29 March 2011

Thoughts on Entitlement

Recently, my aunt, who belongs to a writing group called Spin Class, asked me to read a piece she had written about entitlement.  And because I could not resist, I thought I'd write a bit on that subject as well.  Call it subject coattail riding.

Because definitions are important, the third definition of entitlement on dictionary.com seems appropriate:  the right to guaranteed benefits under a government program.  I say appropriate because, under presidents on Congresses of both political parties, benefits have expanded and mutated to the point where a claim may be put on just about anything.  A partial list of entitlements might include the following: health care, health insurance, an education, a college education, a job, a house, homeownership, food, and broadband internet.  Where all of those entitlements come from, I have no idea.  I can't find them in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence - unless under some twisted, living-breathing twist on "pursuit of happiness".  After all, how can one achieve happiness without broadband internet delivered to his own home?  Generations have suffered.  We owe it to ourselves.

But a look back at that definition reveals something about our use of language.  The following three words are, for better or worse, equated: entitlement, right, benefit.  I would say the equivalency of those three words is to our detriment.

A common understanding of what rights are and their origin comes from the afore mentioned Declaration of Independence:  "that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights".  But through applying the word "right" to so many things, some important aspects have been stripped away, most importantly the originator of our unalienable rights - the Creator.  Instead, rights have become whatever is legislated, they have become things of man, and yet are still somehow considered unalienable, things which cannot be refused once enacted (or, one might use the word granted).

And so the idea of a right begins to shift into an entitlement, granted by government.  But such things must also, and to a greater degree, be given rather than earned for many.  Entitlements as a form of government giving have a veneer of compassion for the individual.  They are for the benefit of the downtrodden, the suffering, and that is a good thing - except that the entitlement tends to be without end.  Would anyone say that dependence on government giving, government compassion, is a beneficial way for an individual to live?  Does it help the individual in his pursuit of happiness?

I would argue that it does not.  Entitlements, and more importantly, a sense of entitlement in individuals is a corrosive force in our society.  Dennis Prager famously said, "The bigger the government, the smaller the individual."  Entitlements have the consequence, intended or not, of growing government at the expense of the governed.  Yet the governed can feel comforted, cushioned, protected.  It only costs individual liberty.  And it may be that many, many people would rather feel a sense of protection under the dome of entitlement than the uncertainty and freedom of individual liberty.  How and why that balance shifts will say a great deal about our national character.

23 March 2011

My "Missing Tile" Moment

Recently, I ran a 10k race.  I primarily ran for the fun of it; for me, running is an enjoyable activity and being in a race is a good way for me to get some variety and friendly competition into the mix.  For this most recent run, I had not planned on any specific goal, mostly because I had signed up for it about a week before the race date - not a great deal of time to train specifically for that race.

But running - or rather, racing - without a goal is somewhat counterintuitive, so I set the modest goal of running about the same time as my previous 10k.  But as the race progressed, I noticed that my pace was a bit quicker than my last 10k, so I switched goals mid-race.  I decided I would better my previous time.  As I was past the halfway point at that time, it was a fairly modest goal.  Further on, as I was going into the last mile or so, a race worker made a comment about a group of us "still being able to make" a certain time.  I didn't quite set that time as my goal, but still pushed hard in an attempt to make it.  As I crossed the finish line, I knew that I had missed that last goal, or almost goal, but not by much.  I was very happy with my race.  I didn't know my exact time because I had inadvertently stopped my watch one point in the race, so I had to wait until scores posted - a forty-five minute wait.

As I waited, I chatted with some other runners about the course, the hills, our times.  And then my missing tile moment came.

One of my favorite thinkers, Dennis Prager, describes the missing tile syndrome in this way:  If you stand in a room and there is only one ceiling tile missing, you will focus on that spot.  If a ceiling isn't missing any tiles...no one notices.  It's "perfect".  We, being human, do the same things with ourselves and others.  If there is one thing we do not like about ourselves (our missing tile), then it seems to us that everyone else has that "tile".  Mr. Prager's example is a bald man who, when out in public, sees that everyone around him has hair.  And unlike a ceiling, we can never be perfect; we will always have missing tiles.

Some of these tiles are momentary; and my missing tile moment didn't last long, but that may only be because I recognized it for what it was (thankfully).  When my time came up, I found out that I was seconds short from placing in my age group.  And for about a minute, all I thought about was my missing tile, which consisted of seconds I could have made up at various points on the run.  But thankfully, this feeling didn't last long.  Shortly, I remembered the two goals that I did make, and the third that I almost made.  And lastly, I realized that if I were running to place, I'd be racing others and not myself or the course, which for me is less enjoyable.  So I gladly let that missing tile stay missing (as if I could do anything else) and soon enough, I didn't notice it.  I only pray that all of my future missing tile moments will be as brief, as I know I'll have many more.

20 March 2011

Practical Utility in War

In anticipation of hours and hours - perhaps days - of cable news comparisons of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya, it is important to discuss the idea of practical utility when it comes to war. By practical utility, I do not mean lofty goals and end-state proclamations; no "to secure democracy" or "to defend civilians" squishiness, however easy and comfortable it may be to limit discussions to those types of statements while iron is falling in some far-off place. Practical utility tends to shun such squishiness and relies more on language which may offend espousers of the squishy.

As an aside, I do not suppose my thoughts that follow are original; they have all been said in various forms and forums many times. But as a new war starts, it is instructive to take a critical look at our recent past.

In 2002, faced with an ugly place to fight anyone let alone a loosely organized pack of true believers, the US went through the necessary steps to expand the war to Iraq. In March of 2003, the Iraq theater was opened. The practical utility of expanding the war to Iraq has far less to do with weapons of mass destruction, human rights, or bringing democracy to the Middle East - though all of those sound like perfectly good reasons. The practical utility has to do with choosing the battle space. If Afghanistan is a nearly impossible place to fight, with mountains so high that aircraft can be shot at from above by men, then Iraq is preferable, even given the urban setting where (according to news reports) much of the ugly fighting happened. Add that the Iraq battle space had been "prepared" - a military euphemism of sorts - by bombing both the northern and southern no-fly zones regularly as follow-on to Operation Desert Fox in December of 1998. Regardless of all of the miscues, mistakes, and misfortunes which followed, the practical utility of fighting jihadists in Iraq instead of Afghanistan is clear: it was easier for us to kill more of them in Iraq as opposed to the other way around in Afghanistan.

That may be an ugly truth that folks do not want to hear, but it is important to hear it nevertheless. Every jihadist who came to Iraq was one who didn't have to be fought in another place, most notably Afghanistan. In the end, the invasion of Iraq probably - and I believe certainly - saved US and coalition lives and hastened the demise of many of the enemy.

As we begin another war, it would be very, very helpful to be clear about the practical utility of fighting in Libya. So far, I have been unable to discern one.

19 March 2011

Words of War - Odyssey Dawn

As Operation Odyssey Dawn - a title with its own interesting connotations - were about to kick off, Secretary of State Clinton used some interesting words. What I mean by that is the words she used, her diction, seemed rather odd for what has turned into a barrage of more than one hundred cruise missiles. According to the Washington Post:

Questioned on whether the mission was aimed at ensuring the safety of civilians or at pushing Gaddafi from power, she said, “It is to protect civilians and provide access for humanitarian assistance.”
I don't want to seem like I'm picking apart her words, but she is the lead diplomat for the United States and diplomatic words are meant to be picked apart. First, her words are in my opinion not meant necessarily for a foreign audience, which may seem odd at first. They are meant for folks in the US who are understandably very, very leery of hopping into another foreign adventure, especially one as apparently disconnected from US interests as a civil war in a North African country of 6.4 million. After all, if supporting rebels against dictators were a cause for war, the US would be actively engaging in many more countries in the region at the moment.

So Secretary Clinton instead mentions "protecting civilians" - a euphemism. After all, if one protects, then one guards, one stands watch; to protect has a defensive connotation. This is a much more palatable and perhaps even laudable perception of Odyssey Dawn. Unfortunately, the euphemism is a thin cover. One side in Libya is made up of Gaddafi's military; the other is made of up civilians who have taken up arms. "Protecting" these civilians means, in actuality, taking a side against Gaddafi. Not that doing so is a bad thing.

But what the government is selling, through its words, is not a war, regardless of how many munitions actually get fired into and dropped on Libya. What the government is selling is a defensive action of civilians only and providing a route for humanitarian assistance.

To paraphrase President Obama, make no mistake - America is engaged in a war in Libya. It may be short, it may be long. We may be limited players in a coalition. We may only send in cruise missiles and keep our fighters and bombers above the reach of any Libyan arms. But we are at war. The least the administration can do is not euphemize on the subject, but perhaps they don't think highly enough of either the goal in Libya or the American electorate to say it straight.