Smoke Screen?

It is interesting to see how the media has turned its attention to the mother of the young man accused in the Boston bombing and who is now recovering from wounds in a prison hospital. As a recent story in Yahoo News tells us, the mother’s appearance has altered recently — from an ” 80’s rock star” to a middle-eastern Muslim.

But in recent years, people noticed a change. She began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.

Now known as the angry and grieving mother of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tsarnaeva is drawing increased attention after federal officials say Russian authorities intercepted her phone calls, including one in which she vaguely discussed jihad with her elder son. In another, she was recorded talking to someone in southern Russia who is under FBI investigation in an unrelated case, U.S. officials said.

Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She’s no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent.

There are a couple of interesting points here. Ms Tsarnaeva claims there was a conspiracy surrounding the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. She may be right, of course, even though conspiracy theorists are dismissed as devil-worshippers. There always is a slice of the truth behind conspiracy theories — which is why they are believed. This is not to say that we should embrace them as the whole truth — but we should not simply turn a blind eye toward them and dismiss them as the rantings of fools. Remember: even though you are not paranoid, they may be out to get you!

But in any event, the interesting thing here is the attempt by the media to turn our attention to this woman and keep us enthralled in the drama surrounding the Boston bombings. It is guaranteed to sell papers and keep the bombings alive in the minds of folks who tend to have short attention spans. But I ask in all candor, is it not possible that those in power would just as soon keep us aware of that tragedy so we will not turn our attention to the terrorist activities that we in this country are responsible for?  I’m just saying. This may sound like another conspiracy theory, but again there may be an element of truth in there somewhere. It is certainly the case that this administration does not want American citizens taking too close a look at what is going on “over there” where the deaths of innocent people make Boston look like a Sunday school picnic.   And when the subject does come up calling it “counter-terrorism” and blaming “them” for starting it hardly avoids the moral stigma attached to our activities. But from the point of view of those who like to mold opinion, it is better to keep people in the dark and their attention focused elsewhere. Continued reminders of the Boston bombings engender patriotism, whereas the truth about what is going on in the Middle East would almost assuredly engender humiliation and embarrassment, possibly outrage. Where better to keep our attention focused than the ongoing drama of two young men who not only planted bombs in Boston but were planning to move on the Times Square in New York and whose mother now wears a hijab and is an avowed Muslim. It does give one pause….

Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

Revolutionary Theory

It is well known that Thomas Jefferson held fast throughout his life to the conviction that nations should experience a revolution every generation. While he was not averse to a violent revolution, if necessary, he preferred (as did all Enlightenment thinkers) that these revolutions be guided by reason and whatever changes came about, however radical, should come about slowly and peacefully. Late in his life he wrote a strange essay in which he developed his theory of continual revolutions that were, in his view, the only guarantee of individual liberty against the relentless encroachment of the power of the political state. The essay was called “The Earth Belongs To The Living,” and it spells out the conditions Jefferson, as an avid reader of history, perceived to be the conditions of despotism that always precede violent revolutions. The essay was read and commented on by Jefferson’s close friend James Madison but in general it has been dismissed by many historians as “the dream of a theorist” and not taken seriously.

One of the few historians to take the essay seriously — and to take Jefferson at his word about the need for continual revolutions — was Daniel Sisson, who, in his book The American Revolution of 1800, provides us with a careful, if overly favorable, study of Jefferson’s attitudes toward revolution and his commitment to the notion that his own election to the Presidency was itself a revolution in that it marked a radical change in the political life of America, which was tending toward Federalism and even the reestablishment of a monarchy — which is to say, the growing satisfaction on the part of the general population with an increase of central power. Jefferson saw his Presidency as an opportunity to return the nation to the people and place the sovereignty where it belonged, in the hands of the citizens, and lay to rest once and for all the desire that this nation should be governed by a monarch.

Sisson remarks at length about Jefferson’s “theoretical dream” and lists the conditions that Jefferson saw as precursors to every revolution:

Those conditions [Jefferson] enumerated at the end of his letter [to Madison] had been present in all despotisms throughout history and were particularly characteristic of the ancient regimes yet in power. Further, they could be summarized as those conditions that existed in America from 1760 to 1775: attempts by the government in power to maintain its authority were gradually undermined; laws became arbitrary; ‘obligations,’ once bearable, became ‘impositions’; traditional loyalties faded and new forms of attachment (outside the existing circle of government) became noticeable — the idea of community no longer held people’s attention to the interests of the nation; factions arose that exploited the frustrated classes in society; representatives no longer were representative, but spoke for the privileged few; accepted forms of wealth and income suddenly appeared corrupt or ‘ill-gained’; existing concepts of prestige changed; those people with talent, normally integrated into society, began to feel ‘left out.’ Indeed, this is the picture of an . . . emerging dialectic of two competing cultural systems warring against each other in the same society.

Santayana has told us that we need to read history or we will repeat its mistakes. Jefferson took that notion seriously and we should as well. The conditions Jefferson describes for us resemble in so many ways the conditions that persist in contemporary America. As Sisson points out, these are conditions that can lead to revolution or even to civil war. But there are mitigating factors at work in America today that may well prevent that from happening: schools that do not educate but simply train people to find mind-numbing jobs; news media that have degenerated to the level of mere entertainment, coupled with entertainment directed at a grammar-school mentality; electronic toys that mesmerize and lower I.Q.;  and wide-spread apathy brought on by complacency and ignorance. If Jefferson is right, then this translates into the loss of individual liberty — the very thing a republic was established to protect and preserve. But the majority of Americans seem unaware of this fact, or they just don’t care.

Parental Rights Once More

My good friend Dana Yost made a lengthy comment on my recent blog regarding the rights of parents to choose prayer over medical treatment for their children. I admitted at the outset of that blog that this is a perplexing issue and the “conclusion” at the end of the blog Dana refers to is really a question. I tend to go back and forth on this issue, but I do want to defend my original position a bit further, if I can. I will begin with Dana’s comment, which will make this blog a bit long:

Hugh, you are right in that there are some delicate First Amendment rights to consider here. But I disagree with your final conclusion that the state should not step in, or charge the parents. Depriving the child of medical care — no matter how much the parents believe in the power of prayer — is equivalent to child abuse, to locking a kid in a basement, etc. In this day and age when the effects of medical care are widely known and easily accessible, the crime would probably be negligent homicide. The parents have the right to practice their religion and refuse medical care for themselves, but do they really have that right to lead their child to death through their religious practices? I don’t think so — at some point, if one person’s religious beliefs intrude on the health or safety of another (even their own child), it is no longer a matter of protecting the parents’ First Amendment rights (as essential as they may be), but saving the life of another human. If someone were to practice a form of religion that called for child sacrifice — something Incan or Mayan or even like Jonestown, say — we surely would not permit them to burn their kid on a pyre or drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

The state has a deep obligation to look out for any child’s welfare, and there is much precedence to permit it. There are policies, positions in place within the legal system that do this, even when a child has both parents. Guardians ad litem can be assigned by a judge to represent the kid in court during custody proceedings, during cases where parents are accused of crimes, etc. Social services obviously has many methods of interceding on a child’s behalf when the kid’s health, education, etc., are being affected.

The parents should not lose their First Amendment rights to practice their religion. But they should lose their rights to be parents. They can continue to practice their religion in prison, but their kids should be allowed to at least live long enough to reach that “age of reason” so they can decide for themselves if they want to follow their parents’ religion. This kid never had the chance. That is most definitely a crime.

There are multiple issues here, including the First Amendment rights of the parents. The precedents don’t affect the argument, because the initial case may have been flawed and subsequent cases based on that decision may simply perpetuate the mistake. Dana facetiously (I think) draws the analogy of “child sacrifice” as a religious right and I thought I had dealt with that in the original blog. Clear cases of child abuse do constitute grounds for state involvement in removing a child from the parents’ care. However, this does raise the second critical issue: paternalism. At what point does the state have a right to step in and take a child from his parents for the child’s own good?  It is a very tough call. I have admitted the case of blatant child abuse, where the child is kept in a basement (Dana’s example). But the issue of paternalism rests on the legitimate concern of the illicit extension of state power. As Mill pointed out — and we have seen countless times –the political state has a natural (unnatural?) tendency to extend its power, especially when citizens are the least bit unwary. There are cases of child-welfare personnel threatening to remove children from their parents because their children have falsely accused them of child abuse. So even those cases must be carefully scrutinized. At the very least the burden of proof is always on the state to prove abuse on the part of parents. And if we really care about the children, what about the possible trauma to those seven kids who were taken from the “unfit” parents mentioned in the original blog and who will now be placed in a foster home? The article suggests that the family is — or was — very close. We must not let our emotions run away with us. But I want to remain focused on the matter of paternalism on the part of the civil state.

Given the tendency of the state to extend its power, we need to be clear that there are lines beyond which that power should not cross. And I suggest that parental control of children is one such area — with the obvious exceptions mentioned above. As Mill noted, we need to err on the side of the individual in all cases since their power over the state is minimal. I would argue, for example, that the state ought never to interfere in such personal matters as requiring motorcycle helmets and seat belts — if people are stupid enough to go without protection they hurt only themselves. It’s the price we pay for freedom. It is a mistake to think that whenever an individual might get hurt the state ought to intervene and protect that individual even against himself. That is the paradigm case of paternalism. And a parents’ duties to the children are not something the political body can define; they are for the individuals themselves and their churches (in this case) to decide. If those individuals choose to do stupid things, even if those stupid things affect their children’s health and well-being, and, especially as in this case, those actions are based on convictions that are deeply and sincerely held, then the state must back off and allow terrible things to happen. After all, the New Testament is full of examples of faith-healing: can anyone presume to know for certain that prayer cannot be effective? On the contrary. And isn’t it the case that a great many terrible things have happened in hospitals and doctors’ offices — presumably by mistake?

I do not think this is as simple a case as many seem to assume and I may change my view tomorrow. My goal here is to play the gadfly.  But I confess that while I think the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens from powers over which they have little or no control — such as the attacks on the environment by wealthy corporations — I cannot see that the state has any right to protect us from ourselves or to protect children from their parents (except in extreme cases of proven abuse, as noted). As a general rule I have less confidence in representatives of the state doing the right thing by children than I do the parents of children they love. In the end, I do worry about the abuse of state power and the right to genuine religious freedom — even if I do not approve of what is done in the name of that religion.

Congress And The Drones

In a recent Yahoo News story we are told about a Senate subcommittee that met to discuss the Administration’s drone policy. President Obama did not send anyone to the meeting to defend his actions in sending drones into foreign countries to “take out” militant leaders of al-Qaeda, which reflects his unwillingness to be forthcoming about those strikes. But at the meeting six presentations on both sides of the complicated issue were summarized by the news article and I have picked four of them and will comment briefly.

General James Cartwright

The retired general, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that drones are cheap, at an average cost of $4 million to $5 million, compared with a conventional jet fighter, at $150 million. They are also cheap to fly and have advanced optics.
“[They’re] not hard to see why military operations are significantly improved by this technology. Drones offer many advantages over other conventional forces in counterterrorism,” he said.
“Legitimate questions remain about the use, authorities, and oversight of armed drone activities outside an area of declared hostility,” he acknowledged. “While I believe based on my experience all parties involved in this activity have acted in the best interests of the country, as with other new technologies, adaptation of policy and law tends to lag implementation of the capability.”
Farea Al-Muslimi
Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist who was partly educated in the United States,  told the committee how drone attacks hurt the reputation of the United States in his country.
“Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine,” he said.
Al-Muslimi said the drone attacks, especially those that killed innocent civilians, made his job as an advocate for America in Yemen “almost impossible.”
“Even when drone strikes target and kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating the many strategic problems I have discussed today,” he added.
Al-Muslimi also believes the United States should compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in the attacks.

Rosa Brooks

A Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Brooks said the United States needs to address legal and procedural issues.
“I believe that the president and Congress can and should take action to place U.S. targeted killing policy on firmer legal ground,” she said.
“In particular, we need to address the rule of law implications of U.S. targeted killing policy. Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate. But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
Colonel Martha McSally
Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally served for 22 years and is familiar with the tactics involved in drone attacks.
McSally said the use of drones can help due process in some ways: “You actually have the lawyers sitting side by side with you” as a drone remains in position, unlike conventional aircraft. “You can wait until the moment you have positive identification and all the criteria have been met,” she said.
“For targeted strikes of fleeting targets in low air defense threat environments, an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] is the best platform to choose to ensure precision, persistence, flexibility, and minimize civilian casualties,” she said.
McSally also quoted Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, the first general responsible for overseeing drones, about the advantages of using the aircraft.
“Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban–not U.S. ‘drones,” said Deptula, in a passage used by McSally in her remarks.

You will note that the General and the Air Force Colonel carefully avoid the moral questions, insist that this is “counter-terrorism” and attempt to rationalize the policy on the grounds that it is cheaper than sending in manned aircraft and “they did it first.” Al-Muslimi and Brooks deal with the legal and moral issues. I leave it to the reader to determine which side seems to have the weightier argument, but from where I sit — which is admittedly far from the region of conflict — morality always trumps practicality. And I have never bought the notion that two wrongs make a right. As I have mentioned in past blogs, the moral high ground which people like Martin Luther King asked us to seek and hold is beginning to look more and more like a mole-hill.

Parental Rights and Duties

This is a puzzler. The story begins as follows:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that a decision on charges will be made after they get the results of an autopsy.

John Locke was the champion of liberal thought who almost single-handedly formed the warp and woof of Madison and Jefferson’s thinking about the place of government in the lives of its citizens. It is generally known that they followed Locke in thinking that that government is best that governs least. I do not follow them in this libertarian thinking, because things have become so complicated these days and we have learned that when government doesn’t step in — as in the case of large corporations that would pollute the air and water — the citizens are the ones who suffer. In fact, citizens have little recourse as individuals in attempting to take on large, wealthy corporations that are impacting their lives in so many ways.

But at the same time, I do agree with Locke who also noted that parents are responsible for their children until they reach “the age of reason,” as Locke put it. That was never defined, but I assume he meant the age when they can take responsibility for their own lives. We have decided it is 18 or 21 — depending on what sort of responsibility we are talking about. But while the age is somewhat arbitrary the principle is clear: parents are responsible for their children until we can presume the children themselves can act responsibly. The parents in this case are devout Christians who distrust medical science and seem convinced that prayer is sufficient to heal their sick children. I don’t happen to agree with them, and there are many arguments against this strict position.

But I must admit I have a problem with officials of the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and telling these people they cannot raise their children as they see fit. This is a classic case of paternalism and the man who argued most persuasively against that position was John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century. He was developing ideas he found in Locke, ideas that focus on the unwarranted spread of civil influence into the private lives of individuals who ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Mill was convinced that the only time the state had a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens is when they pose a real and present threat to one another: when it steps in to prevent harm to a citizen.

In the case of young children who are the responsibility of their parents, it seems to me that the state has firm grounds for stepping in between parents and children if, and only if, the parents are clearly threatening the lives of the children — when they physically abuse them, for example. The case of parents who refuse medical attention because they believe in the efficacy of prayer assuredly does not come under this rubric. Failure to seek medical attention for their sick children seems to me to be one of the things best left to their judgment, whether or not we agree with that judgment. In this case it is not only paternalistic it is a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom. Whether we like it or not (and I confess I do not like it) these parents are guaranteed the right to raise their children in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions. The couple has seven children who are now in foster care and have been described as “distraught” over the death of their child; nonetheless, prosecutors seek to have the couple jailed since they are regarded as a “threat to their children.” What possible grounds could the state of Pennsylvania have for either taking the children from their parents of prosecuting the parents as criminals?

R.I.P. Michelle

Can we please have a moment of silence for the diseased political life of Michelle Bachmann? Well, as it happens the political life of this Representative is still alive, but it is on life support. As a recent story on “Policymic” points out:

This been a very, very bad year for Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.). Her 2012 presidential ambitions ran into the squall of a sixth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, a large drop from a height peaking at her campaign winning the influential Ames Straw Poll. And now she finds herself mired in an ethics investigation, with her former chief of staff expected to tell an ethics panel that she made illegal payments during her 2012 presidential campaign.

Michelle’s fall from great heights began during the last presidential campaign when she finished sixth in Iowa and allegations about campaign finance violations started to surface. Soon her staff was deserting her and she withdrew from the race; last Fall she barely won re-election to the House of Representatives, narrowly squeaking out a victory in a heavily Republican district against an unknown Democrat who hardly made an effort against her. The handwriting is on the wall, though politicians seem to have a problem reading it when it is there: they suffer from myopia.  As noted, the problem started during her run for the presidential nomination when Peter Waldron, her national field coordinator, filed a complaint of alleged campaign finance violations. He later resigned from her campaign, as did a number of other staffers.  More recently is has been alleged that she was using campaign funds to pay members of her staff to help her promote and sell her autobiography, Core of Conviction, which has sold a total of 3,000 copies to date. (Not on the New York Times Best Seller list!)  Now the House Ethics Committee is investigating her — though I admit this seems a bit like letting the fox guard the chicken house — and her political career seems to be in the toilet. What a shame!

About To Be Flushed?

About To Be Flushed?

But like so many who have been in her shoes, and who will be in the future, no doubt, Michelle has played the denial card. As the story goes on to point out:

Congresswoman Bachmann has denied all of the allegations, claiming that they are politically motivated, despite nearly all of the allegations coming from both former staff members and fellow Republicans. As the investigation rolls forward this story can only get more convoluted as new details come to light.

You’ve got to love it! She cries foul and claims that the plot against her is “politically motivated” in spite of the fact that it is her own people, including her former Chief of Staff, Andy Parrish, who are going to testify against her. But, come to think of it, that it IS political motivation: getting rid of at least one unqualified and incompetent Representative. Now, where is that broom that we are told we can use to sweep clean the houses of so many other corrupt politicians?

U.S.A! U.S.A!

The citizens of this country, and Boston in particular, welcomed the news of the capture of 19 year-old Dzhokar Tsamaev with applause and immense pride. Clearly, there was a sigh of relief that could be heard as far away as California as the young man was found, almost by mistake, and the terrible events surrounding the Boston bombing seemed to be at a close. The relief is warranted as the thing this young man and his brother did defy description and raise more questions than we have answers for. But the chest thumping, obscenities from David Ortiz, and shouts of U.S.A! U.S.A! that could be heard around the country must give us pause. Our extravagant patriotism frequently spills over into ugly, chip-on-the-shoulder jingoism. And often it is not the least bit deserved.

From all reports, the young man was badly wounded and in pain when he was discovered hiding in a boat in a wealthy suburb of Boston beyond the net that had been spread to catch him and just before the search for the man was about to be called off. The capture of the young man, barely alive, was touted as an act of heroism on the part of the police and National Guard, when, in fact, the heroic act was that of the man who owned the boat who had the courage to look under the tarp to see if there was someone hiding inside. (Courage is sometimes difficult to distinguish from stupidity. Tsamaev was known to be “armed and dangerous” and peeking under the tarp was not the smartest thing the man ever did: he is lucky to be alive.)  Those involved in the capture showed courage, since they didn’t know what to expect. Yet the rest of us who had nothing to do with the capture acted as though we were the ones who caught the young man and brought him to the hospital. Americans are not short on pride and even arrogance, taking credit for the things that they have had nothing to do with, such as landing a man on the moon, placing a chimpanzee in orbit, or inventing sliced bread. We are not known as a people who hide our candle under a bushel, sad to say.

But the thing that keeps being ignored as this story unfolds is the question why two young men, seemingly perfectly “normal” and even bright and able — the young one even looking somewhat angelic in the photos that have been made public — would resort to this sort of suicidal act. And we hear little, if anything, about the possibility that this act of terrorism may well be a “pay-back” for the acts of terrorism this country is committing even as I write this blog. I speak, of course, of our drone strikes that are taking hundreds of innocent lives while we thump our chests in pride because a 19 year-old boy has been taken alive by an army of law-enforcers after an admittedly horrendous act of cruelty. The only mention of the possible quid-pro-quo is a cartoon I saw in USA Today that showed two monsters holding time bombs, identical in appearance except for the fact that one was wearing a tee-shirt labelled “Made In USA.” The cartoon directed our attention to the fact that the act of terrorism our law-enforcers brought to a close is merely one side of a two-sided coin. When we pause for breath after shouting out how proud we are of this nation and its brave men and women (who do deserve the praise they receive) we might want to ask again why these two very young men did this terrible thing and whether or not, perhaps, recent actions on the part of this country have bred hatred in other regions of the world, actions that are very likely to come back to haunt us repeatedly as a result of our swagger and presumption of moral superiority that leads us to ignore our acts of terrorism against others while we condemn similar acts when they are directed toward ourselves.

Tarnished Reputation

 15 Year-Old Audrie Potts

15 Year-Old Audrie Potts

You have doubtless heard about the 15 year-old high school student who was at a party where she drank heavily and went upstairs with three boys where she was allegedly assaulted. She was then apparently photographed and the photos shared with the three boys’ friends at school.  Eight days after the incident, the young girl hanged herself. This was last Fall. In a recent story it became clear that while the girl’s parents are bringing homicide charges against the three 16 year-old boys, the school will have nothing to do with the incident and has refused to expel the boys whose names are known. The young woman’s name is Audrie Pott and her family lawyer, Robert Allard, had this to say about the school’s refusal to act:

 Allard described the school district as “more interested in protecting its image than in taking responsibility for its lack of actions in Audrie’s case.”

It would appear that the lawyer is correct in his assessment, which raises questions once again about the role of an academic institution in the face of possible scandal. We usually see this sort of thing happening in our college athletics programs where the institution refuses to acknowledge an incident until it has been made public. This happened most recently with the basketball coach at Rutgers whose behavior was well known by the administration for months before anything was done. As Allard suggests, in this cover-up culture that is academia the institutions are “more interested in protecting [their] image than in taking responsibility.” This is doubly disturbing because these are academic institutions that are charged with educating the young. One must wonder what sort of message they are sending to their students.

The Superintendent of Audrie’s school insists that the school need not take any action because the party did not happen on school property. The Pott’s lawyer insists that it was the showing of the photographs on school property after the party that drove Audrie to suicide. Be that as it may, it is a senseless quibble in the face of the girl’s death. The school should have stepped forward immediately after the incident, expelled the three boys, and made a public statement regarding the incident and its moral implications. Again, it is a question of basic common sense and common decency — if not a question of taking the moral high ground (which seems to be getting flatter as the days and weeks go by). The school was remiss and especially so since there were important lessons to be learned from the terrible incident that have been swept aside in the interest of saving face.

It is ironic that the urge to preserve the reputation of an educational institution turns into a black eye when it becomes known that a deplorable incident has been brushed under the rug. It would seem to make sense for the institution to acknowledge the incident as soon as it is known “in-house” and make clear that they will not stand for that sort of thing.  Being pro-active in the face of possible scandal would, it seems to me, enhance the reputation of the institution rather than tarnish it — as occurs when the cover-up is disclosed.

A Swift Cure For Inept Politicians

There is nearly universal agreement that our Congress is currently unable to function as the founders had intended — witness the recent Senate vote on background checks for gun purchases, which flies in the face of 91% of the people in this country those officials supposedly represent. Given that there is no clause in the constitution that allows for the disbanding of the group, sad to say, I sought a solution elsewhere. I found it in Jonathan Swift’s remarkable book Gulliver’s Travels. In the third of Lemuel Gulliver’s trips, he visits the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. While there he visits an academy, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. During that visit he encounters an “ingenious doctor who seemed to be perfectly versed in the whole nature and system of government.” That eminent doctor cured incompetent legislators in the following manner, which we would do well to imitate:

It is allowed that senates and great councils are often troubled with redundant, ebullient, and other peccant humors, and with many diseases of the head, and more of the heart; with strong convulsions, with grievous contractions of the nerves and sinews in both hands, but especially the right; with spleen, flatus, vertigos, and deliriums; with scrofulous tumors full of fetid purulent matter; with sour frothy eructations, with canine appetites and crudeness of digestion, and besides many others too numerous to mention. This doctor therefore proposed that upon the meeting of a senate, certain physicians should attend at the three first days of their sitting, and at the close of each day’s deliberations feel the pulses of every senator; after which, having maturely considered and consulted upon the nature of the several maladies, and the methods of cure, they should on the fourth day return to the senate house, attended by their apothecaries stored with the proper medicines; and before the members sit, administer to each of them lenitives, aperitives, abstersives, corrosives, restringents, palliatives, laxatives, cephalagics, icterics, apophlegmatics, acoustics, as their several cases required; and according as these medicines should operate, repeat, alter, or omit them at the end of the meeting.

This project could not be of any great expense to the public and would in my poor opinion, be of much use in the dispatch of business in those countries where senates have any share in the legislative power; beget unanimity, shorten debates, open a few mouths which are now closed, and close many more which are now open; curb the petulancy of the young, and correct the positiveness of the old; rouse the stupid, and damp the excitable. . . . .

He likewise directed that every senator in the great council of a nation, after he had delivered his opinion and argued in the defense of it, should be obliged to give his vote directly contrary; because if that were done the result would infallibly terminate in the good of the public.

Given the immense popularity of Gulliver’s Travels, which had been in print for 50 years when the founders of this country declared independence from England, I suppose we can account for the fact that the above advice does not appear in the constitution or any supporting documents because it was supposed everyone had read the book.