New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.

 

 

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Pardon?

In light of the recent decision of The Trumpet to pardon this man, I thought an old post reflecting Joe Arpaio’s outstanding character might be timely, though this post deals with a related matter (and, no, this post will not appear in my forthcoming book):

Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf, and a great many people simply don’t care. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

Impulsive

Of all the qualities the president-elect has shown to us I think the most disturbing is his impulsiveness. I gather that this word means the tendency to act quickly without forethought — as we do in stores when we see something we don’t really need but it looks enticing. So we buy it.  This man shows every sign of being impulsive to a very high degree.

How does this fit in with the analysis I posted the other day, standing as I did on the shoulders of Arthur Schopenhauer? I have thought about this and it fits perfectly. The man of dominant will, the man who exhibits a diminished intellectual capacity, is likely to act on impulse. His intellect is completely at the service of his will: it simply shows him the way to achieve the ends he wants, it provides motivation. Period. His intellect lacks imagination and the ability to abstract from immediate experience; he has scattered ideas but lacks ideation. Impulse is the embodiment of this sort of behavior: immersed in the present, we simply grab what we want without giving it a thought.

Let us imagine that such a person is a TV personality who wants to improve his ratings and also to make sure he will get a great deal more money from the network bosses. Let us suppose further that this man decides that running for president will do the trick. He doesn’t think it through, indeed he CAN’T think it through. He doesn’t really know what the presidency involves and he has no idea what the Constitution of his country allows the president to do and what restraints it puts on that office. But he knows he wants to make the run. And in doing so he perceives around him an alarming degree of discontent and even anger and hatred on the part of a great many people toward those, like himself, who are wealthy and who have much bigger slices of the pie.

This man is clever and he realizes that his bid for success in the presidential race necessitates posing as one of those angry folks and encouraging their basest wishes — which are in many respects like his own. He is a super salesman: he has been selling himself for years and he knows how to play that game. (I never said this man was stupid. I simply said that his intelligence is totally in the service of his will). His will is very strong indeed, and has always shown him the way to achieve what he has gone after; and as his success increases his will becomes even stronger, much like a spoiled child.

Along with his impulsiveness, which leads him to say and do things he has not thought through, we discover in this man a tendency to react strongly to criticism and observations from others who oppose this will. Impulsively, he strikes out at those people, calling them names and threatening to sue, jail, and even to harm them. He is a bully and he sees those who oppose him as people to be eradicated, one way or the other.

This, as I understand it, is the sort of person Schopenhauer has described and the man we have selected for our next president. His will dominates his personality and he exhibits a mind that is enslaved to that will, a strong tendency to act impulsively. Recall how Schopenhauer describes such a person:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

There has been much talk lately about how this man is precisely the sort that Alexander Hamilton warned against in the Federalist Papers, the sort for man the electoral college is supposed to keep out of the highest office in the land. I would argue that he is the prototype of such a man, and his impulsiveness is the key to a personality that will act first and react later — showing a tendency to reduce what little thought he is capable of to finding fault with others and blaming them for his own shortcomings — and if impeded he will plot other avenues to the shallow goals he has set for himself. This is a personality that is lost within itself and acts only in those ways that will advance his own agenda and seeks blindly to find ways to eliminate those who oppose his will.

It is my sincere hope, and my expectation, that if the electoral college does not perform its proper function this man will enrage those he must please in order to realize his goals (to wit, the Congress) to the point that soon after his swearing-in he will be impeached by that Congress — a Congress made up of a majority of men and women from his own political party who will find this man impossible to deal with. They cannot understand him and he refuses to try to understand them — as though he even could.

The Militia

I have mentioned a number of times in earlier posts that the Second Amendment is all about the militia — not about our right to carry guns. It’s clear from the way the amendment is stated that maintaining a militia is of central importance. It’s because the Founders insisted that each state have a militia and that there never be a standing army that they saw fit to mention the “right” to bear arms. Consider, for example, the following Article in the Constitution itself.

In the very first Article (Section 8) we are told that the Congress shall have the power, among other things, to

“. . .provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for the organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The concern here, clearly is to guarantee that the states will severally maintain an armed Militia, that there might never be a standing army. When it came time to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania during George Washington’s first term as President, for example, he himself led a group of state militia Westwards. There was no standing army, though Alexander Hamilton worried that the new country might eventually need one. Moreover, the Second Article in the Constitution  that outlines the very limited powers of the President tells us that:

“The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States [which were non-existent!], and of the Militia of the several states when called into actual Service of the United States. . .”

Indeed, what is clear from reading the Constitution is that those who wrote and passed on it were primarily concerned that the states would retain power over their own affairs and the Union would intercede only when absolutely necessary. At the same time, given Washington’s difficulties maintaining his army during the Revolution, there is concern that the Militia when called upon  be trained “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress” — i.e., by someone who knew what he was doing. It was assumed that the Congress would appoint someone with experience to initiate the actual training. There is, throughout the document, a concern for what is referred to in the Preamble as “the general Welfare,” or what those men regard as the Common Good, balanced by the determination not to allow the Union to lord it over the several states.

The President, as mentioned above, was to be more or less a figurehead. He is not Dictator as some who are currently running for that office apparently believe: his hands are tied tightly. The Congress, for better or worse (and we are seeing examples of the latter every day) holds the ultimate power. The President, as chief executive officer, has the power to execute the laws, not to make them. But, more to the point, the “right” to carry weapons mentioned in the Second Amendment was predicated on the need for a Militia to protect both the individual states and, if necessary, the Union. And, as the very conservative President Reagan said years ago, it does not rule out hunting weapons, but it also most assuredly does not guarantee every citizen the right to carry “AK-47s,  machine guns.”

The Second Amendment

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution in close association with his friend Thomas Jefferson, did not think a Bill of Rights was necessary. Alexander Hamilton agreed and said in a lengthy discussion of a possible Bill of Rights in Federalist Papers #84,  “The Constitution is its own Bill of Rights.” These men worried that if a list of such rights was drawn up something would be left out or, worse yet, folks would think those were the only rights that citizens have. Indeed, Hamilton went on to note that a Bill of Rights is both “dangerous” and “unnecessary,” since he thought such rights are clearly implied in the Constitution itself and need not be specified or if specified could be circumvented by devious minds. Hamilton assures his readers that “Here in strictness people surrender nothing [by not having their rights specified]; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [the Constitution] contains all which in relation to their objects, is reasonably desired.” Further, the men thought that citizens’ rights were self-evident, a favorite concept of Enlightenment thinkers.

But since several states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without a specified Bill of Rights, Madison eventually drew up a list of twelve such rights that were soon pared down to ten. The one that is most talked about these days is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment. This right was specified because the Founders regarded militias, raised by the states and paid by the states as the need arose, as essential to the freedom of the American people. Their model, in all likelihood, was Cincinnatus, the citizen/farmer in the early days of Rome, who fought when the need arose and then went back to his farm when the danger had passed. The founders were known to have greatly admired the Roman Republic, using it as a model for their own government. And given their experience with the constant presence of the red-coated British, they were very concerned about the possibility of a standing army — even their own army — that would strengthen the government and weaken the people’s freedom.  Indeed, when they were considering ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton had to assure his New York readers, in Federalist #24, that they need not fear the presence during peace time of a standing army: it simply wouldn’t happen.  The states would retain the power to raise militias when necessary and disband them when the danger had passed: they would be “well regulated.” Thus, in order to avoid a standing army, state militias were essential. Not only had the conjoined militias won the Revolution after all, but, during Washington’s presidency, a collection of several state militias amounting to 17,000 men was quickly rounded up and, led by the President himself, headed West to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. The word got out that the militia was headed their way and the Rebellion broke up. At that time it was determined that the militias could safely protect the citizens of the new nation.

The point of this little history lesson is to show that the Second Amendment was less about the right to keep and bear arms than it was about the need for armed militia. Indeed, when, much later, in 1934, the Congress passed the National Firearms Act to keep such things as sawed-off shotguns out of the hands of gangsters, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court whose decision clearly centered around the Founders’ express need for a militia. In their decision, they reasoned that “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Might not the very same thing be said of today’s automatic weapons?

In fact, if you read the Second Amendment carefully, you will see that it presents us with a compound statement in which two clauses are interdependent. It reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In other words it states that since a militia is necessary to defend freedom, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The statement is quite precise: one thing necessitates the other. If there were no need for a militia — as, say, if there were a standing army, navy, marine corps, air force, and national guard — then there would be no grounds for the so-called “right” to keep and bear arms. And, conversely, the right to keep and bear arms need not be recognized when the need for a militia disappears — because of the presence of a standing army, for example.

The relentless attempts by the arms manufacturers — for the most part — to bully this Congress and the Supreme Court into allowing any and all weapons in the hands of any and all citizens, regardless of age, flies in the face of the Second Amendment as it was written and understood for many years. The arguments by groups such as the NRA tend to focus exclusively on the “right” itself, and ignore the explicit concern for militias. But, assuredly, the fact that state militias are a thing of that past implies that the right to keep and bear arms can no longer be said to be protected by this Amendment. Perhaps in the end Hamilton was right — certainly with respect to the Second Amendment: it has proven to be “dangerous.”

Defining Moments

In the truly remarkable seven-part HBO series on John Adams there is one of those defining moments that almost redeems the American movie-making industry, allowing us to forget for a moment that so many movies today are just technical display with no plot and maximum sex and violence. That moment occurs immediately after the representatives from the thirteen colonies meeting in Philadelphia have voted to become independent from England. After months of acrimonious debate and the delaying tactics of a number of cautious representatives who sensibly feared the might of British arms and pleaded patience, the vote was taken and the results read to the small contingent in the crowded room. At that moment, the camera backs off and slowly pans the faces in the room; there is no sound; there is little or no movement for nearly 10 seconds — it seems like hours — as the delegates realize what they have just done. One imagines them thinking: “My God! We have just declared war on one of the most powerful nations on earth — and we have no army and no navy! We are marked men with targets on our chests. If we are caught we will be hanged.” The moment is powerful and extremely effective.

At the time of America’s declaration of independence there were no political parties. There were, of course, grave differences among the various colonies, each of which prized its own uniqueness. There was a growing rift between North and South which would eventually erupt into the Civil War — a slave economy in the South violently opposed to the aggressive, commercial enterprise of the North. That tension soon gave birth to what eventually became political parties, the Federalists in the North and the Republicans in the South. The former, led by people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, tending toward a stronger national unity, the latter, led by folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, insisting on autonomy for the individual states and a minimum of national interference. As President, Adams signed into law the infamous “Alien and Sedition Act,” designed to protect the new nation from foreign spies. And one of the first things Jefferson did as President was to disband the navy — which was a bit of a joke to begin with. This difference of opinion about what the new nation was to become eventually broke up the close relationship between Jefferson and Adams, who had become very close in those formative years. Late in their lives they became friends again and died on the same day 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. Remarkable!

But those early differences among the various delegates were buried in a common concern: rid the colonies of the dreaded British and declare independence as a confederation of states free of English Parliamentary abuse. During the 200th birthday of this country Henry Steele Commager was asked what the major difference was between the America of 1776 and the America of 1976. He did not hesitate, but said the major difference was that 200 years before America was looking to the future; now we have become focused on the present and tend to ignore the future altogether. There is no question whether Commager was right. But there was another difference as well: in the eighteenth century the men who got together in Philadelphia to deal with the abuses of a common enemy were able to put aside their differences and act in common. Despite the acrimony, deep and genuine ideological differences, and the relentless heat of a Philadelphia Summer, they were able to decide on a common course of action and prepare to act together, whatever the costs. They were marked men, traitors to the Mother country. But they were determined and of one mind (for the most part). That doesn’t even seem possible any more.

We are at a time in our history when we need more than ever to act in accord. Our country is not under attack (seriously), but our planet is. We need to put aside our differences, like those delegates, and act with one common accord to attempt to reverse the terrible consequences of a damaged planet we are in the process of destroying. But the special interests, Big Oil and Gas and folks like the Koch brothers, have all the cards and seem determined to play out the hand they have dealt themselves — regardless of the consequences. Once again we have acrimony and tension between those who fear for the future of the planet and those who are blind to the problems that stare us all in the face out of a love of unlimited profits — or just plain ignorance. In Congress, loyalty to political party has completely erased loyalty to what the Founders referred to as the Common Good. It would appear that this time there will be no meeting of the minds, folks will not come together and put aside their differences to cooperate and reach agreement on what must be done. This is, assuredly, a defining moment, not in a film made for television, but in real life.

Whom To Trust?

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all.  The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I have called the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.  We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers (like the Koch brothers) to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

Military Intelligence

I was once told that the title phrase I have used here is an oxymoron. I am beginning to believe it is. The determination of those folks in uniform to use their deadly toys to “win” wars that no longer can have winners and simply breed new enemies is marginally stupid. It is not that surprising, however, when we consider the narrow minds that control a military organization that is focused entirely on one thing: fighting a war. No doubt, these people are sincere, not to say zealous. And that’s the problem, especially when the Commander In Chief they answer to seems to be intimidated by the uniform and willing to go along with pretty much any plan they come up with. History has taught us to be more circumspect.

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

During its infancy our nation was struggling to come to grips with the difficult problems of self-government. After the British were defeated and the states had ratified the Constitution, George Washington was the leader of a nation that was struggling to find its way in a confusing world without a road map. There were as yet no political parties, but there was a wide variety of groups who all thought they knew the best way to do things. The two major groups were led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. The former was concerned that the country maintain its republican principles and never again allow itself to be governed by a despot. The latter had aspirations to great power and a disarming fondness for things English. There was every reason to believe that Alexander Hamilton wanted to restore the monarchy, because he saw the republic as a nation of rabble who had no idea how to do the right thing. The battles in print between Jefferson (and his friend Madison) and Hamilton make interesting reading. But what is most interesting is the fact that on nearly every key decision that came up in Washington’s cabinet the president sided with Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was repeatedly left wondering what went wrong.

It’s not that Washington didn’t have confidence in Jefferson. On the contrary. But Hamilton was his aide-de-camp during the revolutionary war and as a close military friend he had Washington’s ear, and was clearly his fair-haired boy. When there was an uproar in Western Pennsylvania — later called the “Whiskey Rebellion” — Washington promoted Hamilton to the rank of General and put him in charge of a force of 15,000 men to quell the disturbance. This showed poor judgment on Washington’s part and led both Jefferson and Madison to worry that the appointment was a sign of senility on Washington’s part.  Both men were horrified: this was a nation founded on the principle of no standing army and here was one in their own back yard — lead by a man who had lofty aspirations and limitless ambition — and who regarded Julius Caesar as the greatest man who ever lived! Both Jefferson and Madison were convinced that this was the first step toward a counter-revolution, like the one they had recently witnessed in France. As it turned out, they were wrong — barely.

But the close association between the two military men, Washington and Hamilton, at a time when Washington stated publicly that he didn’t entirely trust the military mind, is worth noting. Clearly, Washington, who was one of the greatest presidents in our country’s history, allowed his judgment to be colored by his close association with the man he went to war with. One can understand it, but one can also worry that the military mind has its biases and does not always see things clearly.  Dwight Eisenhower knew this first-hand when, as President,  he presciently warned us about the military-industrial complex and famously said “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”