Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What I Love About America: 2018

Happy Independence Day, folks!

It is July 4. Two hundred and forty-two years ago today, a group of brave and determined men voted to approve a document, written by a young and brilliant Virginian, which declared the thirteen British colonies hugging the eastern coast of North America to be an independent nation. That day in Philadelphia is rightfully seen as our country's birthday.

Now, we spend a lot of time talking about what's wrong with our country and it is true that we have our fair share of problems. Yet on Independence Day, I think it's healthy to stop thinking about those things that trouble us about our country and consider instead what we love about it. So, here goes.

I love the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I love the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and the hundreds of beautiful letters that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote to one another in retirement. I love the journals of Lewis and Clark. I love Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. I love the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. I love FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech, MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, and the speech JFK gave at Rice University in which he declared that America chose to go to the Moon.

I love Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Allan Poe. I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love the poetry of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou. I love The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinA Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

I love the Statue of Liberty (thanks, France!), the Liberty Bell, and Mount Rushmore. I love bald eagles and American bison. I love Mount Vernon and Monticello. I love the monuments and memorials around the National Mall in Washington D.C. I love the USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides" - launched in 1797 and still officially a commissioned warship in the United States Navy. I love the Space Needle in Seattle, the Empire State Building in New York City, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I love the Art Deco architecture of Miami. I love the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the thousands of small bridges one passes over while driving the back roads of our vast nation.

I love the cultural institutions of New York City: the Met Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hayden Planetarium, and the musicals of Broadway. I love the museums of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.: the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. I love the Boston Aquarium, the San Diego Zoo, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. I love the Library of Congress and presidential libraries.

I love the National Parks: Yellowstone, the Everglades, Yosemite, Acadia, Bryce Canyon, and all the rest. I love the national battlefields: Saratoga, Yorktown, Antietam, Gettysburg, and all the rest. I love Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave. I love the carefully preserved homes of historical figures and sites of historical events. I love the haunting stillness one can feel amid the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Monument. I love the way the wind howls through "The Window" at Big Bend National Park.

I love NASA. I love the rovers that have wandered the surface of Mars, the Juno probe in orbit around Jupiter, and the plucky little New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto back in 2015. I love the two Voyager probes, still functioning decades after being launched and embarking on their lonely journey into the vastness of the Milky Way Galaxy. I love the beautiful photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the scientific information sent back by Galileo from Jupiter, Cassini from Saturn, and dozens of other amazing missions throughout the Solar System. I love the fact that the United States was the first nation to land human beings on the surface of another world (why aren't we sending anybody these days?).

I love Texas barbecue more than words can express. I love the breakfast tacos of Austin. I love locally brewed beer and locally distilled spirits. I love the overpriced hot dogs and pretzels at baseball stadiums. I love corny dogs at the Texas State Fair. I love the cabernet sauvignons of Napa and Sonoma County and the pinot noirs of Oregon and Washington. I love New York pizza and Massachusetts haddock. I love cheddar cheese from Vermont and colby cheese from Wisconsin. I love the Steak Dunigan made at the Pink Adobe restaurant in Sante Fe. I love Boston cream pie and I love s'mores around the campfire. I love those Cuban sandwiches you can order in Florida restaurants. I love Kentucky bourbon. I love the grits, catfish, fried okra, and pecan pie of the South. I love coffee, bacon, eggs, and hash browns served at dingy highway diners by sarcastic old waitresses who reek of cigarettes. I love making dinner from ingredients purchased at farmers' markets. I love the food you can buy in family-owned restaurants in cities and town all across this bountiful country.

I love New Orleans jazz, Memphis blues and the indie rock of the Pacific Northwest. I love the bluegrass of the Appalachian Mountains, the Creole music of southern Louisiana, and the amazing music that comes out of my own beloved Austin. I love country stars singing patriotic music. I love the singing of James Taylor and Bing Crosby, the guitars of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the trumpet of Miles Davis and the piano of Dave Brubeck. I love the beautiful voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday. I love the classical compositions of Aaron Copeland and John Philip Sousa. I love the haunting music that can be produced by the Native American flute.

I love silly American traditions. I love that the Le Pavillion Hotel in New Orleans serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with ice-cold milk in the lobby every evening at ten o'clock. I love the singing of Sweet Caroline by Red Sox fans at Fenway Park in the middle of the eighth inning every game. I love the daily duck parade between the elevator and the lobby fountain at the Peabody in Memphis. I love the different drinks and different theme songs for each of the Triple Crown horse races. I love the emergence of Punxsutawney Phil from Gobbler's Knob on Groundhog Day. I loved the Poe Toaster, wonder what happened to him, and still hope he comes back.

I love the mystique of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, John Wayne. I love old Frank Capra movies, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I love the movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together. I love Frank Sinatra. I love the script-writing of Aaron Sorkin, the documentaries of Ken Burns, the acting of Tom Hanks, and the films of Steven Spielberg. I love watching the Academy Awards. I love the Charlie Brown specials shown every Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

I love liberals, conservatives, and libertarians - all equally American. I love freedom of expression, and I don't much mind that it means that people can express opinions with which I disagree and which I might even find repugnant. I love that I can stand on any street corner and denounce the governor of my state or even the president of my country and not fear arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, or execution. I love freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, which allow me to worship God as I choose, and I don't much mind that it means people can practice religions different from my own or choose not to practice any religion at all. I love that even a person accused of the most heinous crime imaginable will still get a lawyer and appear before a judge in the same manner as anybody else. I love that the police cannot enter my home or search my car unless they have a warrant. I love that I can go into a voting booth and cast my ballot for whomever I wish.

I love the police, firefighters, and emergency medical workers who keep us safe every day and night. I love the teachers who work in an incredibly stressful job with little pay because they love children and care about the future of our republic. I love the volunteers who make possible the work of nonprofits like Meals on Wheels, Homes for our Troops, and Habitat for Humanity. I love the plumbers, electricians, highway construction workers, and mechanics without whom the country would fall apart overnight. I love that anyone in America can take a risk and start their own business.

I love the men and women who have served or are serving in the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and Marines. I love the grizzled old veterans of the Second World War, who fought a glorious crusade to destroy the sinister forces of fascism. I love the veterans of Korea and Vietnam, whose heroism and sacrifice has still never been fully appreciated. I love the Navajo Code Talkers. I love SEAL Team Six, who rid the world of the evil of Osama bin Laden on an epic night in the spring of 2011. I love the 1st Battalion, 5th United States Field Artillery, formed by Alexander Hamilton in 1776 and today the oldest continuously serving unit in the United States armed forces, with battle honors stretching from the Revolutionary War to the modern campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. I love the men and women of every battalion, every ship, and every squadron who put their lives on the line every day to protect everything else I've written about in this piece.

I could go on and on and on, but I think the point I'm trying to make is pretty clear.

I love America.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Toys 'R' Us and the Gracchi Brothers

As a child, I felt that Toys 'R' Us was only a few steps away from heaven. The massive toy store, with every conceivable kind of toy or game a kid could think of, was a delightful part of life. More than thirty years later, I can still remember the route the car would take on those happy occasions when I had been especially good and my mother would take me there to pick out a new toy. I would be giddy with anticipation, imaging what new Transformer or Lego set I would carry home in all its glory. Such memories are held by millions of Americans.

Last month, Toys 'R' Us announced that it was going out of business after more than six decades, closing down all of its seven hundred and thirty-five stores. This is sad news for sentimental people such as myself, with so many happy memories of Toys 'R' Us, but it is far worse news for the tens of thousands of people who will lose their jobs.

Economists will carefully be analyzing the causes of the demise of Toys 'R' Us. Many have been quick to blame competition from Amazon, Walmart and Target. Other, more esoteric factors, such as the declining birthrate in the United States and other countries were Toys 'R' Us operates, are also likely to be noted. None of the experts are likely going to bring much comfort to the former company workers who are now going to be trying to find other ways to make ends meet.

Toys 'R' Us might have been a national chain, but the reasons for its demise are similar to those afflicting independent, locally-owned businesses across the country, which I wrote about last fall. A small number of powerful corporations are consolidating greater and greater proportions of market share into their hands. Clearly, Toys 'R' Us is not the only major retail chain to go out of business in the last few years. Some, like Blockbuster Video, were victims of the failure to adapt to the challenges posed by new technologies. The national bookstore chain Borders is gone and Barnes and Noble (which recently had to lay off nearly 2,000 workers) may soon follow, simply unable to compete with online retailers. Once mighty department stores like Montgomery Ward have gone the way of the dodo, while others like Sears are on life-support. All over the country, once thriving shopping malls now are quiet and empty, like old ghost towns in the American West. Amazon and Walmart seem likely to be the only men left standing when the dust settles.

Thus far, the ongoing consolidation does not seem to be producing a drag on overall employment. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of the United States currently stands at 4.1%, nearly a twenty-year low. On the other hand, we have now had a steady decrease in the unemployment rate since October of 2009. If experience is any guide, the trend will soon reverse, because no one has yet devised a way to break out of the boom-and-bust cycle that has long characterized national economies across the world. And if such a massive percentage of our nations labor force is employed by such a small number of powerful mega-corporations, with no real loyalty to their employees, we might even see more ruthless job-cutting than normal when the time inevitably comes.

There is another factor at work, whose impact is only just beginning to be felt but will have repercussions so enormous that it is difficult to fully fathom them: the trio combination of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Of course, people have been crying foul over automation's impact on the work force for nearly two centuries. The Luddites were smashing textile machinery in England in a futile effort to protect their jobs as far back as 1811. Such people have long been dismissed as cranks and economists have pointed out, correctly, that the development of new technologies has always created more jobs than it has taken away. White collar service jobs have expanded in America even as blue collar manufacturing jobs have proportionally diminished, thanks to basic economic expansion and the creation of new types of professions, such as computer programmers.

However, the welding of automation to advanced artificial intelligence is going to be a game-changer. It is no longer a matter of using technology to make individual workers more productive, but using technology to replace human labor altogether. According to a widely circulated report last fall by the McKinsey Global Institute, between 40 million and 70 million jobs could be lost in the United States due to the automation/robotics/artificial intelligence combination. Some of the jobs to be lost are obvious and expected, such as fast food workers and cashiers, due simply to basic automation. The advent of artificial intelligence, however, means that many professions previously seen as immune from automation will be endangered, such as mortgage lenders, paralegals, and a whole multitude of other such jobs.

The authors of the report counsel us not to worry too much, however, for economic growth and the increase in the number of jobs involved in healthcare for the elderly will go a long way to make up for the jobs lost to the automation/robotics/artificial intelligence combination. Perhaps. But this certainly feels different.

As usual, there is a telling story from ancient history that might help shed some light on this strange and new development. It is the dramatic and ultimately tragic tale of two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchis, two of the most important figures in Roman history, whose actions helped spark the downward spiral that would eventually bring down the Republic and replace it with the autocratic Empire.

The Gracchi brothers lived during the 2nd Century BC and were members of the distinguished Sempronia family. After the early death of their father, they were raised by their mother Cornelia, who went down in history as one of the greatest examples of what a Roman mother should be. They received an outstanding education by Greek tutors. Tiberius, the older brother by about a decade, was a distinguished officer during the Third Punic War and was said to have been the first Roman over the walls of Carthage. As was customary for a respected member of an aristocratic family, he began moving up the cursus honorum and was elected quaestor. Sent out to help stabilize the rebellious provinces in Spain, Tiberius negotiated with an enemy that had defeated a hapless Roman governor so as to allow twenty thousand Roman soldiers to depart who would otherwise have been slaughtered.

As his star rose in the realm of Roman politics, Tiberius turned his attention to a longstanding problem that was reaching critical proportions, to which we can draw analogies to the developing employment crisis in our own time.

Rome had originated as a society of citizen farmers and small landholders. Members of older, noble families might control more land, but the strength of the Republic was personified in the simple, stoic Roman farmer who owned his own land. Only such men were allowed to serve in the legions, for they could provide their own weapons and equipment (nobles, for their part, provided the officer corps and the cavalry). The grain of the farms fed Roman mouths and modest land taxes financed the state. For centuries, the system worked remarkably well.

The Second Punic War proved a turning point. For one thing, Hannibal's depredations in Italy inflicted terrible damage on the Roman agricultural economy. For another, the manpower of Rome was almost fully mustered into the legions, where much of it was slaughtered. For decades, Roman farms were worked largely by the women and children who had remained behind on the fields. Even after the end of the long war in 202 BC, Roman legions campaigned for decades in regions remote from Italy, going as far as Spain, Greece, and into Asia.

As the wars finally wound down with the firm conquest of Greece and the destruction of Carthage, the long-suffering soldiers returned home to find their lands (or, conceivably, the lands that they thought they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers) were no longer theirs, but had been bought up by the wealthy citizens when the families occupying them become so desperate that they had no choice but to sell. The vast tracts of public land (ager publicus) that had been seized by Rome from its enemies had become, in effect, the private property of wealthy citizens, too. Making this bad situation even worse was the enormous influx of slave labor into Roman lands, men captured in war and prisoners from conquered cities. The common Roman citizen quickly discovered that his small farm could not hope to compete with vast agricultural estates worked by slaves.

Soon, a steady stream of impoverished people were moving from their failed farms into the city of Rome itself, looking for work or some other means of survival. The population expanded rapidly and stretched municipal resources to the breaking point. A large class of urban poor was created. Very soon, the mob that had come into being would be a decisive factor in Roman politics. Also alarming was the fact that only landowners were legally allowed to serve in the Roman legions; the growing proportion of landless citizens threatened Rome's source of military manpower.

Tiberius Gracchus recognized the dispossession of the poor from their land as a crisis which, if it were not dealt with, might bring down the Republic altogether. In 133 BC, he was elected a tribune of the plebs, an office created to protect the interest of the common people, and Tiberius took up the cause of the landless poor in general and homeless veterans in particular. He proposed a law that would redistribute land to these people, giving them the ability to support themselves and no longer be wards of the state. The Senate, whose members were universally of the wealthy, landowning class, refused to even consider these reforms. Rather than accept this, Tiberius went over the head of the Senate and proposed the laws directly to the Concilium Plebis (the "Plebian Council" or "Popular Assembly"), made up of the whole of the common people. This was technically within his rights as a tribune, and it was also technically within the rights of the Concilium Plebis to pass legislation, but these powers had not been exercised within living memory, so completely did the Senate dominate the political landscape of the Senate.

The aristocrats were determined to block Tiberius, for they had no intention of sacrificing the wealth that the newly acquired land represented. They persuaded one of Tiberius's colleagues in the tribunate, Marcus Octavius (incidentally an ancestor of the future emperor Augustus), to veto the proposals when they were passed by the Concilium Plebis. Most likely he had been bribed to do so, either with money or with promises of favors after his term as tribune ended. Tiberius saw the actions of Octavius as a serious violation of the man's pledge to protect the interests of the Roman people.

Tiberius then did something unthinkable. He instructed his supporters to physically remove Octavius from the Assembly's meeting, which they promptly did. This turned what had been a political controversy into a serious constitutional crisis, for tribunes were sacrosanct and it was strictly forbidden for any Roman citizen to lay a hand on them during their term in office. This was more than a mere rule, for it was essentially a religious and sacred obligation. In violating the sacrosanct status of Octavius, Tiberius was moving far beyond the traditional methods of Roman statesmen. Members of the Senate now suspected that Tiberius intended to overthrow the Republic altogether and make himself a king.

Tiberius now proceeded to use his tribunal powers to veto every single piece of legislation that came before the Concilium Plebis, shutting down government entirely, and asserted that he would continue doing so until his land reform proposals were made into law. He eventually was able to get the Assembly to both remove Octavius as a tribune and ram his proposals through so that they became law. A special committee was created to oversee the redistribution of land, which Tiberius promptly filled with members of his own family. The Senate refused to provide the committee with the necessary funds, but Tiberius simply allocated money to it that had come to Rome from the defunct Kingdom of Pergamum in what is today Turkey.

The Senate now believed that the survival of the Republic was at stake and that, since Tiberius had chosen to violate all constitutional norms and traditions, it was now necessary for them to do the same. After Tiberius was reelected to the tribunate (again, technically legal but a violation of tradition), he promised further sweeping populist reforms. A mob of senators and their supporters swarmed around Tiberius when he next appeared in the Forum, beating him to death and throwing his body unceremoniously into the Tiber River. For this, they earned the wrath of the common people, who had looked upon Tiberius as their hero and champion.

The younger Gracchi, Gaius, took up the cause after the assassination of Tiberius. His story was almost an identical repeat of what happened to his older brother. Taking office as a tribune of the plebs, he proposed an expansion of the land reform law, extension of Roman citizenship to other Italian cities, and the provision of grain to the poor at state expense. For all this, he suffered his brother's fate, differing only in that he committed suicide when cornered by senatorial supporters rather than being killed outright by them. Either way, he was just as dead.

The violent deaths of the Gracchi marked a turning point in Roman history. Previously, while political debate in Rome had often been heated and acrimonious, it had not involved outright violence and bloodshed. The episode of the Gracchi brothers, however, shattered long-established traditions and constitutional norms, making violence an acceptable part of the political process in the Republic. The course was now set inexorably to the violent, unconstitutional usurpations of power by Marius, Sulla, Caesar, and the eventual collapse of the Republic altogether. What rose from the ashes was the autocratic Empire, which certainly reached great heights of power and culture, but was in no way at all a free society.

When I reflect on the steady consolidation of larger and larger shares of the economy into a few powerful corporations and the terrifying potential of the automation/robotic/artificial intelligence combination to entirely replace human workers rather than simply make individual workers more productive, I am filled with foreboding. To me, the consequences might well be similar to those that swept through the Roman Republic when the small landowners were dispossessed of their farms during the 2nd Century BC. Now, as happened then, the gates will be opened for charismatic populists, for either well-meaning or self-serving purposes, to shatter the foundations of the society and so wreck its governmental framework that the whole structure will eventually fall apart.

We are currently living through an age in which the dangers of populist demagoguery are all too clear. How much more dangerous will populism be if measures aren't taken to ensure an economy that has enough worthwhile jobs for its labor force? Decades from now, when tens of millions may have been thrown out of work by artificially intelligence robots, how much more easy will it be for unscrupulous demagogues to whip the people up into frenzies?

It is, at the very least, something to think about.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Warnings of Cyrus the Great and Cato the Elder

When Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and one of the great conquerors of world history, was at the height of his power, a group of nobles came to him with a question. The Persians had emerged out of a rough and resource-poor region where life was hard and uncomfortable. Now that they had conquered so many rich lands, the nobles thought it would be a good idea for them to relocate their royal court to somewhere more pleasant.

As the Greek historian Herodotus describes it:

“Seeing that Zeus grants lordship to the Persian people, and to you, Cyrus, among them, by bringing Astyages low," [said the nobles], "Let us now remove out of the little and rugged land that we possess and take to ourselves one that is better. There be many such on our borders, and many further distant; if we take one of these we shall have more reasons for renown. It is but reasonable that a ruling people should act thus; for when shall we have a fairer occasion than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?” Cyrus heard them, and found nought to marvel at in their design; “Do so,” said he; “but if you do, make ready to be no longer rulers, but subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.” Thereat the Persians saw that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed from before him, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than slaves dwelling in tilled valleys.

Cyrus was making an excellent point that his ancestors would have done well to remember. In his own time, the Persians overthrew the empire of the Medians, then conquered the powerful states of the Neo-Babylonians and the Lydians, creating an empire that stretched from the Indus River almost to the Aegean Sea. Even after his death, with his people retaining a feeling of their roots, the empire continued expanding, with his son Cambyses bringing Egypt under Persian sway. But as centuries passed, the Persians lost their respect for the values that had brought them success and began to fall into decadence, just as Cyrus had feared. The tough generation of Persians that Cyrus had led eventually gave way to the enfeebled courtiers of Darius and Xerxes. The once mighty Persian Empire was defeated by the Greeks and, a century-and-a-half later, easily swept aside by Alexander the Great.

It's a story repeated many times throughout history. Take a look at Rome. In the centuries following the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, the small city-state on the banks of the Tiber River maintained its independence in the face of attacks by more powerful peoples, then embarked on a campaign of conquest that brought the entire Mediterranean under its control. For centuries, law and order prevailed over a vast realm in a way never since equaled. As with the Persians, though, the notions of virtus and pietas that had once characterized the Roman mindset eventually gave way to wealth and debauchery. When this process was completed, the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of internal decay and the spears of barbarian warriors.

I was led to this line of thinking at a recent "professional development session" for history teachers (why we don't just call them "training sessions" is beyond me). To illustrate the problems faced by students for whom English is a second language, we were asked to read a passage in Italian describing simple facts about the solar system. Some words were obvious due to their close relation to English, others could be divined through context clues, while others remained mysterious. After we finished the activity, one of my colleagues pulled out her smart phone, took a picture of the paragraph, and held up the screen to reveal a perfect English version, done by a translation "app" in less than a second. Most people in the room were impressed, but I found it more than a little unsettling.

The English language happily provides me with sufficiently strong verbs - such as loathe, detest, despise, abhor, and execrate - with which to express my feelings about smart phones. I have many reasons for feeling so, not least because they are simply the most annoying invention ever created (their only possible rival being car alarms). But my fundamental problem with them is that smart phones are a manifestation of a seemingly unstoppable social trend: things are simply getting too easy and too convenient.

If our smart phones are capable of instantly and perfectly translating one language into another, what is the use of learning another language? Most people would simply consider it a waste of time, since it is far easier and cheaper to buy a smart phone than to endure the time and rigor involved in learning to speak and write in a language one did not grow up speaking. Many will applaud this, calling it progress. After all, it makes things easy and convenient, doesn't it?

It does, but therein lies the problem. Learning another language does far more for a person than giving them a practical skill. It also trains the mind, instilling a sense of cerebral discipline and preparing us for the rigor that comes with difficult mental efforts. This is why I encourage my middle school students to take Latin when they get to high school. In fact, if I had my way, no American student would be allowed to graduate high school without a firm grounding in Latin.

This problem is as real in our physical lives as in our mental ones. We used to worry about malnutrition, fearful that our children were not getting enough to eat and would go hungry. Now, our chief health concern is obesity, because we are simply eating too much. Worse, we are eating the wrong kinds of stuff, gorging ourselves on fast food and frozen pizza that consist more of chemicals than anything resembling food. Our forefathers grew or raised their own food, earning their calories with their own sweat and effort. It made their meals rather more meaningful, I expect.

Consider one of the most ridiculous inventions we have come up with: the "StairMaster". We invent elevators and escalators to free us from the burden of having to walk up stairs. We then realize that not walking up stairs has diminished the amount of physical exercise we get and is contributing to our increase in obesity. So we invent the StairMaster, put them into gyms all over the country, and now look ridiculous as we walk up an endlessly repeating flight of stairs that goes nowhere. If we simply got rid of elevators and escalators, we could toss all the StairMasters into the garbage. Indeed, we could toss all such exercise equipment into the garbage and simply take walks outside. If it's cold, hot, or raining, so much the better, as Americans need to toughen themselves up.

Everywhere we look, we see examples of the problem. I don't know if any academic study has been done about the prevalence of the words "easy", "hassle free" or "no need to worry" and other such things in our advertisements, but I think we can guess just how common they are. We see books titled "A Complete Idiot's Guide to [Insert Subject Here], suggesting that complicated and complex ideas can be easily packaged and understood without much trouble. TEDTalks, the popular online lecture series, tries to cram expert ideas on complicated questions into eighteen minute slots, which is frankly impossible and gives the false impression that mastering such things can be easy.

One of my heroes, whose picture adores the wall by my desk at work, is the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, sometimes known as Cato the Censor. He is most famous for coining the phrase Carthago delenda est ("Carthage must be destroyed"), with which he ended every one of his speeches in the Senate, no matter what the subject. Yet in his time, he was renowned for he adherence to the old Roman ways of virtus and pietas and his opposition to the steady encroachment of luxury and dissipation into Roman society. As wealth flooded into Rome after the conclusion of the Punic Wars, Cato strenuously opposed the repeal of wartime laws limiting the amount of jewelry and finery women could display, much to the anger of the city's females. He even prosecuted Scipio Africanus, Rome;s greatest general and the man who had defeated Hannibal, for corruption and what might be called conduct unbecoming a Roman general.

Cato was a wealthy man himself, being a successful farmer and businessman, but he always ate from the same bench as his slaves, consuming the same cheap bread and cheap wine as they did. He labored in his fields alongside them. He would never have considered wearing fine clothes, content to don the shabby tunics of the peasants. Yet he also could be generous, once dispensing the hard-won loot of a military campaign among his soldiers when he might have kept it for himself.

He was against the introduction of Greek philosophical ideas into Rome, worrying that they would contribute to the disintegration of the values that the Roman Republic had been built up. Rome had grown from a small city of the Tiber River to a powerful state dominating the Mediterranean because it had adhered to the values of civic virtue, agrarianism, and individual self-denial. Becoming fixated on Hellenistic culture, Cato believed, would bring no good and much ill into Roman society. Better, by far, to cling to the old ways.

Now, Cato the Elder is an extreme case. I highly doubt that reading Greek philosophy contributed to the fall of the Republic and its replacement with the autocratic Empire. But I believe Cato was correct when he worried about the decline of traditional Roman virtue and that this was the root cause of his society's eventual collapse. In America today, we face the same choice.

Does the convenience of using smart phones make up for the dependence and loss of self-sufficiency that inevitably goes along with it? Does the ease of consuming frozen food or drive-through meals compensate for the absence of meaningful connection between ourselves and our food? Do we really think we can read a single book or listen to a single brief lecture and obtain the knowledge of a topic that can only truly come from long and in-depth study?

We would be wise to heed the warnings of both Cyrus the Great and Cato the Elder. If we really want to build the kind of society in which we want to live, we are going to have to work for it. Nobody is going to do it for us. We have to abandon our obsession with ease and convenience and come to grips with the fact that we have a heavy responsibility before us. Unless we do this, the United States of America will eventually go the way of the Roman Republic.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pizza and the Fate of the Republic

I moved into the home I currently occupy in Manor, Texas, right after my wife and I returned from our honeymoon. It's in a small place, barely a dot on the map just a little east of Austin. Manor's main claim to fame is that a few scenes from the 1993 movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape, starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, were shot in the area grandly proclaiming itself "downtown" (it's about half the size of an ordinary city block). It's a quiet place, really.

When I arrived in town, there was a good diner, a good place serving old-fashioned Southern food, and two nice Tex-Mex places. A place that really stood out to me, though, was Papa Geno's Pizza. It was a locally owned business and one my wife and I frequented quite a bit in the first few months of our marriage. I am a man who appreciates good pizza and Papa Geno's made simply outstanding pizza. The pie crust was the perfect thickness, the toppings tasty, and the cheese melted in precisely the right way. Eating one of their pies was like taking a trip to pizza heaven. During our engagement and for a little while after we got married, my wife and I had many a lovely dinner sitting on the floor of our living room with a box of Papa Geno's pizza between us while watching episodes of The Office. Happy memories.

Not long after I arrived, however, Domino's Pizza showed up in town. Like all such national chains, of pizza or whatever else, the food was not bad but not especially good. However, it was cheaper than the pizza at Papa Geno's and had a drive-though window. Convenience won out over quality. Before too long, the locally owned pizzeria was out of business and gone forever, leaving the national chain as the king of the pizza hill in our town.

As with pizza, so with coffee. My wife and I had our first date at a wonderful Austin coffeehouse called Mozart's, on the shore of Lake Austin, and in my days as a political hack I had many a meeting over mocha lattes at tiny indie coffeehouses. The capital of Texas is full of such places, each with their own unique, funky character. Independent coffeehouses are things I like very much, so I was delighted when one opened in Manor about two years ago. It was called Zetroc Kaffee. Its coffee was good and it briefly served as a sort of meeting place for the local community, hosting karaoke nights, poetry nights, and a couple of meetings with local political candidates.

Like Papa Geno's Pizza, however, it also failed to last. Starbucks showed up. Zetroc Kaffee closed down.

A pretty good Chinese takeout place opened up in Manor a few years ago, with the rather unimaginative name of Beijing Bistro. I especially like its sesame chicken. A Panda Express has recently set up shop, though. We'll see what happens.

These little stories have been repeated again and again in towns and neighborhoods all across America over the past few decades. In many ways, harkening back to the "good old days" is imagining something that didn't ever really exist, but in this case there really were "good old days". Restaurants and businesses, whether we're talking about pizza shops, hardware stores, or anything else, used to be mostly locally owned. The guy who owned the place was usually to be found at the establishment itself, contributing his own labor to the success of the business, for it was his business.

This is about a lot more than just nostalgia. Consider the differences between a waiter at a locally owned restaurant and the one at a corporate establishment. The waiter at the locally owned establishment knows the owner of the place personally, having been hired by him rather than by some mid-level manager or supervisor. He goes to school with the owner's kids. The owner might even give him a bonus check when he graduates high school. In a very real sense, he is as deeply invested in the success of the restaurant as the owner. There is a genuine communal bond there.

Now consider a waiter at a Chili's or Olive Garden. He was not hired by the owners of the restaurants, who are faceless stockholders who likely aren't even aware their money is invested in the business. The waiter has never seen and will never see any members of the board of directors of whatever national company actually operates these restaurants, who wouldn't care about him anyway. The manager or supervisor or whatever wants the business to succeed because he wants to keep his job (though he might simply transfer to another store), but he has nowhere near the level of investment that an actual owner of a business has.

Near the church that my family attends is a sandwich shop called Hoody's. It's been there as long as my wife can remember. The sandwiches are delicious, but another thing I love about the place are the pictures of local high school sports teams along the walls, along with newspaper articles of their past victories. There's an actual connection to the local community at this place. You never see pictures of local high school kids on the wall of a Subway, do you?

A lot more is at stake here than I think people realize. Locally owned businesses enrich and enhance our communities in a way that corporate chains never could. They assert and maintain the unique character of each community, whereas chain establishments are identical no matter where they are found across the country. They have a solid link with the community, which corporate chains can never match. An independently owned bookstore might stock books by a local author, but Barnes and Noble won't do so unless it's approved by its national office. Moreover, economic studies have conclusively demonstrated that money spent in locally owned businesses tends to remain in the community, whereas money spent in corporate chains tends to flow out of it.

Strong local communities, with their own histories, traditions, and sense of self-respect, are the foundations of our republic. In our own day, they are slowly dying. If you get off the interstate highways onto the back roads, you often find yourself moving through a graveyard of once thriving towns that are now barren and empty, like the ghost towns of old Western movies. In innumerable neighborhoods of our larger urban areas, the story is much the same. Local communities with identities of their own are being replaced by a never-ending asphalt desert of the same chain stores and restaurants that you see everywhere else in America. We've turned into a plastic society. It's hard to find anything like civic virtue in such a place.

I am personally far from guiltless in all this, I should say. A Walmart, that energetic crusher of local communities, opened up one of their smaller stores in Manor a few years ago. I intensely dislike shopping there, but the nearest alternate means a round trip of about an hour. That's okay by me for a planned weekly grocery shopping trip, but if it's nine o'clock at night and we desperately need diapers or baby wipes, convenience will sadly win out over my principles. The obvious solution is to be more efficient in my weekly trips. I, like the rest of the country, need to get started.

We are right to worry about the fate of America. We look around a see all many of threats, from terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, to climate change, to fiscal collapse, to whatever else. We often fail to see equally serious threats standing right in our face. The decline and fall of local communities in the face of corporate chain homogeneity is precisely one of those threats. Thankfully, though, it is one we can do something about every day by supporting our local businesses.

So the next time you think of grabbing a coffee at Starbucks, picking up a pizza from Pizza Hut, getting your car tuned at Pep Boys, and so on and so forth, stop yourself and ask whether or not there is a local alternative. Chances are there is. Spend your money there and don't fill up the coffers of the enemies of the republic.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Presidency and the Nuclear Genies of Death

On July 27, according to this article in the Associated Press, Admiral Scott Swift, the current commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, was asked at a press conference in Australia whether or not he would obey an order from the President to launch a nuclear attack upon China the following week. Without any hesitation, Admiral Swift said yes.

There is one word for this: terrifying.

Nuclear weapons are in the news lately, given the tensions our nation presently has with the regime of North Korea (I see on the BBC as I wake up this morning that the rogue nation has tested another nuke, even more powerful than before). For the first time in a long while, they were an issue in last year's presidential election, mostly in regards to Donald Trump's temperament. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons do not seem to constitute a problem in the eyes of the American people along the lines of healthcare, climate change, the debt crisis, and other issues. They should, for the threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons remains the single greatest danger to the future of human civilization.

I've written on this blog in the past on the need for America to reduce its bloated nuclear arsenal. But the comments made by Admiral Swift lay bare another crucial problem with nuclear arms, that of control. Speaking bluntly, it is unacceptably dangerous for the President of the United States, a single individual, to have the authority to order an unprovoked nuclear strike.

It should be said right away that this problem is not specific to the current occupant of the White House. Yes, Donald Trump's personality is characterized by a lack of foresight, recklessness, and a fragile ego extremely sensitive to slights. He is probably the last person in the world whose finger I want on the nuclear trigger. But this issue is about far more than just Trump. Every single person is a flawed human being and the issue of presidential power when it comes to nuclear weapons has existed since Harry Truman. It will continue to exist until we do something to fix it. If we don't, the consequences will be catastrophic sooner or later. It's not a matter of if, but when.

I believe that Admiral Swift's position is, strictly speaking, unconstitutional. The Constitution clearly states that only Congress, and not the President, has the authority to decide whether or not the nation is to go to war. To say that launching a nuclear strike against a nation with which the United States is at peace is an act of war is to state to blindingly obvious. If Congress has not declared war on a country, the President has no constitutional authority to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike against that country. Any such order would be illegal on the face of it, and if presented with such an order, the duty of a military officer would be to refuse to follow it. After all, they take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and not to the President as an individual.

Keep in mind that we are talking about a nuclear first strike, not the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike against the United States. In such a case as that, when our early warning systems have detected incoming enemy missiles targeted on our cities, the time in which to determine a response can be measured in mere minutes. Our ability to deter a enemy nuclear attack depends on their knowledge that we would strike back instantly against any attack launched against us. Indeed, I would support extending this policy to cover a response to the use of chemical and biological weapons as well. Nor am I talking about a preemptive strike designed to take out an enemy's nuclear weapons if it became clear that they were about to be launched against us. What concerns me here is the current ability to the President of the United States to order a nuclear strike against another country for any reason whatsoever, simply because they feel like it.

The framers of the Constitution were brilliant men - more brilliant by far than any of our modern political actors - and they knew exactly what they were doing when they placed the power to declare war in the hands of Congress rather than the President. Men who were steeped in the classics of Greece and Rome, and with recent history in Britain and Europe to look to as an example, they understood clearly the ambitious and vain aspects of human nature and the tendency of leaders to get carried away with their emotions. Best to leave the ultimate decision of war to a deliberative body like Congress than place it in the hands of one flawed individual. In an age of nuclear weapons, when the power exists to quite literally obliterate human civilization from the face of the earth, the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution is all the more apparent.

If the president is empowered to launch a nuclear strike against anyone he or she wants, with no check whatsoever on this power, it opens up the biggest can of worms in world history. Setting aside all questions of constitutionality, what if the president is drunk? What if the president has had some sort of psychological breakdown? What if someone is holding a gun to the president's head, or the head of the president's spouse or child, and the general or admiral doesn't know it?

In 1973, a major in the United States Air Force named Harold Hering, a distinguished Vietnam veteran doing duty in Minuteman missile silos, raised a very obvious question during a training session. "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?" he asked. Simply for saying these forbidden words, Major Hering was kicked out of the Air Force. He later became a truck driver.

During the late days of Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was often drunk, utterly exhausted, or both. He was often heard trying to talk to paintings of past presidents on the White House walls. At the same time, a massive war broke out in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab enemies. The crisis quickly escalated as the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of the Arab states against Israel. With the world on the brink of a Third World War, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger had to advise the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any orders from Nixon regarding nuclear weapons, as the president was not in his right mind.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump casually suggested using nuclear weapons as if they were no more unusual than ordinary conventional weapons. He even suggested that more countries acquire nuclear weapons, displaying a frightening lack of understanding on this crucial issue. What very nearly happened to Nixon seems quite likely to happen with Trump as well. And even level-headed presidents aren't immune from these problems, because each president is a flawed, individual human being.

Note that Admiral Swift's response to the question was not qualified by anything. If the president ordered him to nuke somebody, he would do it. Simple as that. If we take this logic to its obvious conclusion, the implications are truly daunting. Is the president empowered to launch a nuclear strike against France if he didn't like the souffle he ate at a Parisian restaurant? If so, why? If not, why not?

Clearly, having the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the hands of a single person is a disaster waiting to happen. It is long past time that Congress reclaim its war-decision power from the executive branch. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one above all is the prevention of an unnecessary and unprovoked launch of American nuclear weapons.

House Resolution 669 has been introduced in the current session of Congress by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Congressman Ted Lieu of California. It would remove the president's ability to order a nuclear attack except in response to a nuclear attack on America or one of its allies by another nuclear state, or in the case in which Congress has issued a formal declaration of war. The bill has flaws, such as not specifying exact what "ally" means and perhaps not granting Congress the right to authorize nuclear weapons use with something short of a war declaration (something last issued in 1942). It should also be noted that its two sponsors are liberal Democrats pushing the legislation in the face of Donald Trump's assumption of the presidency. Nevertheless, it is a good start.

Unfortunately, the bill has next to no chance of becoming law in the present political climate. Since the issue is all but ignored by the media, the American people are largely unaware of the problem. And without the mobilization and organization of large numbers of voters, Congress will never lift a finger.

And in the meantime, we wait and worry.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Like most other Americans, the events of this last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, made a deep impression on me and left me feeling profoundly discouraged. The image of hundreds of Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other assorted racists marching through the streets of an American town felt like the return of dark and vile creatures we thought had been cast into the ash heap of history. Infinitely worse, a brave woman there to protest racism, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist who intentionally ran over her with his car, a clear act of domestic terrorism. Several other people were injured. Two law enforcement officers helping contain the situation, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, died when their helicopter crashed.

That the scene of this outrage was the town of Charlottesville pours salt into the wound, for it is no ordinary American town. It lies within sight of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is also the location of the University of Virginia, the creation of which was the project of Jefferson's final years and the last of his many gifts to the people of America. Both the remarkable house and the great university are manifestations of Jefferson's vision of what America is supposed to be: a calm and civilized society in which issues were openly and respectfully debated and the freedom of the human mind was restrained by nothing. What happened in the town is precisely the opposite of what Jefferson thought America should be about. And of course, Jefferson's own story, in which his glorious vision was not matched by his own actions, is a window onto America's complicated history on racial matters.

I was extremely moved by a photograph I saw on the first night of the unrest. A large crowd of torch-wielding racists had encircled a much smaller group of counter-protesters, who had linked arms to form a human chain around the base of a statue of Jefferson, as if protecting it. This was quite fitting, for the counter protesters represent the genuine ideals of America as expressed by Jefferson, while the bigots surrounding them represent a dark, mutated offshoot of America that Jefferson would have abhorred.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the so-called "Unite the Right" rally was to protest the recent decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. I myself have had mixed feelings about the removal of Confederate monuments. The monuments to individual army units that you see in courthouse squares all across the South, and on battlefields themselves, generally commemorate ordinary farmers who owned no slaves and had joined the army either out of a feeling of duty to protect their homes or because they had been conscripted (although some, such as the one in Denton, TX, are designed in such a way as to clearly express a racist message). Monuments to individuals need to be taken in the context of that particular individual. Confederate soldiers were not cartoon villains, but complicated individuals with complex motives, just like all of us.

Robert E. Lee is particularly problematic. Though his opposition to slavery and secession have been exaggerated by hagiographic biographers over the years, it is true that he was a man with many honorable qualities. Reading a young adult biography of him had a hugely positive impact on me when I was growing up, fixing in my mind the need to behave properly and conduct myself in a dignified manner. Lots of men could learn how to be better husbands, fathers, and sons by studying the life of Lee. At the end of the war, he ensured that the Confederate army would not attempt to carry on a guerrilla struggle that would have dragged the conflict out and cost thousands more lives. After the war, he urged reconciliation and refused to participate in any actions that might have stoked feelings of bitterness and resentment. There is much to admire about Robert E. Lee.

And yet, while we might admire certain Confederate individuals and respect the bravery of Confederate soldiers in battle, we cannot escape the fact that had the Confederate cause triumphed, the United States would have been shattered and the foul curse of slavery would have persisted. There is simply no getting around this, no matter how far you strain logic and how much you rewrite history. I may be the author of alternate history fiction set in a world where the South won the war, but the cause I believe in was born on Lexington Green in April of 1775, not at Fort Sumter in April of 1861. If you love America and despise slavery, as every decent American must, you cannot be on the side of the Confederacy. That has to be born in mind as we continue to debate how we should remember the sad chapter of our history that was the Civil War.

None of this, though, is really of any interest to the white supremacists who showed up in Charlottesville. Whatever they say, they couldn't care less what actually happens to the Lee statue. The issue was just a red herring to give them an excuse to spew forth their particular brand of hate. Indeed, their actions now virtually guarantee that the statue in question will be taken down in the near future and that there will be a renewed impetus to the movement to remove Confederate monuments nationwide. Even as I type this blog entry, the news is filled with stories of cities moving much more quickly to take them down. Who, after all, wants to be on the same side as Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

But the issue of Confederate monuments is, frankly, now a sideshow to the bigger problem exposed by what happened in Charlottesville. How can people still hold such sickening opinions in the America of 2017? It's usually a cliché to call something "un-American", but in this case it's entirely appropriate. The Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the villains who showed up in Charlottesville are deeply and profoundly un-American. They are traitors to the fundamental values upon which the American republic was founded.

Many of the racists marching in Charlottesville could be heard chanting "Blood and Soil!" This is a phrase stemming from European fascism and its intellectual antecedents in late 19th Century European thought. Its meaning is clear as day, defining nationhood entirely by race and territory. It was such thinking that led to nightmarish atrocities like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

America is not defined by blood and soil. Indeed, America is not a nation in the traditional sense at all. We are, instead, a country founded upon ideas and moral principles, the only such country in the history of the world. The Declaration of Independence says that we are all equal and possess natural rights. The Constitution gives us all a balanced government designed to ensure a stable society in which individual liberty is protected. The Bill of Rights spells out the rights we possess. Those three parchment documents are the foundation of the United States of America. As our nation has matured, we have expanded these rights and protections to previously excluded groups, which is why the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the "I Have a Dream" speech deserve equal places in our national lexicon.

America has no common ethnicity, language, or religion and our ancestors come from all over the world. To be an American is to pledge to uphold our moral and political principles. Nothing more and nothing less. If you do that, you're an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or if you're a newly naturalized citizen who just took the oath of allegiance ten minutes ago.

The story of America is the gradual expansion of individual liberty and the creation of a diverse society held together by shared political values and a common constitution. We've made mistakes along the way and coming to terms with our original sins as a people was a painful process. But the story is far from over and, indeed, may only be beginning. Needless to say, though, there is no place for "Blood and Soil" thinking in this country. Such a concept is the antithesis of everything that America is about.

A few other thoughts I'd like to share. As a horrified nation watched the disorder and violence unfold in Charlottesville, there was a lot of chatter on social media about why the white supremacists were allowed to hold a rally at all. Shouldn't such demonstrations be banned by law, free expression be damned? This line of thinking must be halted at once. Our Constitution is sacred and untouchable. Amidst our justifiable righteous indignation, we must not lose sight of our principles and forget the fact that we are a nation of laws. If the First Amendment is to mean anything, it has to protect the speech of even the worst and most despicable kind, even that chanted by the worthless wastes of oxygen who marched through Charlottesville. The moment the government starts determining what sort of speech is allowed and not allowed, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope towards the loss of the right of free expression for everyone. The cure for bad ideas is not suppression; it's better ideas.

Similarly, I heard it suggested that the attorney assigned to defend the man who killed Heather Heyer and injured the others should resign from his post rather than take the case. This would be a grave mistake. Like freedom of expression, a foundational principle of America is that everyone, even the worst people among us, are entitled to legal counsel when arraigned in court. It was this principle that prompted John Adams to defend the British soldiers that carried out the Boston Massacre. Had SEAL Team 6 captured Osama bin Laden and taken him to the United States in 2011, rather than kill him, even he would have been entitled to a lawyer to defend him during his trial. I hope and expect the terrorist who killed Ms. Heyer to be found guilty and receive the punishment he deserves, but he has the right to the assistance of a lawyer as much as any other citizen. As with free expression, if we establish a precedent that anyone can be denied legal counsel, we will eventually deny it to us all.

I apologize if this blog post has been a little more rambling than what I usually write. I have not taken the time I normally take to complete it, for I have felt the need to get it out as quickly as possible. I think the best thing to take away from what happened in Charlottesville, aside from the obvious need to swiftly condemn hatred and racism, is a renewed focus on our common American values. We are the most diverse nation in the world, and there's nothing at all wrong with that, but there is also an ironclad core of beliefs that we all must share if America is to really live up to its stated principles. A challenge is an opportunity for us to live up to those principles. It's a challenge that will repeat itself again and again and we have to meet it successfully every time.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Samuel Adams, Martha Washington, and the Philadelphia Ball

The American Revolution was an event that called forth great sacrifice from the American people. Thousands of men left their chosen professions to shoulder arms with the Continental Army, while many of those who remained behind to till their fields served stints in the militia. The womenfolk had to see their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons off to war, their safe return uncertain. Imports from Europe were cut off by the fighting and the British blockade, forcing the colonists to do without luxuries and to make many previously imported essentials themselves. Inflation ran riot during this period, inflicting terrible economic hardship. The worst smallpox epidemic in American history raged across the land late during the war, carrying off thousands of victims. It was, indeed, a time of trial the likes of which America has not seen since.

No one understood the suffering being endured by the people better than Samuel Adams, the man who probably did more than any other single individual to bring on the Revolution. He was a man for whom wealth or material possessions meant little or nothing. Believing in the cause of American liberty with a fervency unrivaled and virtually unequaled among the other Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams saw the pursuit of money as a base and ignoble distraction from what really mattered. To him, the Revolution was a fiery trial sent by God through which they had to pass if they were to prove worthy of independence.

In November of 1775, Adams was serving as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The war had begun at Lexington and Concord the previous April, with the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill having been fought in June. Adams's hometown of Boston remained under British occupation, loosely besieged by George Washington's disorganized and undisciplined army. The war was well and truly underway and the suffering had begun. Whether the American people would have the stomach to make the sacrifices necessary for victory was unclear. It was something that Samuel Adams worried about constantly.

That month, Martha Washington was going to pass through Philadelphia on her way to join her husband (she would spend every winter with the general over the course of the war, in fact). To the great concern of Adams, a fancy dress ball was scheduled to be held at City Tavern in her honor when she arrived. The big shin-dig was being organized by some of the wealthier members of the city's elite, as well as members of the Continental Congress. Many were upset when word of the scheduled ball leaked out, thinking that such elaborate and expensive celebrating highly inappropriate considering the ongoing war and the suffering being endured by the people. In particular, many objected that the party would violate the Eighth Resolution agreed upon by the First Continental Congress the previous year, which read as follows:

That we will, in our several stations, encourage Frugality, Economy, and Industry, and promote Agriculture, Arts, and the Manufactures of this Country, especially that of Wool, and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of plays, shews, and other expensive diversions and entertainments, and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning dress than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat for gentlemen, and a black ribbon or necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarfs at funerals.

This resolution had been adopted as part of the effort to discourage imports from Britain in the run-up to the outbreak of the war, when it was thought that economic pressure might be sufficient to force His Majesty's Government to agree to end the crisis on reasonable terms. But for Sam Adams, it was much more than a merely practical expedient. What is was really about, as far as he was concerned, was instilling a sense of civic virtue in the American people. For without that, as he and many others fully realized, they would lack the moral fiber to endure the conflict with the British Empire.

Worried about how news of the ball would be received by the people of Philadelphia, Adams and a few others went directly to Martha Washington and asked her not to appear at the event. After speaking with them, she immediately agreed not to go. A wise woman if ever there was one, she grasped the argument Adams was making quite easily. As she was to have been the guest of honor, the event was scrapped, much to the irritation of the wealthy Philadelphians who had organized the whole thing. Adams, however, was pleased at the small but symbolic victory in the fight for civic virtue in America.

What is civic virtue? The very fact that we have to ask ourselves this question illustrates how far America has fallen into decline in the early 21st Century. In essence, it is placing the interests of the community ahead of one's own interests, whether on the level of the neighborhood or the level of the entire nation. Adams understood that the American people were only going to become a free and independent people if they pushed aside thoughts of merriment and amusement and focused their energies on serving the cause. As he once said:

A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued. but when once they lose their virtue then they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

Nothing irritated Adams more than seeing his fellow Americans fall into dissipation and trivial entertainment when there was a war to be fought and won. When John Hancock (with whom Adams had a long and complicated relationship) was elected as the first Governor of Massachusetts in 1780, Adams was horrified by the great expense and celebratory pomp that went into the inauguration ceremony. What would have been wrong, Adams would have asked, with simply having a judge swear Hancock into office in a quiet, no nonsense affair?

One wonders what Samuel Adams would say to us today. Grave problems are bearing down us, with the inevitability of a train approaching a man tied to the railroad tracks. Among other things, our nation faces a mounting debt crisis, climate change, and an unstable world in which American military superiority can no longer be taken for granted. Compounding all these problems is the gridlocked political situation that blocks all efforts to deal with the multiple problems.

In spite of all this, we Americans continue to eat, drink, and be merry as though nothing was wrong. We devour our fast food and frozen pizzas, indulge in our clownish and inane popular culture, and breathlessly follow stories about the personal lives of entertainment celebrities. We we haven't left them plugged into brain-sucking smart phones and video games, we teach our kids strategies for taking standardized tests but not much in the way of useful or enlightening knowledge. Every year, our schools spend less time on civics and the history of our once great republic. Our elected officials, left and right, offer us endless enticements to get us to vote for them, but none have the courage to tell the American people the truth about the hard times that surely lie ahead.

It seems to me that our elected officials, our media, and our educational system are combining together to tell us, in effect, that Sam Adams was wrong, that it would be a good idea to put on the lavish ball in Philadelphia, that we should ignore the need for sacrifice and virtue, that the times are really not as bad as we think they are. The powers-that-be are sitting pretty these days and would rather keep dancing and enjoying themselves while they have the chance. One is reminded of the "soma" of Aldous Huxley.

In spite of everything, though, I still have faith in the wisdom and the virtue of the American people. It has been sorely tested at times, I admit, but it's still there. More and more, I think that my fellow Americans are seeing past the smoke and mirrors erected by the powers-that-be. In the coming years, I believe that they will brush aside the mirage that we should be defined by whether we are on the "left" and "right" of the political spectrum and remember the true wisdom of Sam Adams and the other Founding Fathers. The fate of our republic rests on our reacquiring of virtue and wisdom. That, and not the soma of mindless entertainment, is what will save America.

Sam Adams and Martha Washington were right in 1775 and they remain right in 2017. Let's cancel the Philadelphia Ball once again.