a life without constant power. Life without instant rechargability of phones and laptops might cause more than a little discomfort to all, including those who demonize the use of fossil fuels. Maybe.

But as hysteria and finger pointing regarding the BP deepwater drilling accident mount, there is sure to be more lurching toward renewable sources regardless of the readiness of those technologies. Renewable sources are not ready, and the only technology which might realistically replace the burning of coal is the use of nuclear – a bogeyman of environmentalists in its own special way. So, it may be that the term “green out” is something to put in the back of the mind for later use.

16 June 2010

My Thoughts on the Oil Spill Speech

I suppose that President Obama’s speech from the Oval Office last night was not “the” oil spill speech. But it was supposed to be something important. Two things caught my attention during the speech.

The first thing that caught my attention was Mr. Obama’s continual demonization of BP. Because BP is the easy target here – and is almost certainly at least partially at fault for the spill – Mr. Obama appears to believe that BP can be used as a political punching bag while still counting on them to actually cap the well. Perhaps the academic in Mr. Obama does not fully grasp that the more he publically flogs BP, the more money he “asks” BP to preemptively put in an escrow fund, the less BP is able to focus on capping the well. The administration needs a punching dummy, though, and BP fits the bill in a populist manner quite well.

Secondly, when Mr. Obama calls for a revolution in the energy sector, his inability to be specific is truly scary. Indeed, Mr. Obama clearly stated that he does not “yet know precisely how to get there.” What’s more, Mr. Obama gave no signal where “there” is; it is some strange vision of magical energy production which creates no pollution and makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. He likened this energy push of his to the charge President Kennedy made for landing on the moon. But there is a key difference between the two: landing on the moon is a tangible, measureable goal; finding the answer to our energy dilemma is vague at best. And yet this completely vague goal will have its costs. Senator Lieberman said it would be about one dollar per person per day. Don’t believe it. Like the imaginary reform of health care, that one dollar figure will balloon once, as Speaker Pelosi once said, they pass the bill and we find out what’s in it. It will be a money-sucking boondoggle.

But that seems to be the modus operandi of this administration and their cohort in Congress. More drastic reforms are demanded – a crisis must never go to waste. More voluminous legislative steps are taken resulting in more money being sucked out of private circulation (in the form of higher taxes or deficit spending). As the central government “reforms” aspects of our society, each of its citizens enjoys less individual liberty. Wash, rinse, repeat. This cycle has repeated too many times in the last eighteen months for it to be an accident. I am not saying that our current political “leaders” are purposefully out to ruin the country; I am saying that the end result of their “leadership” methods will indeed result in the ruining of the country.

15 June 2010

Lessons from the Oil Spill - Potential and Otherwise

Recently, President Obama claimed that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is akin to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. What is implied in the comparison has nothing to do with conspiracy theories or fault. What the comparison attempts to do is give magnitude for change which the president wants to impose. He believes that “this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.” When disaster strikes, we shape how we think about matters based on valid lessons learned.

While I’m not an oil expert – far from it – is seems like a valid lesson which might be learned is that the deeper we go to drill, the more difficult everything becomes. Water is heavy, and once one gets a mile down, it is really heavy. Even if there isn’t a problem, everything is difficult a mile down. Thus, if we are able to drill in shallower waters, we ought to.

Additionally, if we are able to drill for oil on land, we should. It is obviously easier to control and contain an accident of this type if it occurs on terra firma. While I may be mistaken, I am willing to bet that there are a fair number of spots fit for drilling within the coastal boarders which are barred from use by the federal government. Re-examining and reducing federal limitations is something we ought to do.

Finally, if forced to drill miles off-shore and a mile or more under the surface, then clearly delineated responsibilities for containment and cleanup must be established and adhered to. At the moment, who is in charge of what and who is responsible for what is more than a little fuzzy – and may change depending on the political spin deemed necessary at a given time. This is not the way to prepare for and execute an emergency response.

What President Obama tells the nation tonight in his speech about the oil spill will probably contain none of these points. Instead, he’ll talk about things that are being done (the six-month moratorium on drilling), he’ll pay no attention to things which aren’t being done (or haven’t been done – sand barriers off the coast of Louisiana come to mind), and probably make a push for an energy plan, which in reality means “cap and trade”. While it may come off as politically expedient, the speech tonight will not, I believe, show Mr. Obama to be a leader. He is, in the end, a community organizer, and the oil spill gives him an excuse to push his next money-wasting social program: squeezing tax dollars out of the country under the auspices of renewable, “green” energy. For Mr. Obama, the spill is a crisis which simply cannot go to waste. After all, he may have a Democrat-run Congress for only a few more months.

11 June 2010

A Good Week to be a Blackhawks Fan

After 49 years of futility and less than three years since Rocky Wirtz ascended to power, the Chicago Blackhawks have captured Lord Stanley’s Cup. While some may see this team as a team of destiny and others may see them as fortunate to have won, I’ll opt to choose neither. Buying into destiny may allow one to shrug the daily grind; after all, if something is fated it does not have to be worked for, one might reason. Saying that the team was fortunate suggests that luck was the primary operator. While the hockey gods certainly smiled on the team, the grit and determination on display in Game Five of the Final is a testament to how hard work creates luck. For example, Pronger was not made less effective by luck but rather by solid, fearless hits. The “luck” resulting from working hard against Pronger was his taking penalties at key moments – and making the Flyers pay for them.

I rather see this great win as a testament, as you might have guessed, to perseverance and dedication. Denis Savard asked his troops in January 2008 to “commit to the Indian,” a reference to the famous Blackhawks’ logo. And even after being relieved from his coaching duty, Savard is still committed; evidence his continual presence as a Blackhawks ambassador. Pat Foley, the voice of the Blackhawks for as long as I can remember, is another shining example of dedication. Though he was asked to step aside for a time, no one doubted that he would be back under Rocky Wirtz’s leadership. Even long-since-departed ‘Hawks felt the pull of this great victory. Jeremy Roenick, a member of the 1992 team which was swept in the Final by the Penguins, nearly broke into tears in the aftermath of Kane’s goal. In that one moment, with that culminating goal, it was as if every Blackhawk, past as well as present, had won the Cup. In an interview after the game, it was clear that the great Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet, had himself shed tears.

Thankfully, the victory is shared by Blackhawk fans everywhere. For those of us who have followed the team though the good, the bad, and the ugly, Kane’s goal may have been a moment of sickening hesitation, the desire to celebrate coupled with the fear of hearing “No goal.” We fans have, after all, felt just about every emotion a fan may feel. I, for one, felt great release once the goal was official, once the match was decided. Perhaps I’m a little odd, but I did not jump and shout and such; I simply stood, smiled, and took it all in. My disbelief, charged with recognition, became intense gratitude for the sacrifice of the players and coaches. They may never know what this victory means to each life-long fan, what they have provided for all of those fans who committed long ago to the Indian. But they certainly felt the magnitude of their win at the intersection of Michigan and Wacker today. A heartfelt thanks from afar to the team and the organization from Blackhawks fans everywhere.

09 June 2010

A Better Bailout for Schools

In the last few weeks, Congress has quietly dropped a proposed $23 billion bailout for public schools, which would have been a second round of bailouts, the stimulus being the first. Funny thing about these bailouts is that they need to be repeated; they only paper over the problem of too few dollars chasing too many requirements. As a teacher, I hope that instead of pumping more money into the public education hole, governments, state and federal, will instead reduce the number and scope of mandated programs devised ostensibly to assist individual students, but which in practice seem to only create paper trails and bureaucracy.

Some requirements are no more than bureaucratically driven time-suckers. The reams of paper generated each year in an attempt to document that students are indeed being helped drains significant time and resources (not the least of which is money) from the actual helping. If the real goal is to help students achieve to the utmost of their ability, there are other ways to monitor student progress and teacher measures taken to ensure such. But what seems to be the goal is living up to the law – namely IDEA and Section 504 – which requires mounds of paperwork and a number of committee meetings. And, as you might guess, more and more legal expertise as opposed to teaching expertise. Everything must be documented, sometimes on forms so cryptic that even experienced administrators get glassy-eyed examining them.

I am not suggesting that students covered by IDEA and Section 504 should not be handled specially – though I might suggest consideration of the alarming position that all children must be taught the same things to the same level. What I am suggesting is that in pursuit of avoiding lawsuits, the educational train has jumped the rails. Money, time, and effort are being poured out in pursuit of…equality of outcome? Or is it documentation thereof? Or is it documentation of attempts to achieve equality of outcome?

What I am sure of is that in many places throughout the country, students of all ability levels would be better served if local communities had the responsibility and flexibility to educate their students as their citizens decided. Education is a local matter. Indeed, the more educational success is stressed by locals, the more I believe it would be valued by students of all ability levels. On the other hand, as Dennis Prager has said, “The bigger the government, the smaller the individual.” As state governments and the federal government relieve localities of control, education becomes more legalistic, less of a community binder, and less valued by the individual, who sees education as an entitlement instead of as a goal. The nation hardly needs another $23 billion to further enmesh federal bureaucracy in what should be a local matter; it needs to save the billions wasted to keep federal and state bureaucracies happy.

08 June 2010

“So I Know Whose Ass to Kick”

I thought the headline on Drudge – video through Real Clear Politics – of our president uttering the words “so I know whose ass to kick” was a joke. Surely this president would not utter something like this, which sounds more “cowboy” than the previous president’s statements regarding terrorists and terrorist-supporting nations. But he surely did.

Somehow, I do not think that I want our president directly targeting any company; it’s not his place. In a country still governed by laws, none of which contain a presidential butt-whipping clause, there are plenty of legal methods to ensure that BP and other parties pay monetary damages for any negligence or neglect. That time will come; there are more pressing concerns about a mile below the surface at the moment. The president’s desire to take matters into his own hands, or his own foot as the case may be, is a sign of the arbitrary nature of executive butt-kicking power. BP gets the foot; GM gets bought-out; Fannie Mae gets paid. Such are the proclivities of presidential power.

A more important question, perhaps, is where might be a more appropriate place for the president to focus his attention. Granted, the BP rig explosion and resulting spill is huge and will have a devastating impact. There are other matters which only the executive branch under his leadership can and should deal with. Iran comes immediately to mind. North Korea as well. These countries did not have their status as opponents dropped onto them through some mix of natural circumstance and potential negligence; each country purposely chose its position as a nation in conflict with our own. But those fights, metaphorical or otherwise, are difficult. Putting a butt-whipping on BP is not; it is an exceedingly easy thing for the executive.

One wonders if Mr. Obama understands that by letting countries like Iran and North Korea do as they will, he is creating an extremely unstable condition internationally. One may also wonder if he understands the ultimate effect of the government’s continual demonizing of businesses (and therefore of people) within the United States will be the internal weakening of the very country he is supposed to defend.

05 June 2010

Mr. Mahoney and Spelling Rules

On Fox News today is an article concerning protestors at the National Spelling Bee. In an effort to make the world more comfortable for themselves and boost the spelling self esteem of others, the protestors want to “simplify” spelling by making all spellings semi-phonetic. From the article:
“According to literature distributed by the group, it makes more sense for "fruit" to be spelled as "froot," ''slow" should be "slo," and "heifer" — a word spelled correctly during the first oral round of the bee Thursday by Texas competitor Ramesh Ghanta — should be "hefer."”
Clearly the idea here – though I am only guessing at the motives of Mr. Mahoney and his fellow protestors – is to liberate the masses from the tyranny of formalized language. It is a limiting factor, a repressive construct from which some unknown number of humans must be freed. One may imagine just how many new, exciting ideas would come from the mass of humans suddenly unshackled from the constraints of formal spelling. Or, at least freed from the rules as they are now. Mr. Mahoney might be compelled to come up with his own dictionary. I would, too; you might, as well.

His idea of “new” spellings is semi-phonetic because one may clearly argue that if words are to be spelled purely phonetically, then individuals who pronounce words differently or communities which speak different dialects may well spell words differently. If Mr. Mahoney and his ilk think that spellings are confusing now, he might attempt to consider the social implications of many different spellings across the union. How would a Texan read the words of a Bostonian?

This strange utopian dream – the decimation of formal spelling rules – is truly more senseless than it may seem at first. Surely the purpose of a shared language, both spoken and written, has much more to do with community, not individuality. And even if Mr. Mahoney’s ultimate concern is the voice of the individual, he must surely understand that ideas and language go hand-in-hand. One does not matter without the other. If, as Mr. Mahoney suggests, I have my “own dictionary,” then I might as well share my ideas with myself only. If I share my personal dictionary with a few others, my ideas may matter, but only in my small circle. It would seem that the logical result of Mr. Mahoney’s vision would be a segregation of individuals on the basis of self-styled language, a limiting of dissemination of ideas, and a creation of disunity where there is now at least some unity through shared language.

As a final note, it may be worth considering how often “liberating” individuals from social rules, most notably those rules which bind a community together, tend to isolate individuals and divide communities.

10 April 2010

Teaching Values (Whenever Opportunity Knocks)

A few days ago, one of my classes got on the subject of “end of the world” scenarios. It was the result of discussing the end of Fahrenheit 451 – one of the novels I had students read this spring. Teaching literature is a wonderful thing because there are many times where I have no idea where the conversation will lead. Two interesting topics came up: why people find end of times scenarios so engrossing and choosing between common values and material goods.

The end of Fahrenheit 451 is somewhat apocalyptic; the society is ruined by a massive attack – one would assume that the other side was as well – and the main character, Montag, and his newfound friends move to help pick up the pieces. This discussion brought up the theory, and the movie, regarding 2012. Students noted that like the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, it was not the end of the world in the movie. It was more of a starting over “from scratch.” I put that in quotes because there really is no chance that such a thing could happen. We always have memory, history, and mores to pull our past into our present, to project our present into our future.

And yet, it seems a frequent human desire to “start from scratch,” to happen upon or create a societal tabula rasa. Perhaps it happens when there is anxiety about the future, when folks aren’t quite sure in which way history is taking them and their culture. Perhaps it happens when there is a loss of hope or a feeling of certainty of rough times ahead. The students and I talked about these things and it lead directly to the second topic.

One student commented, in response to this discussion, that the outside world could be wiped clean, so to speak, as long as luxuries that ensure personal comfort were not affected. While this is a very teenager thing to say, I posed a somewhat unfair question, but for a purpose. I asked if the student had to choose between a “destroyed” society keeping their material comforts or a common set of social values – in our case, American values: liberty, e pluribus unum, in God we trust – which would the student choose. The student chose material comforts. I thought it would go that way. So I closed off the discussion by making the point that a society with only shared material comforts will most likely lose those. However, a society whose people have shared values such as our American values can, over time, create material comforts (as well as provide security and foster community). This is a point which young folks may forget; indeed, may forget often. But adults must always remember and teach, and remember and teach.

04 April 2010

Easter and the Necessity of the Divine

It seems to me that a human being needs some thing greater than himself; there is a necessity for hierarchy. Human beings must have some thing above them, guiding them, in order to not be subject to dawdling apathy. When a human being rejects God – that which is wholly different in kind and greater than man – he must replace the divine with some thing. The rejection of God demands a replacement.

At best, this replacement could be something relatively superior – not benevolent – which is beyond man’s ability to fully comprehend and which cannot be bargained with. (Though clearly what would be missing is any positive component; chance or fate or nature might be one’s guide, but none of them compels one to act with kindness or demands gratitude.) Worse, the replacement could be another man, an elevation of one above the rest, making him viewed as somehow different in kind than other human beings. Still worse, the self could replace the divine – a wicked bit of Orwellian doublethink wherein the self is greater than and different in kind to the self. Nothing appears to me more hellish than a multitude of humanity, each of which is a monotheist worshipping himself; a heard of finite, little gods.

I am thankful for the life, the opportunities, and the limitations which God has given me. I am thankful for his forgiveness, which is celebrated on this day. And I am thankful that I am not more than what he made me; that I may practice – fail and succeed – and attempt to live well while under God’s watch.

03 April 2010

Ortega and Granting Inalienable Material Rights

While considering the current legislative road America is travelling down, and indeed has been travelling down for some time, I happened to begin reading Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. While he was writing about the early twentieth century, I have found myself underlining a number of passages which make the leap from that century to this. Not surprising, as human nature – regardless of what some would have us believe – does not change from one century to the next, only the guise of its interaction with the world around it.

So, with regard to the current expansion of enumerated “rights” in the United States, I highlighted the following from Ortega:
“The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree.”
It would seem that our “new man” (as Ortega might refer to him) wants what is his due, what he is told are his material rights, and cares not where they come from, who id demonized to get them, or what may be wrecked so as to sustain them. The short-term Eden of material rights, like those found in health care insurance reform or forgiveness from home and student loans, are to be his. It is as if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not the only inalienable rights; along with them would be health, home, food (as long as it is government approved), and risk-free life as his birthright. Where these expanded, inflated rights come from are of little concern to him, and the cost of their maintenance never occurs to him.

But what is even more worrisome to me about this is that our “new man” is that he seems to not question, let alone lose sleep over, under whose authority these new rights come from. And in his not doing so loses understanding of where his true inalienable rights, as delineated in the Declaration of Independence, actually come from. Thus, if government is in the business of handing out new rights, it may be accepted by the unquestioning “new man” that it was government which granted inalienable rights as well. Or perhaps worse, he begins to consider new material rights as inalienable. And worse still by extension, that man confers inalienable rights upon man. Consequently, man himself becomes the highest authority, supplanting God, that which is truly greater than to which appeal can be made and which is simultaneously immutable by vacillating impulses.

Rank material benefits, government-granted largesse to the electorate, must be removed from our civilization in order for it to survive. While I may be mocked by some for using such a phrase, I do not doubt that it is appropriate, because when citizens buy into the idea that they deserve a set course of life and that such can be provided for by government, then government becomes men explicitly directing the lives of other men. Individual freedom – and the responsibility which comes with it – is sacrificed for individual security. The arrangement becomes, in short, an agreed upon servitude whose wages are thought to be the safe, care-free living of the one in servitude as provided for by the power of the state, the government. It is an utopian vision which, like all utopian visions, will end tragically. Thankfully, it appears that perhaps half of the American electorate is questioning the utopia being sold by big government types. One hopes that enough of the electorate – and those who they elect in the next two cycles – have the fortitude to back away from the utopian vision.

01 April 2010

Obama Sell-a-Thon

Nearly two weeks after the passage of the health care insurance reform bill and its severed conjoined reconciliation twin “fix” bill – which, incidentally, has its own split personality in the form of a federal takeover of student loans – President Obama is still attempting to “sell” the fix to Americans. This should tell us something about the contents of the bill, which Speaker Pelosi said would have to pass before we could all find out what was in it. Now that the bill is under even greater scrutiny, as it is law and not one of an array of squishy-fungible-voluminous proposals, the administration is convinced that the selling must continue.

Indeed, only today in Maine, Mr. Obama, according to the Associated Press, “urged Americans not to judge the nearly $1 trillion legislation he signed into law last week until the reforms take hold” – though perhaps not mentioning that such a wait would also push judgment past the midterm and next presidential elections. Very convenient for the perma-campaigner. It is a political case of having cake and eating it as well; health care insurance reform is a monumental achievement which the Democrats proudly claim as the president insists that it must not be judged until it is more fully implemented.

This administration is long on promises which differ greatly with what it delivers. The rhetoric does not match policy. Mr. Obama doesn’t want smaller government, he has claimed. However, the student loan takeover nationalized the student loan business. The health care insurance reform bill adds another sixteen thousand-ish IRS agents. One wonders just how many government minions will be employed by education “reform” – the reform of the NCLB reform, one might add – and senseless carbon taxing might be. Might the IRS need another ten thousand agents to “monitor” industry compliance with carbon emissions? Might a small army of new “experts” be hired to enforce curricula implementation?

Of course, we are at the moment a long way from those things. But if Mr. Obama manages to sell the current health care insurance reform bill without much complaint from the electorate, he will no doubt feel that he has a mandate to push through other “reforms.” Thus, his message – as false as it is – must be knocked down with hard facts as often as possible, and then some. When someone comes out and claims that the bill – excuse me, the law – will save somewhere around $100 billion, ask them to justify spending $1 trillion in order to save such a small sum. When someone claims that it is only humane to give health care to all, retort that the law itself is about insurance, not health care itself (though it will without doubt impact health care delivery, and very negatively). When someone claims that health care is a right, pull out a pocket copy of the Constitution and ask him to point to the exact location within the document which guarantees health care insurance for every citizen. Ask folks who tout this law just how much they value individual liberty. Ask them who has responsibility over the individual in our free country. Ask them, to paraphrase Dennis Prager, at what point the size and power of the government reduces the citizen to a mere subject.