Sunday, March 29, 2009

Political update for April, 2009

Oh, God, no (says the reader), not another philippic about how our glorious leaders are screwing up our economy for the foreseeable future. Well, if they would just stop I’d shut up. I refuse to believe that we are so unsophisticated as a nation that we cannot have a critical analysis of what we are doing, as if the entire populous will panic if the government says – we really aren’t sure if we are doing this right and maybe we should slow down. In fact, Joe Biden said 30% possibility of failure in a speech, attributing it to Obama (who gritted his teeth later and pretty much said, heh, heh, that's just Joe)and I don’t recall panic.

To be honest, there exists no political will to do anything much different. Though I believe a history exists which justifies my believing a McCain administration would have been considerably less egregious in spending, he would have probably taken the same general approach – the same one the Republicans took when Bush was in Power and they controlled congress – spend, spend, spend. It appears that the country, if you can believe the polls and not your own ears, is much in favor of these spending policies.

As always, the trouble is that the two ideologies, conservatism and liberalism, and their political fronts, the Democrats and the Republicans, have a lock on American politics to the degree that our citizenry now act as if these two paranoid (because the other side is usually motivated by evil) schizophrenic (because they both switch positions whenever it suits their purposes) actually own as property holders, all political positions and deserve all the power. When one party controls the administration and congress they become drunk with power and lose control of any sense of conscientiousness they might have had when they took power.

The other day a perfect example of the problem of the two party system came out. The Democrats let it be known that they were considering using a perfectly proper congressional tactic so that they could avoid the filibuster problem, the one way a minority in the senate can put the brakes on, by requiring only a majoriy as in the house of representatives to move legislation forward. The Republicans are apoplectic about it and the Democrats gleeful. The problem with this - unadulterated pure hypocrisy! When the Republican controlled both houses and the presidency they used precisely this tactic and the Democrats railed against it.

Yet, we are so used to this nauseating hypocrisy, we, as a people, are used to it, and don't require a change.

We get what we deserve. Less powerful politicians line up behind their cowardly hypocritical leaders on both sides and act with group think and with blind devotion. The few who try and break away from their team are attacked and ridiculed like Joe Lieberman, John McCain, Arlen Spector, etc., not only by those in power but by their followers in the real world, who actually identify with the extremists.

Take this part of a message I received about Joe Lieberman via email after last years' election from a self described “progressive," even though he and Lieberman probably agree on over 90 percent of political issues. “Joe Lieberman does nothing out of conscience. He is a sneaky, unprincipled, self serving, ugly old man. He should be ridiculed. And I’m pissed off at him.”

I wonder if his anger had anything to do with Lieberman's decision to back his good friend, John McCain, or his beating the Democrats by running as an independent when they refused him their nomination. Y' think?

In congress, even if you are an independent, you must caucus with one side or the other. The chairmen and women use their power to all but silence, in terms of substance, the other side. Instead of the guaranteed Republic of States we deserve, we are subservient to a congress of parties.

The most powerful tool to maintain party power is the use House of Representatives “Rules” committee which makes the “rules” for each piece of legislation. By this avenue, laws may be proposed open or closed – that is, open or closed to amendments. They can be partially open too, which doesn't do much more. Open on any controversial issue is rare. Usually, they are partially open or completely closed – freezing out the other side. Constitutionally, congress can make its own rules. But there are limits. It can't violate other sections of the constitution with impunity.

It seems like everyday there is another step towards what can only be described as a command economy. A few days ago it became public knowledge that Obama “fired” the CEO of GM. I’m sure “fired” is just a metaphor for it being let known to the CEO that he should leave asap. We’ll find out, of course, what kind of package he got for leaving. I guess it’s a secret that everyone can act shocked about when it becomes public knowledge. Then, today, we learn that congress is fixing to try to let Mr. Geithner determine any compensation he wants for companies that take TARP money (even if they were solvent and compelled to do so).

You don’t think that smacks of a command economy?

Timothy Geithner’s new plan, government control of corporations, is just grist for the mill in our leap forward to a command economy. Because people are so sensitized to pejorative terms like communist, we don’t use it so much– I don’t use it when I am arguing with someone. Even “socialism” causes hackles to rise. But that is precisely what is being put into effect now. By any label - it is government control of the means of production (and that is the definition of socialism – shhh).

But many act as if these new power grabs – government seizure and control of the policy decisions of private companies, are just fine or necessary. That we need regulation and we have to do this because we can’t trust the people in the businesses. Of course, we can’t trust them – that’s why we have anti-fraud laws, however poorly they can be enforced. And we do need regulation – but only the kind that doesn’t stomp on fair competition. That should not be an ideological statement, but it has been made so.

We are well past the point where government investment in business is a de minimis encroachment. Barney Frank should never have had the opportunity to say that we own 80% of AIG and they have to do what we say? That approach is a far greater problem than AIG's decision to honor its committments for bonuses to its employees. There are better approaches. Like letting AIG fail. Like letting other companies buy up the solvent parts of the company and letting the other parts fail. The recent outrage over a solvent bank which was forced to take TARP money by the government because they were doing business as usual and throwing a big party for clients, is another.

But you think you can trust people in government to be honest more than businessmen? Trust them not to be corrupt? Trust them not to make sweetheart deals with businessmen? Trust them not to do the revolving door thing as lobbyists? Trust them to what – predict the future and know better than people in an industry what choices that business should make?

One of my favorite lines from a movie (and I can’t find the exact quote online) was in Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson’s Shanghai Knights when Jackie locks his hands together for Owen to use as a springboard to make a tremendous leap upwards. Owen looks at Jackie and says something like “What in our experience together makes you think I can do something like that?”

I have the same question for the public. What in our experience with government makes you think that it (they) will be honest, fair and competent? If they couldn’t predict what the TARP beneficiaries would do with their money, or whether they wouldn’t tell us what they did with it, or that they would give big bonuses as planned, etc., what makes you think they can predict anything else.

So, it will be okay for Geithner or his replacement (my guess is he will not survive the 4 year term) to tell the corporate boards how much their CEO’s and other officers should be paid, but not okay to tell Lebron James how much he should make?

What’s next – telling companies how much to charge for their products or services. Don’t think so? Then you need to read up on the “New Deal,” the administration's blue print for what they were doing, where we actually did that, causing havoc?

The sad example of Jack Magid, a tailor during the 1930s has recently been resurrected of late with glee by opponents of government intervention. Magid was convicted under the National Recovery Act for selling his service for 35 cents a pair of pants instead of the 40 cents mandated by the “Tailors Code”. Magid, who barely spoke English was befuddled that the government could tell him how much to charge in America. He charged 35 cents because he did not have a great location and his competitive angle was to charge less. Of course, as consumers, you’d think this was a good thing. But his wife and children had to fend for themselves without him while he served time because the government thought it should tell him how to run his business.

Constitutional? Of course not and it was eventually ruled so, but not before people were fined, even jailed, because they were trying to run their business in the real world, not the world of averages and political expediency in which government operates.

No, I don’t want people like Bernie Madoff ripping people off – but let’s not pretend that it was not due to government incompetency instead of too little regulation. Government had all the power it needed and all the warning it needed to stop him years ago. His mistake. He didn't steal enough. Were he as big as AIG, the government might have given him money to make him solvent as he would be too big to fail. You think I'm joking, don't you?

I’m not sure where this is all headed. I’d like to think that we are not going to become completely socialistic, but no doubt we are heading in that direction right now. It is ironic that although many of us were alive during the Cold War, many people still believe that government control of industry will not result in more, not less, corruption and fraud.

The same self described progressive I mentioned earlier frequently tells me that he is happy in Obama that we have a president who can conceive a plan and carry it out. And I keep telling him that this is what frightens me. The idea that “smart” people can predict the future and make sure economic problems never happe again is utopianism and magical thinking. Does anyone notice that whether it’s Bush’s people or Obama’s or Congress – they can’t get it right? That’s because they can’t predict the future and should stop trying.

My own plan, you ask? Can we just try to increase tax benefits for things like capital improvements and business investment, and give tax breaks across the board, before spending trillions of dollars? Instead of reducing tax benefits for charitable giving (are they serious?), try increasing it? Why not?

I like this guy

You-tube made a world champion out of a British backbencher when he stripped the hide off of Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he made this speech at the European Union parliament in front of the prime minister. It was nothing new for Hannan, who is a relatively unknown but outspoken British politician and writer, but it was for the world. Hannan gets it and calling out the PM – unvarnished by political niceties – in front of his his peers with perfect British snarkiness is why he is an internet phenomena right now. Watch it on you-tube if you want to be entertained but here’s the text I pulled off of www.anorak.co.uk:

Prime Minister, I see you’ve already mastered the essential craft of this Parliament – that being to say one thing in this chamber, and a very different thing to your home electorate. You’ve spoken here about free trade, and amen to that; who would have guessed, listening to you just now, that you were the author of the phrase ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, and that you have subsidised - where you have not nationalised outright - swathes of our economy, including the car industry and many of the banks.

Perhaps you would have more moral authority in this house if your actions matched your words. Perhaps you would have more legitimacy in the councils of the world if the United Kingdom were not going into this recession in the worst condition of any G20 country.

The truth, Prime Minister, is that you have run out of our money. The country as a whole is now in negative equity. Every British child is born owing around £20,000. Servicing the interest on that debt is going to cost more than educating the child.

Now once again today you tried to spread the blame around, you spoke about an international recession; an international crisis. Well, it is true that we are all sailing together into the squall – but not every vessel in the convoy is in the same dilapidated condition. Other ships used the good years to caulk their hulls and clear up their rigging – in other words, to pay off debt – but you used the good years to raise borrowing yet further. As a consequence, under your captaincy, our hull is pressed deep into the water line, under the accumulated weight of your debt. We are now running a deficit that touches almost 10% of GDP – an unbelievable figure. More than Pakistan, more than Hungary – countries where the IMF has already been called in.

Now, it’s not that you’re not apologising - like everyone else, I’ve long accepted that you’re pathologically incapable of accepting responsibility for these things - it’s that you’re carrying on, wilfully worsening the situation, wantonly spending what little we have left. Last year, in the last twelve months, 125,000 private sector jobs have been lost – and yet you’ve created 30,000 public sector jobs. Prime Minister you cannot go on forever squeezing the productive bit of the economy in order to fund an unprecedented engorging of the unproductive bit.

You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt. And when you repeat, in that wooden and perfunctory way, that our situation is better than others, that we’re well place to weather the storm, I have to tell you, you sound like a Brezhnev-era Apparatchik giving the party line. You know, and we know, and you know that we know that it’s nonsense. Everyone knows that Britain is the worst placed to go into these hard times. The IMF has said so. The European Commission has said so. The markets have said so, which is why our currency has devalued by 30% – and soon the voters, too, will get their chance to say so.

They can see what the markets have already seen: that you are a devalued Prime Minister, of a devalued Government.


Why can this independent (although he has also run as a conservative) from Britain get it and our congressmen and women can't? Why do so many people in this country believe that when you are in tremendous debt you should crush yourself under more debt or spending without having a way to pay for it? Here are our choices in the future – continuing borrowing, if possible, merely putting off the problem; create more dollars and thereby rampant inflation, or tax the hell out of people. It looks like they will go under the theory that if you have three bad choices, go with all three. Economic growth would be nice but it’s not going to happen under these conditions.

Of course, maybe we could get lucky and have the equivalent of WWII again. That got the ball rolling the last time.

Holy reprehensible, Batman

Some acts of public corruption are just so vile, such a gross violation of an office, such a perverse example of immoratily that it transcends all politics and just makes you sick.

That's how I feel about these animals in Pennsylvania, Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. Trusted with a position enabling him to subject kids to incarceration, they took money from the juvenile detention halls as sentenced many children to government custody. It numbered in the hundreds. One of the custodial sentences was for stealing a $4 item. Another was for creating a satirical internet page mocking his teacher. The first kid should have got grounded for a week by his parents and working off ten times the money. The second kid should have had to face his teacher and gotten a tongue lashing.

They did it for money. Lots of money. 2.6 million dollars. There must be a lot of money in juvenile detention centers if the owner could afford that as a kick back. I hope that is a warning signal to municipalities around the globe to check and see what is going on in their jurisdictions.

Both Ciavarella and Conahan pled guilty. My understanding is that they face only seven years in prison. At the least, they should add up the time they gave to these kids and serve that without chance of parole. Seven years? Not enough.

I don't even care if most of those kids needed to go to a detention center. The public corruption outweighs whatever they did and if they unjustly benefit, so much the better. Another judge, Arthur Grim, has freed them in mass as they were not given the beneifit of knowing they had a right to a lawyer.

I'm not in favor of locking somebody up in bonds in the middle of the town commons, but if they ever come back with that, these two should head the list of penitents.

No charges have been made against the juvenile center or its owners. One of the owners claims that he was a victim of extortion. I guess they believe him. I hope at least they threatened his or his families life, because I don't know what else would justify his going along with this instead of going to the D.A.

Maddoff will spend his afterlife in Hell one ring higher than you two. May I say in conclusion, yccchh.

A word in defense of and in encouragement of our president

President Obama may indeed turn out to be a far worse president than Bush, but, as I spend so much time bashing him on the economy and for his $900 million gift to Hamas, I'd like a few in praise.

Your understanding, probably guided by military and your universally liked secretary of defense, Robert Gates, is superior to Bush's ruinous policies. I agree with your Iraq policy. It is responsible. We should get out and turn it over to the Iraqis with due care. I have no doubt if something occurs to speed up or slow down the process you will act on it. We can't stay there indefinitely because a few idiots occassionally blow themselves and others up. If the government can't maintain the peace, so costly bought, we can only go so far. Remember, our constitution guarantees us a republican form of government, not the Iraqis. However, if Iraq blows up, we should not abandon the Kurds and help arm the side we believe is in our best interest (although, we've screwed that up before).

You also seem to get Afghanistan. We need more there, not less. During Bush's terms the right was correct that we could not just abandon Iraqis now that we had gone that far. However, their ridicule of the left that Iraq was the center of the battle of international terrorism was, clearly, incorrect and political. Al Qaeda was there because we were there, not visa versa. My concern is that you will not send enough troops. Wrong. You want to spend. Spend there. Spend political capital too to get more NATO help there. We should not bear it alone. If they will not help, let's see how tough you are (you told us you were during the election).

We also need to learn to politically and/or militarilly engage with a new group - Pushtans, Pashtos, Pathans, etc., whatever you want to call them. The word comes from a Iranian language group and tribe, many of whom barely recognize, if at all, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as a barrier. I do not mean to tar with one brush. I have no doubt that they have the same variation of beliefs and philosophies as other groups, but there is also no doubt that this ethnic group comprised of many tribes and clans will be largely responsible for returning Afghanistan to the Taliban (which is primarily a Pashtun group) if we let them, and that they are already succoring our other mortal enemy, Al Qaeda, as well. However much we have succeeded in damaging the Taliban and Al Quaeda, they are still our most desperate enemies and the ones who seem best placed to damage us in the future with a major terrorist act. As of right now, we cannot deal with this group directly, because they are not a government like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet, if we don't recognize that our inability to engage with them is allowing a grave threat to us to continue, we are going to likely suffer the consequences.

I also think that you have at least some handle on Mexico although I'm not sure you recognize how serious it might become. I would rather taking that $900 million for Gaza and give it to the Mexican government under tight controls to eradicate the gains these murderous thugs have made. Mexico is a lot closer to us than Palestine. The danger to Palestinians of angry Israelis and visa versa is not as great as the danger to Mexico and us of these narco-killers. Thousands are dying in the cross-fire of gang warfare, many on the border of our own country.

But, while I'm on Mexico, you should have a word with your secretary of state. I understand your general policy - Bush did show an arrogance towards the world and we do need them, whatever my conservative friends think. That doesn't mean we should have to take the blame for everything bad in the world. It is idiotic to think that because we have a drug and gun market in this country that we are responsible for the actions of murderous Mexican gangs. Try and stem the control of guns south, no doubt, but do not blame us as a whole because of the irresponsibility or afflictions of some of us. Is it U.S. government policy to send guns to Mexican gangs or to allow them to sell drugs here. Obviously not. Do you blame Mexico as a whole because some of them are murderous thugs? No. Why do you then apply that standard to us then?


So ease up just a little on the humility pedal. You know, it's not enough that you try and emulate Lincoln by bringing Biden and Clinton into your inner circle. You need the strength to be the boss too.


Does it bother anyone that -

while AIG was self destructing AIG's executives contributed over $630,000 to political parties and candidates?

That a substantial amount, at least $120,000 was contributed after they received $85 billion in government money?

That Obama recieved $130,000 from AIG in 2008, while McCain nearly $60,000?

Shouldn't politicians at least say how much they have received from companies that are getting millions or billions of dollars?

I'm not saying Obama has done anything wrong, necessarily, or that McCain would have done anything different just because he got less, just that it is very hard to tell the difference when there is a quid pro quo, and that is part of the problem with our political system. I am thankful though, that the internet has made this information available to all of us. Otherwise, we'd have to wait for a tell all book years after it happened.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Natasha Richardson and the culture of fear

Here we go again. A famous person dies from something and all of our lives must change.

I didn’t know much about Natasha Richardson. She looks beautiful and people seem to think she was a good actress. Her death, as sad as any other, is perplexing. Perhaps there are those who worked on her before her death who have an idea of why what seemed like a minor fall caused such severe trauma to her head leading to her death. It seems to me based on anecdotal evidence only, that people suspect that there was a problem before her fall and it was just waiting to happen. But, in this media mad world, she has become a part of the culture of fear.

Like most people, I’ve taken some blows to the head. When I was a child I fell maybe 6 feet when a tree branch cracked while I was swinging upside down. It hurt, but nothing much happened to me. In high school, an idiot slugged me in the back of the head for no reason whatsoever. It hurt for a few minutes and then felt better. Wrestling around with friends occasionally led to accidental blows to the skull, but never with any grave result. Those times, we were the idiots.

I even had a bizarre ski accident when I was gliding in for the day and was struck from the rear by another idiot. My arm flew in front of me as I tumbled forward and my pole stuck into the ground vertically. My forehead followed suite, smashing into the end of the firmly planted pole. I wasn’t knocked unconscious but was laid out. I crawled off the slope and slowly walked to my car where I sat for a half hour before driving home. That was the biggest blow I ever took but it had no lasting effect. It had no lasting effect. It had no lasting effect. No lasting effect. No lasting effect. No . . .

At least not that I know about.

The question comes up, of course, in this situation, is whether and to what extent the government will decide that we can’t make decisions for ourselves and they will require us to wear head gear. This is only part of a larger argument, of course, as to how much the government should be protecting us in the first place.

Let’s be clear. It is axiomatic that the states have the power to make us do what they want when it comes to our safety under what is sometimes called the police power. Due to the huge expansion of the meaning of the commerce clause in the constitution, the federal government has extraordinary power to do so also as long as they claim it has something to do with interstate commerce.

But even though that ship has long sailed, we can still talk about whether it should be that way. Start with motorcycles. Some states require motorcycle riders to wear helmets and they also specify the qualities of those helmets. For example, in New York, those ornamental biker gang helmets that look like Sergeant Shultz should be wearing it, are no good.

I once researched the probability of getting injured on a motorcycle as compared to when in an automobile. It’s harder than it looks as real good statistics for it are difficult to find. It suffices to say that your odds are far worse on the motorcycle than in a car. As far as I could tell there was roughly sixteen times more likelihood of injury and four times the likelihood of death, or thereabouts. That there is a huge difference is of course, obvious (although the otherwise intelligent motorcycle rider I was arguing with it about didn’t think so).

Personally, I think you would have to be crazy not to wear a motorcycle helmet. But once we accept that it is okay for the government to tell us we must wear one, and agree on how dangerous it is not to do so, it should not be surprising when some legislator asks why they are allowed to ride a motorcycle at all? I’m not advocating that – I’m looking at the future of our increasingly over-regulated world where choices are routinely taken away from us.

Think about it this way. In a car, we are all required to wear seatbelts in the front seat. We are required to have kids under 14 (NY) wear them in the back seats. Additionally, the automobile manufacturers must follow strict guidelines as to the crashworthiness of the vehicle itself, on the front and sides. We also have in new cars – air bags. You would not be allowed to ride down the road without a windshield with safety glass and bumpers that could withstand at least a minor bump.

Now, take motorcycles. You are riding down the street without the protection of a car around you, or a strong windshield. There is no seatbelt at all. Moreover, you are on two wheels, which means you can easily slip and crash, unlike riding in a car which is quite difficult to turn over. A minor accident won't cause whiplash; it will have you flying dozens of feet or more through the air onto a hard pavement or into other vehicles. This, of course, is the reason that insurance companies don’t have to give no-fault coverage to motorcycles and why we know so many people who have been seriously injured on one or even fatally injured. Actually, I don't think motorcycles riders should be allowed to sue for personal injuries in most cases because they are voluntarily increasing their risk.

Motorcycles have been around as since the 1800s, so it will be difficult for the pols to get rid of them, but we’ve only started doing things like banning cigarettes in restaurants recently. It is growing. One day, some politician is going to look at the obvious danger of motorcycles and they will ban them for kids, say those under 18. Of course, once they ban motorcycles for kids, everyone will notice how much their death rate goes down. And then they will make it for those under 25. After all, the insurance companies know how bad drivers are under 25 (or, in my case, under 75). And then, possibly they will ban them for everyone. If you haven’t noticed the government has no problem with telling you that you aren’t allowed to risk your life when they don’t want you to. First they made restaurants have smoke free rooms or ventilation systems before they started outright banning them in public indoor spots. So, if it seems farfetched now, wait a few years.

But, once the government makes us all safer by getting rid of motorcycles (I think there would be an armed rebellion right now; they need a few more years to keep regulating the freedom out of us) they might up the ante with cars. Believe it.

For example, it is also an undeniable fact that the death rate for cars goes up dramatically as you add teenage boys to the car. When you put four teenage boys in a car you are taking tremendous risks. As a former teenage boy who went with a fairly reasonable bunch of friends, I can tell you that we drove like morons, sometimes racing around in traffic, even on ice. Would a law forbidding new male drivers to have other young men as passengers surprise anyone in a world where little kids are suspended from school for hugging or kissing a friend.

How about helmets for kids in cars? If kids need them on skis and the risk is so low, why not cars? Despite the ridiculous fear mongering of the media,the serious head trauma from car accidents dwarfs those from skiing accidents. Don't think it's going to happen, huh?

Take these statistics from a website – www.caregiver.org - which I’ve summarized below:

There are two million head injuries of all types (including skull and facial fractures) every year (U. S.), 1.5 million are nonfatal traumatic brain injuries, not requiring hospitalization. About the same number sustain a brain injury with loss of consciousness but not severe enough to result in long-term institutionalization. Another 300,000 require hospitalization, with 99,000 suffering a lasting disability. About 56,000 people die each year from traumatic brain injury (“TMI”). TMI accounts for roughly 34% of all injury deaths in the United States. It affects males at twice the rate of females. Men are also more likely to suffer severe injuries. Kids 15 to 24 are the biggest risks, but it starts increasing again for those over 60. Brain injuries from motor vehicle accidents have actually been substantially reduced since the 80s (down 25%), no doubt due to increased seat belt use and increased vigilance against drunk or impaired driving. Firearm related TMI has dramatically increased in the same period of time (down 13%). About 5% to 10% of skiing accidents result in head injuries.

I can’t help but notice that the website changed its way to describe the statistics when it came to skiing. Instead of saying what percentage of TMI was related to an activity, it said what percentage of skiing accidents resulted in head injury (but not traumatic brain injury). This was a little disingenuous and made ski accidents seem more dangerous than they deserve. For example, where about 56,000 people are dying from TMI over the course of a year, ski deaths from all reasons average about 39 every year – in other words an infintissmal percentage. And that includes deaths from avalanches and people skiing off the slopes.

Moreover, although helmet use has greatly increased, it has not been shown to have lowered deaths. Even advocates of helmet use recognize that it reduces minor injuries, not major ones, and that it almost certainly increases reckless skiing.

That won’t stop the media from writing articles suggesting that mandatory helmet wearing is coming for skiiers. I hope it won’t. I also hope that they won’t start requiring kids to wear helmets in cars, although it will clearly save many lives. Some things should just remain our choice.

When my daughter was growing up, I made the choice that she did not have to ski with a helmet or ride a bike with one (unless a friend was over and they had to wear one). No doubt many parents (let me risk the usual charge of sexism and say more mothers than fathers) will say that was irresponsible. These are the same parents who told me the other day it was irresponsible when I let my daughter take care of herself at 16 when I went on vacation (she had her mother around and friends families nearby – I have my limits too) or told me shouldn’t be allowed to walk to a nearby friend’s house at night even though we lived in one of the safest areas in the whole country.

Peer pressure is powerful, and even though I often bucked the trend as much as I could, I hoped to my kid’s benefit in developing resourcefulness, self sufficiency and real self-esteem (not the self-esteem educators and parents seem to think come to your kid by constantly telling them they are wonderful and always win), I admit that I sometimes limited her based on other parents and cultural fears. It’s not that I think all these people are bad parents, but I do believe that our culture has taken a very wrong turn in the freedom we deny our kids out of fear.

The future will likely increase our fear of injuries the way 24 hour cable coverage of every little white girl who gets kidnapped has convinced parents that there are predators everywhere even though non-family kidnappings are pretty much as rare as they ever were. They can now put a chip in your dog with GPS, so that you can find it when they are lost. How soon before we do that with babies? How soon before other parents tell you that you are irresponsible if you implant GPS in your kid, or before the state or federal government tells us that you must?

That much predictive ability I can’t claim. Maybe our grandkids, maybe their kids. But, it’s going to happen. Every day someone else surprises me with how laissez faire people are about government control. But, step by step . . . .

Soon I'll be wearing an aluminum foil hat and checking the skies for helicopters with men in black suits.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Channeling Longfellow

I can write a story. I can write an essay. But I can’t write a poem. Never could.

In high school a teacher asked if he could publish the one poem I wrote during his creative writing class. It was barely a poem at all. It was, though, completely atheistic, which I guess he found edgy. So, he published it after I had forgotten all about it. It pissed off some other students and even teachers. I started receiving reports that I was going to get beaten up - the old beat God into him theory. I really didn’t think anyone was going to do it, and, I think I recall being a little flattered at the attention, although I certainly didn't wanted my ass kicked. The next day I walked past one of the kids who was supposedly going to beat me up and we just said hello. So, perhaps it was mere talk and it was forgotten about pretty quickly. There must be a point to all that, but, I think it just shows that not only can I not write poetry, but I probably shouldn’t.

Truth be told, as much as I love beautiful prose, I really don’t like most poetry that much. More than a few lines and my eyes start to wander. Why can't they just say what they want to say? Some poets I really hate – T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to name two.

Now, there are some poems I do like, even love, just like there are actually some rap songs I like (Momma said knock you out, for one), but more poems than rap songs. Perhaps not all of them would be considered great poetry by others, but there are few things more subjective.

All I know is that these poems either inspired me to try to be a certain way or I was attracted to them because of who I aspired to be - I'm not sure it is possible to tell the difference. I am not counting poetry in other languages (e.g., Homer - how can we judge another language?) or beautiful prose (why some of John Donne’s work is called prose and not poetry I have no idea) and speeches like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Second Inauguration text. I leave aside Shakespeare’s plays as unique and deserving of a category of their own. I have never enjoyed his sonnets although I have given them some attention.

I’ll start with poetry from my youth.

If called by a panther
don’t anther.

My mother owned a book of poetry by Ogden Nash, who wrote short and very silly rhyming poems such as the above. As with most people, I like rhyming. I have trouble reading poetry that doesn’t rhyme unless it has a very strong rhythm. Freestyle poetry is so often just prose without the grammar.

Here’s another gem from Nash:

Senescence begins
And middle age ends
The day your descendents
Outnumber your friends.

And

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.

So distinctive was Nash's style, that some of his most famous poems weren’t actually his. That is, they sound so much like his, he got the credit. You can even find them attributed to him in books and online. Here are two I know about:

Fleas

Adam
Had’em

That’s by Strickland Gillian, who I never heard of other than to know this little fact, but, I think he is well known among poets and poetry lovers. Another Nash-alike is this:

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

That one was by Dixon Lanire Meredith, who I also never heard of before. I’m not even sure if Dixon is a he or she. In the age of Wikipedia, it takes but a few clicks to find out, but I’ll leave it to you (I don’t care that much and I've indulged in way too much useless trivia).

Anyway, I am not limited to the totally unsophisticated. That would bring us to Edgar Allan Poe who wrote what is for me a long poem, but so full of rhythm and ambience, I am hoping that it is still on grade school curriculums:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor', I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door:
Only this and nothing more'.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Poe was a unique talent who arguably invented the modern detective story, and I can't think of any literary genre more successful than that. The whole poem is too long for here but not too long to read and enjoy.

A little more sophisticated than Poe perhaps and just as good to my mind is Robert Frost, whose The Road Not Taken has been used by so many people as a metaphor for life that the title has become iconic. Here's an interesting tidbit. Of the first 24 books that popped up on Amazon.com when I checked under that title, 14 of them had nothing to do with the poem or Frost, they just used The Road Not Taken it or a variation, probably because of the recognizability of the metaphor.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now there'a a man who knew how long poems should be. Almost as well loved as The Road Not Taken, but a little longer and denser is Mending Wall which ends with “Good fences make good neighbors.” He didn’t invent the phrase (Wolfgang Mieder has a wonderful article on who did at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2386/ is_2_114/ai_106981965/pg_2?tag=content;col1, but once you’ve read the poem it is hard to hear it without thinking of Frost.

From Frost, I pop over to a poem that I deem the most romantic and sad at the same time. It’s called Maud Muller and it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. It’s about a ‘love not taken’ because of class differences. The immortal line is this:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”


I tried this line on a few women in my time in an effort at seduction with the results being on the negative side. It got a couple of “Aws,” but never worked. Maybe I should have tried Odgen Nash.

Then there was the one my mother liked to quote from Whittier – a line or so anyway from Barbara Frietchie, of which I only add a few more lines – but the best ones:

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right

He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
'Halt!' - the dust-brown ranks stood fast.

'Fire!' - out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;

It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff

Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,

And shook it forth with a royal will.
'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country's flag,' she said.

We come now to my favorites. The first of these is from one of the immortals, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I liked him when young because I loved the woods and so did he. I tried to read him and did better than I had with most poetry. I believe he is the only pure poet in my library. The truth was, I only really enjoyed a few of his poems. I wasn’t all that crazy about Evangeline, A Tale of Arcadie, too long for one thing, but I identified with the beginning:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.


But much more so, I love this next Longfellow poem, also quite long, but so perfect to my ear, I’ve read it several times in my life, even a few years ago. He borrowed the meter from a Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. There is only room here for the beginning to The Song of Hiawatha:

Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?

I should answer, I should tell you,
"From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer."

Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions,
I should answer, I should tell you,
"In the bird's-nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoofprint of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!"

It was as enchanting to my forest laden mind as Peter Pan. If it is even possible anymore for you to take a hike into the woods one day and sit by yourself without your cell phone and PDA, without having to rush home to watch something on tv, or do some work, or run an errand (this is a good question to ask yourself anyway), I could not recommend taking anything with you than The Song of Hiawatha, unless it is something by Thoreau.

Yet even Hiawatha must fall in a line behind two other poems, the first of which is quite short and comes in the words of a good hearted elephant named Horton, penned by the greatest children’s author of all time:

I meant what I said
And I said what I meant . . . ,
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent.

Why do I love that so? I don’t know, but I think of it all the time. The thought of loveable Horton, emphatic in doing just as he promised regardless of the consequences, and knowing that Lazy Mayzie was off enjoying herself somewhere, not doing her duty, is a beacon for our faithless times and I quote it often (perhaps obnoxiously, but even so). Even when we fail, Horton reminds us that we should try.

But the award for my number one favorite poem goes to the one with the shortest title I know, and damn if it doesn't rhyme either. Go figure. I have quoted it in these digital pages before, perhaps more than once. Ten times wouldn’t be too much. It is the most inspirational poem, at least for me, and I've made sure my daughter has read it too, even if Rudyard Kipling wrote it for his son. Times have changed.

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

As I cannot choose better, I will stop here.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

As readers of this blog are well aware, Thomas Jefferson was not my favorite founder. When I write about him, it is usually to bash him. He was one of the worst secretaries of state, presidents and vice presidents we have ever had.

Sometimes I think one lengthy post about Jefferson listing his horrible record both as a politician and a human being might be coming some day. In my post on John Quincy Adams a few weeks ago I threw in a quote from Adams’ diary which sums up many of my complaints against Jefferson in a paragraph. It is far from comprehensive though, and yet for the sake of those who read this blog, it might be better to do it bit by bit. In this, I just want to talk about the reason for his greatest fame and shoot it down like the dog of a claim it is.

I do acknowledge that Jefferson qualifies as a “great” man in many ways. But, when I say great, I mean in the same way Joachim Fest used the word in his classic Hitler biography. Hitler, Fest concluded, was a “great” man, in consideration of his effect upon the world. He certainly did not consider Hitler a good man at all and tried to write an accurate biography of his strengths and weaknesses. I see Jefferson in the same way (although not in any way as bad as Hitler).

He was part of the group of men who were leaders in the Revolution (although the least among the famous ones) and in our early days was Virginia’s governor, U.S. Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and then President. Through his writings and work in Virginia’s government he has had an impact on our lives, even today, some it very important. And he was brilliant and superbly accomplished, even among other privileged persons of his time (although, no Franklin to my way of thinking). Yet, in many ways, he is a great villain too.

You can read about Jefferson’s “greatness” just about anywhere. I concentrate on his not so great stuff because he is immortalized as a national icon and doesn’t deserve it all. As educated and gifted as he was, and as much as I appreciate his contributions to separation of church and state and his devotion to education, there was so much “bad” in there that he just should not be celebrated with the fervor some of the other forefathers are.

Were I to rank the forefathers in importance, I would put Washington and Franklin as indispensible (there precedence was so presumed that the jealous Adams once wrote that the history of the revolution was a lie and that “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and henceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and war.”) Following those two I would put John Adams himself, Sam Adams, Hamilton and Madison for their constitutional and first administration/congressional work, and then John Marshall as the great shaper of our judiciary. Last in this group, comes Jefferson.

With respect to the Revolution, Jefferson was a member of the Continental Congress, and had a respectable, although I do not think critical role. When Virginia’s Governor during the Revolution, he fled at the approach of the enemy, which, in the mind of any number of men, including his cousin, John Marshall, made him a coward. Charges were brought in the Assembly and eventually, he resigned over it. It’s not an unfair supposition as those were the days when every man, even politicians, were expected to pick up a gun and fight. Jefferson was in France at the time the Constitution was drafted and was a mere observer at a distance. He was not instrumental during his time as Secretary of State or Vice President except in a most negative manner, pulling for his party against the incumbent. His state’s rights position was and still is quite popular among many Americans, even if they don't know he was its greatest exponent (before he became president, that is). However, his view of the balance between state and federal government would be considered extreme today (he thought of the federal government as a foreign country) and except for the short-lived southern confederacy and some near secessions, has been largely discredited. I must admit I have some sympathy for his position intellectually, but most Americans are glad it failed. His presidency, which I must leave for another day, greatly weakened America and helped put us on a course for war with Britain.

There is no doubt that Jefferson is most famous for one thing in particular – his drafting of America’s most revered document – the Declaration of Independence. (“DOI”).

These next two related points are most important: First, it is not my intention to show that Jefferson was “wrong” in borrowing or stealing from other writers without attribution. What I am saying is that whether it was okay or not to do it, it was extensive and the borrowings constitute a large enough portion of the few paragraphs we are discussing as to detract from Jefferson’s reputation, which is largely based upon it. Second, I do not argue that he deserves no credit for drafting it, which would be ridiculous, or even that he should not get a lot of credit, which would also be hard to swallow. I only argue only that he is given too much credit, because so much of the DOI was derived from others.

I also do recognize that the rules for plagiarism were not the same then as they are now. That doesn’t mean though that it was a novel idea. The English word “plagiary,” derived from Latin, had been around since the beginning of the 17th century, i.e., it preceded even The King James Bible. Copyright laws existed in England since the early 18th century and America was under those laws until independence. In fact, when what was known as the Mecklenberg Declaration of Independence was discovered in 1819 and thought by many to have preceded Jefferson’s Declaration by over a year, it caused quite a stir. In fact Adams, jealous of Jefferson’s greater fame, was quite happy about the controversy, and asked him in a roundabout way whether he plagiarized it. Jefferson, however, convinced Adams rather quickly that it was nonsense. Although it is still controversial as to whether the Mecklenberg Declaration was real or not, or whether, if not a hoax, it preceded the DOI, scholarship is decidedly in favor of the DOI’s precedence, and I agree. Thus, the Mecklenberg Declaration forms no part of my opinion here. You can Google it if you’d like to know more about it. Nor do I take anything away from Jefferson from liberally taking from his own previous writings. In fact, as he produced a draft within a few days when he was otherwise exceptionally busy, it would be remarkable had he not.

I rely completely on the work of scholars who have pointed out the corresponding thoughts and language between the DOI with other earlier documents and use Jefferson's draft presented to Congress for quotes. You may, in fact, have read some of these facts elsewhere. The reason I bother to make this argument at all is because it is hard to find a fair and even reasonably comprehensive compilation of this issue, particularly one that is not slanted towards Jefferson.

One of my favorite historians, Garry Wills, an original and wonderful writer, paints what I can only describe as a highly negative portrait of Jefferson in some of his works, but is always quick to urge us not to read too much into or not believe in Jefferson’s greatness. I think he and other scholars shy away from more balanced and fairer conclusions, but I cannot say what their motives are. Perhaps they are just treading carefully with U.S. mythology.

Had Jefferson not written the DOI, it is likely Adams would have, or even Franklin were he not ailing, or perhaps an ensemble. Some argue that had he not returned to Virginia, there is a good chance that Richard Henry Lee, who had the honor of moving that independence be declared in the Continental Congress, would have been assigned the job. But John Adams says it’s not so. Adams and Franklin were capable of great writing too although the DOI would have been a different style had either of them written it. Perhaps, though, it would have not been completely different in the main points. Adams recalled years later that their committee met and the main points were discussed before it was drafted by Jefferson. Jefferson had different memories, that is, that he wrote it before discussing it with Adams and Franklin, and then the other committee members, but, both he and Adams’ memories have both been challenged by scholars with great success. Even though Adams has far more credibility than Jefferson, we cannot tell for sure if one is more right than the other as they both wrote about it decades after it occurred. We just know they are both off.

I do disagree with David McCullough’s view in his book on Adams, that he was the better writer of the two. To so conclude, I think he must have fallen a bit in love with his subject, as many biographers do. One need only read a little of Adams and Jefferson’s correspondence, including to each other, to know that Jefferson was a substantially better writer. Franklin may have been Jefferson’s match as a writer, and perhaps even his superior in terms of creativity (although he was a shameless plagiarizer himself), but aesthetically, Jefferson had the more eloquent pen of the three, and was probably the most gifted writer of all of the founders.

I start with the least important of my comparisons, the Dutch Declaration of Independence, written over two centuries before Jefferson’s DOI. Like our DOI it is basically a statement of the reasons for declaring independence. The Dutch declaration is not as eloquent as Jefferson’s declaration is in English – I cannot speak to its beauty in Dutch. There are only a few similar phrases which would raise an eyebrow, but the main similarity (which you will have to take my word for the sake of brevity or read it online yourself) is the basic structure of the declaration. Essentially, both works explain the bad acts of the ruling “prince” behind the declaring of independence.

You might argue that – it’s a declaration of independence – of course it is similar, and that is a fair argument, but it can only be taken so far. As Pauline Maier demonstrates in her American Scripture – there were many declarations of independence in America by states, counties, even judges. The one that most closely mirrors the older Dutch declaration in my mind, is Jefferson’s. In addition there are actually two examples of strikingly similar phrases in the two documents. Here are the phrases from the Dutch declaration with the similar language from Jefferson’s DOI in parentheses:

This is the only method left for subjects whose humble petitions (“petitioned for redress in the most humble terms”) and remonstrances could never soften their prince or dissuade him from his tyrannical proceedings; and this is what the law of nature (“laws of nature”). . . .”

Just two examples, you sneer. Here’s why even those few phrases are important. When we talk about the beauty of the DOI, we really mean the first two paragraphs and the last one, plus a few other phrases, as the bulk of the text is not all that poetic, comprised of an occasionally nonsensical laundry list of bad acts by King George III. Thus, two examples are a lot considering how few sentences we are talking about, particularly when the phrasing is so close. By itself, these will not seem very important. It becomes more so after you see the following examples.

It is well known to anyone who studies American history that Jefferson relied on John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. In particular, here are the comparisons with the DOI in parentheses again:

. . . mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves . . . but when a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . pursuing the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism . . . (“People . . . are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves. But, if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people”.)
and

. . . no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (“that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”)

The similarity is too striking to ignore. In fact, nearly a half century later, Jefferson gave Locke as a source, but he only listed him with other authors, some ancient, in a general way. Not much of an admission.

I skip over the English 1689 Bill of Rights because, while founders knew about it and may have been inspired by it, it was more an inspiration for our own Bill of Rights and other documents, a bit of which I cover in my discussion of George Mason, below.

This borrowing without acknowledgment goes a long way to explaining why John Adams, also highly literate and with much of the same knowledge base as Jefferson, at some times so resented the adulation received by Jefferson for drafting the DOI. He was gracious to Jefferson, even flattering, in a letter to a Jefferson hater, Timothy Pickering, but also said:

As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.

Indeed, Otis’ 1764 pamphlet seems to have been read by Jefferson, or he might have picked this up some language from Otis in the Continental Congress:

The end of government being the good of mankind points out its great duties: it is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property (“that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”).

Obviously, Otis borrowed from Locke too. But, remember, the point isn’t that Jefferson borrowed or stole some words or thoughts, or even whether others did so. The point is that too much of the document is derived from others to give Jefferson so much credit.

The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all to any other form they please (“that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”).
And

The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black (“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal).

George Mason was much more important founding father than many recognize, if they’ve even heard of him, as the Virginia Declaration of Rights he drafted in 1776 was the basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights drafted years later by fellow Virginian James Madison. In fact, Mason refused to sign our proposed Constitution, mostly because there was no statement of rights in it. Indeed Mason’s Virginian Declaration of Rights preceded and remained independent from the Constitution he also penned for Virginia. It would not be unfair to say that he should share billing, at the least, with Madison as the author of our Bill of Rights, although Mason in turn admittedly used the English Bill of Rights as his rough model (including such language as “bear arms,” “cruel and unusual punishment” and “excessive bail”).

Jefferson, however, without admitting his source, used Mason’s language to a great degree. Although Mason (who also channeled Locke) wrote his declaration a month before Jefferson wrote the DOI, Mason’s work was published in Philadelphia shortly before Jefferson made his draft.

Here are some quotes from Mason’s Declaration compared to Jefferson’s DOI:

I That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety (“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”).
II That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them (“that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”).
III . . . whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal (“that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”)
It should be noted that this is how Mason begins his declaration and how Jefferson nearly starts his but for the initial general paragraph. Now after Locke, it is often written by historians that that Jefferson was perhaps most influenced by Mason. But, words like "influenced" or "inspired" are really insufficient here. Indeed, Jefferson took some of his words and ideas straight from Mason’s work. This is true regardless of the fact that Jefferson wrote more beautifully than Mason and had some additional language and ideas of his own.

If that wasn’t enough, take this language from Richard Henry Lee in moving Congress for independence:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved (“we utterly dissolve all political connection which may heretofore have subsisted between us and the people or parliament of Great Britain: and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states”).
Actually, Congress, when editing Jefferson’s text, took out Jefferson’s words and put back in Lee’s, which is what the declaration as we know it says. Thus, there can not be any argument about this at all. I imagine Lee, who was a good friend of Jefferson, was pleased that Jefferson took his words and worked them in, even differently. In fact, Jefferson, made copies of his draft and the final version and sent them off to Lee to Virginia.

We also know that before Jefferson put his work before congress, he changed his own [We hold these truths to be] “sacred and undeniable” to “self evident,” which was a much more sonorous phrasing. It is believed that this was at the suggestion of Franklin, but it may have been someone else. No matter. It wasn’t Jefferson. That small fact is, again, by itself meaningless. It is only when taken in context of all of the facts that it becomes one more building block to argue that Jefferson gets too much credit.

I turn now to the brilliant work of Garry Wills in his Inventing America where he painstakingly shows Jefferson’s debt to philosophers from the Scottish Enlightenment earlier in the 18th century. Although Wills acknowledged in later editions that he was wrong in believing that Jefferson had not borrowed from John Locke, he opened up a whole new avenue in Jefferson studies, and that isn’t easy. No doubt, as Wills showed, Jefferson may have been most influenced among the Scots by the works of Francis Hutcheson.

Here are a few words by this Scottish philosopher which should sound awfully familiar to you:

In this respect all men are originally equal, that these natural rights equally belong to all . . . and they are equally confirmed to all by the laws of nature (We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights”).
Actually, “unalienable” was a frequently used word by Hutcheson. But, he had other thoughts which ended up, at least in spirit and sometimes using the same words, in the DOI:

But as the end of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body, any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust; which the people, who rashly granted it under an error, may justly abolish again when they find it necessary to their safety to do so (“whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.)”
Or

Nor is it justifiable in a people to have recourse for any lighter causes to violence and civil wars against their rulers, while the public interests are tolerably secured and consulted. But when it is evident that the public liberty and security is not tolerably secured, and that more mischiefs, and these of a more lasting kind, are like to arise from the continuance of any plan of civil power than are to be feared from the violent efforts for an alteration of it, then it becomes lawful, nay honorable, to make such efforts and change the plan of government (“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, [begun at a distinguished period and] pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”)
Wills suggests, and I concur, that many people would mistake the Hutcheson selections above for the DOI. I might and I've read the Declaration any number of times. Inventing America is actually filled with examples of Jefferson's debt not just from Hutcheson but from a number of other Scottish philosophers. As one example, numerous authors used “pursuit of happiness” before Jefferson, and that is one of the signal phrases from the DOI. Wills points out that previous writers used it in somewhat different ways. Nevertheless, the phrase was well known to Jefferson from his studies before he ever used it. Were I tomorrow to use “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” in a way Dickens did not intend, it would not lessen the fact that I used his words.

But, it is not my intent to be comprehensive here (rarely is) and there are other examples in the DOI that have plainly been taken from others.

Wills seems to find it necessary to state that he is not calling Jefferson a plagiarist and even points that others defended him in that regard as well. They would not have needed to do it if the words of the DOI were not positively dripping with other people’s words and ideas.

Indeed, there is very little in the DOI that is pure Jefferson, albeit he created a beautiful prose poem in those three paragraphs and under great stress and time considerations. That’s why I will begin to end where I started, by stating that Jefferson deserves a lot of credit for the declaration, just not as much as he is commonly given.

It is fair to give Jefferson some last words on the subject too. These are from a letter to Henry Lee IV, of the famous Lee clan (actually, he was Robert E. Lee's half brother), in 1825, a little more than a year prior to his death and nearly 50 years after independence was declared.

This was the object of the declaration of independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All of its authority rest, then, on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sydney, &c.

Jefferson was rightfully proud of his role in writing the DOI. On his tombstone he asked that only three accomplishments be noted, one of which was the writing of this founding document. His letter to Lee sounds humble, but was it when he left out so many important people from whom he literally and liberally took words and ideas? I think not. As important as the DOI was to him and as deep as his reverence for some of these authors were, I find it hard to believe he forgot. Without beating this dead horse further, even pro-Jefferson biographers note the care he took to craft public sentiment about him, even to the extent of writing letters and diary entries which he knew would be left to posterity that make him sound better than he had been.

It is clear that Jefferson and others took from Locke, but Jefferson only mentions him in a very general way. He doesn't say -- I took this and that from Locke. Aristotle and Cicero I have trouble seeing as inspiration for the DOI (in fact, Jefferson seemed not to think much of the Greek philosopher), and I am unaware if Sydney words ended up in the DOI either, although he certainly wrote on the general topic. But why leave out George Mason, or was it because that might garner too much fame for a contemporary? Why not mention Francis Hutcheson, or was that too close in time for Jefferson’s ego? Why not mention Henry Lee's relative, Richard Henry Lee, from whom there can be no doubt Jefferson took a sentence and merely re-wrote it (before Congress put it back the original way)?

Henry Lee IV was no admirer of the Sage of Monticello and had actually written to Jefferson to ask if he had read the work of Richard Henry Lee's brother, Arthur Lee (a very important revolutionary era figure himself), given that Henry had seen the similarity between one of Arthur's manuscripts and the DOI. We do not have the writing to which he refers, so much more can not be said. It is some testimony, nonetheless, of which I have no found mention in the literature except in Henry’s 1837 Commentary on Jefferson’s Writings, which excoriated the late founder. There, Henry suggests that Jefferson was a plagiarizer not only of Arthur Lee's work, but Mason’s, Locke’s and others, as well. You see, the fact that we now can see from where Jefferson got his ideas and some phrases does not mean that Jefferson was truthful about it in his own time. But, that's pure Jefferson. Where Adams was known to be honest to a fault, even by his enemies, Jefferson was dishonest and usually at fault.

I have to add, to be fair, that Henry Lee was so vexed at Jefferson that he could barely see straight and could not even bring himself to admit that Jefferson was a good writer, which is plainly silly, to use a scholarly term. So, his evidence is weak, particularly as we do not know to which Arthur Lee manuscript he refers, but I add it here only because it is so little known a fact, and is just one more chestnut upon the pile.

Ah, that is even enough Jefferson bashing for the day to satisfy me. And I will repeat one more time that Jefferson deserves lots of credit for the DOI and I argue only that he is given too much. I have at least John Adams on my side.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Political update for March, 2009

The end to detente in America

Now, this seems more normal.

After the big inauguration parties and the love fest, Obama could only get a few Republicans in Congress, all in the Senate, to vote for his stimulus package. The conservatives have now held their big conference - featuring Rush Limbaugh in the keynote address, followed by Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, and they are becoming more strident in their opposition to the spend our way out of a rescession approach. Good as far as I'm concerned.

One of the interesting things about conservatives is, they are rarely going to surprise you in what they say. When you think about it, that makes perfect sense as the whole point of their movement is - don't change anything; the old ways are the best. And sure enough, as entertaining as Rush Limbaugh is -- and even one of my most liberal friends who watched said he was very entertaining -- you could have played a tape from his radio show from a year ago or ten or twenty years ago, and, it's pretty much the same story, whether right or wrong.

Ron Paul

But, it wasn't the undisputed leader of the conservative movement who interested me. It was the Texas surgeon, who, after dropping out of the 2008 presidential election (he kept going even after McCain won the Republican primary) won his congressional seat back again handily -- getting 70% of the Republican primary and being unopposed in the general election. Although a mere congressman, his congressional territory is geographically enormous. In fact, were it state, it would be larger than seven others. That, of course, is due to population density and not any virtuosity on Ron Paul's part.

In a conservative straw poll this past week, Paul finished tied with Sarah Palin for third place -- behind Romney and Jindal, the new conservative superstar. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that Paul will find himself the Republican candidate in 2012 (and, my belief, the campaigning will start next year - three years before the election) but I do think he will be important if he wants to run, at least for several fold reasons:

- He has the least ego of any candidate running. It is about his view of the constitution, whether you agree or not with him. His followers find this very attractive. Ironically, no doubt the more attention is paid to him, the less humble he will become.

- Without much effort, he is a fundraising machine. On one day in December, 2007, he raised over 6 million dollars on the internet. No one had ever raised as much (although Obama, the greatest fundraiser ever, shattered it later on). In that fourth quarter, '07, undoubtedly his best, Paul raised more money than Rudy Giuliani (then the front runner) and over twice as much as the two highest candidates at the time put to together.

- He attracts people from both sides of the aisle. No doubt he is a conservative. In fact, for a long stretch on the nineties and early double 0's he was rated the most conservative congressperson. In fact, he is so conservative, he is not very cooperative in congress, where he is known as Dr. No. and many of his own fellow ideologist find him a bit nutty. But there is a purity about his arguments - again, whether or not you agree with him -- that we should follow the constitution or change it, that many people find refreshing. I have personally met a few people who were for him on the left who had little idea that he was vehemently opposed to the things that they were vehemently for, such as abortion. I've met people for him on the right who were similarly stunned to learn that he would have pulled the troops from overseas and was very much against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's Paul in a January 2008 debate linking our military spending with our financial problems:

Look at what's happening today. The dollar is crashing. [Our debate moderator] suggests that we think of the economy, but not in foreign policy. You can't do that. They're one and the same. That's where all the money's going. We're spending nearly a trillion dollars a year overseas maintaining this empire. And then there's never been a war fought without inflation and destruction and devaluation of a currency. And this is what we're doing today to ourselves, is we're literally spending ourselves into oblivion. But nobody here is willing to even suggest that we cut something overseas. But we have to. We don't need to cut anything here at home. I'd like to see things frozen. I'd like to see massive tax cuts. But we need deregulation. So this is the kind of thing we need. We need the government out of the way, but it should have sound money, low taxes, less regulations, and a sensible policy where we're not wasting our money overseas.

Perhaps the Republicans should have listened. While McCain shot himself in the foot with his optimistic outlook in September, 2008 where it seems everyone in the glass bubble of the Beltway was shocked by the crashing of our economy, Paul seemed well aware of it long ago. This is also from January, 2008:

I was waving a flag the whole time saying, slow up, slow up; this isn't going well. And here we are. We're at the verge of bankruptcy. We're moving into a new era, believe it or not. With the dollar and our economy and the world economy, this is a new era.

It is perhaps strange that for all of the publicity he got these past two years, he has not changed his arguments or made any changes to his somewhat angry little man style of campaigning. There's no charisma there, and, understandably, some people who are fed up with all of the cults of personality, that is very attractive. Here are a few reasons why people find him so attractive:

Truth is treason in the empire of lies. There is an alternative to national bankruptcy, a bigger police state, trillion dollar wars, and a government that draws ever more parasitically on the productive energies of the American people. It’s called freedom.

That's from his book The Revolution: A manifest. Here's another, from a speech about a year ago, way before the actual "crash":

The Constitution says: no emitting bills of credit, no paper money, only gold and silver can be legal tender. And today we allow big government to grow. Whether it’s on the conservative side or the liberal side, if they want something, they usually have compromise--spend it on both. Then they resort to printing money, and that is where our trouble is coming from, and that’s the crisis we’re facing. All great nations and great empires end for fiscal, financial reasons. That’s how the Soviet system was defeated. We didn’t have to invade them; we didn’t have to fight them. Their system collapsed. And that is what’s happening today, the middle class is getting wiped out, the middle class is getting poor, endlessly, because they can’t keep up with the cos of living. And the solution isn’t printing more money, and spending more money, and allowing the Federal Reserve to pretend they can solve the problem. The answer is found in fiscal conservatism: live within our means, is what we have to do.

I recall one primary debate where Paul was serving as the fall guy for his Republican colleagues. Even though he was never a front runner, he was often the butt of the other candidate's jokes and attacks - a veritable Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer of the right. Here's my favorite quote by anyone from the entire presidential campaign in that January, 2008 debate, when he said to great applause:

"Let me see if I get this right. We need to borrow $10 billion from China, and then we give it to Musharraf, who is a military dictator, who overthrew an elected government. And then we go to war, where we lose all these lives promoting democracy in Iraq? I mean, what's going on here?"

Unfortunately, it is too hard for many people to get behind this way of thinking, thanks to the two ideological, two party stranglehold on America. As always, I encourage, encourage, encourage everyone to shake their ties from these ideologies and parties and just hew to the ideas that will make us successful and happier. Spending less money seems prudent to me whether it is a conservative or liberal idea (and it was a liberal idea while the Republicans held all the power). Until I can see historically or economically (whatever that means) how spending trillions of dollars makes sense when you already owe trillions, I am against it. And Dr. Paul makes a lot of sense when he speaks about it. How many people do you know who live well within their means, or seek to cling to middle class as if plasma tv's and Prada bags were the key to their happiness and our economic success. It's particularly hard to do when it seems that the ideologies "own" the ideas and you must cleave to one side or the other regardless of the issue.

I don't know that I would ever vote for Dr. Paul. I do not agree with a number of his positions and even he admits that some of his preferences just aren't possible anymore. It depends, as usual, as who he might be running against and which party controls congress. Frankly, I think our nation would have to be on death's door before he would even get enough Republican support. It could happen. Ronald Reagan was once seen as an also ran too. It took 21 percent interest rates for him to win.

John Kerry

Whenever someone asks me in shock how I voted for George Bush in 2004, I answer them this way. The Democratic alternative was John Kerry. I have stated here before my dislike of Kerry who I find to be an awkward, pompous, backstabbing political klutz and don't intend to spend much time on him. But, not surprising to me, Kerry feels the opposite as I do when it comes to the stimulus package. It seems as if he has finally gotten what he wants, an opportunity to take money out of the hands of the American people and in his hands where he can spend it like he wants. If you don't believe me, listen to him from the floor of the Senate and go to the congressional record to see if I take this out of context (this shocked me but didn't even make the papers):

"If you put a tax cut into the hands of either a business or an individual today, there is no guarantee they are going to invest their money. There is no guarantee they are going to invest their money in the United States. They are free to invest anywhere they want, if they choose to invest.”

. . .

“The fact is, none of those people are guaranteed to invest that money in any of the new projects the way we are. So Government--yes, Government--has the ability to be able to make a decision that the private sector won't necessarily make today.”

In other words, if we, the people, get to invest our money the way we want, we will do it wrong. We might not invest in the businesses or programs he wants. If this isn't upside down top down philosophy, I don't know what is. We have to invest in what the government wants us to? Well, that's exactly what happens when our government borrows to spend trillions of dollars, including bailouts to select industries, like automobile manufacturers and banks (even banks that didn't want the money!!!).

Here's to you, Mr. Kerry. Knowing just how bad a president George Bush was, blowing the opportunity history gave him to be one of the greats, I'd still vote for him again if Kerry was his opponent.

President Obama and the Middle East

I've said before here that everything McCain and Obama said during the campaign was lies. Candidates simply feel that they can't tell the truth and win. Maybe they are right. But, Obama has already severely disappointed me with this stimulus bill. But, that's what comes of one party power, and that is what our country allows.

It is not just his belief in spending and the now obvious direction that government should be running much of our country, particularly the economy. The recent decision, way below the radar of our uninterested media is the pledging of $900,000,000 dollars to the Palestinians because of the destruction caused by the three week or so Israeli bombardment.

It's not that I don't feel horribly sorry for the Palestinian people, who have neither freedom, good economic potential or wise leaders. Most of these people would be happy to run their stores or work their farms, or whatever else people do everywhere. No doubt they hate Israel and cannot afford, at risk of their lives, to hate the leaders in Gaza, Hamas.

But, despite this, just as I was against giving money to poor Lebanon, which was smashed by Israel while under Hizbollah's thumb, I am against it here. Here's why:

Israel is our ally. This is a slap in the face to them as the conflict is not over. Given the rest of the world's position on this controversy, this has to have a real effect on Israel. This is not the same as spending money to rebuild a defeated Germany or Japan. It is like giving money to the Taliban. I guarantee you - guarantee, even though the money will not be put directly in Hamas' hands, that they get their hands on it indirectly, and, even if they don't, they benefit enormously from it in terms of propaganda.

Remember that one of the tactics of militant Islamist is too hide behind its citizenry and cry their demise when they die or their homes are shattered, and then, no matter how badly they lost, to declare victory. When they are giving Gaza $900 million dollars it lends credence to the Gazans that their militaristic, no compromise, leaders were right.

Keep in mind that in order to win complete power in Gaza, Hamas murdered their political opponents and pretty much eradicated all their power, even though technically Fatah is still in charge of the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians in the West Bank will see this largese given to the Gaza as a result of their fighting Israel and think Hamas won too, even though they suffered billions and billions in lost revenue, greater lost freedom and the loss of hundreds of citizens, not to mention perhaps thousands injured. Is it any surprise that rockets are still being fired into Israel or that Gaza is now more popular in the West Bank. Partially, this is Israel's fault for listening to much to world opinion, not finishing what it started in Lebanon or Gaza. But, we are helping. This is a big mistake and Obama's second such one on my score card.

George Bush

Not that we should forget how bad Bush was. I still haven't written my final critique on him, but, just off the top of my head -- too little transparency, too much arrogance in civil rights (an area Americans are very sensitive about), too much aggrandizing of presidential power, too much Cheney and, my guess, too little Laura. The Iraqi War has been a national disaster (and I still think it was okay to go in, providing we weren't going to stay), simultaneous mishandling of Afghanistan, similar blundering with the economy (the same policies being followed by Obama) and last, but not least, a president who would not, could not admit a mistake and change direction.

I'll get back to Bush some day. The reaon I even mention him now is to point out that Bush was just learning to be the president in the last two years when the Democrats took control of congress. That's because he had to share power and his officers had to account to congressional committees. His problem the first six years in my humble opinion. Too MUCH power. One party power in America often works poorly. Hence my cynicism about the Democrats now - tToo MUCH power.

The Ronald Reagan Myth

The biggest sale of bologna in politics right now is that the Obama tide is wiping away 30 years of Reaganism. This is untrue from both the left and the right. You know why? It's because the Reagan Revolution never happened as far as spending is concerned.

In order to convince you that everything you hear from both sides is as silly a story as George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, we must revisit the tale of David Stockman, the young director of the Office of Budget Management in the Reagan administration.

Stockman, unlike Reagan, was a true supply-sider and believer in "trickle-down" theory, that is, if you help the rich, they will help the economy. Reagan, it should be well known, had to have supply side economics explained to him and reportedly never quite got it. George Bush (I), it is known, called it "Voodoo economics" and only became one in order to secure the vice presidency, which did him a bit of good. When he ran in 1988, however, he had to firmly declare that "I am my own man" in order to distance himself from the then tarnished Reagan reputation (which has grown larger in later days).

Stockman became disillusioned with what was going on. "Reaganism" came in against deficits. The plan was to drastically cut spending and taxes. Only, the 79 billion dollar deficit in Carter's last budget (i.e., Reagan's first year) and trillion dollar collective debt (now, teeny little numbers) soon ballooned to the point that it more than doubled by 1986. Stockman had resigned the year before. The number at the time Reagan left office was - ready for this - about 3.6 trillion dollars. They doubled what it was then they came in and came close to doubling it again.

During his first year in office, Stockman gave an interview to William Greider, who writes on financial matters. He acknowledged that none of them really understood "the numbers" and that Kemp-Roth, the tax reduction act was really a "Trojan Horse" to get down the high tax bracket.

As a result of the interview he was famously "taken to the woodshed" by Reagan. In other words, he was told to shut up and he did. That is, he shut up until he resigned in '85 when he published a biography (which I suffered through over 20 years ago - boring writer - and did not read again before writing this) in which he said that they never really did supply-side economics because you have to cut spending along with taxes for it to work.

So, what Reagan Revolution in spending? Stockman seems to believe it never happened. He was, of course, denounced by Republicans, and was really never heard from politically again. Sadly, back in the stock world, he had a couple of rough years, being indicted for fraud, but one of the last acts of the Bush Justice Department was to announce that he would not be prosecuted. But, I digress.

So, when I hear the conservatives bellyaching at their conference this week-end that Obama is assaulting Reaganism, and, the Democrats crowing that they are undoing 30 years of Reaganism, I have to laugh. In fact, look at the Bush administration. Yes, there was a slight reduction in higher tax rates, but spending always increased. The last two years of Bush's term, the Democrats controlled congress and -- the spending increased.

I do my best here to be fair, at least to my own lights, and the Reagan administration does get some credit, along with the independent Federal Exchange under Paul Volcker (who is back in the Obama administration), for dramatically reducing taxes, inflation and interest rates (however, the prime rate was at the end of Reagan's terms more than twice what it is now). But, those are not the problems we are facing at this time and not what the pols and pundits are talking about. For example, the top tax rates now are half of what they were when Reagan took office -- an extreme 78%. It is no longer the issue it was and at least right now, there is no talk of going even remotely that high. If you listen to both sides, they are both acting as if we reduced spending in the 1980s, when, in fact, the opposite happened.

Another semi-fallacy is that deregulation started under Reagan, when, in fact, it started under Carter. Of course, saying so no doubt displeases conservatives now, who want to claim it, and liberals who want to disown it. Sorry. I'll make them both feel better and argue also that it reached its height under Reagan. As well, we could also fairly argue that the real work on inflation and interest rates was Volcker's doing at the Fed and he was appointed by Carter. Uh oh. I leave more of this for another day as my cup beginnith to floweth over.

My apologies for missing a week of blogging. What could you possibly have been reading?

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .