Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Second Amendment: what it actually says and means

Every time there is a large-scale, gun-related tragedy, there is a debate about the Second Amendment. Some cling to it as a defense, in the face of people who seemingly want to get rid of all guns. Others cite it as a bit of antiquated Americana that needs to be done away with. Still others argue that it doesn't really give people a right to own guns, that it is being misinterpreted completely. Setting aside the first two issues for now, let's dig in to the third. First, this is the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Short and sweet, that's it. There isn't any more. The last part is clear: "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Remember, this is a part of the Bill of Rights, the Amendments demanded by various people during the Ratification Debates and agreed to by James Madison, as a means of securing their support for the Constitution, proper. The desired Amendments were about protecting the citizenry from government; they were intended to absolutely secure certain rights that some feared were in danger because they [the rights] were not mentioned in the Constitution.

And the people of most States were very much used to the idea of a Bill of Rights, as many States had incorporated the same in their own constitutions, prior to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. Not all of them addressed the right to keep and bear arms, but a number did. Regardless, the point is that these Bills of Rights—both at the State and Federal level—were understood to be securing freedoms that were a given, that were natural for all intents and purposes. The colonists were not looking for new freedoms, for government to give them more liberty, they were looking for assurances that the government would not take away the liberties that they already and rightly enjoyed.

It is important to understand this backstory as a means of processing the Second Amendment. Again, the second part of the Amendment is crystal clear. It it the first part, that of "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state" which continues to trip people up, to confuse them. It has lead to two different views of the Second. One is that the Second confers an individual right on the citizenry at large, and that the militia clause is ultimately inconsequential. The other is that the Second establishes a collective right, wherein the citizenry only has this right with respect to the idea of a "well regulated militia," thus the state—at every level—can restrict individual ownership of firearms.

Interestingly, both interpretation have received support from professional historians and scholars of law. I say "interestingly" because it is somewhat ridiculous that any serious historian or scholar might argue for the Second being about a collective right. And I'm going to explain exactly why that is.

First, as I noted above, if the Bill of Rights is understood as a response to concerns over the Constitution—which is exactly what it was—then it's about individual rights as a matter of course. Any cursory reading of the Ratification Debates will bear this out, as people like Patrick Henry railed against Madison and his Constitution specifically because it contained no provision to protect the right of citizens to remain armed. Madison, for his part, did not believe there was a need for enumerated rights, insofar as he argued that the Constitution was a limiting document and because it did not expressly give the Federal Government authority to disarm the populace, the Federal Government could never do so. Still, he ultimately penned the Second to pacify people like Henry and secure the right to bear arms as an individual right.

Next, the idea of "militia," as given by many collectivists is simply wrong. They argue that the militia is akin to the National Guard, that it is a defined and limited body and not the citizenry as a whole. But Madison's own words demonstrate exactly what he means by "militia," exactly what people of that time understood the word to reference (philosophically, he's drawing on the ideas of Machiavelli in The Discourses). From "Federalist #46," penned by James Madison in 1788 (my boldface):
The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition. The reasonings contained in these papers must have been employed to little purpose indeed, if it could be necessary now to disprove the reality of this danger. That the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads, must appear to every one more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy, or the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal, than like the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism. Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.
Madison is explaining why the Constitution will not lead to the creation of a Federal Government that might engage in a tyrannical pursuit of power of the various State governments (yes, that was a very real fear at the time). In so doing, he posits how large a force the Federal Government might be able to assemble and then notes how it would be countered by the militia, a force of half a million. In 1788, the population of the Colonies was around four million. Taking out the slave population, women, the elderly, and children, half a million is pretty much what one might expect as the total for all able-bodied adult men. In other words, for Madison the militia was the citizenry. And there is no reason to suppose others in this period had a different understanding.

From here, the collectivist argument proceeds to the whole phrase, the "well regulated militia." Their argument is that the "well regulated" part serves to limit the "militia" part as a matter of course, that even if "militia" refers to the citizenry at large, it can only be called "well regulated" if it is limited, if it is a militia that meets and trains periodically, etc. And there is no such militia anymore, by and large, thus there is no need for individual ownership of firearms. The government is thus free to regulate such ownership in any way it desires.

But the problem with this argument is the understanding of "well regulated" that is being applied. What does it mean in context with the rest of the Second? Understand that the militia is the citizenry, with or without arms. And true enough, the existence of a militia—a body of freeman—is a precondition of a free state. But it is not enough to secure a free state. What is needed is a well regulated militia to secure a free state. And the requirements for a militia to be well regulated? Well, the principle one is in the Amendment: it must be an armed militia, otherwise it provides no security for the state. In other words, meeting the  requirement of "well regulated" is achieved by guaranteeing the right of people to keep and bear arms! Read the Second again with this understanding, and see if it does not suddenly make perfect sense, as written:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Thus, the arguments for the Second securing a collective right are all wrong. As written, the Second absolutely secures an individual right, albeit one intended to serve the common good. This last is most certainly true: the individual right to keep and bear arms means a well regulated militia (in the mind of Madison and his cohorts), and a well regulated militia means a free and secure state.

Now, what does this mean in daily life? How does the actual meaning of the Second translate to gun laws and gun ownership? The Second is not about hunting, nor is it about personal defense against criminals or the like. But the consequences of a right to keep and bear arms are not unlike the consequences of a right to free speech: there is a core necessity being served which opens the door for ancillary uses of the right, along with some abuses.

The ideal of the Second is simple: the citizenry is to remain armed. And the idea behind the ideal is that firearms remain in the possession of citizens, where they might be accessed if they were ever needed in service to the militia. Thus, the theoretical citizen might keep his or her guns in a locked trunk in the attic or basement, secure in their knowledge that they were there, should they ever be needed. The Second is not intended as a basis for citizens to keep a gun under their bed or in the nightstand, should an intruder break into their home. But nonetheless, such a scenario lies within the scope of the Second; it is a potential consequence of it and there is nothing to be done for it.

Beyond that, the issue of hunting is its own thing, a fact that too few on both sides of this debate seem to realize. It extends back to pre-colonial days, to the English Game Laws of the eighteenth century, and revolves around the issue of self-provisioning. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that suggests the Federal Government has any authority on this matter; it is wholly a matter for the States, themselves. But I digress...

Anyway, given what the Second actually means and says, and what the foreseeable consequences are for its existence, when it comes to gun ownership, it is fair to ask what avenues are available—if any—for States or the Federal Government to limit or otherwise regulate the right. Once again, the other rights in the Bill of Rights provide the answers. Despite these rights often being viewed as absolute and/or natural ones, there are plenty of limitations to all of them, this we know. So to for the Second.

Neither the ideas of concealed nor open carry are protected by the Second Amendment. Despite Thomas Jefferson's penchant for carrying his gun with him everywhere he went, such a thing is not a Constitutional right. And as far as I am concerned, getting rid of both kinds of permits would be a smart move. Neither serves the people as a whole, neither is necessary for a secure and free state, neither makes anyone better off.

Rules mandating how weapons are stored, this is also allowable within the context of the Second, as long as the individual remains in total control of the firearms (i.e. storage cannot be mandated to be at some sort of common location, government or private). But gun locks and safes, these are not only good ideas but also ones that can be required. And in that regard limitations on ownership to some degree are also not out of bounds, nor is licensing in general.

And it is important to remember that the Second does not define "arms." But the sense of the term is clearly as weapons of war, of self defense, Technically, a crossbow is an "arm" in this regard, as is a slingshot. But we know such arms would be practically useless now, as a means of securing a free state. Thus, I think "arms" should be understood on that basis, primarily. And if you happen to be reading this, thinking that I'm making a lot of strong pro-gun arguments, let me end this piece with an argument that many pro-gun types might not like.

Since the point is the security of a free state, the preferred weapons should be ones that actually can impact such an end. Frankly, that means rifles (including assault-style ones) and shotguns (including automatics). Handguns? Not so much. Outlawing the latter while allowing the former two would sit perfectly well with me and would not be a violation of the Second. Because, in the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Hand guns are made for killin'
They ain't no good for nothin' else...

Monday, October 5, 2015

Healthcare, capital punishment, guns, and voting

There are somethings almost as certain as death and taxes. One of those things is that in the United States, people of a liberal persuasion will always point to Canada and Western Europe (and occasionally Oceania) as evidence for how things should be done in this country.

Consider the healthcare debates. For those who want the government to step in and take action, it is always "look how they do it in Canada, in England, in Switzerland, etc." Largely revolving around the idea of needing a single payer system, the basic premise was and is that citizens of these other countries just don't need to worry about healthcare costs, at all. When they need to see a doctor, they see a doctor. End of story. The cost of healthcare is built in to the tax system. And that's just the right way to do things.

Capital punishment? In this case, the supposed bloodlust in the United States is contrasted by the more civilized outlook in these other nations. Their peoples have come to recognize that killing is wrong no matter who is doing the killing, so the state should not be in the killing business. End of story. All of these other nations had, of course, once executed criminals, but they have since "grown up," as it were. And the United States should follow their example.

Then there is the issue of gun ownership. In the wake of the events in Oregon, this is once again a hot topic in the United States (and rightly so). Calls for stricter laws, for more background checks, for assault weapon bans, for even the elimination of the Second Amendment are rampant. And almost all of the thoughtful ones involve citing evidence from other countries—again, primarily European ones—that demonstrate much lower rates of violence in countries without large numbers of privately owned guns, with much stricter gun control laws.

The fundamental proposition in all of these arguments is that the United States should learn from these other nations, should improve its own laws and institutions based on the experiences of nations who have been around a lot longer than the United States, or at least have had their laws and institutions influences more strongly by the older nations (as is the case for Canada and Oceania). So, here's a question: why don't we hear a similar argument from the left when it comes to the issue of voting?

For some time now, there has been a left/right back and forth on the subject of voter I.D. laws, laws that require voters to prove their identity before they are allowed to vote. Attempts by state government in the U.S. to institute such laws are looked at with extreme skepticism by people on the left, who argue that the laws are simply about limiting minority voting, that they are akin to Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes. The response from the right, that the laws are needed to prevent fraud, are poo-pooed as a matter of course, with the claim that there just isn't any voter fraud to speak of. Or if there is, that it's so minimal as to be inconsequential.

But as an argument against voter I.D. laws, what we never hear from the left is the European gambit, the use of European countries as an example of the right way to do things. Why is that?

Well, maybe it's because of these voting requirements (just a sample):

  • Germany—polling notification and official picture ID
  • Netherlands—polling notification and official picture ID
  • Canada—official picture ID or two other forms of accepted IDs
  • France—only polling notification in smaller townships, but official picture ID in larger ones
  • Sweden—polling notification and official picture ID

Now to be fair, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand don't have these sorts of requirements. And there are other European nations who have mandatory voting—like Belgium—so the mechanisms are necessarily different. But the point is, requiring citizens to prove their identity is not some sort of novel idea that has only recently appeared in the United States as a means to deny some people access to the voting process. It's just a common sense thing: show your ID and vote.

And after all, it's the supposed common sense of European nations that is really the implied basis for following their examples in the cases of healthcare, capital punishment, and gun laws, is it not? In those cases, Europe is rife with examples for people on the left. When it comes to voter ID laws, not so much.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sea Change and mass shootings

In general, I like idioms. They tend to liven up language, conversationally and in the written word. And they've been around for a long, long time. In my opinion, many—if not most—of the best idioms come primarily from two sources: the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. One of my favorites from the latter is "sea change" (alternately "sea-change" or "seachange"). It is found in Shakespeare's The Tempest in "Ariel's Song":
    Come unto these yellow sands,
              And then take hands:
    Curtsied when you have, and kiss'd
              The wild waves whist,
    Foot it featly here and there;
    And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
              Hark, hark!
              The watch-dogs bark.
              Hark, hark! I hear
              The strain of strutting chanticleer
              Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow.
    Full fathom five thy father lies;
              Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
              Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
The Tempest by Claude-Joseph Vernet
The second stanza is known by itself as "Full Fathom Five" (from it's first line) and describes the supposed drowning of Ferdinand's father. The sea change he undergoes—"into something rich and strange"—is a lie, but the sense of the change is one that is transformative and the term has since been used in that sense: a large-scale change in fundamental nature(s).

In the wake of yet another mass shooting at yet another school—this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon—it's perhaps fair to wonder if the culture of the United States and maybe parts of Europe (let's not forget such tragedies there in recent years) is undergoing some sort of sea change. Because it is difficult to account for the proliferation of these incidents.

Certainly, when taken on a case by case basis, there are explanations. There are motives that have come to light for the different perpetrators, motives that are all different, if not unique. The perpetrators themselves are different, as well, as are specific circumstances. And I have no interest in compiling this data in search of commonalities, in search of an "aha!" moment. Rather, I'm wondering if there is something deeper, feeding this kind of anti-social behavior...and a lot of other kinds of the same.

Well okay, I'm not actually wondering. Because it occurs to me that we've passed into anther state of modernity, wherein specific kinds of marginalization are leading to such behavior, subject to varying cultural conditions of the "where." What I mean by the last is that this behavior can take different forms in different cultures based on other aspects of a given culture.

The proliferation of mass shootings mostly in the United States is, I think, dependent on the gun culture of the nation to some extent, coupled with the general increase in violent imagery. Rest assured I am most certainly not blaming the gun culture for these tragedies, nor am I blaming violence in Hollywood or in video games. Nonetheless, the specifics of any culture impact how anti-social impulses can be and are expressed. The fault still lies with the person or persons responsible, but it is valid and fair to wonder how different cultural norms would have impacted their choices in this regard.

But to me, the more important issue is what is driving the anti-social impulses, because I'm thinking that these same impulses are behind the rise in radicalization in the West, which is being used by ISIS and others, behind the ever-present yet seemingly increasing nastiness on the internet (trolling and the like), and even behind the general malaise and lack of joy that seems to have infected far too many in the current world.

To be fair here, the initial impetus for this piece was a comment made by someone on a messageboard I frequent (AbsoluteWrite, for those unaware). They suggested a sea change was needed with regard to the gun culture of the United States in order to prevent/minimize mass shootings like this one in Oregon. And while that might true (however close to impossible such a change might be), it occurred to me that the significant sea change was already underway or perhaps had already occurred.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt traces the rise of totalitarian ideologies in the twentieth century to the loneliness and isolation engendered by modernity, wherein people lack a defined place in the new world order and can feel uprooted and alone, despite the hustle and bustle all about them. This sea change, as it were, is a consequence of an Hobbesian vision becoming the dominate one in the modern world, for it was in this same book that Arendt noted Hobbes as "the only great philosopher to whom the bourgeoisie can rightly and exclusively lay claim." For Hobbes' philosophy provided the means through which political rights are delegated to the state, and then (from Origins, as well):
By assigning his political rights to the state the individual also delegates his social responsibilities to it: he asks the state to relieve him of the burden of caring for the poor precisely as he asks for protection against criminals. The difference between pauper and criminal disappears – both stand outside society. The unsuccessful are robbed of the virtue that classical civilization left them; the unfortunate can no longer appeal to Christian charity.
Bourgeoisie man is thus economic man; life is competition, is marked by winners and losers, and the traditional idea of community and the anchors to behavior it provides dissipates:
Thus membership in any form of community is for Hobbes a temporary and limited affair which essentially does not change the solitary and private character of the individual (who has “no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deale of griefe in keeping company, where there is no power to overawe them all”) or create permanent bonds between him and his fellow-men.
This was the modernity of the twentieth century, the rise of the bourgeoisie, of economic success, and of standards of living (unparalleled in history), but also the basis for the rise of totalitarianism, again because of the attendant isolation and loneliness produced and never really addressed. But totalitarianism was, in fact, defeated (for the moment, at least) within modernity.

The new sea change is, I think, largely an evolution of the last. For the same loneliness and isolation continues to exist, but has been accentuated by a culture that has become largely about recognition, not from communities one is a member of (which as above, are limited affairs and have decayed, regardless), but from the nameless, faceless world at large. Friends and family are not enough; those who feel marginalized and isolated seek recognition in the same sorts of ways as do those who inhabit the world of social media and aspire to accumulate "likes," followers," and what have you as a means of increasing their own perceived self-worth. Celebrity-status is no longer a fairy tale for many, it is something to be sought after and achieved.

Simultaneously, political and social obligations have become fewer and fewer for the typical individual. Those traditional structures that served to support a community are vanishing, leaving the individual with an empty plate, so to speak. And fair enough, this works for many, many people who make good use of this lack of constraints, often using the space to forge new and different ties. But for others, they are lost and flounder. Or even worse, they misread their situation and seek the afore-mentioned recognition.

And the truth...the truth is that it this a hollow, empty thing, both for those who achieve and those who fail. But the latter, they are in the same place as those who may have once turned to totalitarianism as a final outlet. Some still do so, others recede into themselves, but still other lash out in various ways.

And I think that's what we are seeing here. It's unfortunate that within the United States, there is this gun culture that conditions responses, but it's not the gun culture that is the driving element here. The driving element is the steady tearing-down of traditional social constructs under the auspices of "moving forward" while simultaneously looking to a nameless, faceless state to fill a void it is not equipped to fill.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Game Six

Last week I saw the new Bobby Fischer movie, Pawn Sacrifice. For those unaware, the movie is about the life of chess grandmaster Fischer, with particular emphasis on the chess world championship of 1972 between Fischer and the then-champion Boris Spassky of Russia. It was quite good and, I think, quite accurate. Tobey Maguire was wonderful as Fischer, and Liev Schreiber was every but as good in the role of Spassky.

Prior to this event—which was held in Reykjavik, Iceland—Fischer was regarded as something of an eccentric chess genius, while simultaneously being the best hope to end Russian domination of international chess competitions (a string of Russians had held the title since 1948). Of course, chess was hardly the most critical thing in the world, especially in the middle of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the hope that Fischer might prevail captivated the American media and thus the American public to some extent.

The problem with Fischer was that he could be a little unhinged, to put it mildly. And he had played Spassky before on five occasions, never winning (losing three, drawing two). So, there was some amount of trepidation among Fischer's supporters.

Now, there's a lot of backstory that I'm not going into and the movie is well worth seeing for those interested in chess, the Cold War, or in just a good movie. The gist of all this is that Fischer beat Spassky in the best of 24 match format, winning seven games, drawing eleven, and losing three (one of which was a forfeit). Spassky had jumped out to an early lead by winning the first two games, the second of which was the forfeit. Given the ability of grandmasters at this level to play for draws, few believed Fischer could recover. But he did. And in the course of his comeback, he and Spassky played one of the most memorable games in the history of chess: Game Six.

I'm not going to bore anyone with an in-depth analysis of the game here, but suffice it to say that it was an astounding thing, mostly because Fischer completely eschewed his usual strategies and instead opened with a surprise move that eventually drove the game into a Queen's Gambit. This particular strategy is one in which white (Fischer) offers black (Spassky) a pawn in exchange for a superior early game position. Black either takes the pawn, leading to a Queen's Gambit Accepted, or refuses to take it, leading to a Queen's Gambit Declined. In Game Six, Spassky predictably declined the offer and played into his standard Tartakower Defense (which involves supporting his center pawn and clearing his king-side pieces).

Spassky concedes to Fischer, Game Six, 1972
What makes all of this so fascinating is that Fischer clearly believed QG openings were weak. He himself regularly defeated them or achieved a draw with ease, via variations on his preferred Nimzo-Indian Defense. Playing a QG against Spassky was surprising, to say the least. But play it he did, and flawlessly. Spassky eventually resigned and actually applauded Fischer when he did, such was the mastery that Fischer had over him in this game.

Now for those unaware, chess players practice playing by themselves. One of the ways they do this—indeed, the primary way—is by replaying previous games between grandmasters. In doing so, they learn knew approaches, new variations, and the like, even as they hone their basic skills. And Game Six has been replayed countless times since it was actually played for real. Many have pinpointed mistakes by Spassky, moves he should have made and ones he shouldn't have made. Nonetheless, the principle learning moment in this game is the susceptibility of the favored Russian defensive openings (usually some variation of Tartakower) to a QG. Fischer would open thrice more in the series with a QG and all three times Spassky changed his typical response (all three were draws, to Spassky's credit).

As I write this, there's another Game Six taking place. And it's not in the MLB, the NBA, or the NHL. It's happening in the arena of international politics. In the latest round of rhetoric and action on the Syrian crisis, Putin has offered his own version of a Queen's Gambit. Feigning a new strategy—mberlthat of assisting the U.S. in talking ISIS—Putin has instead ordered airstrikes against anti-Assad forces. The offered pawn in this gambit is, of course, Assad. The U.S. could respond by taking it, by shelving the ISIS attacks and matching Russia move for move via airstrikes against Assad's forces (coupled with the same "get the hell out of our way" that the Russians served up).

Obama concedes to Putin?
But Obama, we know, is not going to take the pawn. After scrambling for a response, the Administration has now decided to play a passive defense and try to influence the Russians via media spin. The problem here is that Putin is playing a very different game than is Obama. Obviously, Putin is now Fischer and Obama is Spassky. And Putin is demonstrating that he's not interested in draws, nor is he willing to be constrained by the conventional wisdom of so-called experts. Obama, in contrast, is using the exact same playbook he's used for seven years—the one he got from Neville Chamberlain—certain that it still has all the right answers.

The question is, when Putin finally forces Obama to concede, will the latter publicly applaud the former?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Obama: still stuck in the fantasy of Perpetual Peace

The other day, President Obama gifted the United Nations with a speech that demonstrated his oratory skills and penchant for flowery rhetoric. Given partly in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations (it became a reality on October 24, 1945), this speech glorifies the accomplishments of the UN, while also addressing a number of current real-world events. But more importantly, it justifies the idea of the UN and the overarching goal of that body: lasting world peace and prosperity for all.

A noble goal, to be sure, one that has long captivated the minds of world leaders and prominent thinkers. And in this regard, there is an oft-noted (or assumed) dichotomy of approaches: mutual respect and cooperation versus the threat and use of force. Those who promote the first—like the President—tend to ascribe the second to any and all who disagree with them. From Obama's speech:
It is this international order [created by the United Nations] that has underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity. It is this collective endeavor that’s brought about diplomatic cooperation between the world’s major powers, and buttressed a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people from poverty. It is these international principles that helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.

This progress is real. It can be documented in lives saved, and agreements forged, and diseases conquered, and in mouths fed.
That's the first approach, the one championed by Obama and other proponents of similar visions. And it is contrasted as a matter of course in their opinions by this (again, from the same speech):
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date -- a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.
And specific to the United States:
The United States is not immune from this. Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace. We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force; that cooperation and diplomacy will not work.
Let's be clear here. There is the "vision of the anointed" (to borrow from Thomas Sowell), the one put forth by Obama and others, and there is only the above "might makes right" vision to oppose it. It's one or the other, according to Obama. That the choice. And given that choice, who in their right mind would opt for the second, would choose war and the loss of liberty over prosperity and increased liberty? The problem here, of course, is that it's a false dichotomy. It's not one or the other; it's not now, and it never has been. There is all kinds of room between these two extremes. But before going there, let's first examine Obama's vision a little more closely, because frankly it's kind of vague and bereft of specifics.

The fundamental idea is simple: the United Nations and the international rules/laws it creates can maintain peace in the world and promote prosperity. Indeed, Obama and many others claim that is exactly what has transpired over the last seventy years: the world is a better place and has been a more peaceful place because the UN works. Of course, there is a an assumption here, the notorious "correlation equals causation" one, ever so common among thinkers great and small. And that assumption cannot withstand scrutiny because the last seventy years has also been the period of the Pax Americana, a characterization I have addressed previously:
Most recently, there is the Pax Americana, a term used by different people to signify various periods both before and after World War II to be sure, but one which I think should be applied to the years from about 1950 to about now (hopefully longer). Used by many pejoratively--including JFK in 1963--and objected to by others because of the existence of the Soviets, hindsight now affords us the ability to see the period more clearly, wherein it very much follows the pattern of the previous two periods discussed.

True enough, the world has not been free from violence at all in this period. And the threat of nuclear destruction has hung over all of it. Yet, American power checked the dreams of Soviet leaders and enforced the boundaries of states--many of theme arbitrary--throughout the world. There were protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam to be sure, but the ultimate consequences for being on the "other side," no matter who supposedly "won" became clear. And the supposed other superpower--the Soviet Union--was really no such thing, as the wealth and power of the United States increased exponentially, while the Soviets struggled to maintain a facade of success until it all came crashing down around them with the fall of the Wall.
So, to be blunt, why is it that the UN gets the credit? Because there is a very clear alternative to the storyline Obama is providing. And indeed, this alternative also explains why Korea and Vietnam did not lead to larger conflicts, something that Obama's storyline does not. More importantly, it offers a far more Real Politick explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That said, both versions also allow for the role of commerce and capitalism in all of this, though a careful reading of Obama's speech suggests that in his storyline, it's economic cooperation that is key.

This idea of cooperation undergirds Obama's vision, the vision of the annointed (those who believe they know what is best for everyone else by virtue of their superior intellect), the utopian dreamers (including both hard core communists and anarchists), the vision of all those who suppose there is a future available wherein there is perpetual peace and unlimited prosperity. The essential supposition is simple: people will come together as a whole and put aside selfish desires in order to benefit the whole.

By the why, I should also mention that I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I'm looking to sell...

Of course, it's easy to mock. And it is perhaps a little unfair, insofar as I know Obama and other like-minded folks recognize there are limitations to the idea, realize there will be problematic "children" who refuse to share and/or play nice. That's what the all-powerful UN is for:
And that’s why we should celebrate the fact that later today the United States will join with more than 50 countries to enlist new capabilities -- infantry, intelligence, helicopters, hospitals, and tens of thousands of troops -- to strengthen United Nations peacekeeping. These new capabilities can prevent mass killing, and ensure that peace agreements are more than words on paper. But we have to do it together. Together, we must strengthen our collective capacity to establish security where order has broken down, and to support those who seek a just and lasting peace.
But getting back to this notion of cooperation, there is a necessity of sorts in this regard that Obama addresses towards the end of his speech:
Let me start from a simple premise: Catastrophes, like what we are seeing in Syria, do not take place in countries where there is genuine democracy and respect for the universal values this institution is supposed to defend.
He goes on to explain how superior democracy and democratic institutions are to authoritarian ones, both with regard to bettering society and to maintaining governments across time. He notes how democracy can take different forms, base on the where of it, the culture of those who establish it. And Obama concludes thusly:
That's why our strongest leaders -- from George Washington to Nelson Mandela -- have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power.
Now, Obama is somewhat correct here: democratic institutions do limit humanitarian-style catastrophes, do lead to more stability across time. There's no getting around this, as it's been true since the time of the ancient Greeks. But a note of caution: Obama's word choice is wrong when he speaks of "democracies." Democratic institutions yes, but actual democracies no. Because the governments of the United States and of the European nations that Obama describes as "mature democracies" are not actually democracies. They are republics, or in classical terminology mixed governments. They have democratic elements, to be sure, but also aristocratic/oligarchic ones and, in most cases, monarchical/tyrannical ones.

But I don't mean to turn this into a lecture on forms of government. The key here is the need for republican governments to establish a continued world peace. That idea has been offered before. Indeed, there is a clue in the last two words of the above quote that suggests a source. Obama indicates "perpetual power" as the antithesis of his vision and one cannot help but think of Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace."
Immanuel Kant

In this brief treatise, Kant lays out what he sees as the necessary conditions for establishing and maintaining perpetual peace among all the states of the world, the necessary conditions for eliminating war once and for all. The piece has two sections. The first is a list of six rules that should immediately be put into place, according to Kant. The second is a list of three definitive requirements that must be met in order to guarantee the future. Setting aside the first section, lets look at Kant's three "Definitive Articles for Perpetual Peace among States":
1) "The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican"

2) "The Law of Nations Shall be Founded on a Federation of Free States"

3) "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality"
Do those look familiar? Remember, Kant is writing in 1795. There are, in fact, only a limited number of true republics, there is no United Nations or even a League of Nations yet, and the idea of world citizenship was simply unheard of. Yet Kant has pinned down exactly what many imagine are the critical features for a world without war: democracy, an international body politic, and open borders for peaceful purposes.

Now, someone who is predisposed to accept the vision of Obama might read Kant's articles and say "yes, of course! Kant pinpointed these things centuries ago and was absolutely right." And to be fair, Kant—consistent and deep thinker that he is—has probably defended this vision better than anyone since, despite the relative brevity of the essay. But the first article is problematic (which, I think, Kant knew full well). If a state is not an established republic—Kant rightly defines republicanism as "the political principle of the separation of the executive power (the administration) from the legislative"—what then? And as history has clearly shown, establishing a republic is no easy task, whether it is done from without or from within (contrary to Obama's remarks in the speech), especially when there are neighboring states that can impact such a process.

This is the fundamental fallacy of the vision: there is no means through which all states can be brought into the fold, so to speak. And because of this, the international body politic, the UN, is necessarily used by those non-republican states for their own ends, not the ends of the world at large. Thus, the idea that selfish desires can be eliminated when it comes to the actions of states is dead on arrival.

But allowing—just for the moment—that this was possible, that all states could be induced into becoming true republics, there is the secondary issue of prosperity, an issue that people like Obama seem to believe would naturally occur if the above conditions were met. Such people would do well to read the first section of Kant's essay more carefully. For in it is the following "rule":
4. "National Debts Shall Not Be Contracted with a View to the External Friction of States"
I like Kant; I think he is both an original and careful thinker, by and large. But here, on this point, he falls flat on his face. The idea is simple: Kant would have states limit themselves from going into debt over any purpose that is not explicitly domestic. And those who seem to share his vision—like Obama—gloss over or ignore this particular issue as a matter of course. The issue is, quite simply, that of resources. All states are not created equal in this respect. They never have been and they never will be. And states with greater resources are not going to degrade their own standards of living for the benefit of those states with fewer resources. That's a clear limitation of republicanism, for the people of a state necessarily remain sovereign and can be expected to look after their interests as a group above and beyond the interests of the world-at-large.

The idea of a rule that limits economic expansion--because it limits national debt--is a non-starter. Resources in the moment are always limited. And ultimately, conflict between states is about resources, period. It may be couched in other terms—religious, cultural, or even humanitarian—but ultimately it is resources or access to resources.

This creates a very obvious paradox: universal peace and universal prosperity are incompatible, but the latter still requires the former. The truth of it: Kant's outline is only about perpetual peace. He is not addressing inequality in the least and his proposed international league would not be about addressing it, either. No doubt, he hopes that less war means more prosperity and less inequality, but he knows what man is about, fundamentally. From his essay:
The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war.
The current utopian vision that infests the minds of people like Obama and UN dignitaries ignores this reality and wrongly equates peace and prosperity. Again, these are two very different propositions. And it is pure fantasy to suppose both goals are attainable. Peace is a fine thing, but it is not maintained by handshakes and flowery rhetoric alone, much less by unattainable promises for future goods. Because the reality of potential conflicts is ever-present. And man is and always will be a selfish animal. States rise and fall; those at the pinnacle may help secure a general peace and may even increase prosperity for those in other states, but there is no "perpetual peace" to be had, above and beyond such periods of dominance.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Back to the pajama party

Some time ago, I expressed my frustration with the current state of sports commentary—by and large—noting that many studio shows were little more than extended pajama parties. What I mean by the pajama party comparison is that the "broadcasters" in these studio shows are more concerned with playing around, doing each others' hair and nails, and exchanging gossip than they are with actually doing anything that might possibly—however unlikely—be termed "journalism."

I watched a few minutes of the Fox NFL Sunday crowd do it's afternoon wrap-up—just to get some scores and highlights—and as Terry Bradshaw rolled through the scores, he made no fewer than five mistakes, laughing at each one in turn. And as bad as this crowd is, they're not the worst. In my opinion, that honor goes to TNT's Inside the NBA team. But even they are hardly running away with the honor; pretty much all of the studio shows for sports on U.S. television suffer this same short-coming.

And it's not limited to television in the least. In fact, my use of the term "pajama party" to characterize this stuff comes from radio. Years ago, the late, great Jim Mandich—former Miami Dolphin and a staple of the South Florida sports scene—used the term on his radio show in reference to the radio show of another sports journalist in South Florida. That particular journalist currently has his own show on ESPN radio and it's still just a pajama party. In fact, it's such a pajama party that listening to it on the radio was deemed insufficient by the geniuses in charge and consequently, it became a TV show as well, wherein the lucky viewer is able to watch the pajama party actually take place.

But I don't mean to pick on South Florida (though I do mean to pick on ESPN). These dimwitted kinds of shows are on the radio all over the country. And it's a mystery to me when and why they became the standard format for sports talk on the radio, To be sure, the pajama party format has existed outside of sports talk for some time. The Glenn Beck Show is a perfect example of this. Listeners get to hear Beck and his studio co-hosts babble incoherently for hours, tell un-funny jokes, and giggle incessantly at their own cleverness.

But I digress. I was ranting about the sports side of these things. The pseudo-news-and-analysis shows have enough problems...

Getting back to television, as I noted in my previous piece, all of this seems to stem from the idea that name recognition trumps ability. Terry Bradshaw and Charles Barkley just weren't journalists of any sort when they were hired into these roles. And they still aren't. They were and are big-name former sports stars.

From left: Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw, Charles Barkley, Jimmie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit

Now I don't mean to be overly critical here. For all I know, this pajama party atmosphere is something that the people in charge want; the people on these shows are being told to act the way that they act because it's good for ratings. And given the near-idiocy that is prevalent on SportsCenter these days, I guess that's not surprising.

Still, I find it both aggravating and depressing, this steady erosion of a serious approach to vocations in favor of extended bouts of navel-gazing. Because that's really what is going on here. It's the spectacle that is important, not the actual content. And in that regard, the whole thing strikes me as symptomatic of a decaying culture. Of course I realize that sports is not actually life or death stuff; ultimately it's just entertainment.

Nonetheless, there is an underlying seriousness to competition as a matter of course. Competition is a fundamental aspect of existence, it always has been and always will be. Man competes for everything and such competition is necessarily the source of both conflict and enrichment. Sports, wherein people gain enjoyment from both playing and watching competitive activities, is itself made possible by such serious, real-world competition. It exists as a thing because of increased standards of living and increased leisure time. Its history extends as far back as the history of civilization.

But there's nothing particularly sacred about sports, it is just a thing. Still, this is true of other "things," be those things entertainment-related, economic, or even political. As I watch the growth of sports-related pajama parties, I can't help but see parallels on other "serious" news  shows, from panels of know-nothings that populate cable news, to questionable experts and financial reporters on market-oriented shows. Is the pajama party train on its way there, as well? How long until it takes over nightly news, where already the job of weatherman seems to depend largely on cup size?

Fundamentally, it's a growing lack or seriousness, of professionalism, in favor of being the center of attention that I see, that has taken over the world of sports journalism and is steadily growing in scope everywhere else. It is—philosophically speaking—and abandonment of stoic principles in favor of hedonism. And if we have learned anything from history, it is that such is the harbinger of collapse.

So, thanks sports guys for all you do...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Anti-elitism: from TV lawyers to Donald Trump

It's crazy, the things that get lodged in our memories, isn't it? Moments, images, and the like that seem entirely benign, pointless, or mundane in retrospect live on in our memories. I got to thinking about one recently, a brief incident/conversation with a few buddies back in the mid-eighties.

We were watching TV one afternoon. Or maybe it was morning. Or evening. But that doesn't really matter, nor does what we were watching. A football game? Sit-com? Maybe a movie? Anyway, there was this commercial which I can see in my mind with a ridiculous amount of clarity. It was for a personal injury attorney in Fort Lauderdale, one Jeffrey I. Orseck. The scene was of a faux reporter (a buxom blonde, to be sure) rushing to get an interview with a man leaving the courthouse. She held a microphone up to his face--the microphone had a little call letter sign that read "JIO-TV"--and asked him about his latest triumph in court.

The man was Orseck of course, impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit (Brooks Brothers, no doubt) with a red power tie and matching kerchief and a Mont Blanc poking out of his pocket, as well. And he went into a little spiel about how everyone deserved a lawyer who would fight for their interests and get them the money they deserved...because they had been injured in one way or another.

Tres classy, right?

It was--the mid-eighties--kind of the heyday for TV ads from personal injury attorneys. The king of the hill in this regard was David Singer, who achieved some level of fame for his "Is that a light on in David Singer's office" ads. But Orseck and others weren't far behind. The Florida Bar was just starting to get involved in ad content from lawyers and the rules were loose, to say the least.

Anyway, as we watched the ad, we got to mocking it, the cheesiness of it, the transparency of Orseck's ambulance-chaser mentality, and the stupidity of people who would actually buy into it. I mean, no one could be that stupid, right? At this point, one of my friends--and I know exactly who, by the way, but won't use his name--said something that really stuck with me and is perhaps why I remember all of this so clearly. He said "you guys have no idea; Orseck is like a king to the people he's talking to. They think he's awesome."

My buddy was right, I think. Especially if one goes by the success lawyers like Orseck and Singer were having in those days, all thanks to these ad campaigns. We--my buddies and I--were looking down our collective noses and mocking appeals that were not directed at us in the least. They were directed at people with less education, less sophistication on such matters. To be blunt, we were behaving like textbook elitists. Because less education and sophistication doesn't automatically translate to less intelligence. And the truth is, many people who opted to make use of lawyers like Orseck and Singer benefited mightily. I know this because I know how successful their practices became (Singer is still in business; Orseck passed away in 2007).

That said, this isn't a mea culpa. I'm not apologizing for my attitude here in the least, for my mockery of such ads, for my elitist attitude. It is what it is. But I'm bringing it up and delving into it for purposes of qualifying the weird success Donald Trump continues to have in the polls. Consider his latest tiff, wherein people like me on the Right and most on the Left are rolling their collective eyes. At a Trump campaign event a few days ago, a member of the audience posed a question in the Q&A, wherein he noted that Obama is a Muslim and "not even an American." The man wanted to know when we could "get rid of them [Muslims]." Trump's response:
We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and you know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening and we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Wait, what? "We're going to be looking at that"? Looking at what, how to get rid of "them"? And of course, Trump's response was immediately contrasted with McCain's to a similar question the latter fielded in 2008 when a woman called Obama an Arab. McCain was quick to correct her (and was roundly booed for doing so).

As is the case with ambulance-chaser ads, I can't help but shake my head at the stuff coming out of Trump's mouth (or not coming out of his mouth). But my buddy's point is worth remembering: this shit plays well with the people it is being directed towards. The difference, of course, is that neither Orseck nor Singer were seeking political office with their ads (much less seeking the Presidency). Trump is specifically appealing to the non-elitist crowd and--in my opinion--he's doing it specifically to wind up the elitist crowd, which in and of itself draws cheers from the non-elitists.

I don't accept for a moment the idea that Trump believes most of what he is saying; I think his whole "birther" game was just that, a game. He's not ignorant or stupid. He's a full-bore elitist, himself. But like the successful ambulance-chaser, he's specifically tailoring his message for the less-educated, the less-sophisticated. Trump has, I think, done a very careful calculation in this regard and decided that this is all a zero-sum game, that by taking this slice of the pie, he's denying it in full to everyone else. Thus for Trump, the issue will become whether or not he can successfully carve off some other slivers from others' slices.

That said, I also think Trump is wrong (though I admit that I do not know that he is). It's not a zero-sum game because the actual pie is not defined (meaning that the American electorate changes in scope and size from election to election). And--more importantly--I don't think everyone in the group Trump is catering to is as stupid as Trump thinks. People are going to start wising up, are going to start realizing that they are getting played. Which points to another difference between Trump and the ambulance-chasers: the latter have quantifiable rewards for their supporters (clients) in the form of cold, hard cash. That's what separates the successful ones from the pack. What does Trump have for his supporters? Baseball caps?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Observations from the gym

Years and years ago--think decades--when I was much younger, I had a gym membership at Bally's. I'd go periodically, hit a few machines, do a little lifting, and maybe play some racquetball. But I was certainly no gym rat. I joined with the best of intentions, of course: to gawk at women in spandex and to maybe improve my own physique just a tad. But like many people who join gyms, those intentions only served to get me to the gym once and a while (though Bally's happily charged me month after month). I knew I had to wise up and make a choice: make full use of the gym or stop pretending. I chose the latter.

Now as I said, this was some time ago. No regrets from me on that account, since I found other avenues--for a time--to stay in shape, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. I biked, I walked, I swam, I had jobs that required some physical exertion. All was well. Especially when the first two kids came along. They really kept me active. Aside from all of the stroller pushing and running around on playgrounds, there was softball, football, and basketball, sports my kids played where I joined in as a coach or assistant coach. You want an arm workout? Try two hours of pitching batting practice. Of course, the kids got older--they're both in high school now--and either moved on from these activities or no longer required my help.

But in the middle of all this came kid number three. And while there was still some of the same initial stuff--the stroller and the playground--I found myself growing tired much more quickly, owing no doubt to the fact that I was ten years older when kid number three was born, as opposed to kid number one. So I tried to do something about it: I ran. And I still run, even though I really don't like it much, because it keeps me healthy, keeps my heart strong. True enough, I go through extended periods when I fail to get out there, but I always manage to break out of these funks. Still, I found myself feeling my own mortality in new ways, probably because I could see my fiftieth birthday on the horizon (that's right, I'll be in my fifties and still have a kid in elementary school).

So, I went back to the gym. Well, to be fair, I joined a gym--L.A. Fitness, basically another Bally's--at the end of last year. I went a couple of times early on, but then fell into the same old pattern: I'd think about going, but would find a reason to put it off until "tomorrow." Halfway through the summer however (for some reasons I'm not going into), I forced myself to start going in earnest, at least three times a week. Many weeks, I've gone five or even six times.

A few months have gone by now and I have to admit to feeling a need to go. I feel better after working out, have more energy and am simply happier with myself. And I gather that's the way it's supposed to work. Oh, if only I'd figured this out in my twenties. But I digress...

Anyway, after almost three months of a serious approach to working out, I feel entitled to offer some observations on the whole gym scene, some serious, some less so, but all--I think--accurate:

1) Variety is the key to working out, just as it is the key to so many other things. Since I still run, I'm not that worried about cardio or even my lower body, but I can't just do nothing but arm curls and bench presses, right?

2) Most people are slobs, so bring a towel if you're going to the gym. When I finish on a machine or a mat, I always wipe it down. I thought this was protocol, but it appears to no longer be the case, given how many people I see drip sweat all over the equipment, then simply walk away when they are done.

3) It's very hip to lug around a gallon jug of water, especially if you're using free weights, even if you only end up drinking about a third of it. Me, I stick to my smaller squeeze bottle, given the fact that most gyms have water fountains.

4) People need to read the instructions on the equipment before using it. It's amazing to me how many people consistently use this stuff incorrectly, who--for instance--don't adjust seat heights and the like and fail to target the muscle group a particular machine was built for.

5) In that same light: isometric holds. If you have a limited time to work out, you should try to maximize your results, no?

6) Weight training first, cardio second. Seriously people, I know I'm still something of a novice but this is basic stuff. Yet, I see person after person--always decked out in top-of-the-line gear--do the reverse.

7) And in that same light, gym outfits have become much more interesting. Seriously, some of the leggings women wear just...well, enough said.

8) Stairmasters suck. Okay, not really. They're great, but they kill me (which, of course, is the point). The first ten minutes or so are no big deal, but after that...gah! I have to admit that the most impressive thing I see are the people--usually women--who not only hit those things for an hour, but do all kinds of additional movements on the stairs. Awesome stuff.

9) I have noticed that there are primarily two kinds of people at the gym: those who walk away from a machine leaving the weight settings as they used them, and those who feel compelled to increase the weight when they are done. Seriously. It's as though they think the next person who uses the machine will somehow be impressed by the higher setting, never mind that they have no idea who used the machine last. Are people really that shallow? Well...

10) Oh. My. God. The mirrors! Some people check themselves out constantly. I was in the locker room once and another guy there--younger than me, to be sure--could not take his eyes off of his reflection. He went to the mirror and posed every time he put on an article of clothing, including when he put on his hat and backpack!

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to hit the gym!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Same-sex marriage and Southern heritage

Most people seeing the title of this piece likely already have an idea as to what it's going to be about. And maybe they're right, maybe they're not. I guess they'll know soon enough, if they read on.

But before diving in to the deep end of this particular double-wide pool however, I want to make a couple of things clear, crystal clear:

1) I fully support the idea of gay marriage, insofar as I think people should get to choose how to live their lives, with whom they wish to live them, based on how they understand themselves and their desires. I think the government should get out of the marriage business, by and large. It shouldn't be up to the government--or anyone else--to decide whose marriage is valid and whose is not (apart from when such things involve breaking other laws like, say, statutory rape). If two people want to live together, share their lives and resources, raise a family or not, and refer to their relationship as a marriage, what do I care? It doesn't matter a whit to me if they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. I'll see them the way they want to be seen, I'll accept their relationship in the way that they define it. That's just common courtesy.

2) I know, without a shadow of a doubt, why the Southern States seceded and started the U.S. Civil War. It was to preserve that most heinous of American institutions, race-based slavery. And in that regard, I fully recognize that all symbols used by Confederate forces during the period cannot help but carry that linkage to some extent. Glorifying a Confederate symbol means--on some level--glorifying the Confederacy. Thus, it is just and proper for States to remove such symbols from flags and other devices of state.

Are we clear? I said, ARE WE CLEAR? Good...

Now, two recent articles have appeared at WaPo that really frost my ass, pardon my language. The first is Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? by James W. Loewen. The second is Why you should stop waving the rainbow flag on Facebook by Peter Moskowitz. Obviously, the subject matter of each is drastically different. Still, there is an element of sameness within both, at least in the way I read them and with regard to why they both anger me.

The first, by James W. Loewen, is about how the Civil War is--supposedly--understood in our current era, i.e. how it is wrongly understood as being about states' rights when it was only ever about slavery. To this end, the author--who is apparently some sort of top-drawer sociologist (which should be a big warning sign right there)--cites the number of Confederate monuments in Southern States and some snippets from textbooks. He infers that these things represent some sort of nefarious attempt to rewrite history:
As soon as Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done, and why. Their resulting mythology went national a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest that slavery was somehow pro-family, and the public believes that the war was mainly fought over states’ rights.

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.
This is what David Hackett Fischer would refer to as "furtive history." It assumes a conspiracy as the cause of an outcome, as a matter of course. In this case, the proliferation of monuments and other propaganda are presented as a part of a master plan to misrepresent the Civil War, a plan that allowed the rise of a Southern culture which appropriated elements of the Confederacy without having to admit to the fundamental reason for the Civil War (slavery).

And it's all hogwash.

Loewen completely ignores the actual course of the War, the consequences for Southern communities in particular and the nation in general. He ignores what went on during Reconstruction and what the South endured because of its failed rebellion (and to be clear, I'm not suggesting all this was unfair). Look, for instance, at his portrayal of Kentucky:
Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
Loewen's idea here is that this nefarious plan of rewriting history by Southern apologists is the cause. But Kentucky, a border State and a slave State, experienced a number of battles, and was put under martial law by President Lincoln in 1864, despite having never seceded from the Union. The Union general in charge of Kentucky--Burbridge--was fairly ruthless, ordering the execution and imprisonment of numerous people for, at best, questionable reasons. Moreover, since Kentucky was never in open rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation was never enforced in the State. In fact. Kentucky was one of the few States to actually reject the 13th Amendment, as there were still more than 50,000 people living in slavery in Kentucky after the Civil War had ended.

During the Reconstruction era, events in Kentucky were tumultuous, to say the least. Since it was never in open rebellion, Kentucky was not subject to the Reconstruction Acts. But nonetheless, the Federal Government involved itself in Kentucky by imposing a Freedmen's Bureau there and stepping in with armed forces when it felt such was necessary (including trying to stamp out the Klan). All this heavy involvement in local affairs by the Federal government soured much of the populace against the same. Supposedly, Kentucky governor Happy Chandler said that Kentucky was "the only state to join the Confederacy after the Civil War was over." And looking at some actual realities, it's not hard to understand why he would say this.

The point is, Loewen's analysis of Kentucky is superficial and largely meaningless. The number of Confederate monuments in Kentucky isn't evidence of some sort of concerted effort on the part of white supremacists to rewrite history. The monuments are reflective of a changing mood in the State that has a number of causes, not the least of which is the conduct of Union forces during the Civil War and the Federal government after the Civil War. True enough, there remains some racist overtones in much of this and the proliferation of such monuments cannot be divorced from this reality, but their existence just doesn't mean what Loewen is claiming.

In my opinion, Loewen's position is entirely grounded in self-righteousness. He sacrifices truth and scholarship for polemical pseudo-analysis in order to justify his perceived superiority to any who would disagree with his thesis. It's an ugly circle to be sure and, beyond anything else, such an approach represents the death of understanding.

Now on to article number two, the one by Peter Moskowitz. In essence, it's an extended complaint about people who added a rainbow flag overlay to their Facebook profile as a means of showing support for the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentially legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Is Moskowitz upset because he thinks homosexuality is the work of Lucifer? No. Is he upset because he thinks the Supreme Court ruling was wrong? No. He's upset because he's gay and supports the ruling, but all these flags make him "uncomfortable." Seriously. From the article:
I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.

That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. It didn’t feel like they were understanding my struggle; it felt like they were cheapening it, celebrating a victory they had no part in winning.
Now look, there's a valid point in this cesspool of narcissism: people do co-opt symbols and causes for self-congratulatory purposes (for instance, see the uproar over the Confederate flag), particularly political people. And later in the piece, Moskowitz fairly notes how Hillary Clinton was not in favor of same-sex marriage just a few years ago, but now is waving the rainbow flag like there's no tomorrow. But here's the thing, aside from such concrete examples--which are few--Moskowitz doesn't know dick about the people who have adopted the rainbow flag on their Facebook page, who are out waving it in public, or wearing it on a shirt.

What Moskowitz does is assume not only his own right to a symbol but also the authority to judge others who are employing it, sans any actual evidence as to why they are doing so. He claims he has "earned" the right (and apparently the accompanying authority) because of his experiences, but in fact knows next to nothing about anyone else's experiences (full disclosure: I have not used the rainbow overlay on my Facebook profile). And even worse than this, he assumes only a particular kind of experience is valid, when it comes to this right.

While the Supreme Court decision is certainly a watershed event for same-sex couples in the United States, it can also be viewed in general as yet another moment wherein the idea of equality was expanded in both this country and the world at large. Why should other peoples who have suffered discrimination or oppression for various reasons not celebrate the moment, not find some measure of solidarity with the gay community in the United States, proper? And why should anyone who is related to or is friends with such people not do the same? Moskowitz's standard here is ridiculous and counter-productive, to say the least. His conclusion:
Allies are important to the LGBT community. They’re necessary for progress. But holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.
Moskowitz isn't speaking from a position of knowledge, but only from his own limited experiences. And supposing those experiences are sufficient justification for his far-reaching conclusion is both arrogant and logically flawed. So why does he go there? Just as is the case for Loewen's flawed historical narrative above, the answer is clear: self-righteousness.

Both Loewen and Moskowitz want the ability to look down their noses at others, to assume their positions carry the weight of historical and/or moral authority. Both feel secure that their fundamental positions are on the "right side of history" (and look, they probably are), then use that security as a basis for claiming the authority judge the motives of everyone else.

One can be right, yet still be very, very wrong.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stars, Bars, and Symbols of the Past

For me, history is fun. I love reading about history, watching documentaries, and going to historical sites. When it comes to the history of the United States of America, my knowledge base in this regard is pretty broad and pretty deep, owing to both my love of history and my personal background, having been born and raised in Virginia and being able to trace my family's history in America back to the 1600's. And as a true Son of Virginia, both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War loom large in my mind, have impacted my world view in ways I can identify and in ways I most assuredly cannot.

Before getting into the meat of the matter here, namely the current furor surrounding South Carolina's continued use of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, I think it's apropos to note the relationship of the Revolutionary War to the Civil War in the Southern mind. The Revolutionary War was sold--and accepted--as a war against tyranny, a war for freedom from oppression (the irony of slave-owners going to war for their freedom is not lost on me, nor was it lost on many of the Founding Fathers). After the conclusion of that war and the adoption of the Constitution, the United States of America, the Union, walked a tightrope as it were, because of the very different natures of society in the Northern States and the Southern ones (a difference that predated the Revolutionary War and extends back to who was settling each region, i.e. Pilgrims versus Crown charters, aggrieved Englishmen versus Loyalists and Scots).

The Civil War was, historically speaking, an over-determined event. It was always coming; it could easily have come decades early (the Nullification Crisis). And slavery, economically speaking, was a dead end. It was, in a very really sense, limiting the economic potential of the South. Plus, the outrage over the institution was growing, England and many other countries having already outlawed the slave trade. Despite all the bluster over slave States and non-slave States in Congress that led to Fort Sumter, slavery was bound to fail, certain to end, sooner or later (and the sooner, the better, in the minds of many).

Still, the backdrop of the Revolution remained; it was a recent event. As the Federal Government grew and exerted more and more influence, there was pushback, especially from people who were used to doing things their way. Such things included, of course, slavery and a basic idea of "white supremacy," i.e. the idea that the European settlers of America were naturally superior to the imported African slaves and the Native American Indians. Naturally, such pushback was more pronounced in the South and in frontier regions (which tended to be in the South and West).

I'm not going to go into the specifics of the conduct of the Civil War here, but rather just note the operative mindset in the South: it was truly a war of Northern Aggression that threatened both the liberty and the way of life of people in the Southern States, for better or worse.

But it was such for two very disparate reasons. First, there was the history and divergent natures of the North and South that I just detailed. And second, there was the concerted effort to propagandize the War on the part of the Southern leadership and elites. This is something that began well before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and something that continued as the War progressed. There was no internet in those days, nor television, no radio. The typical Southern citizen got his or her news from local sources, alone. And primary control over those sources was in the hands of those in power, in one way or another.

Thus, the Civil War was sold to the common man as a war against tyranny, since before day one. And the typical confederate soldier went to war to protect his perceived homeland from invasion, plain and simple, not to protect slavery. The typical soldier wasn't a slaveholder at all (the typical officer probably was, though). At the time of the Civil War, States like Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina had much larger free populations than slave populations and had much lower percentages of slave-owning families as compared to States like Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. And while all of the South supplied soldiers to the war, it was Virginia and North Carolina who supplied the most. And lost the most.

As the war progressed, the propagandizing by the Southern leadership became even easier, due to the conduct of Union forces and the destruction of the war in the Southern States. I can even relate an anecdote in this regard: my father's family lived in an area outside Richmond--called Sparta--on a number of farms. At the time, they no longer owned slaves (but previous generations had, to be sure) My great great grandmother was a child during the war and told tales of how the Union forces took over their farmhouse for quartering officers, how they took what they wanted for food and supplies. She, her sisters, and mother were relegated to one room on the second floor. And they would peer out the window and sometimes try to spit on the Union officers coming into the house, they hated them so much. Can one blame them? Their farm was practically destroyed, their home was looted, and they were treated shabbily to say the least.

The point of this brief history lesson is to note that the issue of what the Civil War was about is not so simplistic as some would try to argue. But there needs to be some clarity in this regard: for the Southern leadership, for the elites in the South, the Civil War was about slavery, end of story. It was about maintaining the power and wealth the institution of slavery had given them and their families. Yet, this was not necessarily the case for the common foot soldier (in fact, it usually wasn't). That common foot soldier might still have believed that blacks were lesser peoples (something no less true for the common foot soldier from the North) to be sure, but that is not why they took up arms. So when someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates says this:
The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history.
Know that they are wrong. Many of those who "bore the Confederate flag" thought they were carrying on a tradition of resisting tyranny, were defending their homes and families, nothing more. They were most assuredly misguided in that regard, had in fact been duped by a power structure concerned only with maintaining the status quo, which of course included maintaining the institution of slavery. And it is a fascinating thing in my mind, how this reality, the actual history of the common man, so often championed by leftist and progressive historians (like Howard Zinn) is minimized in this particular case. But I digress.

The current backlash against the Confederate flag is understandable and justifiable to some extent. South Carolina--and Mississippi--would do well to purge the symbol from official devices of state, like flags. Because there is more to this tale. There is Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, and the "rebirth" of Southern pride. But first, let's be clear about something. This is not the Stars and Bars:

This--the first official flag of the Confederate States of America--is:

The first is actually a take-off on the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. True enough, it found its way into subsequent versions of the flag of the Confederacy, but as given, it was never an official flag of the Confederacy.

So why is it now the "rebel flag," the Confederate flag" in the minds of so many? Well again, there is what came after the Civil War. The flag, being the one flown by the forces of Robert E. Lee and being simple yet quite distinct from the U.S flag, was initially adopted by people who identified with times gone by, who were unhappy with the changes wrought by the Civil War. There was a racist bent for some of this, no doubt. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan used the flag throughout its history. Still, for many it was just a symbol of heritage.

That's a pretty common thing for many, many people, using symbols like flags and coats of arms to relate to their perceived past. And sometimes, the actual history of such symbols can involve less-than-noble events. It is, in my opinion, difficult and pointless to purge all symbols that might give offense from society at large. From government use? Sure. That makes sense, especially when the offense is widespread among the populace a government supposedly represents. But in general?

I can't say I'm impressed by all of the bandwagon jumping going on with regard to the Confederate flag, with regard to stores like Wal-Mart opting to not carry any merchandise that uses the image in some fashion. I don't know that even all of the symbols of Nazi Germany have received such a treatment, much less the symbols of the Catholic Church and of European powers who engaged in colonialism.

We seemed to be overly fixated on the moment, though, and the current moment involves a flag with a varied history--some of it a very ugly history--but which nonetheless has been a component of Americana for a long, long time. And it's tough to withstand massive waves of change, waves that have no time for the consideration of varied points of view.

To the Confederate flag flying from the statehouse of South Carolina, I say good riddance. To the Confederate flag being waved by racists I say you might as well be waving a Swastika. To the Confederate flag that represents a particular culture and heritage, is neither noble nor base, I say I'll miss you.