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.