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.