Sunday, September 25, 2011

Political update for September, 2011

I wrote the following sentence on September 15th, having started it a week before that: "The good news for everyone is that I'm off on vacation (ironic, as there is little difference between my life on and not on vacation) at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning."

Unfortunately, I never finished the post that night, so this had to wait over a week while I visited Arizona, in particular, Phoenix, literally hot as hell; the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a little known group of serpentine red rocked canyons flush with juniper trees, sagebrush and short grasses, including the almost impossibly beautiful Spider Rock; and, Sedona, which is perhaps quite literally, the most beautiful city on earth - at least as far as I've seen. But, enough of that. Missing a week blogging is a cruddy feeling, as if I somehow let down the entire political world - conservatives, liberals, libertarians, communists, socialists, anarchists, nihilists and even moderates, all who regularly come here to get the monthly update. Please forgive me. But, it will probably happen again someday.

Debating us to death
Let me start with the Republican nomination process. I have now watched four debates. As usual, the hosts seemed to focus on the big guns – Perry and Romney. It’s not fair, but expected, and even the other debators don't complain much. Frankly, I think what the other debaters have to say is often much more interesting. But, even that is not that interesting. They have all settled into their themes and personas and will probably carry them to the bitter end.

My view, and of course it is subjective, is that Romney has done marginally better than Perry, but his debating superiority increases a little each time. That's not all that suprising. First, he may just be better at it, but also, he went through the whole process in 2007 and 2008. Both seemed “presidential,” whatever that really means (and it may mean nothing), but Romney seemed more poised, and whether or not any of them knows what they were talking about, handled himself very well. I also thought that Huntsman did very well, in the objective sense, but it is not surprising that I am going to like the guy who is fiscally conservative, but much more moderate culturally than his cop-debators. If the three - Perry, Romney and Huntsman, were on the stage alone, I might have said he won the MSNBC debate. It will not, of course, improve his position much, if at all. He is simply too liberal in collateral matters for many conservatives.

I have waited to hear Perry speak a few times before coming to even a preliminary opinion about him. It is obvious that Romney was long the front runner and now has been surpassed. But, I am going to predict, absent some breaking news or new entrants, that eventually Romney will creep up on Perry and eventually take the nomination. I am cautiously convinced that Chris Christie is not entering the race, despite the recent rumors, but would be pleased to be wrong.

Soon after the debate, Herman Cain won a Florida straw poll, sending some pundits into a frenzy. They should calm down because it probably won't win much. I stick with my opinion that Cain would do well if he was one of two (maybe three) contestants, but as it is, his mellifluous tones are lost in the throng. I like him for the most part, and he is only marred right now for me from his absurd fear of Shariah Law in America and his somewhat ignorant pronouncement that any Muslim in his cabinet would have to take an oath (any one in his cabinet will have to take an oath and one specially directed at a particular religion would certainly be unconstitutional). But, all candidates eventually say stupid things and he has a chance to take some of it back. But, I doubt he is going anywhere.
Here are my ideas to make these repetitive and often pedantic debates more interesting. First, break them up and make it more of a contest. Put the eight lowest candidates on the stage, but 4 or 5 in one debate and 4 in another. Do an American Idol type of competition and put up the two who do best in the next round with the big boys. If they want they can give Perry and Romney free passes into the second round. This process would give everyone more of a chance to talk and give the viewers a better idea of who they want to see debate. It would also prevent the hosts from channeling the questions or topics to the leaders.

Or, they could do a round robin series of one on one, or three way debates as preliminaries. I’d enjoy this much more and I think others would too.

I'd also change up the questions a little bit. First, they could ask more philosophical questions that they normally do and that way avoid these scripted answers. I don't ever want to hear Cain talk about his 9/9/9 plan, or Huntsman brag about Utah being the number one state for job creation while he was governor, or the word Romneycare, or Perry claim he errs on the side of life (ironically, of course, except when he has convicted murderers executed) or Romney tell us again the Obama doesn't have a clue (but is a nice guy), Bachmann say that Obama will be a one term preisent or Gingrich pop off an irreverent sounding one liner. I watch hoping they will ask Paul (or in the last debate, Gary Johnson) a question, because it's a loit mor einteresting when someone tells the truth.  

Last, I'd get rid of these cable news hosts who have no clue how to question someone (O'Reilly is almost the only one on television who has the least talent in it) and replace them with attorneys, but only ones I've vetted to make sure they actually know how to cross examine someone.

Recent blogs that resonated with me:

This first is more about the media than politics, but I'm putting it in anyway.

“George Will, ABC NEWS: "I have a home on South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast. I know that the Atlantic Ocean generates hurricanes and they can be dangerous and unpredictable. That said, this too must be said. Florence Nightingale said 'Whatever else you can say about hospitals they shouldn’t make their patients sicker.' And whatever else you want to say about journalism, it shouldn’t subtract from the nation’' understanding and it certainly shouldn’t contribute to the manufacture of synthetic hysteria that is so much a part of modern life. And I think we may have done so with regard to this tropical storm as it now seems to be."

What was all that nonsense about this storm? Hurricanes and tropical storms are dangerous. They cause flooding and property damage and even take lives; almost 50 people died as a result of this one.  But really, this was so blown out of proportion, it seemed like we were being invaded by the Martians (which everyone knows won't happen until 2012).

Someone wrote me a little after the hurricane passed that NYC was lucky - "Hurricane Irene will most likely prove to be one of the 10 costliest catastrophes in the nation’s history."

I wrote back:

"It wasn't just lucky. The top ten list is meaningless. The media (except George Will) and the gov't grossly hyped this hurricane and everyone bought into it. All hurricanes are dangerous and costly if they arrive in populated areas. But, you have to look at it over time. The first link here is to Wikipedia's costliest hurricanes. Look at both lists. It changes dramatically once you adjust for inflation, Katrina was unusual because it hit New Orleans and much of the city is below sea level, so it was extremely costly, but even it is still only the 3rd highest after you adjust for inflation.

hurricane costs
But, deaths are deaths and don't need to be adjusted. Look at this list and you will see that Irene was nothing - a piker. Yes, a few people died, but, realistically, this hurricane was not severe and would have been not much worse if they had merely told people it was coming and to take normal precautions. . . . ."
Why does the media so exaggerate? Ignorance? Part, but part also because they are selling and that takes precedence over everything.
* * *

The next is from an interview of Ron Paul. I'm cutting out the questions and just putting in his answers. He is the only one of the regular debaters who prefers to tell what he sees as the truth unadorned rather than try to please everyone. He doesn't like boos, but he accepts them. He wants the Republican Party to come to him, not visa versa.

Ron Paul was interviewed by Chris Wallace of FoxNews:

"We are out of money. This country is bankrupt."

. . .

"It's a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a fallacy that is deeply flawed. FEMA has been around since 1978. It has one of the worst reputations for a bureaucracy ever. I want to transition out of this dependency on the federal government."

Challenged that his views are unconventional, Paul replied,
"Well because it's a good idea and it's the American ideal. But I'm fascinated with your word unconventional. Isn't it strange that we can apply that word to freedom, and liberty, and the Constitution, limited government and a balanced budget? You're proposing this unconventional idea of government!' Well, I think you're right about it. Under today's circumstances it has been unconventional for probably 50 years. But right now, the Tea Party movement and the Independents in this country and the people who are caring about our bankruptcy, they think what we had is unconventional with regards to our Constitution and the principles of liberty.

So, yes, people are waking up and they're saying 'Yeah, Ron Paul's right. Why are we fighting all these undeclared wars? Why do we have a Federal Reserve that bails out the rich and dumps on the poor? And why is it that deficits don't really matter and politicians just stand around and talk that they're going to nibble away at a budget deficit that is 10 years out.' So, no, this is a very popular philosophy.

It is not my philosophy, it is the philosophy of the Constitution. It's the philosophy of liberty, property rights and not dependency on government. That's the big thing. People are supposed to assume the responsibility for themselves in a free society.'"

Asked why he wants to be president if he hates government so much:

"Yes, I am in it to win it. … I want a new approach, at least from current standards for the presidency. I want to obey the Constitution and follow its very great restrictions on the government. The Constitution was written to restrict the government, not to restrict the people. Now its turned around: We use government to restrict the people in all matters. So, I would like to reverse that."

Regarding the federal reserve, Paul's special bugaboo:
"Take your hands off of it. Let the people take care of it. Let the people who have lived beyond their means let them go bankrupt. Let the liquidation occur. Get rid of the malinvestment (artificially low interest rates and printing of money) like we did in 1921. We recovered. It's not, it's hardly even in our textbooks about the Depression of 1921 which was a natural consequence of the inflation for World War I.

So, we want our hands off. The depression lasted 17 years because we wouldn't do that. Japan, has had 'hands on.' They've been in the doldrums for 20 years and so, we're now into this one. It's a lot more than 5 years, we've basically been in it over 10 years that our economy has been slipping. So, they would say 'hands off, give us a sound currency, free up the markets, property rights, enforce contracts. And make sure people go bankrupt when they're bankrupt. And don't bail out their buddies. Don't let the Federal Reserve create money out of thin air and bail out their buddies."

I certainly don't agree with everything Ron Paul believes, but with Gary Johnson not even a respectable contestant, he is still my favorite of those in it. But, I also think he is a grumpy old man without much charm who would have a very hard time winning the election if he selected (unlikely, anyway), even against an unpopular Obama. Some of his views, particularly those that involve our becoming less involved in the world militarily or which would involve getting rid of very popular federal programs like social security and medicare, would make it almost impossible. Despite the fact that he has done in this election and the last a good job of popularizing his views, it is not as popular as he might hope. I think it would still be rejected by most independents.

The Times' angry columnist
I am not a fan of the NY Times columnist Paul Krugman. I do, however, still occasionally read him. It's not like I've never changed my mind before. He is a leading exponent of Keynesian economics, or, at least the modern interpretation of it, and believes that our economic problems are caused by government not being big enough and it is not spending enough. I never see him commenting on the fact that the government has no money to spend except what is taken from taxpayers or created by the government, reducing the value of the currency. But, we debated that here a bit not that long ago, and it is not my point today. The NY Times is a very urbane and civilized place. The writers are, agree with them or not, polite to political adversaries. But, Krugman is more of the Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann school. Recently, I checked on his blog. He wrote
on August 27, 2011, 3:00 pm


Guys, you are still banned, no matter what new names you’re using. Same lies, same rhetoric, no place for it here. Find something else to do."

That was the whole post. I submitted a comment:

"I guess I will be banned as a 'Troll,' because I frequently disagree with Professor Krugman. I have never been banned anywhere before (well, Wikipedia, but that was for technical software reasons - I had a Google toolbar which caused trouble). I suppose it would be an honor of sorts, sort of a purple heart for blogs. I have been called a troll before by ideologues both of the right and the left, regardless of how moderate my tone. I wish I could say the same for the professor, and I don't mean this personally, but professionally - doesn't he know how this comes across? Do you really ban people for rhetoric and 'lies' (facts with which you disagree). This sounds more like an angry commenter than a columnist or professor.
I can only suggest to Professor Krugman that he take some time to read Karl Popper on rational criticism, the 'criticism' part of the name being key. When you are so convinced of your position, that you must denounce others who question you, you neither have the courage of your convictions nor any room to learn something new or change your mind. I frequently read commenters in The Times and on, both sites on which I comment, with whom I severely disagree with the facts they present or opinions they argue. Many of them seeming Trollish to me as they call names and assassinate characters (all while calling their victims 'haters,' etc. Personally, I have yet to find it necessary to call anyone a liar (even those who lie or have called me a lot worse).
If you don't open yourself up to criticism, Professor Krugman, even uncharitable criticism as you yourself sometimes dish out, you may have to change the name of this blog to the Dogma of a Liberal."

I was not surprised at all that my comment was not published (and there were no other comments at the time, but you could leave one), but it’s a shame. While is much, much worse in terms of name calling, the commenters get to say what they like politically. Most of it is partisan garbage in my view, but I have learned many things from other commenters. When a blog insulates itself from criticism, it defeats the interactive promise of the internet. I take plenty of criticism here, and though I do weed out the rare sexually explicit language as do most sites, I’d rather argue the merits with someone than hide, like Prof. Krugman does. This also may explain why I find comments on the Times so much of one persuasion (liberal, if you didn't know). I can't say for sure that all of their columns are "protected" the way Krugman's blog is. But, it is an indication and not a good one. The Times is still by far my favorite and I think the best paper in the world, despite its admitted partisan politics.


This post is long enough. I have too much to say about the Middle East right now to include it here. But, just a little. The Palestinians requested the U.N. the other day to be recognized as a sovereign country. It will of course be vetoed by us (despite the claim of conservatives that Obama is not on Israel's side). But, it is a mistake for Israel to handle it this way. As I've said many times before Israel should itself recognize Palestinian independence and Abbas as its leader. It should unilaterally evacuate, by force if necessary, the settlements. And then it should defend itself with all its might in the event of attack, far more than it does so now. This is not appeasement, but shedding itself of its own moral impediments. I am less interested that Palestine does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That fact will change nothing. Even if it did it would not make Israel's enemies any less so. Sadly, if Israel cannot make a political settlement, it may face extinction in time, even if it takes other countries with it. We will support Israel, but it will garner much more support from the world if it does so with the moral high ground. It is easy to say - who cares? But, Israel does care and it does make a difference.

More another day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Who said it VII?

I'm not sure how many posts I have made here but I think it is arond 285 or so. I know it says it somewhere on this thing. To my own surprise, I've been writing these approximately weekly pieces since September, 2006 - almost exactly five years - and still enjoy doing it. The posts I call Who said it? are really an excuse to dive into my library and find quotes I find interesting at the moment for varying reasons. Obviously, this is the seventh such post, or I'd have call it something other than . . . VII

1) I believe all Americans are born with certain inalienable rights. As a child of God, I believe my rights are not derived from the Constitution. My rights are not derived from any government. My rights are not derived from any majority. My rights are because I exist. They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our creator and they represent the essence of human dignity.

Rush Limbaugh, Rick Perry, Ann Coulter. No, no and no. That was Joe Biden, our colorful and occasionally kooky Vice President, during the Justice Bork Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1987. He sounds more like a conservative than a liberal here, but Bork was struggling and the Democrats were pouring it on. I’ve watched the hearing myself, part when it happened, and more a few years ago on C-Span. He did not present himself well, to say the least. He came across as a self-absorbed, highly theoretical and off-beat man. It made him a little bitter, as academically he was qualified, and at least he was able to get a few books out of it.

2) Because, at bottom, women exist solely for the propagation of the race with which their destiny is identified, they live generally more in the species than in individuals. At heart, they take more seriously the affairs of the species than those of individuals. This gives to their whole nature and action a certain frivolity and generally an attitude which is fundamentally different from that of the man and gives rise to that discord and disharmony which are so frequent and almost normal in marriage.

* * *

Only the male intellect, clouded by the sexual impulse, could call the undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged sex the fair sex; for in this impulse is to be found its whole beauty. The female sex could be more aptly called the unaesthetic. They really and truly have no bent and receptivity either for music, poetry, or the plastic arts; but when they affect and profess to like such things, it is mere aping for the sake of their keen desire to please. This is why they are incapable of taking a purely objective interest in anything. . . .

This is why I spend so much time reading philosophy. Even the best of them are going to amuse you sometimes. The above is from a Schopenhauer essay, On Women. Despite the fact that there is many a modern woman who would kick his Buddha loving ass now for saying this, he has actually been quite influential with other philosophers, notably Nietzsche, psychologists, notably Freud, many writers like Poe, Yeats, Tolstoy, etc. and even musicians (and I have no idea how – but he had a music theory I know nothing about), including some of my favorites – Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Wagner and others. What he wrote above was probably widely accepted in the 19th century as true anyway, but, much else of what he wrote – or of what I have read in translation – makes a lot of sense, at least for a philosopher.

3) You know, there was a time when our national security was based on a standing army here within our own borders and shore batteries of artillery along our coasts, and, of course, a navy to keep the sea lanes open for the shipping of things necessary to our well-being. The world has changed. Today, our national security can be threatened in faraway places. It’s up to all of us to be aware of the strategic importance of such places and to be able to identify them.

That’s Ronald Reagan after the success of the Grenada invasion, one of the easiest boots on the ground victories we’ve ever had. Of course, this was Grenada, not Vietnam. But, despite many people being unsure of why we did it, Reagan, like others before him, believed it was important to roll back Communism wherever it existed and certainly in the Americas. The Grenadine adventure also caused a bit of a stir in the local Communist world – Cuba, and Sandinista Nicaragua. The invasion is a fascinating little story itself, complete with a coup of one Marxist leader by a worse one, a pre-invasion Marine disaster in Lebanon just before the invasion started, the president's cabinet split on support for the action (VP Bush, for example, was against it), American citizens present on the island at a med school and the refusal of Grenada to allow an American envoy to make sure the students were safe. Naturally, many Democrats were furious with him - because that is usually the reaction of the opposing party - but even Reagan’s friend, Maggie Thatcher, was mad at him as Grenada was a British Commonwealth island (which strikes me as ridiculous – is the Queen really the Queen of an independent island nation? Come now, Elizabeth. However, especially after the students returned home, it increased Reagan’s popularity and actually – due to a bunch of mix-ups in the invasion – led to the restructuring of the American military – the first major one in 40 years. Good idea.

4) While the last members were signing it, Dr. FRANKLIN, looking towards the president’s chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.

This is a very famous occasion, the signing of the Constitution, and I include this quote not as any surprise as to what was said, but, because so many of the founders’ famous statements turn out to be apocryphal, some created within recent memory. It turns out though, this one actually was actually said by him, as the above words were recorded by James Madison in his record of the Constitutional convention. The Rising Sun Chair, by the way, still exists in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

5) The Republican leaders have not been content to make personal attacks upon me—or my wife—or my sons—they now include my little dog, Fala. Unlike the members of my family, Fala resents this. When he had learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost tot the taxpayer of two or three or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself but I think I have a right to object to libelous statements about my dog.

Fala was FDR’s dog, a scotch terrier, and this was a draft of part of a speech he was giving to Teamsters during the war. It concerned a rumor he had left his dog behind while on tour and then spent ridiculous sums to retrieve him. It seems like very small potatoes now, but Fala was a popular pup with the public, and according to some, this little speech galvanized the Democratic Party for the election campaign against Thomas Dewey.

This next one is not as mundane as you might think at the beginning.

6) Never may an act of possession be exercised upon a free being; the exclusive possession of a woman is no less unjust than the possession of slaves; all men are born free, all have equal rights: never should we lose sight of those principles; according to which never may there be granted to one sex the legitimate right to lay monopolizing hands on the other, and never may one of these sexes, or classes, arbitrarily possess the other. Similarly, a woman existing in the purity of Nature’s laws cannot allege, as justification for refusing herself to someone who desires her, the love she bears another because such a response is based upon exclusion, and no man may be excluded from the having of a woman as of the moment it is clear exercised upon a chattel or an animal, never upon an individual who resembles us, and all the ties which can bind a woman to a man are quite as unjust as illusory.

If then it becomes incontestable that we have received from Nature, the right indiscriminately to express our wishes to all women, it likewise becomes incontestable that we have the right to compel their submission, not exclusively, for I should then be contradicting myself, but temporarily. It cannot be denied that we have the right to decree laws that compel women to yield to the flames of him who would have her; violence itself being one of that right’s effects, we can employ it lawfully. Indeed! has Nature not proven that we have that right, by bestowing upon us the strength needed to bend women to our will?

This is from Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, a 1795 series of fictional dialogues which are actually far more debauched than the little philosophical section I quote here. However, in the middle of the dialogues is an essay – Yet another effort, Frenchmen, if you would become Republicans, which qualifies under my rules. I’m not suggesting you read this unless you would enjoy reading about the rape of a concerned mother trying to rescue her daughter from libertines. Why do I have de Sade in my library. I assure you it is quite old and when a young man, it seemed decadent or something - so I read it. I recall it was sickening then too, although so old fashioned it was hard to take seriously.

7) We receive with deep regret daily information of the progress of insurrection and devastation in St. Domingo. Nothing indicates as yet that the evil is at its height, and the materials as yet untouched but open to conflagration are immense.

* * *

The situation of the St. Domingo fugitives (aristocrats as they are) calls aloud for pity and charity. Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man.

I have to have at least one item blasting Thomas Jefferson. Oh, we are told that he loathed slavery, and the poor man was forced to keep his own enslaved by practicalities. Yet, when the slaves on the island of Haiti (St. Domingo) revolted against their French masters, he felt quite sorry for the poor aristocrats who had lost their slaves and property they tilled on their slaves back. He did nothing to help the Haitians, the first nation in the new world to follow America's lead in revolution.

8) When the Fourteen Points of President Wilson were announced many German “Volkgenossen,” particularly the leading men of the time, saw in those Fourteen Points not only the possibility for ending the World War but for a final pacification of all nations of this world. There would come a peace of reconciliation and understanding, a peace which would recognize neither victors nor vanquished, a peace without war indemnities, a peace of equal for all, a peace of equal distribution of colonial territory and of equal distribution of colonial territory and of equal consideration for colonial desiderata. A peace which would finally be crowned with a league of free nations. A peace which, by guaranteeing equal rights would make it appear superfluous for nations in future still to endure the burden of armament which, as is known, previously weighed down so heavily on them.

Doesn't all that peace stuff sound good? I also love to give a Hitler quote where he sounds all reasonable and peaceful. Peace, peace, peace. This was less than six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland was carried out, starting WWII. I like to put a Hitler quote right next to a Jefferson one to give the venomous commentator Bear a rise in his blood pressure.

9) I often go on bitter nights
To Wotan’s oak in the quiet glade
With dark powers to weave a union—
The runic letters the moon makes with its magic spell
And all who are full of impudence during the day
Are made small by the magic formula!

No, not J.R.R. Tolkien, but Hitler again. That was a poem he wrote during WWII.

10) My dear John:--

Some weeks ago I wrote you a letter. You have made no response to it whatever. When I send you some instructions I want to know that you are carrying them out.

Now I want to know how much time you are spending in Northhampton. I would like to know what entertainments you are attending and who you are taking them with you there and at Amherst.

I want you to keep in mind that you have sent to college to work. Nothing else will do you any good. Nobody in my class who spent their time in other ways has ever amounted to anything. Unless you want to spend your time working you may just as well leave college. Nothing else will make you a man or gain for you the respect of the people.

I want you to refuse all requests that will interfere with your doing the work that is assigned each day for you to do.

Your father,

Calvin Coolidge

Obviously, this is a letter from President Coolidge to his son. He sounds like a lot of fathers I know. John actually did well in life, despite his father's not uncommon fears, although he never went into politics like his dad. He was a businessman and railroad executive. He was also the lucky Coolidge son. John was playing tennis with his little brother, Calvin, Jr., in 1924 at the White House when Calvin got a blister and soon died from an infection he got in it. If that sounds unlikely to you - me too - but whatever the real medical complications were we'll probably never know.  Incidentally, the president’s full name was John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., so I don’t know why his second son, Calvin, got the suffix – Jr. and his older brother, John, did not. Neither should have been a “Jr.” (as their father was) and if either had actually bore his full name, he would have been a III.

11) Every honest person, everyone who has human dignity and justice at heart, everyone who believes in the freedom of each individual through the equality of every individual and in that context, must be astounded that all inventions of the human mind and all the great applications of science to industry, to commerce, and to social life in general, have until now redounded only to the benefit of the privileged classes and never to the benefit of the masses of the people, extending the influence of those eternal protectors of every political and social injustice.

This is from the famous Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, who I studied once briefly, stopped, and have recently thought about again (bringing a book of his writings I have into my hand). He was a Hegelian, which I think a mistake for all philosophers and a virulent anti-Semite. But, he was not a Marxist (and he knew the actual Marx) and in fact, was thrown out of the First International organization by Marx and his supporters. He was obsessed with ideas of liberty, but believed in a social revolution without violence, where the means of production and pretty much everything else would be provided by the “people.” It can sound pretty heady in the abstract, but in reality, people want a government. In time, probably very little time, any society based on his principles would have coalesced into some form of government. Even Thoreau recognized that government is a necessary evil – at least for now. But, to get to the above quote – Bakunin was wrong and still is. Technology eventually flows down all the way to the poorest and at times is even given away to them. It is very often available only to the wealthy at first, whether airplanes, cars, cell phones, etc., as they essentially are paying for the R&D, but then flows down to the middle and lower classes. In fact, it also flows down to countries where there is little or no new technological development at all. Cell phones are a very good example of this. If this sounds like an intelligent criticism of his ideology, I was just reading this in Hayek and kind of just stole it.

12) It was on September 17, 1942, at 10:30 a.m., that I got the news. I had agreed, by noon that day, to telephone my acceptance of a proposed assignment to duty overseas. I was then a colonel in the Army Engineers, with most of the headaches of directing ten billion dollars’ worth of military construction in the country behind me—for good, I hoped. I wanted to get out of Washington, and quickly.

Brehon B. Somervell . . . my top superior, met me in a corridor of the new House of Representatives Office Building when I had finished testifying about a construction project before the Military Affairs Committee.

“About that duty overseas,” General Somervell said, “you can tell them no.”

“Why?” I inquired.

“The Secretary of War has selected you for a very important assignment.”



“I don’t want to stay in Washington.”

“If you do the job right,” General Somervell said carefully, “it will win the war.”

Men like to recall, in later years, what they said at some important or possibly historic moment in their lives. . . . I remember only too well what I said to General Somervell that day.

I said, “Oh.”

Leslie Richard Groves was neither the head of construction for the U.S. Army nor a general when he was offered the position to run the Manhattan Project. He was actually only a colonel at the time, if one with many important duties, and you never heard (nor I) of his boss, the Quartermaster General. Groves' promotion to general came with the project – overseeing the construction of the atomic bomb. The above quote was originally from his own book, published three years after the war. I do not know what men he was referring to who like to recall their words on historic occasions, but many do. Wouldn't you? J. Robert Oppenheimer was the physicist who ran the project with Groves. His brother, Frank, later said that when the Trinity test was done, his famous brother merely said – “It worked.” Apparently, understatment is quite normal at historic moments.

13) Very shortly before the test of the first atomic bomb, people at Los Alamos were naturally in a state of some tension. I remember one morning when almost the whole project was out of doors staring at a bright object in the sky through glasses, binoculars and whatever else they could find; and nearby Kirtland Field reported to us that they had no interceptors which had enabled which had enabled them to come within range of the object. Our director of personnel was an astronomer and a man of some human wisdom; and he finally came to my office and asked whether we would stop trying to shoot down Venus. I tell this story only to indicate that even a group of scientists is not proof against the errors of suggestion and hysteria.

That is from Oppenheimer himself from a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt long after the war. I’m not sure if she really needed help understanding that scientists can make mistakes or can become hysterical, but maybe. In any event, it is quite a comical picture, and you can only imagine the blow to the egos of some of the smartest men in the world.

14) On reflection, David Dinkins and I are lucky that Giuliani didn’t decide to cast our portraits onto a bonfire along with the First Amendment, which he seems to enjoy violating regularly with his denial of parade permits, demonstrations, and even the holding of press conferences (except now by City Council members) on City Hall’s steps.

The entire building has been placed virtually off limits to the public, even though it is the seat of city government. Imagine if Congress closed the Capitol to visitors, something it has never done despite bombings and shootings.

Giuliani pleads the possibility of terrorist acts and has put police sharpshooters on the roof of City Hall ringing the surrounding park with a 12-foot wire fence. City Hall today is reminiscent of the last days of the Roman Emperor Caligula.

That is actually from a column by one of Rudy Giuliani’s biggest supporters, former NYC mayor, Ed Koch. Before 9/11, he was not a fan at all though. In fact, he initially liked him when he was running, but was so turned off by Giuliani’s overbearing ways while mayor, that he published a book – Giuliani, Nasty Man, from his own collected articles. Oddly, I find that of the present politicians who were ever really contenders for their party's nomination, Giuliani's policies are very generally speaking the one’s closest to my own. However, I found his character severely lacking for many of the same reasons Koch did. After 9/11, Koch became a big Giuliani supporter. I'm not that easy. After Giuliani dropped out of the New York Senatorial race because of cancer, he may have become a different man. I have a faint memory that he said he had   "softened," but I can't confirm it quickly. Whether he has or not, I can’t say, but it seems like he might have. I suppose were I ever to support him, I would want to hear him say that and be specific as to how. Politicians usually don’t do that.

15) Webster, at the time of writing his Dictionary, speaks of the English Language as then consisting of sevnty or eighty thousand words. If so, the language in which the five books of Moses were written must, at that time, now thirtythree or four hundred years ago, have consisted of at least one quarter as many, or, twenty thousand. When we remember that words are sounds merely, we shall conclude that the idea of representing those sound by marks, so that whoever should, at any time after, see the marks would understand what sounds they meant, was a bold and ingenious conception, not likely to occur to one man of a million in the run of a thousand years. And, when it did occur, a distinct mark for each word, giving twenty thousand different marks first to be learned and afterwards remembered, would follow as the second thought, and would present such a difficulty as would lead to the conclusion that the whole thing was impracticable. But the /necessity/ still would exist; and we may readily suppose that the idea was conceived, and lost, and reproduced, and dropped, and taken up, again and again, until at last the thought of dividing sounds into parts, and making a mark not to represent a whole sound but only a part of one, and then of combining these marks, not very many in number, upon the principles of permutation, so as to represent any and all of the whole twenty thousand words, and even any additional number, was somehow conceived and pushed into practice. This was the invention of phonetic writing, as distinguished from the clumsy picture writing of some of the nations. That it was difficult of conception and execution is apparent, as well by the foregoing reflections as by the fact that so many tribes of men have come down from Adam’s time to ours without ever having possessed it. Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse, go with it.

When you remember that Abraham Lincoln had only a few months of actual formal education, his amazing prowess with the English language becomes all the more remarkable. He is one of many reasons that I have come to believe that a so called “high I.Q.” means far less in education than motivation. At least, I can also say for myself, if I am no Lincoln, whatever I have learned in the world, far more that is valuable to me is that which I have taught myself because I wanted to learn it, rather than what I learned in school.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Liberty bells still ringing

Last post on liberty for a while. In my paean to it last week, I included Proposition No. 7: “Of all the values which contribute to the happiness of man individually and collectively, the value of individual liberty, as a direction and a goal, is the most efficient, the most effective, and the most desirable way to get there."

The commenter known as Don, who describes himself more and more as libertarian than a conservative these days commented as follows:

“Proposition 7 was the most cogent and insightful.
Not surprisingly I agree with most of this with a few quibbles.
I am, however, less sanguine about the prospects for continued individual liberty in this country (see proposition 7 again) with the increased acceptance of nanny state meddling. It has an erosionary effect on liberty that will have a tendency to erode and topple it. It also tends to develop individuals who are less comfortable with and less able to deal with liberty."

Naturally, I felt sorry for the little rascal (he is an attorney, and that is ground enough for pity) and I commented back that I would relieve him of his fears this week. And, I am a blogger of his word. So, first, a very quick hop through history and then my paradigm:

No one knows exactly how old The Epic of Gilgamesh is, but it is really friggin’ old; so old, that The Old Testament is middle aged in comparison and our constitution a newborn baby. We know that parts of it are taken from far older works, so it may be vastly older than we think. At a minimum, parts of it were probably written over 4100 years ago, with what is called the standard version that is usually published in translation now - maybe 3300 years ago. Old. Yet, I say unto you, sons and daughters of men, one of the central themes running through it is - liberty.

The adventure begins with the inhabitants of Uruk angry at the partially divine King Gilgamesh because he is insisting on deflowering all the virgins before they marry as his kingly right. The story doesn’t dwell on abstract concepts, but if it did, it would have been discussing liberty – the right of people to do as they please, to have and use their own property and have their exclusive relationships.

The city folk Gilgamesh ruled got a little divine help and a creature named of Enkidu they hoped would subdue him was created. Enkidu was part man and part beast, and it was the beast part they hoped would be able to overpower the mighty Gilgamesh. A harlot was sent to Enkidu to tame him (wink, wink) and she did, the animals rejected him and he came into the city to confront Gilgamesh. This is awfully heady stuff for people in such an early civilization out of the stone age – but the storytellers are not so subtly pointing out how in exchange for civilization, we must give up nature. Put another way, the price we pay for civilization is giving up some of our freedom. Enkidu confronted Gilgamesh, but was defeated in battle and they became undying friends and had some adventures, during which Enkidu dies. I’ve written in much greater detail about this legend on 7/11/07 and you can look there if you have any interest.

Although I have never read an analysis of Gilgamesh which speaks about the epic in terms of ideas of liberty, I am sure I am not the first. it seems overwhelmingly evident once you put this light on it. Thus, even in the oldest literary on earth we know of – freedom was a great concern.

Consider the Bible too, The Old Testament first. Again and again the issue of liberty shines through like a burning bush. Moses concerned himself with freeing the Hebrews from the Egyptians. More than once, the hebrews were taken as slaves. The entire second book of the Torah is taken up with the issue in Exodus. Though slavery is a prism which it is thankfully no longer necessary to see liberty through, it comes up time and time again in the Bible. And, often, the topic is manumission – how and when will a slave be free? There is no doubt freedom will be desired, because it is as natural in man as a baby taking a first step or wresting a rattle out of an adult’s hand.

And, at the same time as freedom is arising in the Biblical tales, so are the commandments and the law (mostly Deuteronomy). It is a package deal, and leads to one of my favorite legal quotes from a Supreme Court case known as Terminiello v. City of Chicago, where Justice Robert Jackson, in dissent from the majority (and, in my opinion, coming to the wrong conclusion on the case) wrote about the balance:

“The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

The accepted reading of The New Testament as having little to do with liberty and much to do with saving your soul. And, I do think that is largely correct. But, Lord Acton, whose writings on liberty are extensive and passionate, but marred by his preference for south during the Civil because they took a stand against a strong central government and asserted their independence, pointed out something that I had never considered before. I had always though when Jesus uttered the famous: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” I had always look at it not as a pro-government sentiment – hardly that – but one that acknowledged the authority of government on earth.

But Acton writes at the end of his essay History of Freedom in Antiquity: “[T]hose words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before his death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness that it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be the aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to liberty a meaning and a value had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free.”

I expect that is too long a paragraph for Don to comprehend, and as I am writing this in response to him, I will summarize it for him. It was not a statement about the power of government over our lives; it is a statement of the limitations of government. But that is Lord Acton's opinion (remarkably, he is far more well known than I am), and I believe he has stretched it.

Nevertheless, Jesus was focused on saving souls and the kingdom to come, but the rest of the Jewish world was at least as concerned with liberty from the Romans on an earthly plain. A few decades after Christ’s death, it exploded in 3 wars for liberty that lasted on and off from 66 to 136 A.D. Much less well known are smaller revolts that lasted right up to the days of the Muslim takeover. It was the end of the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, which lasted up until the last century, after which it is voluntary. But, the point is, they were all for some measure of liberty.

Acton’s essay, quoted above, is mostly about the Greeks and the Romans. When we talk about Greek freedom in antiquity, we are almost always talking of the Athenians of the Golden Age, that is the 5th century B.C., although, in my humble opinion, that may not be fair to the Spartans and perhaps some others. The Spartan lifestyle was – well, spartan, but, their laws gave great freedom in many senses to the Spartan men, in some senses more than the Athenians had. But, Spartan men did not express themselves in a literary fashion as did the Athenians.

And, with apologies to Solon, who plays a great role in the history of democracy, and through it liberty, it is the Athens of Pericles who excite us all about the Greeks. The Greeks may have had the greatest explosion in libertarian ideas, and all around genius of any people any time in history and I have been marginally obsessed with them from my infancy until present. Their own manner of liberty also serves as a template that liberty means different things to different people at different times. For, the Athenians not only had slaves, but their wives and children were essentially property of the men, and they even treated their own allies as vassals (I wrote on the Melians on 1/18/11).

But, take this speech extract from Thucydides, quoting from or paraphrasing Pericles at a funeral oration near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment."

This is, of course, one of the great speeches in the development of liberty. But, the Athenians great experiment was rather short lived. Edward Gibbons, more famous as the author of the most famous history of the Romans, wrote this about the Athenians:

"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and they wanted a comfortable life. And they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. The Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

The idea of liberty, however imperfectly developed by 5th century Greece, was so prevalent throughout Greece that both sides claimed it was this they were seeking in the Peloponnesian War.

Then came the Roman Republic, which also tried, and eventually failed, to institute principles of liberty as well. Lord Acton tells us that at a distance, the Roman Empire actually gave greater impetus to liberty than the Republic, extending citizenship to its colonies and exporting religious toleration.

I’ve just mentioned a few places at a few times in history. We can, of course, travel anywhere in the world and at any time, and find comparable stories. Someone trying to gain control, someone else trying to free themselves. It is best when there are values and traditions of freedom which can be learned in infancy so that the world does not need to be completely remade again and again. More, future generations will always look back at others of which they have some knowledge and have a different take on how free they were. Liberty implies choice implies change.

Some believe that what we deem liberty in America today was a product of two separate traditions - French and British, although there can be little doubt that its greatest blossoming was in England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This tradition of liberty was transplanted to America with its colonies, developed there and took its greatest step with our revolution and the flowering of two central or organizing ideas – the first, that all men are created equal and the second, that in America, the law is king. These did not exist in England – while all Englishmen had certain rights, there were class distinctions and royalty. While the notion of due process, a constitution and common law are British creations, the Parliament in Britain is still superior to the law, whereas in America, even the legislature is often powerless against it. This is why here, congress can even take action to change a law where they don’t like the Supreme Court ruling on it, and the Court can say – no, you can’t do that. Though many feel that this is undemocratic and an usurpation of power, it is a product of our system of checks and balances that no group or class or branch of government can be given too much power for too long, though many strive for it. 
Ironically, in every place and every time liberty must always fail in some way and even where it largely succeeds, it never seems to be enough. Sometimes, it seems to disappear completely, as in 20th century Soviet Union and Communist China. But, yet, as tyrannical as a society can be, the idea of liberty is never snuffed out completely – ever. It can come roaring back in an instant as it is now in the Middle East, albeit in a variation that we in the west have trouble seeing as freedom.

Yet, we can look back at our own short history and ask where liberty was even after our Constitution for blacks and women and prisoners and foreigners and dissidents and so on. It did not come in a waterfall or wrapped up in a package but has progressed over time alongside the development of custom and values. No doubt, these are black marks in our history, but they are recognized so only because of how high we've soared since. The idea of liberty, however imperfect, was the central reason for our revolution. It was the reason that the central government was rendered almost powerless in the Articles of Confederation and limited in the Constitution. It is the reason the first ten amendments were added soon after it was ratified. It is the reason the last two of those amendments made sure that the rights enumerated in the constitution did not deny or disparage others retained by the people (Amendment IX) and that powers not delegated to the federal government or restricted from the states, were reserved to the states or the people (Amendment X); It is the reason we have had 200 years of litigation trying to figure out who has power over whom and where. And, as with the Athenians and Spartans, both sides in our Civil War looked forward to more freedom, according to their dictates. Don’t think so? Abraham Lincoln did:

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to—day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated."

All the above is a backdrop to my Fear Not Paradigm of Liberty I will now recite for you:

Libertarianism is an ideology, but liberty itself is not; it is an abstract characteristic of society more akin to things like comedy, competition or hedonism, and subject to the same arguments as to its existence, qualities and how to maintain it.

Liberty has always existed and always will because it stems from the will of billions of humans seeking to be free and to self-determination. It can have an effect on only the person themselves or it can affect other people too. 
But, liberty is always countered by an opposite abstract characteristic of order or control – as in – an ordered society. Order comes from the same billions of humans seeking to express their will, but by controlling themselves or others.

Neither liberty or control is inherently good or bad, but is deemed so based on the frame of reference of the person or society based on their values.

They are not complete opposites. Liberty, without some measure of order and control results in nihilism or anarchy, sought by very few people in this world. With a measured amount though, liberty is enhanced. You only need to take a drive to see how rules of the road enhances everyone’s freedom to go where they want, as a very easy example. Traffic tickets are frustrating and occasionally unfair, but they make our lives better. Besides, the recipient of many, I can think of only one I got which was unfair.
Order or control, however, can seem to survive without much liberty – perhaps North Korea is a good example – but no amount of order or control can completely destroy the desire for it anymore than we can destroy matter without an atomic explosion or some equally cataclysmic event. Tamping down liberty with excessive order or control is like trying to stop a biological or physiological need or keep dandelions off your lawn – good luck.

Like much in human behavior, too much or too little of a thing seems less good to us, and even that statement is certainly subject to qualification, depending on the stakes. When Barry Goldwater said "I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," he later walked it back a bit, although you will not find those in wikiquote. Naturally, what is too much or too little liberty is subjective and depends on societal and personal norms too complex to be recorded accurately anywhere. But, we imbibe them effortlessly when young, as we do language. In a truly free or open society, the bounds of social norms are looser, and there is a greater deviation of behavior and expression than in an unfree or closed society.

Because people have different values, needs and interests, some people will view liberty and order very differently from others. This is normal within a society and between societies, even though it causes tension and stress. There is a word that can apply to describe a society where liberty and control reach a perfect equilibrium. It is called a utopia. It is also an abstract concept, but unlike liberty, it has and can never exist as a chaarcteristic of any society. For it to exist, all people would have to be the same, have the same needs, interests and values, which is kind of like saying that all people will love the same colors or foods and have the same taste in clothes. This is, of course, not possible.

People expect things that work together to go smoothly. But, liberty and order working together seems more like a jittery butterfly than a soaring eagle. It is an erratic combination subject to winds and other conditions out of anyone’s control. Societies where the balance favors order fear liberty and those with an abundance of liberty fear order. Those in a free society who are most vigilant of liberty tend to see its dissipation and those who are most vigilant of order tend to see its dissipation.
The boundaries of freedom and order in our society have grown very haphazardly and seemingly randomly, sometimes too much one way and sometimes too much the other. Whether there is enough of one or another or not is naturally subjective, like asking someone if it is too hot or too cold. You will find out what the extremes of either are when enough people give the same answer.

I am not at that point where I fear an unusual erosion of liberty as I see it in our society. In fact, I am nowhere near it. We have an open society where we are free to say almost anything we want and we can say it to the president of the United States. The fact that we can’t say everything we want at all times in every place does not concern me any more that I can’t sleep wherever I want at all times for any length of time. We can do for a living almost anything we make the sacrifice to do, limited by our abilities and supply and demand. Even monopoly, which may hinder or destroy opportunity is rarely a barrier anymore. Securities markets enable us to dabble in areas we might not have been able to crack before, when we can't participate directly. Although government can easily destroy us with its power, it rarely does, and even prosecution is riddled with tremendous safeguards deemed fundamental to our law that protect the guilty as well as the innocent. Every society has limits to its resources, and our society is now sometimes at odds over desire to preserve our aesthetically pleasing but rarely used wilderness and the desire to use our desperately needed resources. This does not trouble me either, because as I look at people, I look at societies, and that is relatively. Ours does not fare badly in the comparison with other countries. In fact, it fares wonderfully.

Moreover, most Americans I know adhere to what I call enlightenment values like the rule of law and not men, free speech and conscience, capitalism, toleration (to an amazing scale despite our differences) and so on. Far more people come to this country to find these values than for any other reason by an overwhelming margin.

If you live in a free society, you must expect risk, failure and others trying to compete with you, take your stuff and even control you. As Winston Churchill said of Germany - we try to do our best and must expect that other people will try to do their worst. Now go back and read the excerpt from Pericles’ funeral oration above and tell me that isn’t the best of America. Don’t tell me there’s a worse part. I know. But, if this is as good as it gets - it is pretty darn good.

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 . . . .