Category Archives: Another Tricky Day

Here’s where I comment on perplexing events in the news.

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?

 

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?

 

We’re Exceptional!

Here’s a thing we don’t need to worry about.

Multiple news sources reported last week that the College Board (the people who design standardized tests for advanced college credit and admissions) has changed their guidelines for the AP history exam. This means high school teachers across the country will change the content of their lessons to better prepare their students to take the test.

The changes (as described in the liberal media) paint a rosier and nobler picture of American history, and are said to result from pressure from conservative groups. The liberal writers fret about the new, or renewed, stronger emphasis on “American Exceptionalism.”

 

 

I have three thoughts. First, every country in the world boosts itself, and there is no reason America shouldn’t too.

Beautiful Kyrgyzstan!
Beautiful Kyrgyzstan!

I spent a day driving up and down the Naryn Valley (a particularly bleak part of the barren, frigid, Soviet backwater of Kyrgyzstan) with a young man named Bakit. After the usual conversations had been exhausted, he began singing songs about the towns we passed through. These were same-ish and formulaic paeans to brave people, fertile soil, and beautiful snow-capped mountains. They smacked of a Soviet mandate to whip up patriotism, and Bakit acknowledged that he learned the songs at Pioneer meetings (the youth wing of Soviet propaganda organization Komsomol). I eventually said I thought the songs were stupid and asking him to sing something else.

Green be her fame!
Green be her fame!

Liberia lies at another extreme of nations. Kyrgyzstan owes its misery to an oppressive and inept government that ruled from a distance and was driven by ideology, Liberia owes its misery to an oppressive and inept government that ruled locally and was driven by avarice. Liberia’s national anthem, which I stood up for and sang with gusto many times during my Peace Corps years, describes “The home of glorious liberty, by God’s command: Though new her name, Green be her fame, and mighty be her Power!”

I’ve heard overt national pride from Dutch, Swiss, Lebanese, Venezuelans, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Greek, English and Welsh people. I’ve never gotten the “better than you” vibe from Australian, Indian, Irish and French people though admittedly, my experience with French people occurred in the Sahara Desert. Wait, strike that: I met a feh dinkim arrogant Aussie, too, though most of ‘em are wonderful people. And let us never forget: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt (Germany, Germany above all, Above everything in the world). That is just chilling.

Anyway, people in every country in the world believe there is something special – something “exceptional” – about their country. (The Kyrgyz all know with an unshakable certainty that their Issyk Kol is the premier vacation spot on the planet. Greeks really do think Greeks invented everything.) America would be truly exceptional if it didn’t think it was.

 

The second point about the changes to the AP history exam is that historians embrace the changes. Here’s a story that looks very different depending on where you get your news.

Inside Higher Education describes the changes as a fix to changes made a year earlier which “offered “little or no discussion of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history and many other critical topics that have always been part of the APUSH course.” I’d say the principles of the Declaration of Independence ought to be mentioned in a college-prep American history course, wouldn’t you?

The liberal new source ThinkProgress viewed the changes as bad without much consideration of what the changes were, just because conservatives had a hand in it. The very liberal Salon set the stage back in February, describing the dispute this way: “[Y]ou have a small but dedicated bloc of reactionary populists who are fighting desperately to protect the truth from the advances of a radical, elitist cabal. And in both cases, you see those supporters of the new standards, who tend to be more educated and self-consciously cosmopolitan, react to the anti-reformers’ cries with a mix of bemusement and contempt.”

I think Salon is off target, but I don’t know how much of the article is written is Screwtapese. Anyway, I think the changes were just some serious educators fine-tuning their standards with the best of wills. Here’s what a panel of historians and history teachers said in a letter published a month ago in the Washington Post.

We wish to express our opposition to these [2014] modifications. The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.

I think “robust, vivid and content-rich” is the right way to go.

 

My third point is a little more difficult to follow. Begin by considering Todd Snider’s This Land is Our Land:

 

Freeway through a reservation
Make way for a brand new nation
Big ideas, we got brand new plans
Heaven knows we need this land

We’re gonna build big, high and wide
City streets through countrysides
Chemicals, and pesticides
This land is our land

Hey, redman don’t waste our time
We’re young and strong, we got hills to climb
There’s a lot of room but we need it all
For slave trade and shopping malls

Gonna build big factories
With paper plates and plastic trees
Styrofoam and antifreeze
This land is our land

This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land

Well, we came out of a ragin’ sea
To claim someplace where we’d be free
We got hopeful hearts, workin’ hands and
Heaven knows we need this land

‘Cause the world needs land fills
Diet pills and papermills
We need country clubs and oil spills
This land is our land

This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land
This land is our land

Freeway through a reservation
Make way for a brand new nation
Big ideas, we got brand new plans
Heaven knows we need this land for Super Bowls

Subway rides, remote controls
And pesticides
Gang related homicides
This land is our land
Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/todd-snider/this-land-is-our-land-lyrics/#7KZC1LmCyZg1xclJ.99

 

Snider seems to present a snide picture of a country and people bent on cruel and stupid objectives. And in the performance video he says the country was built on “bad karma.” But still, he admits in the first half of each stanza that the country was built on good intentions:

 

Well, we came out of a ragin’ sea
To claim someplace where we’d be free
We got hopeful hearts, workin’ hands and
Heaven knows we need this land

 

And then in the second part of each stanza Snider gives us the disappointing results: paper mills and oil spills. But the fact that so much energy and hopefulness culminated in sour results doesn’t mean the energy and hope were wrong.

Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Henry David Thoreau said, “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”

To me, one of the great and reassuring ideas about the contemporary American life is that each morning close to 150-million people get up and go to their jobs. And for eight or so hours, they do those jobs with conviction and zeal. It is unfortunate that many of those jobs are stupid: advertising, fashion design, “paper plates and plastic trees.” But it not the fault of the people doing the work.

If we were to stop what we’re doing, announce an Old Testament jubilee, and then construct a plan for a better system, I’m certain we’d dump the Styrofoam. If it were up to me, we’d drop the Super Bowls. But we’d keep the hopeful hearts and workin’ hands. So let’s not be ashamed of them. And let’s keep them in the history books.

The right to be wrong

President Obama was visiting Oklahoma this week and several ‘Muricans took the opportunity to wave the Confederate flag outside his hotel and along his caravan route.

[Source: Politico]

Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post published an essay a few years ago about the lingering effects of the Civil War. It was called, The Civil War taught us to fight for the right to be wrong. The essay is online and you can read it at the link. But the essence is here in this excerpt:

[T]he Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.

 

That “world of private conviction” he mentions exists wherever anyone says (or thinks), “Nobody can tell me what to do!” And when that thought is combined with, “I don’t know what to do,” the results is an insistence on the right to be wrong.

I was well raised, and was given a lot of good advice and reasonable rules to live by growing up. The only case of exercising the right to be wrong that I can recall is when my mother told me not to wear my dad’s old high school athletic jacket to a basketball game. The jacket was very tattered, having been worn around the farm from 1952, when my dad earned it, to 1977, when I wanted to wear it.  And I had a perfectly nice jacket of my own to wear.

My mother said no and I said, “OK.” So I took the coat back upstairs and put on my own, nicer coat and threw dad’s letter jacket out the window into the yard. Then I paraded my nice, presentable self before my mother as I left for the game. On the way to my car I picked up the old coat, put it on instead of the one I’d left the house wearing, and arrived at the game looking ratty. Victory!

But unlike my harmless escapade, people are hurt everyday because they, or someone else, exercises their right to be wrong. Some of them are ripped apart by alligators.

I think it is right and good that the stupid Confederate flag is being pushed away. But what I’d really like is an ethic of rectitude, where people wish for guidance, and other people know how to give it.

Thomas Carlyle (1846):

You do not allow a palpable madman to leap over precipices; you
violate his liberty, you that are wise; and keep him, were it in
strait-waistcoats, away from the precipices! Every stupid, every
cowardly and foolish man is but a less palpable madman: his true
liberty were that a wiser man, that any and every wiser man,
could, by brass collars, or in whatever milder or sharper way,
lay hold of him when he was going wrong, and order and compel him to go a little righter.

 

In the Dark

The power went off yesterday.

I’m not sure when, because my wife and I were outside. She was weeding onions. I was cutting a persimmon tree into firewood. It must have been sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, though the clocks indicated 00:00. It came back on sometime late in the evening – also at precisely 00:00 according to the clocks.

My wife and I have spent more time without electricity and other conveniences than most Americans our age, thanks to the years living in African and Asian backwaters.  What other couple do you know who had been married more than a year before they spoke to each other on the phone?

Jenny "outside."
Jenny “outside.”

The same is true for our daughters, now in their early-20s and teens. They grew up in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan with a loose connection with electricity, running water or internet access. When electric light is unreliable one acquires a certain complaisance that makes being suddenly plunged into blackness as natural as taking a breath. Americans can learn it; my kids grew up with it.

Sarah having a bath.
Sarah having a bath.

The lights would go out while we were reading a book aloud. One of the girls would pop up and light a candle and we’d resume the story with hardly more than a dramatic pause.

And speaking of dramatic, my oldest daughter heard the “escape from Efrafa” and “General Woundwort attacks” passages of Watership Down by candlelight accompanied by the music of smashing window glass because we were besieged for several nights by a pack of stone-throwing Kyrgyz who wanted us to go away. My oldest daughter is just about the most dauntless person I know.

In Zwedru, Liberia we relied chiefly on candles and kerosene. We enjoyed “current” when it chanced to come on but we didn’t rely on it. There was an electric refrigerator for chilling drinking water and making custard. But we never put more than a days’ worth of perishables in it.  In Naryn, Kyrgyzstan the supply of “tok” or “tsvet” was pretty good. Vladimir Lenin established in the 20s the goal of “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Even in the farthest reaches of the then-expired Soviet empire in the late 90s and early 2000s, Naryn still had ample hydroelectric power. It went off when a cow rubbed against a pole or when the apparatchiks at the power company wanted to vex the customers.  But it was on more than not. In January 1999 we spent three solid days in darkness due to an ice storm. Ironically we were in Bethesda, Maryland at the time and would have had power if we’d stayed in Central Asia.

Anyway, the power outage yesterday didn’t stop us from having a nice dinner of grilled pork kebabs. It did stop me from washing the sawdust out of my hair until much later. But I admit that, while taking the inconvenience in stride like the old hand I am, I had thought of, “What if this is it?”

At various times in America’s past, people have seriously pondered (with equal seriousness) whether today would be the day that the commies, Apaches or Martians would attack. Lately, it is more fashionable to imagine muslim attackers. (And when I say fashionable, I don’t mean to suggest it is at all realistic.) When I was a young adult the threat was nuclear war, and expressions of concern ranged from artsy t-shirts (I had one) to backyard bomb shelters to a golden age of apocalypse (or as the feral kids in Beyond Thunderdome have it, “pock-eclipse”) movies.

Today the fashionable disaster scenario involves zombies — a  shambling backwards kind of disaster rather than a dazzlingly advanced technical one. After a little digging on the internet I discovered at least one media critic (Nicolas Barber on BBC Culture) who agrees with my zombie-as-metaphor theory:

[V]ampires and werewolves symbolise the thrill and the romance of having superhuman strength and no conscience. But there’s nothing glamorous about being a zombie. Unlike vampires and werewolves, they’re not frightening because of how powerful they are. They’re frightening because of how dismal it would be to become one yourself. Another difference is that werewolves and vampires are content to share the planet with the rest of us. They might tuck into the odd innocent bystander, but Dracula and the Wolfman don’t threaten our way of life. [Zombies] are either the cause or a symptom of a complete societal breakdown.
It can’t be a coincidence, then, that zombies are in vogue during a period when banks are failing, when climate change is playing havoc with weather patterns, and when both terrorist bombers and global corporations seem to be beyond the reach of any country’s jurisdiction.

 

I suspect, though, that “a complete societal breakdown” would be much more “dismal” that interesting.  There would be less of everything, including less gun violence and less wandering from interesting place to interesting place meeting Kevin Costner and Mila Kunis.

But, on the other hand, a lot of things that feature prominently in today’s American lifestyle and habits could go to the wayside and still leave a pretty decent human existence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oxi again!

The Greek people have voted No! to the European ultimatum. This means they won’t accept the EU’s punitive terms for a bail-out. Whether it means Greece leaves the European shared currency remains to be seen. Lots more trouble remains for Greece. But they can face the difficulties better now that they have chosen their own fate.

[Source: Reuters]

One aspect of the story that I haven’t read in any of the press coverage is that “Oxi!” has a historic resonance with the Greeks. My wife spent part of her childhood in Athens and tells me that each year on October 28th the Greeks celebrate Oxi Day, a remembrance of their defiance of German and Italian forces threatening  Greece in 1940.

Myy wife remembers Oxi Day from the perspective of a little kid in the late 60s. The Wikipedia page linked above tells only a little.  From Wikipedia we learn that in late 1940, by which time Poland, Belgium, Holland and France had fallen to the Nazi Germans, the Greeks received an ultimatum from Italy and Germany: Greece must permit them to march across their land and to occupy certain strategic places (sea ports, airports, etc.) If they refused, the Germans would not simply march through a subjected Greece, but would attack and defeat it as an enemy.

The Greeks said, “Oxi!” 

You can read some good additional detail at this site run by an American organization to remember the event. And there is more at the aceofgreece website.

If you didn’t click, you  missed Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill praising Greek courage for standing against the German threat. What’s more, Hitler says the Greeks fought with the most courage of any enemy the Germans faced in the war, and he says that the delay caused by Greek resistance meant a late start and consequent failure of Germany’s attack on Russia. Stalin is quoted saying Greek resistance decided WWII.

So history repeats itself. An underdog Greece, motivated by its desire for self-government, stands up to a ruthless Germany and says, “Oxi!” 

 

Depending on where you get your news, you may be saying, “But didn’t the Greeks run up a big credit card bill? Aren’t they now refusing to pay their just debts?” Good question, and the answer is, again, Oxi!

Paul Krugman and other economic experts have written extensively about how the single shared currency, the Euro, has doomed Greece (and probably will doom other countries.) If you want an economic explanation, you can’t do better than any of the posts on Krugman’s blog. Here’s Krugman’s Monday morning editorial in the New York Times.

If you prefer a non-technical explanation, then think of the single European currency as a thermostat. You usually don’t think about them, but your house has several temperature controls. There is a thermostat to control the temperature in the rooms. There is another thermostat in your water heater. The oven in the kitchen has a thermostat, too.

Now imagine that your house has only one temperature control and it is connected to everything. This is analogous to Europe having only one currency. Europe’s leaders can adjust the money supply and the exchange rate to benefit the economy. But since there are many countries in Europe and only one currency, they can only set the currency to benefit one country. And that country has been Germany since the EU began.

If you set your single thermostat at 72 degrees, the rooms will be pretty comfortable. But the bath water will feel chilly. And you can forget about baking anything. You can raise the single thermostat to 400 degrees and cook your Thanksgiving turkey, but you’ll die. A single thermostat controlling everything in a house just isn’t feasible. And this absurd scenario is exactly analogous to how Europe’s shared currency works  doesn’t work.

One other aspect. You may have heard that the Greeks spent lavishly after joining the EU, trying to live up to the European standards. Have you heard that much of that spending was mandatory? Joining the EU meant embracing EU standards for things like automotive emissions. And guess which country makes and sells the cars that satisfy the EU standards. Did you guess Germany? Good for you. So even to the extent that the Greek people (as opposed to the Greek government) was extravagant, they were forced to spend by the fist of Germany.

 

[Source: hellenicinsider]

 

 

 

A Lesson About Fruits & Words

When my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa there was a tree growing near our house that produced a fruit with thin skin, a sweet, pulpy orange flesh and a large seed in the center. The Liberian people called it “plum.” Their indigenous languages don’t adjoin two consonants, and they would often say “prem” instead of “plum” because P-R elides easier than P-L. And because they don’t like consonants at the ends of words, they would say “preh” instead of “prem” instead of “plum.”

You may recognize the fruit in the picture as a mango.

My experience was different. I had never seen the tropical fruit before going to West Africa. But I had seen plums and I knew that plums are purple and shiny on the outside and firm and juicy and sweet on the inside. So I learned that the Liberians mis-named the fruit. It wasn’t the only thing they gave peculiar names to. They also called papaya “paw-paw”, limes “lemong” and aluminum corrugated roofing panels “zinc,” which they pronounced “zee’.”

But I had more to learn than the Liberians’ idiosyncrasies.  I thought I knew about mangoes from growing up in Indiana. The mangoes we grow in our gardens are hard and green outside, hollow inside with many small seeds. Imagine my surprise when my wife explained that the green fruit is a “bell pepper” rather than a mango. It turns out that Hoosiers and other mid-westerners are just as wrong as the Liberians.

 

Lesson: People are apt to call things by different words. And when they do, other people won’t know what they are talking about.

The word “marriage” has been used of late by various people to mean various things. But what? Marriage is a civil contract between people.  Civil contracts are flexible and negotiable, and they draw their legitimacy from the government.

Marriage is also a holy sacrament. As such, it is specifically and only what God Almighty declares it to be.

These are two very different ideas, yet the public debate went on for years without clarification. There is no way people with these different ideas about the words could ever understand each other. And they never did. But I don’t think the debate was split two ways. I think it was split four ways, with the following types involved:

  1. Reasonable, secular people who support same-sex marriage as a matter of equal rights, just as they support fair housing and non-discriminatory hiring policies.
  2. Reasonable, religious people who defend traditional marriage as a holy sacrament. Their own personal feeling about gays and relationships doesn’t enter into the discussion, but only the clear and unaltered Will of God. (This is the group I personally fit into.)
  3. Hateful iconoclasts who support same-sex marriage as a way of undermining American culture and tradition.
  4. Hateful bigots who defend traditional marriage as a way of denying civil rights to people who offend their personal prejudices.

I would not venture to guess how many of each there are. But I’m certain that all four groups exist. Numbers don’t really matter in America anymore, because our government responds to vocal and proximate minorities rather than to the majority.

As an example of #1, I offer Jonathan Chait. He recently made a post on New York Magazine under the heading, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Chait’s column is based on his critique of political or social arguments made by proponents of tradition:

If you scan across the range of anti-same-sex-marriage arguments more typically on offer, the quality of thought drops off precipitously. In Time, Rand Paul writes another of his trademark college-libertarian-style op-eds that manages to avoid taking any formal stance on banning same-sex marriage while insisting that Big Government is really to blame for the existence of a debate that places him in an uncomfortable position. The Federalist’s Stella Morabito lists 15 reasons why same-sex marriage will lead to horrible consequences, most of which consist of right-wing fever dreams.

 

Chait is a liberal social writer and is concerned with equal justice under law. He’s heterosexual and married to a woman he admires greatly. As far as he is concerned, if the law affords a privilege to some, it ought to afford that same privilege to others.  I don’t think he’s very thorough in his critique. The mentioned 15 reasons given by Morabito substantive and imminent concerns as well as right-wing fever dreams. But I recognize the validity of his position as a political commentator in a secular society. Chait never mentions the holy sacrament because that’s not his purview.

Examples of the second group are surprisingly hard to come by, which explains why they lost the argument. But I’ll offer this excerpt from the Catholic Catechism is an example of the thinking of the defense of traditional marriage as a holy sacrament.

Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

 

There is nothing there about civil law. The argument rests on unchanged scripture and God’s unchanged Will. It is easy to understand why this would fail to persuade Chait while being absolutely compelling to believers. God either doesn’t exist at all and is therefore unimportant, or He does exist and is the most important thing there is.

Now, one of the arguments against traditional marriage is that it is sexist and oppressive to woman. The passage I quote above, on the other hand, says explicitly that woman is man’s equal and that she represents the position of God in the partnership. Marriage is needed because of man’s loneliness, not woman’s weakness. Clearly the holy sacrament is not what opponents are opposed to.

In using the word holy sacrament, I make a distinction between Christian denominations. Because the meaning of marriage varies a lot from one church to the next. According to the Wikipedia page on Christian marriage, “Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. “

Note that almost anything can be sacred if it is offered up to a holy purpose. An ugly church building can be just as sacred as a beautiful one. Plenty of oldsters would say the American flag is sacred. What makes a thing sacred is that it has been offered up. A sacrament, on the other hand, is inflexible. And only a couple of Christian denominations say marriage is a sacrament. For the rest, as you’ll see if you read the link above, the church has become just an extension of the state in awarding a state license. I remember my cousin’s ceremony, which took place inside a church but was the farthest thing from a holy sacrament. It amounted to little more than:

  • Preacher (to groom): You wanna hit that?
  • Groom: I do!
  • Preacher (to bride):  Do you plan to get some, too?
  • Bride: I do!
  • Preacher: Sssssshhwwiinnggggg!

The ceremony lasted about nine minutes, and was followed in short order by infidelity, acrimony and divorce. Shame on my cousin, same on the preacher who conducted the farce, and shame on the denomination that allowed such an abuse of a thing it claims to hold sacred.

My third set of actors are those I’ve described as motivated by the desire to undermine or destroy tradition. I give you Sara Burrows, writing in The Federalist, and her recent column arguing why monogamy should be “next”:

Brad and I are not legally married, nor do we ever plan to be, but there aren’t a lot of practical differences between us and a married couple. We’ve owned a home together, have a child together, and have every intention—although no promises—of staying together ‘til death do us part. We are hoping polyamory can help make that happen.

Note that she sees “not a lot of practical differences” between her and a married couple. To make the comparison easier, she lists her accomplishments: own a home, have a child, stay together. She argues that society needs to embrace “polyamory” because she thinks sleeping around would make it easier for her to stay with Brad.

Burrows’ argument for polyamory is either sensibly pragmatic or a heinous blasphemy, depending on whether one applies her argument to a civil contract or to holy matrimony. If the former, then there’s little grounds for objection on moral grounds. Civil contracts can say anything the signers agree to. But if one thinks of the sacrament of holy marriage, Burrows is appalling. She is either very ignorant or very wicked.

I am not going to make the effort to search for links, but there is no doubt in my mind that, competing with Burrows’ case for polyamory as the “next” thing, there are others making the case for bestiality, for pederasty, and for who knows what else.

Finally, there is group #4, who is exemplified by the hardware store operator-slash-Baptist preacher who put is a “No Gays” sign on his store front in Tennessee

Jeff Amyx, who owns Amyx Hardware & Roofing Supplies in Grainger County, Tennessee, about an hour outside of Knoxville, added the “No Gays Allowed” sign on Monday, because gay and lesbian couples are against his religion. Amyx, who is also a baptist minister, said he realized Monday morning that LGBT people are not afraid to stand for what they believe in. He said it showed him that Christian people should be brave enough to stand for what they believe in.

 

Notice here that the basis of Amyx’s stance is “what he believes in.” People believe all sorts of things, and those who are wrong can be just as fervent in their belief as those who are right. Amyx believes in “his religion,” which is nominally Baptist but more explicitly “his.” I have no idea what Amyx’s religion says. I do know the Bible. It says marriage is between a man and a woman; it says nothing about selling a hammer to a lesbian.

Want another example just for fun? Here’s a man in Arkansas who write to his local NBA television station to complain that they’d adopted a logo with gay colors. The station replied that the peacock has been NBC’s logo since 1956.

 

 

To conclude, the issue has resolved in confusion because the word “marry” means different things to different people and too little effort was made to to achieve a common understanding. The discourse was won by the first group I described, though they’ll have to deal soon with their allies in group #3. The issue was lost by group #2 because they let people from #4 do most of the talking.

 

 

 

I Can, Canoe?

Responding to the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, President Obama declared that the purpose of government (he used the euphemism “public service”) is taking care of each other. His exact words included: “That’s when America soars, when we look out for one another, when we take care of each other. That’s why we do what we do. That’s the whole point of public service.”

I don’t disagree. But America also soars when government empowers people and then leaves them alone. My point here is pretty trivial. But I am thrilled by one particular government-insured freedom that I enjoy, and I want to talk about it. (Full disclosure: if it weren’t raining, I be out doing it instead of sitting here writing about it.)

Most rights we enjoy as Americans come with constraint. You can own and drive a car, but you have to pass a test and pay a fee first. You can march down the street shouting controversial slogans, but you have to get a permit first.  You can buy liquor, tobacco and other things that are bad for you, but only if you are a certain age.The Clash song, “Know Your Rights” provides a pretty accurate commentary about the balance between our rights and the hoops we have to jump through to exercise them.

 

And it is in contrast to these hemmed-in and whittled-down rights that my point comes in. Because our freedom to float down an American river in a canoe is vast and nearly unlimited. There is a long train of federal and state practices, policies, laws and customs surrounding inland navigation, and the effect of it all is an extraordinary freedom that is nearly unheard of in this “Land of the Free.”

 

Me and daughter Jenny on the Wabash River
Me and daughter Jenny on the Wabash River

 

Briefly, the highest laws in the land insist that people can use American rivers, full stop. Unlike most other human activities that come with the limits, prerequisites and fees mentioned by The Clash, inland navigation is truly free. You need a license to put a boat on a lake, but you need nobody’s permission to launch on a river. To understand this, we need to consider some of the specifics. The best brief source of information on this topic is this pamphlet from the National Organization for Rivers.

Rivers were tremendously important to the exploration and settling of America in the 17th and 18th centuries. To block a river was to hamper commerce and thwart the public interest. So the US has always insisted that rivers and streams be open to traffic. It is not that people can boat when and where government allows — but that people can boat on any river and government has nothing to say about it.

A court case dating back to 1874 found that, while (federal or state) government may create lists of waterways that it deems officially navigable, people are still allowed to go where they wish. If a boat floats, then the water it’s floating on is navigable whether the government says so or not.

Indiana has such a roster of officially navigable waterways. And there’s no harm in the list. But there’s no great significance either. Stretches of river that are not on Indiana’s list are navigable, too. If there is water, people may float. The people, in this one small area, are sovereign.

Does the rule saying boaters are free on the water also insist that they stay on the water and respect the private property alone the banks? Nope, the law doesn’t limit boaters to the water. It says they can use the banks, too, up to the high-water mark.

 

Campsite on the banks of the Wabash
Campsite on the banks of the Wabash

 

[R]ivers are subject to the federal navigational servitude, including the federal navigational easement for “the benefit of the public, regardless of who owns the riverbed.” This easement is similar to a utility easement or a rural road easement passing through private land. It includes public rights to portage around obstacles, rapids, or waterfalls, to engage in “sport fishing and duck hunting,” to walk on the gravel bars and beaches, and to walk above the high water line as needed when walking along the banks of these rivers. Landowner fences, cables, or “No Trespassing” signs across these rivers violate federal law, exposing the landowner to criminal prosecution as well as liability for wrongful death or injury.

 

All of this comes into law by way of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. So you might expect it to protect barges carrying trade goods, but not fishermen and canoers. But, again, the law breathtakingly embraces all uses. The courts agree that the enjoyment of nature is a kind of commerce that should be protected. Nor is it protected only when money is changing hands. A man can put his own canoe in the water and float all day without paying anyone a dime. He’s free.

Each time I go for a float down Indiana’s Wabash River or Sugar Creek, I am grateful for this freedom. I am grateful for the majestic eagles above me, the startling Asian carp that leap out of the water right next to my head, and for the glimpses of deer, turtles, muskrats and other wildlife. I’m happy with the chance to exercise the skill I have to both propel and steer the canoe with a single balanced J-stroke. And I’m pleased with the chance to forget the clock for a few hours, which I do when I remember that around the bend that lies just ahead is another bend, and another and another and another. I know my ability to enjoy canoeing is based on accidents of good luck. I live in a place where water is plentiful, I can afford the gear, and I’m physically fit. But I’m nonetheless appreciative of government that stops landowners from stretching cables from bank to bank to stop me.

Now, as I said above, recreation is trivial. It is not as important as someone’s life, health, education, or safety. I would not judge government a success because it allowed me my canoe while it deprived others of more urgent needs.

I think the lesson here is that freedom and enjoyment are very high and worthy goals. The extraordinary freedom and enjoyment that I and others get from canoeing belies the arguments of those who say that getting government off our backs is necessary and or sufficient. Because often strong government makes freedom possible.

 

I’ll leave you with the wisdom of John Hartford:

Well I sure do love the Tennessee River, the Ohio and the Illinois
And I love the old Mississippi River, It’s a good old place for a boy
Just to step on board a steamboat, ride all the way to the sea
Where else but a muddy old river, would a person want to be?
Would a person want to be?

 

 

 

Thoughts on the pool party

We read this morning that police officer Eric Casebolt from McKinney, Texas has resigned. Casebolt was involved over the weekend in an ugly scene at a pool party that was filmed by bystanders and posted on YouTube. Casebolt is seen frantically racing through the crowd, commanding some people to sit down, others to get away, and others to lie on their face. No one was killed, but the incident fits a pattern of earlier, deadlier cases of police overreach.

 

[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]
[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]

I have two observations:

Everything might have been better if the police had stayed away. Casebolt’s resignation makes it easy to focus only on him, as the camera mostly did. But there were other officers on the scene and I’m not sure they were needed either. (The local police chief says only Casebolt misbehaved. I don’t know.)

What would have happened if the police had just stayed away? It is not hard to imagine an escalation to knives and guns, given that Texas has the most liberal open-carry gun law in the country. (Yes! The right to possess a gun is a liberal policy!) But injecting guns into the pool party would be an act of pure imagination.

The video evidence shows two fat, catty women slapping and pulling each other’s hair. Those women could have gone at it ‘til they were out of breath (probably less than a minute) and then walked away with abrasions and contusions. The rest of the people gathered on the scene behaved well. It was the police officers who were running, pushing people and raising the anxiety level. So I suggest that the incident might have come off better without police. Certainly better with one fewer.

I hasten to add that had only fit police officers arrived, they might have done some good. Proper-minded public servants could have separated the brawling women, determined that no crime had occurred and that the people on the scene had a right to assemble. And then they could have warned off the racist white people and driven away. But the McKinney Police Department didn’t have only proper-minded public servants, so they sent what they had, including Casebolt.

Most cities have a staffing table specifying how many police officers they will hire. That number is determined by the size of the city and its budget. The number of truly qualified applicants isn’t considered. Now, no law under heaven assures that a sufficient number of people with the right temperament and aptitude will exist for any task of work that needs to be done. The scarcity principle of economics argues that there will never be enough of any valuable resource, and that would include people. So police departments hire unfit people, train them, and then give them a uniform and a gun and send them out into the streets. (Casebolt had 10 years of experience and 2200 hours of training, according to a Dallas news source. But he still wasn’t fit to be a police officer.)

The same thing happens with schools and churches. Some people are born to be teachers, but there aren’t enough true, natural teachers to fill America’s classrooms. So schools hire people who just want a job and have obtained an education degree, and inflict them on America’s children. Ditto for church pulpits. There are more pulpits than people with a true pastoral vocation. And woe to the flock that is led by such wolves in sheep’s clothing.

My second thought is that civil disobedience was called for in McKinney, Texas, and the people on the scene were not up to the task.

In espousing civil disobedience, I am not suggesting disrespect for proper authority. I’m personally predisposed to do what I’m told. Shakespeare’s character Bates rings true to me when he says, “We know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects.”  A popular teacher at my high school was disciplined for flouting the dress code, and it sparked a student protest. One day, all the kids in the school gathered in the gym and refused to go to afternoon classes — all but about eight who protested the protest by going to class as instructed. I was one of the eight.

But when authority clearly steps outside the lines, people ought to step in.

When I was a missionary in Central Asia, a Christian friend was arrested in a small village on a nuisance charge and jailed “pending investigation.” There is no habeas corpus there, so “pending investigation” could mean anything. (The arresting officer questioned me briefly and told me to go, and I was too naïve to realize what was happening. I should have refused to leave my friend’s side, but I did leave and he was carted away.) Immediately after, I went to a superior police officer and offered myself for arrest, explaining that I had been with my friend the entire time and that anything he did, I did also. But I should have acted more promptly while the injustice was taking shape.

Since cell phone cameras have become ubiquitous, there has grown an ethic and expectation that responsible citizens should use their camera to film police abuses. The principle is boiled down to If You See Something, Film Something. And that was done at the Texas pool party. More than one person had their cell phone camera out and going. (The “film something” principle isn’t just a curb to police abuses. We ought to be just as ready to record any crime, and we ought to be just as ready to film and share police officers doing their job well.)

But more should have been done in McKinney. This isn’t a case like the Walter Scott shooting, where one person glanced up from his own business and saw the police officer shoot a man. In that case, the photographer was doing good just to capture the image on camera. In McKinney, there were dozens of people standing around. The incident went on for several minutes. People should had done more than just gawking and yelling.

I suggest large numbers should have sat down right beside the few teenagers who were being harassed. The film shows Casebolt before at least five kids sitting or lying on the ground. None of them had done anything and Casebolt had no grounds for suspicion against them. I say concerned people – especially some of the white people across the street – should have walked up with their hands behind their back or on their head and taken a seat right next to those young men. They should have flooded the scene with more and more humanity until the kids were shielded from further abuse.

This wild idea was proven effective  by Gandhi, King and the earlier English suffragette movement. There was violence in all three cases, but also many peaceful responses by masses of protagonists.

Let me elaborate on the idea with scenes from two movies. In Witness (1985), a crooked police captain stands ready to gun down Harrison Ford. But the captain backs down. He’s quite willing to kill Ford to keep his corruption scheme going, but he’s not willing to kill every one of the dozens of Amish people standing nearby watching.

The second case is the 2006 crime drama Inside Man. Bank robbers take hostages and then force them all to put on the same nondescript painters overalls the robbers are wearing. Then, in a climactic action scene, everyone bursts out the door at once. The police have no way of knowing who is a perpetrator and who is a hostage. (To learn how the robbers get away with the loot, you should watch the movie.)

 

 

[N.B.: I am using the two movie scenes to illustrate a tactic for resisting excessive police actions. I am not advocating robbing banks. I am not implying that all police action is excessive.]

This would be really terrible advice if not followed in the way I intend. It would have to be the right sort of incident, and it would have to be the right sort of people. The Amish in Witness were the right sort of people. The bad police captain knew they weren’t armed and weren’t a threat to him. The all-exonerating claim that “I feared for my life” didn’t apply. And every one of the Amish felt that their personal safety was less important that ensuring justice in their community.

 

How does a normally peaceable, trouble avoiding, self-interested person approach civil disobedience? I offer these initial steps:

  1. Read Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau with discernment.
  2. Read Matthew, Chapter 5-7 with wholehearted faith.
  3. Travel light and unencumbered so you’re never in a position to think, “I ought to take action to save that person from harm, but I’ve got this mocha latte in my hand. “
  4. Cultivate a universal benevolence. Have a kind wish for every person, without exception. Be ready to act for justice regardless of who the victim is. Wish the best for the cop, too.
  5. Stop yelling.