Hate Breeds Hate

We have read often about the terrible conditions undergone by the American rag-tag army as it endured the freezing cold Winter at Valley Forge prior to the attack on the Hessians at Trenton during the Revolution. But we don’t read as often about the many other such Winters both at Valley Forge and elsewhere, that had to be endured as the war dragged on for eight long years and the underfed and ill-clothed condition of the army remained virtually the same. Washington Irving in his biography of George Washington described one such Winter at Morristown in some detail:

“The dreary encampment at Valley Forge has become proverbial for its hardships, yet they were scarcely more severe than those suffered by Washington’s army during the present winter [1780] while hutted among the heights of Morristown. The winter set in early and was uncommonly rigorous. The transportation of supplies was obstructed, the magazines were exhausted, and the commissaries had neither money nor credit to enable them to replenish them. For weeks at a time the army was on half allowance, sometimes without meat, sometimes without bread, sometimes without both. There was a scarcity too of clothing and blankets so that the poor soldiers were suffering from cold as well as hunger. .  .  .  The severest trails of the Revolution in fact were not in the field, where there were shouts to excite and laurels to be won, but in the squalid wretchedness of ill-provided camps, where there was nothing to cheer and everything to be endured. To suffer was the lot of the revolutionary soldier.”

The details of the picture sketched here are graphically completed in a letter written by General Anthony Wayne, who was in charge of six regiments hutted near Morristown:

“Poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid. . . . some of them not having received a paper dollar for near twelve months, exposed to winter’s piercing cold, to drifting snows and chilling blasts, with no protection but old worn-out coats, tattered linen overalls and but one blanket between three men.”

Needless to say, there was widespread sickness and desertions were common, even mutiny. The wonder is that any of the soldiers stayed it out and that Washington had enough men to continue the fight when the war resumed after the long, cold Winters. But he did.

Much if this remarkable fact is attributed by many historians to Washington’s undeniable charisma, his devotion to his troops, and his willingness to endure the same conditions as they. But there is another factor that needs to be mentioned and that is the fact that the British and their allies were intent to demoralize the colonists by burning whole villages  and pillaging everything in sight. This activity had precisely the opposite effect. One famous incident involving the wife of the Rev. James Caldwell is recounted by Irving:

“When sacking of the village took place she retired with her children into a back room of the house. Her infant of eight months was in the arms of an attendant. She herself was seated on the side of a bed holding a child of three years of age by the hand, and was engaged in prayer. All was terror and confusion in the village when suddenly a musket was discharged in at the window. Two balls struck her in the breast and she fell dead on the floor. The parsonage and church were set on fire and it was with difficulty her body was rescued from the flames.”

The terrible incident became a rallying cry for the angry colonists who grew to hate the invaders and more determined than ever to drive them from their homeland. Their hatred helped keep them warm during the harsh winters.

There were a great many loyal British subjects as the war began and the colonies had a difficult time raising militia enough to engage in a war against one of the most powerful armies on earth, especially since many of those “loyal” British subjects joined with the invaders to fight against their former countrymen. But as the war went on and the atrocities multiplied, despite the harsh conditions of the Winters and the lack of pay accompanied by the diminishing value of printed currency, the number of loyal British subjects diminished and the intensity of the colonists grew and became fierce. And they became better soldiers.

In any number of ways throughout history the same story, or stories very much like this one, has been repeated in the innumerable wars that humans have waged against one another. And yet the lesson is never learned. It is determined by one side or the other to “escalate” the war and demoralize the enemy by dropping bigger bombs or sending drones — which is the modern version of pillaging — only to discover that such actions merely enrage the enemy and make them more determined than ever to retaliate.

We find this today with the rapid growth of terrorist groups that has resulted from the “war on terror” this nation has declared as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers. The number of terrorists doesn’t diminish, it expands. Hatred breeds hatred. This is one of the lessons that history has held before us and it is one of the many lessons that we continue to ignore.

Chance And Greatness

One of the reasons I like reading literature from other cultures is because it demonstrates the universality of human experience. I am currently reading Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, the first of four books he wrote “in his masterful tetralogy The Sea of Fertility.” It is a marvelous book and a discussion between two of the major characters in the novel struck me as worthy of reflection. The young hero Shigekuni Honda is discussing “chance” with his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae. As the discussion draws to a close,  Honda tells his friend

For if chance ceases to exist, the Will becomes meaningless — no more significant than a speck of rust on a huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all — to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should have to look for any other meaning in human existence.

This, of course, is the doctrine of determinism which the West has struggled against in its defense of free will since the Middle Ages. After all, if the human will is not free than we cannot be regarded as responsible for our actions and morality goes out the window. Kant, for one, spent most of his intellectual life struggling with this conundrum. What interests me in this context is the question of what we do with the notion of “greatness” if free will is a fiction. We assume that great men and women determine their own actions which then translate into extraordinary events in the world. But if, as Honda suggests in this passage, all actions are determined then no one can be regarded as truly great, since their accomplishments are not a function of their free will. In the end, however, I think a case can be made for chance and therefore for free will. But I’m not sure it helps us rescue the notion of greatness.

Let me take a famous historical example: the crossing of the Delaware River by the colonists in the American Revolution. It is an event that is supposed to have turned the war around and paved the way for eventual victory by the young colonists against the mighty British. And it made George Washington famous, surely one of the greatest generals ever to lead his troops into battle. A close reading of the circumstances surrounding that event demonstrates the significant role played by chance in the victory by the colonists, however. Indeed, the victory is in itself a demonstration of the role chance plays in the affairs of men.

To begin with, Washington broke his small contingent of troops into three groups. He took the first group across the river above Trenton; a second group was to have crossed at Trenton while a third group was to cross below Trenton and  attack from the South. Neither of the other two groups made it across because of ice jams! Furthermore, there were loyalists everywhere and yet no word of the crossing ever reached the ears of the Hessians who were, admittedly, a bit hung over after a night of celebrating Christmas. To make matters worse, Washington’s crossing with a few thousand men, horses, and cannons took several hours longer than anticipated and instead of a dawn attack, his out-manned and exhausted troops were faced with a late morning attack against seasoned troops who were sure to win. But fog moved in and covered the movement of troops until it was too late and the victory was assured.

Washington knew the Hessians would be celebrating Christmas and their guard would be down. That much he knew. But all of those other factors, the fog, the silence of the loyalists who might have shouted a warning, the inability of two of the three  contingents to cross the river — all of these factors were clearly a matter of chance — they were completely unpredictable — especially the sudden and unexpected appearance of  the fog which was the real life-saver. One might say the American victory was a fluke. It could have so easily gone the other way and it would have meant the end of the American Revolution and, probably, the end of this country as a nation. In a word, Washington’s greatness can perhaps be reduced to chance (luck?) as can the greatness of many of the men throughout history who have led troops into battle. And the consequences of those victories or losses can also be chalked up to chance in many cases. So if we can say that events are often the result of chance, then, contrary to what Honda suggests, our lives have meaning and  men and women are free and therefore responsible for their actions. Morality is saved — though the notion of “greatness” is somewhat questionable.

One Disturbed Texan

You really have to admire Steve Stockman’s enthusiasm even though you might want to question his knowledge of American history and the Constitution. Steve is a recently elected Republican member of the House of Representatives from the great state of Texas — you remember Texas? It wanted to secede from the Union after Barack Obama was reelected to the Presidency. The White House was required to respond to the petition and they said “No.” Pity! In any event now Steve wants to impeach the President because he has suggested that he might want to evoke executive privilege to curb violence in this country.

The story begins with Steve’s rant against the president’s outrageous suggestion:

“I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment,” Stockman pledged. “The president’s actions are an existential threat to this nation. The right of the people to keep and bear arms is what has kept this nation free and secure for over 200 years. The very purpose of the Second Amendment is to stop the government from disallowing people the means to defend themselves against tyranny. Any proposal to abuse executive power and infringe upon gun rights must be repelled with the stiffest legislative force possible.”

Let’s take this slowly, pausing for breath — which is a pause Mr. Stockman apparently forgot to take. The President’s actions are said to be an “existential threat to this nation.” What, precisely, does that mean? It sounds like it might have come from Sartre or one of the other beat thinkers in the 1950s, but I doubt that Steve ever read those folks. He apparently hasn’t read his history either. In any event, I gather Steve thinks the country is endangered by the President’s threat to evoke executive privilege. He must be unaware that whatever steps President Obama takes to curb the violence in this country will be very small indeed, since it will require legislation to take giant steps and the Congress is the legislative body in this country — and not likely to do much of anything about gun control.

It’s not at all clear from what history I have read that the Second Amendment — which was adopted in 1791, fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted and almost ten years after the end of the revolutionary war — has been instrumental in “keeping this nation free for nearly 200 years.” I would have thought it was the Army, Navy, and Marines that did that, fighting wars on foreign soil with the loss of thousands of American lives, and not the militia at home with their muskets as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

It is true that the Founders were concerned about tyranny, but they saw that danger coming from across the pond, not from the head of our government here on this continent. And it is not clear how this president, or any president for that matter, could become a tyrant given the checks and balances that have been written into the Constitution. In fact, if you look at the list of nineteen things the president might do to curb violence in this country after the massacre at Sandy Hook, they seem fairly innocuous — and largely ineffective I dare say. And the President hasn’t even said he would take any of those steps. Steve seems to be overreacting.

One of the few steps the NRA and its Republican supporters are in favor of in the way of reducing violence in this country is better mental health coverage. This is an excellent idea and it is certainly something that people like Representative Stockman will want to take advantage of at their earliest convenience.

How Dumb Is That?

When the thirteen colonies were writing their constitutions during the American Revolution, the assumption was that the states could rely on the “public virtue” of its citizens, and the primary concern of the framers of those constitutions was the abuse of power by the executive in each state. Some of the states even refused to give the top executive (who was variously named) any power at all — and all of the states wanted the person in charge either to limit his term in office or to be reelected annually to keep him in check.

By 1787 it was becoming clear to men like James Madison that self-interest was trumping public virtue and the sense of unity that had made a coherent whole out of thirteen disparate colonies during the Revolution was disappearing. The main problem was not abuse of power by the executive in the states, but the unwillingness of the states to take their commitment to the nation as a whole seriously. The states were starting to go their separate directions and it was becoming difficult for the make-shift Congress to regulate commerce and conduct business with foreign powers. As things stood, the Congress had to rely on the cooperation of thirteen states that wanted to focus almost exclusively on problems near at hand. Something had to be done. After several years and the remarkable effort of Madison working with the support of Thomas Jefferson across the pond and John Jay and James Monroe at home, the result was the Federal Constitution. How on earth they were able to get the separate states to agree to a Constitution that would create a federal power greater than the power the separate states would retain is truly extraordinary.

When the Southern states later started to break off from the Union, Abraham Lincoln drew on the ideas of Madison in his attempts to preserve the Union against the separatism that was growing in strength. The Civil War, as we know, was not fought over slavery but over the preservation of a union of states that would otherwise be powerless in a world where bellicose nations threatened on every side. The idea of a separate Confederation of Southern states was no more practical in the nineteenth century than it had been in the eighteenth. A nation divided could not stand, as Lincoln was fond of pointing out. And we now pledge allegiance regularly to “one nation indivisible.”

In this light the current move by at least 20 of these United States to secede from the Union following the reelection of Barack Obama is not only historically blind, it is positively stupid. We know the movement is an exercise in futility on its face and will go nowhere. The President shouldn’t even have to waste his time responding to these fools. But the fact that nearly all of the states that are currently circulating petitions to allow them to secede from the Union are conservative states — the ones in red on the political maps we have become so tired of seeing — is in itself something to note. These states are at the top of the list of those that actually receive more federal monies each year in aid and subsidies than they pay out in taxes. They complain that the Federal Government is a burden and yet they could not survive without it — or the citizens who are busily signing their names to these ridiculous petitions could not.

It is one of the strange phenomena that have bubbled to the surface in recent years that those who complain about the Federal Government’s interference with their “freedoms” are the ones who shout loudest to get the attention of that same government to bail them out or come to their aid in times of trouble. In this case the states that pay the most in Federal taxes and receive the least Federal assistance on a yearly basis are the ones that voted to reelect the current President and give him another four years to help get the country back on its feet. Now there’s irony for you!

Representation Revisited

I wrote a blog not long ago on the idea of representative government. It fascinates me, I must confess. Why people decided that it was OK for one person to “represent” dozens, hundreds, even thousands of others is so illogical it beggars belief. Rousseau said that we are free only at the moment we elect our representatives; after that we are enslaved to them. And that we continue to call this a “democracy” simply shows how loosely we use words.

After the English Civil Wars very near the end of the seventeenth century the Whigs struggled with the notion of representative government even before Rousseau. They knew the best possible form of government was a pure democracy in which each citizen participates in government and partakes in the making of the laws they are then called upon to obey. That’s as close to real civil liberty as we can get on this earth: obeying the laws we make ourselves.

But while this may work in a Greek City-State in 300 BC, perhaps, it will not work in the modern world where states tend to be large and unwieldy. So the English experimented with representative government and held brief Parliamentary sessions for their short-term representatives who were supposed to go back home and get directives from their neighbors as to how to vote next time they were called upon to do so. And, of course, the representatives were not paid so they were not eager to stay in office and grow fat while spiders wove webs in their beards.

But that didn’t work very well, either, since the sessions were too short and the constant change in personnel made it hard to get anything done (though I dare say the King thought it worked quite well!).  So the length of the Parliamentary sessions got longer and the representatives eventually had to be paid and soon we had the birth of the professional politician. The English Whigs were very nervous about this, of course, since they knew that in electing a representative they were in effect transferring their wills to another. And, as they feared, Parliament gradually became a separate body making independent decisions — another sort of despotism, if you will. In fact, members of Parliament could make laws that went counter to the wishes of the people they were supposed to represent: the very opposite of political liberty. As one of the Whigs at the time said, the idea that the representative could do what they liked was “almost too monstrous to conceive.” But that’s what developed. It wasn’t what was in the plan as originally conceived, but it was a plan the Americans adopted after their own struggles with the concept. But as we can see the phrase “Representative Government” is a misnomer.

If the idea of representation were to mean anything at all the governing body would have to be proportional: it would have to represent the political body as a whole. As John Adams said early in the discussion about representation in this country, “It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” One possible way of determining fair representation would be as follows:, if 30% of the population is Republican, 35% is Democratic, 30% are Independent, and the remaining 5% are “Other” a truly representative body would represent those groups in precisely those proportions. Or one might choose representation by income levels or property ownership, perhaps. But none of these options was adopted as we know. Most of our representatives on both sides of the political aisle are (as it happens) among the wealthy 1% of the people in this country and we can be relatively sure that they represent their own self-interest — certainly not the rest of us. (It might do to recall that the founders of this country chose the term “Republic” because the Latin root res publica meant “the public thing” where all private interest is sacrificed to what is best for all. Just a thought.)

In the end it would appear that we have arrived at the point the founders wanted above all else to avoid, to wit, the condition of the English House of Commons in the middle of the eighteenth century which had become, according to James Iredell writing in 1776  “so unequally, irregularly, and inadequately representative that it had left little to the real voice of the people and had become separated from, and converted into a different interest from the collective.”

Propaganda

As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods, as Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC tended to do. Usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!

Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.

The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!

To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution), “the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.” Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?

It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the British radicals were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.

We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!

Better Off?

The theme of this year’s Republican National Convention centered around the question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” While I did find Mark Cuban’s response to the question most interesting, I realize (as he must) that the question is rhetorical: the Republicans are convinced that we are not “better off” than we would have been if the Democrats hadn’t won the White House. This theme is built around the commonplace counter-factual “what if?” and involves us in endless speculation with no assured answer in the end. It may have opened a can of worms for the GOP as pundits (including Cuban) are jumping on the theme to remind us how bad things were four years ago and to note that Mitt Romney, for one, is much better off than he was in 2008! But it made me think about a much more interesting question: are we better off than Thomas Jefferson and the boys in Philadelphia expected us to be as a result of the revolutionary war?

I have referred a couple of times in my blogs to John C. Miller’s remarkable study of the Origins of the American Revolution and came across the following paragraph in his discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Miller says:

While demolishing the reputation of George III and the monarchy itself, Jefferson gave his countrymen a new goal toward which to strive: a republican system of government in which human rights would take precedence over property and privilege. No one who has read the Declaration could fail to see that an experiment in human relations was being made and that the new order which it established was to be chiefly for the benefit of the common man. Equality and liberty — government by the consent of the governed — were the ideals now held up to men.

Miller is right, of course, as a careful reading of the Declaration will bear out. But one must ask the pressing question: did it all pan out? Is the system we live in a “republican system of government in which human rights . . take precedence over property and privilege”? Does it, in fact, “benefit the common man”? The answer is a rather resounding “No!” Though they don’t wear crowns, property and privilege in the year 2012 are in the ascendency and the rights of humans, in particular ordinary American citizens, are largely ignored — certainly by those who would have us remember how things were four years ago. The Republicans are all about money and if they gain control of this country it would suggest that as a nation we are as well. Heaven forbid!

The wealthy in this country would deny that their wealth and position are a “privilege,” of course. They would insist it is a right — it is theirs by dint of such things as hard work, sweat of the brow, intelligence, and initiative. But this is a half-truth. None of us is where we are without luck and the help of a great many other people — right down to the woman who served us our meals in grammar school and the janitor who cleaned up our messes — not to mention the man who drives the successful business man to his important meetings. No man is an island, as they say.

But we are told in a most interesting blog that Americans don’t believe in luck: the majority of Americans tend to side with the wealthy in believing that the poor, for example, are poor because they are lazy. This is nonsense: few of us are poor simply because we lack effort any more than the wealthy have a “right” to money and prestige: it is in large part luck, good or bad. We may have worked hard to be where we are, but we have been lucky and have had a good deal of help from a great many other people — or failed to have it when we needed it most.

Much has been said about the infamous 1% who control nearly half of the wealth in this country and who are in the process of buying the government outright. And in this discussion it is also noted that the middle class is shrinking while the poor are becoming more numerous. The plan on the political right is to make it even more the case that “property and privilege” control the way things are done in this country and “human rights” are largely ignored — such basic things as food, shelter, and an education sufficient to allow ordinary citizens to gain a foothold in the political process and a job that pays more than minimum wage.

We may or may not be better off than we were four years ago. But we are decidedly further away from Jefferson’s ideal now than we were when he wrote that remarkable document. Surely we need to remind ourselves again and again why we fought for independence from Great Britain and restore the notion of “unalienable” human rights to the center of politics where they belong.

Representation

Our system of government is not a democracy. Don’t believe what they tell you. In its purest form Democracy involves a system in which everyone votes on every issue. But that is unworkable in any setting where there are large numbers of people involved, so the idea of representation was born wherein one person represents the wishes and desires of a great many more. This is what we have. When the founders discussed the concept as they were drawing up the Constitution they were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of representative government. One person cannot exactly represent any other person or two people or three. Even identical twins will disagree from time to time. By the time we have one person who is supposed to represent a thousand the absurdity will have become apparent to all but the most dim-witted.

But the large question the founders wrestled with was: given that we want representative government how should the representative vote on a particular question — as the majority of those he represents would have him vote (if he took a poll, for example), or as he thinks the majority should vote? The two cases might be quite dissimilar and this is because the concept of representation is absurd on its face. Clearly, there are problems with the concept of representation.

Above all else, the founders did not want what the British had. By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651 Great Britain had become a Commonwealth; Parliament came into power and the House of Commons was supposed to be a representative body — not pure representation (whatever that might be) but “virtual representation.” The English bought into the idea even though twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the privilege of voting. And representation was a bit of a joke: voting was restricted to men (!) of property. In some Burroughs there were no voters at all. Cornwall and Devon sent seventy representatives to Parliament; Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield had none. London, Westminster, and Southwark elected only six members.*

The founders of our nation knew they didn’t want what England had, so they settled on numerical representation, which makes a bit more sense. But it does not get around the absurdity of representation itself. Aware, perhaps, of this inherent absurdity, the founders decided to restrict the House of Representatives to two-year terms. With voting restricted to male property owners (though the notion of “property” was more generous than it was in England) there were relatively few voters and as we can see from the Federalist Papers the founders were certain that incompetent members would be voted out after a term. Term limits were not part of the deal: they seemed unnecessary. In addition, representatives didn’t stand to make much money while in Washington. On the contrary.

Much has changed, of course, as incompetent members of the House and Senate now serve for years (and years), make piles of money, and are seldom voted out of office. Further, they are elected in the first place because of special interests whose will has become the political will that drives the machine of government. The Representatives vote pretty much the way their wealthy supporters tell them to. So we have evolved from the absurd idea of representation to the even more absurd idea of  a government driven by special interest. The candidate goes to the highest bidder, and the sky is now the limit.

There are a couple of steps that could be taken to remedy the situation and make the notion of representation closer to the idea the founders had — despite its theoretical flaws. There could be term limits on members of the House and Senate, and there might be prohibitions against lobbyists and PACs in Washington. This would make it more likely that our representatives might actually represent the will of most of the people. But these steps will likely not be taken because those who would have to initiate such action are the ones who benefit from the status quo. So we seem to be stuck with a dysfunctional government separated into warring camps, unable to get along, in whom the people have little or no confidence. The founders must be wondering what on earth went wrong.

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[*The information about “virtual representation” in England was culled from John Miller’s excellent book “Origins of the American Revolution.]

Taxing Situation

I have been reading a history of early British America — America before the revolution. It is intriguing. The Americans were a recalcitrant people who really didn’t want to cooperate with the British in protecting their own frontier. Further, they were a bit of a burden to the British who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over seven years protecting that frontier against the French and Indians in the New World. It was costing the British about £350,000 a year to maintain their army in America even after the war.

Of course, the British had been fighting the French for centuries so that was nothing new. But the fact that they had to protect fiercely independent colonists across the pond against an ancient foe and their new allies was not something they welcomed. And the fact that it cost thousands of pounds and placed the Mother country in debt up to her ears created tensions between Britain and its New World colonies. The solution proposed by Lord of the Treasury George Grenville was to tax the colonists and recoup some of the losses.

The initial tax in 1733 (in the form of a “duty”) was on molasses that came from the West Indies and was used by New Englanders to make rum. The tax was generally ineffective and simply encouraged smuggling in the colonies. But when the sugar tax was levied in 1763, and actively enforced, it began to bring the disparate colonies together as one and to create strong resistance that eventually led to the Revolution. Until I read this book I was unaware of how independent each of the colonies was from the others and yet how the people in the distinct colonies all felt themselves to be British citizens — and therefore privileged above the rest of the world — but not the least bit beholden to the Mother Country for protecting them against enemies. But it was taxation that brought them together and actually helped to create some sense of unity out of the diverse — and very different — American colonies (think: Massachusetts and Virginia who were worlds apart in so many ways and never really got on the same page).

Taxation, especially the Stamp Act, got the colonists all riled up; it was something to be avoided like the plague. That has never changed. We still lump taxes together with death as the two things we fear most and neither of which can be avoided. And it is that attitude that has given birth to the Tea Party and its insistence that there be no more taxes — in the spirit of the early colonists about whom I dare say most Tea Partiers know very little, if anything at all.

The problem is that there is another side to the issue: taxes are essential for the running of the individual states and the country itself whether we like it or not. And as noted by one of my favorite blog-buddies, our country is taxed at a lower rate than almost every other developed country in the world yet we complain the loudest. Perhaps this is part of our inheritance (as noted above, we have a long tradition of complaining about taxes), but it is unseemly and also unworldly. Taxes are essential to the well-being of each and every one of us. As noted by another of my favorite bloggers, our tax money does immense good. Not only are taxes necessary to maintain a strong defense against terrorism (a point that is accepted by almost all) but they are also necessary to maintain social programs that benefit those who are most in need and ultimately make us a stronger nation (a point that is rejected by many).

To be sure there are abuses, as critics are quick to point out. They know — or have heard about — a fellow who takes his student loans and buys himself a new car, or, perhaps, $15,000 worth of weapons that are later used in a shooting in a movie theater. These things certainly happen. But this money also makes it possible for people in need to keep their collective heads above water, to buy food, clothing, and shelter for their struggling families. And we must never forget that. Instead of focusing on the abuses and the waste we can all attest to, let’s instead focus on the immense good that our taxes do to not only those in real need but all of us who benefit from health care and better schools for our children. After all, we are supposed to be a charitable people. We need to alter our mind-set and start to think of taxation not in conjunction with death, but with life itself.