All posts by azehner@tds.net

What Genius Looks Like

The last time I wrote here, I suggested that America and its leadership is getting worn out — becoming the Hollow Men that TS Eliot speaks of in his poem. This time I’d like to talk about the other direction that people can go. I’d like to tell you about a man of true genius.

My wife Damaris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia in the mid-80s. We were there before the long civil war broke out, but during some of the early rebellions that presaged the war. We lived in Zwedru, a provincial town in the back-end of the country. And there we met Africain Always.

Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia
Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia

 

You can get a sense of the man’s gravitas from the fact that everyone called him “Africain.” He lived in the middle of an African nation, and everyone around him (except a handful of American PCVs, two Canadian missionaries and a German priest) was African. But nevertheless, he was known by everyone as “Africain.” (He spelled it the French way, but everyone pronounced it the English way.)

A few other people have pulled off this trick. Charles deGaulle and Kemal Ataturk both had names that declared them the leader of their nation. Sapurmarat Niyazov did too, but Turkmenbashi was his own maniacal creation and not really his name. As I understand it, deGaulle was really the name of the French leader. And in the case of the “Father of the Turks,” nobody had last names until he transformed the Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey.

Anyway, Africain Always, whose real names was Musa something, had no pretensions of leadership. He just wanted to be a friend. As the picture shows, he was something of an artist and he would paint a mural on the side of your house if you wanted it. The rest of the time he spent philosophizing.

The reason I say Africain was a genius, and why I offer him as a hopeful antidote to a more widespread degeneracy, is his revelation about life and art.

Africain worked with wood as well as paint. He told me once that he had formerly made things from butterfly wings and turtle shells. He described to me the way he had formed these creations. And he admitted that people had liked them. But then his voice took on a more serious tone, and he said, “But then I realize the turtle should live. I realize the butterfly is God’s artwork — not mine.”

 

An example of butterfly wing artwork. Not made by Africain.

 

If you had an immediate impulse to disapprove of killing butterflies and turtles, then good for you. But you live in a time and place where animal rights is “a thing.” You may just be following the crowd. It may be that the virtues you value most, in yourself and others, might by nothing more than following the crowd and taking the easy road.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Africain was definitely not taking the easy road or following the norm. He lived in a time and place where animal well-being was not considered. Dogs were tormented by children. Poison was thrown into ponds to kill fish (which the people would then eat). So the realization that the butterfly already existed, already was beautiful — was in fact more beautiful fluttering in the sunlight than pasted down on a canvas — was a moment of true genius.

By offering this example of an African man, I am not saying anything about the relative merits of any nation or race. I’m saying goodness may occur anywhere.

I also want to ask each person who reads this: When have you gained a new understanding that came straight from God? True, we aren’t all called to be prophets. Most right ideas are already out there, and all we need is to learn them and follow them. But as the culture around us become more and more effete, degenerate and “hollow,” it becomes more and more like a thing of genius to stand against the norm.

 

 

 

 

Of Bangs & Whimpers

This week there were two fatal shootings on college campuses. The one in Oregon was the typical, disgruntled white male with a history of scary posts on social media. The one in Texas doesn’t really count, because it was a personal dispute and not a “mass shooting” as such. Still, somebody died and somebody with a gun killed them.

I’m struck by how vacuous and effete the ongoing conversation has become. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, had an editorial that can be summed up as, “We’re numbed to this, but can you blame us? Somebody ought to do domething.” And consider this from Peter Weber in The Week:

Today, pretty much anyone can buy armaments that would have given the Framers nightmares, kill a dozen or more strangers, and terrorize a whole nation. As Obama said Thursday, “this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” Would James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the other gentlemen who wrote the Constitution have wanted to give such tyrannical powers to lone Americans? I doubt it, but I can’t be sure.

 

What do you mean, you can’t be sure, Mr. Weber? If the framers of the Constitution had intended to enable the persistent, rampant violence against innocent bystanders that occurs in America, they wouldn’t be gentlemen. They’d be some of the worst monsters in history.  You know good and well they didn’t envision or condone persistent violence.

The problem is, the founding fathers didn’t think of everything. They didn’t mean to. They gave us a good start at justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. But they expected us to do our part as well.

I’ve ranted on this before, but Thomas Jefferson explicitly stated that the constitution ought to be written anew by each generation. Indeed, I’ve told a lot of people wrongly that Jefferson suggested a new constitution every 29 years. In fact, he said rewrites ought to come every 19 years. Here is Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison in 1979:

[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.
The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.[1]  They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

 

[1] Usufruct is a legal word meaning the right to use something, as opposed to the absolute right to own it. Jefferson insists that the living generation has usufruct rights to the land and to civic institutions, but they do not have the right to impose their will on future generations.

Many Americans will tell you that the Constitution mustn’t be tampered with because it is the product of great minds and that no ordinary people could make one as good. If you then point out to them that those great minds expected us to fix their mistakes and take changing circumstances into account, they will tell you that what the founders intended doesn’t matter.

That is terribly inconsistent thinking. But it is an accurate representation of the calcified American system, which in no longer based on the will of the people, but on a moldy ill-fitting old document. Now, you might say it isn’t reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to discourse rationally. You might say we elect congressmen to represent us, and that those congressmen and women do the hard work, freeing us from the need to be well-informed and rational ourselves. But what happens when the elected representatives are no more – or even less – rational than the people?

 

It may just be the case that guns, and an incompetent, leaderless national government are not our greatest problem. TS Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, is the source of the famous lines: “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Earlier in the poem Eliot writes:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

 

A nation of such hollow men, filled with straw and meaningless words, would be about as effective in curbing gun violence (or any other social problem) as the US of A is, wouldn’t it?

 

 

 

Plunder and Deceit, again

In my last post I mentioned reading, Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin, and said that I was trying to find common ground with a writer who’s views differ quite a bit from mine. Let me show you what I mean.

Levin writes:

“Consistent with the ideological aims of the degrowth movement, the EPA has dedicated itself to gutting the production of carbon-based resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas as supplies of relatively cheap and abundant electricity and fuel. In recent years, the EPA has tenaciously ramped up its regulatory efforts to cripple the production of energy from these courses.”

 

I have to admit, gutting and crippling America’s vital sources of energy sounds pretty bad.  My first thought was to go and fill up my Mustang while it is still possible. My second thought was, “Hey, wait a minute. Gasoline is cheaper than its been in years.”

I looked up the trend in US oil production and found that it is higher under president Obama than it has been in years:

 

[Source: Forbes]

The federal Energy Information Administration has the data up to 2014 for every state that produces oil. In nearly all of them, production is up, up, up. There is less offshore drilling, less on Alaska’s North Slope, and less in Louisiana. But nationwide, oil production is up from 1.9 billion barrels in 2009 to 3.2 billion barrels last year.

Setting aside for now all questions of how much energy we ought to be using, and what sources we ought to be relying on, I want to just focus on Levin’s comment and the government data. How does one reconcile his assertion that the EPA (under Obama) has been trying to cripple US production of carbon-based energy with the evidence that oil production has risen steadily under Obama?

Here are the explanations that come to mind:

  1. Levin might be a lying scoundrel.
  2. The charts and links I found might be wrong.
  3. The EPA might be determined to destroy domestic oil production but just not very effective.
  4. The EPA’s efforts to destroy domestic oil might just not have taken effect yet.

Other explanations might emerge if we were to parse Levin’s statement or the data sources more carefully. But the mere existence of the four possible explanations sort of puts us under an obligation to inquire further and not immediately conclude that explanation 1 is the right one.

One way to make progress on the truth is to recognize that Levin talks not just about oil (which is definitely going up, up, up, but also about coal, which going down in a big way.

“The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days.”

 

That’s from a long and very worthwhile report on Politico about the “war on coal.” The writers explain that the main driver of the war on coal is not the Obama administration but Sierra Club lawyers arguing in state utility commission hearings.

[T]he big question now is how rapidly [coal’s] decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

 

The following map give an impression of how big a change has occurred with coal. The green markers indicate coal plants that were “defeated” by the Beyond Coal movement, either by denying permits for a new plant or refusing to reauthorize an existing one. There are a lot of them!

Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club
Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club

 

Levin’s rhetoric, which seemed so extreme and out of touch with the facts where oil was concerned, turns out to be more reasonable regarding coal. His choice of the words “gutting” and “cripple” are a fair characterization of what is happening to the coal industry.

There are still plenty of important questions concerning energy policy and every other complicated issue. Since Levin claims to be writing in the interest of the rising millennial generation, I’d like to hear his explanation for how gobbling up fossil fuels today would help the future. If you worry about climate change, current efforts to curb use of coal and oil (if any) seem to be urgently needed. But if you don’t worry about the environment, you’d still want to slow the rate of fossil fuel depletion so some of the stuff will be left for the rising generation.

Levin is just a stand-in here for all the people we encounter who seems to be out of bounds with their thinking. I’m not always as patient and methodical in my reaction.

But I know a good banjo tune when I hear one.

 

 

 

Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.

 

 

The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.

 

I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Cows in the Corn

Suppose you’ve got corn and I’ve got cows.

Even if we’re the best and friendliest of neighbors, we need a fence between us. And suppose that, despite the fence, my cows get across and eat your corn. I say, “Just put the cows back. There’s no problem.” The cows get across again, and I say, “Cows used to stay where you put them. I don’t know what’s wrong with cows these days. Anyway, put them back. There’s no problem.”  And then the cows get across again, and I say, “Well they wouldn’t get across so often if you didn’t plant your corn so close to the edge of the field. You can’t really blame the cows when you tempt them so. But just put them back. There’s no problem.”

How many times can this be repeated before we admit we have a problem? We can blame the cows for a while.  We can blame the victim for a while. Heaven forfend, we could even blame me because the cows are mine. Sooner or later, we need to admit to each other that the fence isn’t good enough to do the necessary job it was intended for.

 

Constitution Day (Sept 15th) is set aside each year to remember America’s foundational law. On that day in 1787, delegates from the 14 states (the original 13 plus Vermont) approved the new Constitution after a year-long debate. It has been amended 27 times, but hasn’t changed fundamentally in 228 years.

We were taught in school that the “separation of powers” is a great concept. The Constitution divides power between the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and consequently America has never had a king. But the Constitution doesn’t distribute power much. It keeps it in Washington DC, far from the people. If you read the Constitution you’ll see that the document is almost entirely about federal powers. The states and the people are mentioned once.

The Constitution defines federal powers, but doesn’t do much to limit federal power. The authors weren’t concerned with limiting federal power, but with fixing the very weak central government that existed at the time. They gave the new Constitutional federal government some blank checks, such as the “necessary and proper” clause in Article 1:

The Congress shall have Power – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

 

James Madison

By 1791 (just four years after the Constitution was adopted) James Madison was convinced that the necessary and proper clause was too vague and gave the federal government too much power. Subsequent history has proven him right. The necessary and proper clause has been used many times to justify expansion of the federal government.

We were taught in school to admire the extraordinary wisdom of the founding fathers. If the founders were wise we ought to heed what they said. And like Madison, many of the other founding fathers doubted the Constitution would endure. Benjamin Franklin was asked as he emerged from the final session of the Constitutional Convention what sort of country the US would become. Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Thomas Jefferson said the country would need a new constitution every generation or so: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

According to Jefferson’s figuring, America ought to be on its 12th constitution, but we’re muddling along with the same old one long after its expiration date. As president, Jefferson had a “take it or leave it” attitude toward the Constitution. He waged war against Barbary pirates in 1801 without a congressional declaration of war. He exceeded his authority to make the Louisiana Purchase. He never let the Constitution get in the way what he thought was right.

[Source: CBS St. Louis]
The founding fathers despised political parties. John Adams spoke for many when he wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties. . . This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Who can deny that America today is run by two great parties? Thus, the thing the founders dreaded most has happened!

The Constitution purposes to make “a more perfect union” and to “provide for the general welfare.” But income inequity in American is wider than at any other time in living memory. There has been no improvement in purchasing power for the median American family over the past 30 years, and only slight gain in the past 50 years. (See chart below) One out of seven Americans lives in poverty. Two out of three Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only one American in 10 trusts the Congress. The Constitution didn’t cause these problems, but it hasn’t “provided for the general welfare” either.

 

[Source: US Census Bureau via Huffington Post, 9/16/15]

We like to think of the Constitution as the rock-solid foundation of our culture and society. A more apt metaphor would be a tree. The small seed that was planted in 1787 has been harried by winds from the left and the right, and frazzled by pests of various kinds. It still stands, but it has grown gnarly.

Some branches of the tree are strong. The first amendment freedom of speech keeps pornographers and the Westboro Baptist Church in business. Upholding extreme opinions is really the only thing the first amendment does, since ordinary opinions don’t need such protections. I’ve lived much of my life in parts of the world where no explicit freedom of speech exists, and I found that ordinary people there have their opinions just like we American do.

Another strong branch of the tree is the second amendment, keeping the bullets flying. This is perhaps the most clear-cut case where the Constitution stands in the way of what the American people reasonably would do if they were free to govern themselves.

Much of the Constitutional tree has weakened over the years. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” That’s what it says on the document, but the NSA reads your emails. And even if government snooping were stopped, there are private companies that also read your email and monitor your spending in order to target advertising at you. The fourth amendment guarantee is empty.

The 5th amendment situation is even worse. It is supposed to ensure due process in order to defend freedom and property, but it has been stood on its head to justify driving people out of their homes to benefit commercial developers.

The 10th Amendment guarantees that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This sounds like a useful tool to balance local interests against the federal power. And there is a movement of people calling themselves “Tenthers” who say strong enforcement of this clause can fix what’s wrong in Washington. But how can the tenth amendment constrain federal power when every question about the limit of federal power gets decided by an agent of federal power?

Setting the country on the right path must begin with changes to the Constitution. That hasn’t happened yet, but it is becoming a more common notion. State legislators vote their support for a new constitutional convention in most years.

Many people fear tampering with a “good thing.” Writing a new foundational document needn’t jeopardize all that we value. We can keep majority rule. (Or perhaps I should say “reinstate” majority rule, since we don’t really have that now.) We can strengthen individual rights. We can limit the federal government to doing a few important things well instead of muddling everything. We can put most decisions back in the hands of states and communities.

Of course, there’s a huge and fascinating question of how this tremendous change could take place. For starters, I would recommend “Anywhere but Washington; anyone but congress.”

Some people say we just need to get back to the Constitution as it was written. But everything that happens in America happens under that Constitution. Amateur interpretations of what the law “says” don’t have much influence while big money pours into Washington and while the inmates run the asylum.

Georgetown Law Professor Louis Michael Seidman wrote in a New York Times editorial in 2012: “Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse.”

University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson has written, “Our Undemocratic Constitution” showing how the document undermines democracy. Levinson refutes those who say anything wrong with the Constitution can be fixed by amending it, and he shows how small number of people (such as congressional committee chairmen) can thwart the will of the majority, and how certain institutions and processes make amending the constitution ever again unlikely. He points especially to the US Senate, where each state has two members regardless of its population. Since 34 votes are enough to block any legislation, the members from the 17 smallest states (representing only about 20% of the nation) can stop anything the majority wants. That isn’t democracy!

I agree with Seidman and Levinson. I agree with Madison, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. Who’s side are you on?

 

Why is this not a scandal?

Politico reports that the Hillary Clinton campaign has a plan to capture the Democratic Party nomination for president by March 1, 2016.

Eleven states will vote on March 1, including delegate-heavy Texas, Virginia and Colorado. And while her aides say that Clinton can and will compete vigorously in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, her fate will depend on dispatching challengers in March — something she critically failed to do last time around.
If it works, the former secretary of state will have wrapped up the party’s nomination before spring ends — with only 32 states and two territories having voted — thereby avoiding the kind of protracted battle that consumed much of 2008.

 

This means pretty evidently that, if she had her way, Hillary Clinton would claim  her party’s nomination — a major step in the nation’s electoral process  — without allowing citizens in any of the following states to participate in the decision:

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Washington, DC, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

A politician openly plans to exclude a large part of the national electorate from a major decision. why is this not a scandal?

The point here is not to take a dig at Clinton. The point is to emphasize that America is not governed democratically. Here’s a second bit of evidence supporting the argument. This one comes from Jonathan Chait’s recent column:

[Interviewer John] Harwood: Ronald Reagan . . . had in 1980 an electorate that was 88 percent white, and so did you in Wisconsin. The national electorate is not 88 percent white. If you took Reagan’s percentages with today’s makeup of the electorate, he would lose. Why is Reagan a good model in terms of the winning part?
[Wisconsin Governor Scott ]Walker: The demographics you mentioned, I mean it’s an interesting question. The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are. Wisconsin’s one of them. I’m sitting in another one right now, New Hampshire. There’s going to be Colorado, where I was born, Iowa, where I lived, Ohio, Florida, a handful of other states. In total, it’s about 11 or 12 states that are going elect the next president.

 

So on both sides of the political aisle, there are explicit strategies to win the presidency by openly and explicitly ignoring large parts of the electorate.

Some will say that the later-voting states will still be allowed to votes even though Clinton will have obtained the majority of delegate votes before hand. Some will say that that is just how it works. Some will say that the states are free to set their election dates, and it is not Clinton’s fault that some states vote late. Some will say we should look to the other party to offset Clinton.

I think that so much of the American population is already excluded from effective participation in the electoral process, by gerrymandering, by voting machine manipulations, by selective enforcement of voter ID requirements, and by other means, that the one person-one vote ideal is no longer taken seriously. Over at The Constitution Project, there is a rhapsodic paean to the one-person, one vote principle and a narrative of how America’s great leaders worked until voting rights were guaranteed for all! But it just isn’t true.

Do you think that your vote counts as much as that of any other American? Do you think voting is an effective way of steering local, state or national affairs in the direction you want them to go?  Would you say that in recent years you’ve cast your votes with a great degree of confidence, and that your expectations have been fulfilled by the performance of the person elected?

Does anyone think those things?

 

Religious Liberty?

Purdue’s campus was graced on Wednesday by a visit from Brother Jed Smock. I was walking across the memorial mall in the afternoon when I came upon a crowd of students. Brother Jed, garbed in white and waving a cross-tipped staff, was shouting at a group of 50 or so students, who were shouting back. Nearby a circle of eight students stood praying.

Rev. Jed yelling at Purdue students.
Brother Jed yelling at Purdue students.

 

I don’t know what the students were praying for. It is possible they were beseeching God that the listeners would be moved by Brother Jed’s message. But I rather imagine they were wishing that Brother Jed himself be moved to somewhere away from where he was.

I’d never heard of Smock before, but he is evidently a fixture on college campuses across the midwest. Smock wasn’t even the only angry preacher on campus that day. The Exponent had a story about the visit that talked about another preacher named Michael who spent his time judging the students gathered around him. The student newspaper report focused accurately on the obnoxious manner of the evangelist. But it also paid notice to the the harm he was doing:

Chandell Adelman, a freshman in the College of Liberal Arts, hoped that people wouldn’t think Michael’s message represented all people of faith.
“I just want to say that is not how Christianity should be demonstrated,” said Adelman. “The whole basis of Christianity is love and forgiveness. And demonstrations like that are what turn people away from God. It’s heartbreaking.”

 

CS Lewis

I begin to wonder whether people of good faith don’t have more of an obligation to stand up for the good reputation of Christianity. In practice nobody does because we’ve been trained that freedom matters more than anything else. But it is just possible that we are wrong.

CS Lewis, than whom there was nobody humbler and more peaceful, pondered the same question and admitted the possibility that certain rogues ought to be stood against when they abuse their freedoms:

It can be argued that if the windows of various ministries and newspapers were more often broken, if certain people were more often put under pumps and pelted in the streets, we should get on a great deal better. It is not wholly desirable that any man should be allowed at once the pleasures of a tyrant or a wolf’s-head and also those of an honest freeman among his equals. 

 

Lewis wasn’t talking only about religious scoundrels, but they were surely one sort that he had in mind. But that is just a thought in passing. My main point concerning “religious liberty” is . . . . “What? Where did anyone get the idea that religion is about personal liberty?”

Here’s what the Bible says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

 

Here’s what the Bible says:

But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

 

Here’s what the Bible says:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

 

Here’s what the Bible says:

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

Here’s what the Bible says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbori and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Each of these Biblical passages puts an obligation on the believer to do all the good they can and expect nothing in return (in this life). The freedom associated with true religion is freedom from the consequences of our mistakes — not the freedom to insult and disrespect others.

 

Northeast by Nowhere

A ten-county region in northeast Indiana is going to grow its population to a million people! It is going to boost its population growth rate to 2.1% per year (from the current 0.8% per year) until they hit the target. We learn about northeast Indiana’s growth plans from several sources, including Inside Indiana Business and 21-Alive television in Ft. Wayne. The rationale behind the growth strategy was laid out by a local official named Lauren Zuber:

This has really important business implications. If we don’t grow our population, our businesses in the region can’t grow. We need to grow our population so that they have talented employees for the jobs they currently have, that baby boomers are going to retire from, and so that they can hire in new people when they need to expand,” Lauren Zuber, Vision 2020 coordinator said.

 

A pot of state money is up for grabs, and the “Road to a Million” campaign reflects northeast Indiana’s bid to win a share of it. And I wish them luck. Far be it from me to disapprove a community trying to improve itself. But there are three problems.

The first is that, contrary to the talk, northeast Indiana is slowing down rather than speeding up. Thanks to an excellent resource called STATSIndiana from the Indiana Business Research Center, the population counts for Indiana counties and townships are available for all to see. And there is nothing in the data to justify expectation of a sudden burst of population in northeast Indiana.

Fort Wayne is the region’s major city, and in the past 20 years there was moderate growth around Ft. Wayne. It was most notable in suburban parts of Allen County, including Aboite, Cedar Creek, Lafayette and Perry townships, plus single townships in nearby Adams, Steuben and Lagrange counties. Only these parts of the region grew at the target rate of 2.1% per year, and they only did it from 2000 to 2010. These areas have slowed since 2010. None of them is currently growing at Zuber’s target rate. Meanwhile, 39 northeast Indiana townships have declining populations. In 16 rural townships, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950. (I grew up in one of those, and my relatives still live in another.)

So it seems naive to expect the region to grow at 2.1% just because a plan says it will. The region as a whole has never done this. Only a few parts of the region have ever done it, and they only for brief periods. No part of the region is currently doing it, and several part are moving in the opposite direction.

Of course the reason we have “plans” is to take charge of circumstances and make something happen that wouldn’t happen on its own. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership plan, described here, consists of actions that, if accomplished, will only keep the region in step with other similar regions. Everything in their plan is laudable, but nothing confers any advantage.

The plan confers no advantage because nearly every other community is doing the same thing. As the Red Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass says, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in one place. “ And that’s my second niggle.

In the quoted statement above, Zuber says the region needs to grow so it can grow. The region needs more people, she explains, to work at the additional jobs that don’t exist in the community yet. Fact is, the region today has about 9-thousand fewer jobs than it did in 2006 and has lost several hundred more in 2015.

Economic growth is what happens when a community does everything right. If people are healthy and skilled, if infrastructure is well designed and well maintained, if there is plenty of housing and plenty of opportunities to enjoy life – then growth in population and jobs will might follow. I don’t have a thing to say against efforts to improve health and enjoyment in a community. But to put the cart before the horse, saying we have to grow so we can grow, is not good social policy. Poor Lauren Zuber is not to blame for overselling a simplistic solution, though. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee are falling over themselves to do the same thing.

The notion that growth is the solution to all problems is fraying at the edges. It was a great solution for a couple of hundred years, but it can’t go on forever. And we’re getting close to the end. Proponents of Steady State Economics offer a road to security and affluence based on stability and sustainability. One of the leaders of this group, Herman Daly, has written: “We are running this planet like a business in liquidation.” 

 

The third criticism I have with northeast Indiana is the evident view of the millennial generation as grist for their mill. Boomers are dying off and Gen Xers are too few to replace them, so the economic developers turn to millennials to bear the yoke. There seems to be no appreciation of millennials as deserving citizens. Nor is there any sense that living amenities are something that 21st century Americans ought to have. Amenities, rather, are merely worms on the hook:  “We can only attract and retain talent if we provide art, culture, recreation, etc.”

An article in Governing Magazine from 2012 suggests that communities can build around millennials. The key to doing so is affordable housing and public transportation.

The lesson for me is that even though the window is short, there’s still time for second-tier cities and older suburbs to create the compelling places that will be required to succeed in the 21st-century economy. Most people — even millennials — want to live near their families and near where they grew up, meaning that if you can create interesting places, they’re likelier to stay. And you don’t need the endless hip urban fabric of New York or D.C. to compete. You just need a few great neighborhoods for people to live and work in. For most cities, that’s an achievable goal.

 

Some cities have managed to achieve the kind of results Ft. Wayne aspires to. Philadelphia has made progress by an organization called Campus Philly that links college information, social life and career counselling.  Browsing that site, one gets the impression that Philadelphia appreciates millennials’ own goals and is willing to satisfy them in order to have happy citizens.

 

Are you listening, northeast Indiana?

 

“A mockery of our scientific pretensions”

Here’s a deft bit of hypocrisy. I’ll let you decide who is the hypocrite. The Huffington Post today has a story about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who opposes using fetal tissue in medical research. HuffPost informs us that Carson himself once did medical research using fetal tissue.

 

[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]
[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]

HuffPost continues:

[T]he Republican presidential candidate published a study with three other colleagues in 1992 that described using “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”

 

And now Carson says research using fetal tissue isn’t necessary and isn’t needed. HuffPost, being gung-ho for abortion, finds Carson’s duplicity troubling. But it seems to me that there is another possibility. I think it likely that fetal tissue research about “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa” turns out to be not worth it. Back in 1992, Carson did the research because he was a famous doctor being paid to do brainy stuff. But this is 2015 and, last time I checked, babies still have runny noses.

There is a common conviction that what can be done must be done. We have to explore space. We have to invade Iraq. We have to use social media. We have to build money-pit sports venues for millionaires to play games in. We have to conduct medical research on the tissue of aborted babies. But there has always been another way of thinking, that says progress sometimes isn’t progress at all. Henry David Thoreau in 1854:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

 

And here are two comments from Wendell Berry’s 2001 book,  Life is a Miracle:

Our daily lives are a mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along a series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply.

and

We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability. The radii of knowledge have only pushed back – and enlarged – the circumference of mystery. We live in a world famous for its ability both to surprise and to deceive us.

 

What we need is 100% enthusiastic support for scientific progress, combined with a clear understanding of what progress would be and a firm grip on what is done. Do we want to lose our jobs, and to have a large part of our population unable to earn a living? If not, then robotics might not be progress.  Do we want to increase the rate of cancer and obesity? If not, then a diet based overwhelmingly on processed food might not be progress.

There is no possibility of making good ethical choices today, because there is no shared ethic. Communitarianism presupposes such an ethic, and we are far from having one.

Meanwhile, a co-worker today handed me a small tract called, “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Stay tuned!

Who’s Soft? We’re Soft!

The United States is often criticized for its brutal policies and actions toward other people and nations – and toward its own citizens. Recently a Rutgers University professor asserted that the US is more brutal than ISIS. Posters on the social media site Quora had a field day with the question, “What are the most tragic or brutal things the US government has done?” (One of these writers slangs the United States for “ignoring the enslavement of 10-12 million Africans from the 15th to the 19th century,” setting aside the fact that the US only came into existence in the late 18th Century.)

This is all at odds with the evidence of American history. It seems to me the US has tended to be pretty soft and half-hearted about war. It has never completed a conquest on its own soil, and has finished enemies overseas only when allies (particularly Russia in WWII) insisted on it.

The US has fought four enemies on its own soil: the British, various Indian nations, Mexico, and the southern Confederacy. I’m not arguing here about which wars were justified. I’m not saying the US was right or wrong about any particular war. My starting point is that the wars happened. I’m arguing that the US pulled up short of a ruthless total victory in each case.

Consider the Confederacy.

By 1865 the economic, diplomatic and military viability of the Confederacy was gone. So the war ended . . . when? The  popular moment – Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 – was decidedly not the end. Nor was Joe Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina on April 26. Other Confederate armies stacked their weapons in Alabama on May 4 and in New Orleans on May 26, 1865. There is a proclamation, dated August 20, 1866 and signed by President Johnson, asserting the war to be over.

The Confederate states were reintegrated into the United States. Henry Wirz, the camp commander of the pestilential prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia was executed. But he was buried with the words “hero” and “martyr” on his gravestone.

The fighting didn’t stop for years. Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 book, Redemption, tells of campaigns of terror and persecution of black people by the defeated rebels in Mississippi through the late 1860s and 1870s. These campaigns of terror were often done by organized, permanent military forces. Elsewhere, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who might have been hanged for the excesses the guerilla troops under his command  perpetrated during the war, remained free. I’ll let a blogger called The War Nerd make the case for what ought to have been done with Forrest:

[B]y the time of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest was guilty of murder several hundred times over. He was kill-able. He was the most eminently kill-able man who ever lived. He deserved death many times over. But he was allowed to return to civilian life, which for him meant becoming the First Grand Wizard of the KKK. Forrest’s survival after the war was a disaster on any level you want; legal, moral, political. Nathan Bedford Forrest should have graced a gallows in the spring of 1865, and that should have been clear at the time to any resolute Union government.

 

I’ve had conversations with a lot of people about this topic, and they all say things like, “People were tired of war and just wanted it to be over” or “The mercy that Grant showed to Lee is evidence of the greatness of the US spirit!” But perhaps growing tired of war when the objectives of war are still yet un-achieved, and  showing magnanimity to a still puissant enemy, are both proofs of the softness I’ve posited at the top of this post. Maybe it was a mistake to let Forrest, Bob Lee, and the various southern governors go free.

You might ask, isn’t the country better off now than it would be if it had held vindictive and drawn out war crimes trials? The War Nerd has the answer to that:

it’s clear that the policy the Union actually pursued—not hanging any Southern officers except the miserable wretch who commanded Andersonville POW camp—failed miserably. A decade after we defeated the Confederacy at the cost of 300,000 loyal Union soldiers’ lives, the same planter oligarchy was running the South again, terrorizing the Freedmen and women who were our only loyal allies during the war, making sure black people never got a chance to vote, running them off their farms, doing their best to recreate slavery without the name. And it might have been possible to prevent that disaster by hanging key ex-Confederate officers in the spring of 1865. All the leaders of the post-war terrorist fascist gangs that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South were former Confederate officers. If we’d thinned their ranks in an intelligent way, Reconstruction might have been something other than a grotesque and bloody farce.

 

The Confederate flag remains ubiquitous throughout the US today. It continues to be an inspiration to the likes of Dylann Roof.  Is this not the same kind of grotesque and bloody farce, extended a century longer?

 

US war with the British and Mexicans can be dealt with quickly. The US never finished off the British because England was vastly more powerful.  and America was lucky to get away with negotiated peace treaties after the Revolution and the War of 1812, and lucky to have France on our side both times. I think the half-heartedness of the Mexican War was due to the immoral nature of that episode. I think the Mexican War was trumped up by President Polk to acquire new land. Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, was firmly against war against Mexico. The link is to a resolution Lincoln introduced. He also gave a long speech on the subject, which is one of his best.

 

Now, to the Indians. There are many distinct nations of indigenous American people, and it’s best to speak about them distinctly. (I think the term “native American” is bogus, but to call an Iroquois an Iroquois does him honor.) Let’s take the case of the Cherokee.

University of Delaware professor Marvin Whitaker, in a paper called, A Despotically ‘Benevolent’ Policy: The Cherokee Indian Genocide, insists that the US perpetrated genocide on the Cherokee:

The very fact that the U.S. Government and some scholars continue to deny any “genocide” has taken place against the Cherokee Indians or the American Indians in general leads credence to the fact that we are in the final stage of the Cherokee Indian Genocide: Denial.

 

Of Andrew Jackson, president during the period in question, Daily Beast writer Arthur Chu says,

The deservedly single biggest issue that gets brought up regarding [Jackson’s] term is the minor matter of masterminding a genocide. The Trail of Tears is one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history, with its explicit end the eventual annihilation of the Five Civilized Tribes as peoples in the name of “progress.”

 

Whitaker’s article “proves” that the removal of the Cherokee was a genocide by bending the meaning of genocide to include what happened to the Cherokee. Arthur Chu is a liar and a lightweight. Calling the Trail of Tears “one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history” is ignorant.

 

[Source: woolaroc.org] (This looks more like New Mexico than North Carolina.)

Andrew Jackson doesn’t belong on any honest list of brutal leaders. Joseph Stalin personally gave orders that resulted in 43 million dead. Mao Tse-tung killed 38 million. Adolf Hitler ranks third with 21 million. Then comes Chiang Kai-shek (10 million), Vladimir Lenin (4 million), Tojo Hideki (4 million), Pol Pot (2.4 million), Yahya Khan of Pakistan (1.5 million) and Josip Broz Tito (1.2 million). This list is based on a compilation that was made in 1987. If it were up to date, Saddam Hussein would be on it, too.

There are plenty of people who were responsible for more than a million deaths. The above list is just from the 20th Century. Hannibal killed 50,000 Romans in a single day (Wikipedia says 75,000!) at Cannae. The Aztec sacrifices were an orgy of blood that killed hundreds a day and went on for years.

The Trail of Tears was a badly administered government effort that intended to relocate the Cherokee (and other Southern tribes) where they could live without conflict with White men. It was undertaken at government expense as the best hope for preserving the Indian cultures. It wasn’t meant to kill the Cherokee at all, let alone to extirpate them. Anyway, here is what the Cherokee Nation says about itself today:

The Cherokee Nation is the federally-recognized government of the Cherokee people and has inherent sovereign status recognized by treaty and law. The seat of tribal government is the W.W. Keeler Complex near Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
With more than 317,000 citizens, over 8,000 employees and a variety of tribal enterprises ranging from aerospace and defense contracts to entertainment venues, Cherokee Nation’s economic impact in Oklahoma and surrounding areas is more than $1.5 billion annually. We are one of the largest employers in northeastern Oklahoma. We are the largest tribal nation in the United States.

 

Note that the official Cherokee Nation is not all Cherokees in America. It is only those who live in Oklahoma within that political organization. The most recent US Census finds more than 875-thousand people of Cherokee heritage throughout the country.  So, today, nearly 200 years after the genocide, the Cherokee are an autonomous, industrialized, federally sponsored nation with a membership nearly 300 times larger than the number who died — and almost 60 times the size of the nation as it stood at the time. Is that consistent with “genocide?”

 

Need another example? Consider the Pequod tribe of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Here’s a bit from the on-line SparkNotes for Moby Dick:

[The ship was named Pequod] after a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that did not long survive the arrival of white men and thus memorializing an extinction, the Pequod is a symbol of doom. It is painted a gloomy black and covered in whale teeth and bones, literally bristling with the mementos of violent death. It is, in fact, marked for death. Adorned like a primitive coffin, the Pequod becomes one.

 

SparkNotes, which unsuspecting students read and believe, asserts that the Pequod tribe went extinct. But here’s what we know about the Pequod nation in 2015:

Today the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns one of the largest resort casinos in the world, Foxwoods Resort Casino, along with several other economic ventures including the Lake of Isles Golf Course, The Fox Tower, The Spa at Norwich Inn and Foxwoods Development Company dedicated to world-class resort development throughout the United States and Caribbean. Altogether, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation remains one of the State of Connecticut’s highest tax payers and largest employers.

 

These two examples don’t justify American policies toward all Indians, or toward any particular tribe. Certainly there was inhumane action and vicious episodes. But my point is that the rhetoric of “genocide” and “extermination” are inapt. In the case of the Confederacy, I’m prepared to argue that presidents Johnson and Grant, and the Congress they served with, were too soft and that the legacy of their softness remains a problem in America today.

Can’t we agree that the US is not, and has never been, especially ruthless? We don’t push wars to their bitter end. I think that is because Americans, for the most part, don’t like war. Yet we are in wars constantly because corporate profits and political careers depend on it.