Third Option?

The devotees of guns who insist that the Constitution guarantees them a right to carry automatic weapons are fond of saying that the “cure” for the incredible number of guns deaths in this country — including the latest mass shooting in Oregon — is to lock up the crazies before they start shooting. “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people,” or some such nonsense. If there were no guns, of course, there would be no shootings. It’s simple logic.

But the hard-liners are convinced that there are two options, and only two options that face us: either we lock up all those who are likely to shoot random citizens or we continue to live in a state that is rife with domestic terrorism where an “accidental” shooting happens almost daily and there have been 986 mass killings since Sandy Hook; where 4.2% of the world’s population privately own 42% of the weapons. In an interesting article in the web blog “Vox, Policy and Politics” it was noted that Donald Trump, of all people, realizes, perhaps unwittingly, that the first option is not an option at all. As Trump was quoted as saying (pardon the syntax):

you know, oftentimes this happens and the neighborhood’s just, you know, we sort of saw that about him, it really looked like he could be a problem’ but it’s often hard to put someone in an institution for the rest of their lives based on the fact that he looks like he could be a problem.

My goodness, it seems a bit of the truth leaked in there somewhere among the cobwebs that befuddle this man’s consciousness. It is clearly the case that we cannot go around locking up anyone who we (which of us?) think looks like he or she might be on the verge of shooting someone else. This would lead to the worst form of fascist state and even the extreme right wingers don’t want that — I would hope. As the psychiatrist Dr. Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University has noted:

any attempt to predict who is most likely to commit a mass shooting — and therefore prevent it — runs up against the fact that these events are extremely rare, and as a result have only the broadest, least useful risk factors associated with them. […]

The risk factors that are linked to these events — basically, being an angry young man — are so widespread in the population, he explained, and so weakly predictive of an individual actually committing a mass shooting as to be practically useless. “The answer is yes, at least of the most highly publicized, most fear-inducing cases of stranger shootings, by and large they are angry young men,” said Appelbaum. “But that doesn’t get you very far, because there are a lot of angry young men who are angry for all kinds of reasons, and unless one wants to lock them all up or put them all under 24-hour surveillance, it’s really impossible to build on a description that general to come up with effective preventative approaches.”

So, the conclusion that is reached by those who want to marry their guns and continue to shoot first and ask questions later is that things must go on as usual. We simply must put up with it. Better still, we should all go out and buy guns to protect ourselves against the “other” people who are crazy — as though we wouldn’t be certifiably crazy if we were to run out and buy guns just for the sake of protecting ourselves. It’s called “paranoia.”

What’s lost in this discussion, as the Vox article notes is the obvious third option: gun control. But that is not “on the table” in Republican circles and Trump, at the end of his interview, went back to the standard notion that we simply must be more wary. No one should take our guns away from us.  Even though, as I have noted in previous posts, the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee every Tom, Dick, and Sally the right to carry automatic weapons, or, indeed any weapons of any kind. What it guarantees is the right of the militia to carry weapons in order to guarantee that we would never be a land occupied by armies, our own or others.

But, there’s another one of those “facts” which people like Donald Trump choose to ignore out of a sense of obligation to the weapons manufacturers who provide them with the big bucks they need in order to be elected to high office. Now there’s another of those ugly facts that we would prefer to ignore.


The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

The Trumpet Blares

I swore I was not going to blog about the Trumpet that plays off-key, but when he refused recently to correct one of the zanies in his audience who insisted that Barack Obama is a Muslim and THEN went on to say he would not “defend ” Obama by correcting such people, one must raise his voice in loud protest.

In what universe is correcting a blatant falsehood a “defense” of the person wrongly accused? It is simply a matter of common decency to set things straight, especially when it’s a gross insult based on twisted thinking. But, of course, Donald The Trumpet is a stranger to common decency.

One is reminded of John McCain politely correcting a woman in his audience who misspoke when referring to Obama’s supposed religious affiliation. Again, it is the decent thing to do and clearly McCain is a decent person. The Trumpet is not. He is a loud, misogynistic egoist who gets off on hearing his own name and is lost among visions of grandeur that are way beyond his meager talents.

The perplexing question, of course, is why this man has any following at all, much less one large enough to put him ahead in the race for the highest office in the land. The simple answer, which a number of folks have suggested, is that voters are sick and tired of politics as usual (I know I am) and want something fresh and new. But this man is not a breath of fresh air, he is a blowhard. And the fact that anyone would take him seriously deserves serious reflection by anyone who truly cares about the survival of this democratic system. The Founders never had this scenario in mind — in their willdest nightmares. They were convinced that the best and brightest would rise to the top like cream in milk. The key, of course, was (and is)  education — which is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. They envisioned — or many of them did — a natural aristocracy, not one predicated on wealth, but one predicated on intelligence, ability, vision, and courage. Very few of today’s candidates exhibit these traits, and one must look far and wide to find anyone who might in fact do so.

I am convinced that this is a mark of the failure of the education system in this country coupled with the fact that parents are too preoccupied with making a living to pay close attention to their children who are then left to the wiles of entertainers, day-care, and teachers. While entertainers are hugely overpaid, day-care providers and teachers are not trained to do the jobs they are forced to do — and are not paid anywhere near as much and their job requires. In fact, teachers, especially, are today held in low esteem by a culture that puts the highest value on those who make the largest income. Teachers make very little, ergo they are not worth taking seriously. It’s simple logic, or logic for the simple-minded.

This might explain why the very wealthy Donald Trump is striking a responsive chord in the hearts of so many people in this country: they simply don’t know any better. They cannot differentiate between fact and fiction; they cannot spot the fool that mouths false platitudes; they cannot see beneath the surface; and they cannot  make intelligent choices.

The founders weren’t wrong: democracy requires an educated citizenry. While George Washington did worry, on the whole the Founders failed to see that their democratic system would flounder because so many of its citizens are, in fact, uneducated and even stupid. The condition that was necessary for this republic to succeed has failed to bear fruit and the system has been turned over to the image makers and the wealthy who have enough money to buy themselves a government. This is not what Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe had in mind. Not by a long shot.

The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.


Ironic Isn’t It?

I copy and paste here an article pasted to an email I recently received from one who may not wish to be named. I thought it well worth passing on…..

545 vs. 300,000,000 People-By Charlie Reese

Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.
Have you ever wondered, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have
deficits? Have you ever wondered, if all the politicians are against inflation and high taxes, WHY do we have
inflation and high taxes? You and I don’t propose a federal budget. The President does. You and I don’t have the
Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations. The House of Representatives does. You and I don’t write the tax code,
Congress does. You and I don’t set fiscal policy, Congress does. You and I don’t control monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Bank does.

One hundred senators, 435 congressmen, one President, and nine Supreme Court justices equates to 545 human beings out of the 300 million are directly, legally, morally, and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country. I excluded the members of the Federal Reserve Board because that problem was created by the Congress. In 1913, Congress delegated its Constitutional duty to provide a sound currency to a federally chartered, but private, central bank.
I excluded all the special interests and lobbyists for a sound reason. They have no legal authority. They have no ability to coerce a senator, a congressman, or a President to do one cotton-picking thing. I don’t care if they offer a politician $1 million dollars in cash. The politician has the power to accept or reject it. No matter what the lobbyist promises, it is the legislator’s responsibility to determine how he votes.

Those 545 human beings spend much of their energy convincing you that what they did is not their fault.
They cooperate in this common con regardless of party.
What separates a politician from a normal human being is an excessive amount of gall.
No normal human being would have the gall of a Speaker, who stood up and criticized the President for creating deficits. (The President can only propose a budget. He cannot force the Congress to accept it.)

The Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, gives sole responsibility to the House of Representatives for originating and approving appropriations and taxes. Who is the speaker of the House? (John Boehner. He is the leader of the majority party. He and fellow House members, not the President, can approve any budget they want.)
If the President vetoes it, they can pass it over his veto if they agree to. [The House has passed a budget but the Senate has not approved a budget in over three years. The President’s proposed budgets have gotten almost unanimous rejections in the Senate in that time.]

It seems inconceivable to me that a nation of 300 million cannot replace 545 people who stand convicted — by present facts — of incompetence and irresponsibility.
I can’t think of a single domestic problem that is not traceable directly to those 545 people. When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise the power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist.

If the tax code is unfair, it’s because they want it unfair.
If the budget is in the red, it’s because they want it in the red.
If the Army & Marines are in Iraq and Afghanistan it’s because they want them in Iraq and Afghanistan .
If they do not receive social security but are on an elite retirement plan not available to the people, it’s because they want it that way
There are no insoluble government problems.
Do not let these 545 people shift the blame to bureaucrats, whom they hire and whose jobs they can abolish; to lobbyists, whose gifts and advice they can reject; to regulators,
to whom they give the power to regulate and from whom they can take
this power.

Above all, do not let them con you into the belief that there exists disembodied mystical forces like “the economy,” “inflation,” or “politics” that prevent them from doing what they take an oath to do.
Those 545 people, and they alone, are responsible. They, and they alone, have the power.
They, and they alone, should be held accountable by the people who are their bosses.
Provided the voters have the gumption to manage their own employees.
We should vote all of them out of office and clean up their mess!

The Ed Biz

Quite a controversy surrounds the appointment recently of businessman Bruce Harreld, who has no academic background, to the presidency at the University of Iowa — one of the Midwest’s premier universities. The article from the DesMoines Register tells us, in part, that despite overwhelming opposition from the faculty and the university community at large,

. . . Harreld was named UI’s 21st president Thursday in a unanimous vote from the Iowa Board of Regents. In so doing, they chose a former business executive with no experience in university administration, whose resume lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists.

Harreld has also admitted he’ll have a steep learning curve for the job, and that his “unusual background” will mean he’ll need a lot of teaching, coaching and mentoring from those who criticized him. It’s good he acknowledged that, and gracious to extend the olive branch. But considering he’ll earn $590,000, plus $200,000 annually in deferred compensation, on-the-job training shouldn’t be necessary.

The rather large salary is impressive, but it pales in contrast with that of the football coach, Kirk Ferentz who makes in excess of $4 million. His staff makes just under $3 million. And given Iowa’s place in the 14 member coalition called the “Big 10,” football is most important. But also given that education has become a business (at all levels) where success is measured in numbers, it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to appoint a man to the highest office at the university whose background features the selling of computers and chickens.

I have found in my own experience that an academic person doesn’t always make the best college president — since his or her job is to cuddle up to money and politicians and try to balance budgets. Academics aren’t trained to do that sort of thing. And we also happen to be generally introverted and ill-at-ease in large groups, making small talk with small minds. But there is a principle buried somewhere in this story and it has to do with the propriety of asking a man (or a woman) with no academic experience whatever and no degree higher than an MBA to run one of the nation’s largest universities which is supposed to be a “community of scholars.”

So what we have here is the question of honesty — admitting that education is really all about money — as over against the propriety of naming an inexperienced business man, no matter how successful he has been, to the presidency of the University of Iowa. In this case the waters are muddied a bit by the fact that this man’s knowledge of the University of Iowa came from his reading of Wikipedia, his resumé highlights his experience selling computers, Kraft Food,  and Boston Chicken and also “lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists,” not to mention that his appointment was apparently promoted by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a friend of the new president. No wonder 98% of the faculty opposed his appointment — to no avail.

I’m all for honesty and admit right up front that it might make perfect sense to appoint a businessman to be president of a university. But to appoint one whose knowledge of the university is so scant, requiring, by his own admission, considerable effort on his part to learn what he needs to know — no matter how much money he is paid — seems a bit of a stretch. In any event, the best of luck to the University of Iowa and its new president. We’ll see  what happens when the chickens come home to roost. (Sorry).

The Gamble

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming, (both of which are extremely unlikely) we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which he recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the delights of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional.  . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.