Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

The Short Straw

Let’s say we’re at war and young LeRoy is part of a small group of soldiers who have been told to attack and destroy a machine gun 100 yards to our left. The lieutenant cuts a number of pieces of straw into different lengths and we all agree that whoever draws the short straw will have to take the greatest risk and led the group toward the machine gun. If LeRoy draws the short straw he is committed to taking that risk. He cannot say afterwards, “I really didn’t want to play: I had my fingers crossed.”

On the other hand if Fred, a part of our group, is a 43 year old man with terminal cancer and he did not draw the short straw but he decides after the fact that he, rather than the young man who did draw the short straw, should be the one to take the risk. He cannot do this. The “deal” was that the one who draws the short straw will take the risk. Those who participated in the event agreed ahead of time and they are all bound in conscience to live by the results, whether they like it or not. Fred should have spoken up at the outset.

Its appears as though a rather large number of Donald Trump’s followers — some 30% by a number of estimates — have said up front that they will not abide by the decision of the vote in this election if it goes against their man. Now, they can say this if they do not plan to vote, but if they vote they are bound by the results of that vote regardless of whether or not their man wins. That’s just the way the game is played.

Take the case of Bernie Sanders of recent memory. Surely he wanted the Democratic nomination so much he could taste it. And he worked hard to get the nomination bringing thousands of enthusiastic, idealistic young people into the fold only to have it taken away from him — apparently with foul play involved. The party Democrats did NOT want this man to win the nomination. Moreover, the corporations did NOT want the man to win the nomination and, as we know, they have the final say in this game we call “politics.” But despite the foul play and despite Sander’s undeniable desire to be the next president of the United States, he decided to throw himself into Hillary Clinton’s battle with Donald Trump — unreservedly (and despite the bitter taste that must have remained in his mouth).

Sanders was not a staunch Democrat. He was an independent, an outsider. That was part of the problem. But the main difficulty he had in attempting to win the nomination was his knowledge that the contest today is not between Democrats and Republicans; it is between the corporations who make the political decisions and the people who ought to make the political decisions. He took on the corporations and he lost and in doing so he must have been tempted to withdraw, but he did not.

Sanders drew the short straw and despite the fact that the game was rigged, he stood by the results. Despite the fact that he seems to be the one doing it, Clinton’s opponent has already declared the contest “rigged.” None the less  he apparently plans to go through with the contest and even, I gather, to cast his vote. Those thousands who follow him  blindly will doubtless also vote. But, many say they will not abide by the results of the vote if their man doesn’t win. This is an outrage! It’s not simply a question of playing the game, because politics isn’t really a game at all. It’s a matter of honor, a word that is in disuse these days, but one that helps to set humans apart from the animals. Agreeing to “play the game” and then preceding to play it while all the time intending to disavow the results if your man doesn’t win is dishonorable, if not simply dishonest. There ought to be a harsher word, but once upon a time, and still in certain cultures, honor was a prime virtue and bringing dishonor upon oneself or one’s family was a serious offense and one that often resulted in the risking of or even the talking of one’s life.

I doubt that there will be much of that, but I fear that those who refuse to play the game are making up their own rules as they go along and are likely to do whatever it takes to disrupt the election and guarantee that the next president stands alone in her attempt to govern this country. This could very well sound the death-knell of our democratic system. We have already lived through eight years of stalemate; the system cannot abide another eight years, or even four. In order for it to work, those who play the game must abide by the rules — whether they like it or not.

Revisiting Joseph Conrad

The following excerpt from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea was written in 1906. It deserves re-blogging since it is a powerful piece written by one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th century and is timeless in its import, especially since this country spends more on the military than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

“. . .it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would remain open, however. But it would hardly be worth discussing. It is very probable that, had the battle of Salamis never been fought the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now, fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the shortsighted labours of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering, injustice, disgrace, and aggression the nations of the earth are mostly swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence. Innocent, guileless fear has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the conception of its true nature has been lost.. . .We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back; and, as luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly expensive.

“The whole question of improved armament has been approached by the governments of the earth in the spirit of nervous and unreflecting haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them and had only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded with honorable liberality as justice demanded and the bodies of the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. . .For the lack of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the battle of Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra’s galley with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships, or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not likely that the Mediterranean will every behold a battle with a greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight its bottom will be enriched as never before by the quantity of jagged scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight in gold by the deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this planet.”

Amen!

Joseph Conrad On War

The following excerpt from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea was written in 1906. It is a powerful piece written by one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th century and seems to me to rather timeless in its import, especially since this country spends more on the military than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

“. . .it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would remain open, however. But it would hardly be worth discussing. It is very probable that, had the battle of Salamis never been fought the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now, fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the shortsighted labours of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering, injustice, disgrace, and aggression the nations of the earth are mostly swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence. Innocent, guileless fear has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the conception of its true nature has been lost.. . .We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back; and, as luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly expensive.

“The whole question of improved armament has been approached by the governments of the earth in the spirit of nervous and unreflecting haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them and had only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded with honorable liberality as justice demanded and the bodies of the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. . .For the lack of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the battle of Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra’s galley with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships, or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not likely that the Mediterranean will every behold a battle with a greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight its bottom will be enriched as never before by the quantity of jagged scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight in gold by the deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this planet.”

Amen!

Who Cares?

I have blogged about the drone kills before, though the posts have not been overly popular. I don’t think people like to think about these anti-terrorist tactics that may strike some as in themselves terroristic. This is especially so since mistakes have been made in the past and a number of innocent lives, estimated at the end of last year to be around 145, have been lost in those attacks. And it has been revealed recently that even the targeting of American citizens anywhere in the world (except the United States) has been approved — if they are suspected of terrorist tendencies. At what point do we balk?

A poll recently revealed that 77% of the Democrats polled approve of the drone kills. That number astounded me, and it makes me wonder if that many Democrats would approve of the flights if they were ordered by a Republican president. It doesn’t seem to me that any citizen should simply approve of what his or her President does simply because they happen to be of the same political party. If something is wrong, it is wrong no matter who orders it.

But, speaking of wrong, in a recent speech  in his home state of South Carolina covered by Yahoo News, Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be bragging as he had the following interesting remark to make about these drone attacks:

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

Graham’s dismissive aside about the innocent lives that have been taken is extremely offensive. And I hesitate to point out the fact that the same intelligence community that is providing information about who are and who are not “very senior members of Al-Qaeda” failed to provide adequate information to this government about the attacks on the Twin Towers or the more recent terrorist attacks on the American Embassy in Benghazi. So we don’t really know how many innocent lives have been lost in these strikes.

But what is especially disturbing about Graham’s remarks is his claim that we are at war. We are not at war, though we have coined the phrase “war on terror” to hide our shame. Indeed, we are the best protected nation in the world with 300,000 troops stationed overseas and oceans on either side of this continent. But even if we were in a war declared as such by this Congress, we should hesitate to approve of tactics that are known to have “residual effects,” as they say, in taking the lives of innocent people.

How would we feel about this if these drone attacks were ordered by, say, Iran, and they targeted the Secretary of Defense (or Senator Graham for that matter) and they happened to “take out” several dozen innocent American lives at the same time? I dare say there would be outrage and cries for retaliation — as well there should be. What we would not want done to ourselves we should not want done to others.There is simply no way these attacks can be defended on ethical grounds.

But if you are keeping score, “they” killed 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; we have now apparently killed 4,700 of them. We’re ahead. How sickening.

Obama’s Hustle?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I didn’t watch the presidential debates. But I have read that Mitt Romney “won” the initial debate and the Obama supporters are in a dither. The talking heads are having a field day though Ted Koppel seems to be having apoplexy wondering why Obama didn’t play all the cards in his hand — why didn’t he mention that he had bailed out two of America’s largest car companies thereby saving thousands of jobs? Why didn’t he allude to Mitt’s blunder in his presentation to the fat-cat Republicans who were giving him money by the boatloads by failing to reference the infamous 47%? And so it goes.

From what I read Barack Obama seemed somewhat disinterested after hugging his wife and mentioning to the world that they had been married for 20 years. What sort of game was he playing? Or didn’t he come to play at all? These are the types of questions that people are asking. I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that these debates are really entertainment staged for TV and presented to audiences with short attention spans. I still maintain that this is the case: all of the comments I have read focus on the impressions the two debaters made and none of this has anything whatever to do with which man would make the better president.

In any event, I take solace in the fact that Obama is a master politician and I suspect he knows what he is doing. His fundraisers have been filling cyberspace and the phone lines with appeals for more money to hold off the millions of dollars people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are spending in swing states to buy their man the election. I hesitate to suggest that Obama is involved in a clever ploy to raise more money to fuel his campaign in the final weeks. But I do think the man knows what he is doing and that he realizes that while he has lost this battle in the eyes of the voting public, he has not lost the war. The ploy may have begun when he downplayed his debating skills before the debates began, though we know better. This may well be Obama playing Minnesota Fats to Romney’s Fast Eddie: it may be a hustle designed to get the opponent to relax his guard until the final debates when he will come out fresh and primed for the contest and use the final moments on national TV to vault him back into the White House.

In any event, it has certainly made for interesting TV and will assuredly raise viewer interest in the final debates, which tends to fall off historically. One down and two to go! But whether or not this is the case, as I say, it has nothing whatever to do with the central question at issue: which of these two men will make the better president? Perhaps we should worry less about how these men performed on TV and worry more about which one would perform better on the world stage as this country enters an uncertain future.