Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

I'm not going to post a full-length blog post today. It's Christmas Day, after all, and I am going to be spending it with my family. But I didn't like the idea of breaking my once-a-week rule for this blog, so let me just say that I hope you have a lovely holiday and take time to reflect on the deeper meanings of what Christmas is all about.

I'll simply leave you with a quote from Charles Dickens:

Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and everyone around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture in our bright young eyes, complete.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What I Want For Christmas

It being the holiday season, I thought I would share my Christmas wish list with anyone who happens to read my blog. If any of you feel inclined to actually give me any of these presents, I would be very happy, indeed.

First on my list is for Donald Trump to prove me wrong and govern this nation with restraint and good sense, serving the good of the American people rather than his own self-aggrandizement. I would like him to seek advice, work by consensus, pursue concrete solutions to real problems rather than make flashy pronouncements that make himself look good. For starters, I would like to see him put all his financial interests in a blind trust and delete his Twitter account. This is the present I put at the top of my list, underlined several times and with stars drawn on each end. Sadly, it is the present I expect least to actually get.

I would like the federal government to balance its budget. It sickens me that Congress borrows such an obscene amount of money every year, largely spent on unnecessary things, knowing full well that our children, grandchildren, and probably several successive generations are going to have to pay the money back on day. In the meantime, the ever increasing amount of interest which has to be paid on the already existing debt is eating away at the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, making it more and more difficult to allocate funds to deserving purposes.

I'd also like to see serious action, rather than simply grand pronouncements, on the issue of climate change. While I am not one of the extreme alarmists who asserts that climate change is going to wipe out human civilization, but there is no doubt that it is going to result in massive upheaval in many parts of the world, which will in turn affect the rest of it. The United States and Europe will not remain immune to it. My two daughters are going to grow up in a world transformed by climate change and it is far past time for our nation's leaders to start taking real steps to address the issue. As an added bonus, I would like more attention given to other critical problems that are too often ignored, like the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or the terrifying "die off" of the bees who pollinate plants on which we depend.

I would like to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved. Ditto the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. I would love to see North Korea's dictatorship overthrown and the entire Korean peninsula peacefully reunified under the auspices of the Republic of Korea. I would love to see the status of Taiwan settled according to the democratically expressed wishes of the people who live there. I would love to see all nondemocratic regimes in the world, from the Communist Party in China to the tin-pot dictators who rule much of Africa, step down and be replaced with governments that embrace true and genuine democracies. I would love to ISIS destroyed as thoroughly as Carthage was destroyed by Rome and the remnants of Al Qaeda finished off for good. I would love to see the scourge of puritanical Wahhabism cleansed from the Muslim world.

As readers of my blog know well, I consider ninety percent of elected officials in the United States to be either corrupt crooks or incompetent nonentities. If it's not too much trouble, a nice Christmas gift would be a comprehensive package of election reforms that would help level the playing field for good and decent citizens who want to run for office. I'd like to see gerrymandering abolished, term limits implemented for the House of Representatives and all state legislatures, genuine campaign finance reform, and ranked choice voting for elections on all levels.

What else? Oh, I'd like a much more active space program, with more robotic missions to the other worlds in the solar system, more space telescopes and observatories to study the deep cosmos, and a real plan to send a human expedition to Mars. And while you're at it, it would be nice to see sufficient funding being allocated to the National Park System, too. Since, assuming I get the gift mentioned in the paragraph just above, there won't be huge amounts of money flowing to the clients of special interest lobbyists, there should be more than enough dollars to take care of these two items. Reducing the American nuclear arsenal to a level similar to that of France or Britain would be nice, too, along with a legally mandated "no first use" policy by the United States.

I'm a teacher, so it won't surprise you that many of my gifts have to do with education. I think teachers should be paid decent salaries, for one thing. I think that the insane level of paperwork and micromanagement should be reduced, so that teachers might be allowed you actually teach stuff to kids. I would love it if you somehow arrange for Latin to be taught to all American students, for classical history to be a central part of the social studies curriculum, and for civics education to be revitalized as well.

I wish people would pay less attention to silly issues such as whether the President says "Islamic" or "Islamist" when describing certain terrorists, whether confectionery shops should be legally required to prepare cakes for gay weddings, or or whether people who burn the flag should be jailed and stripped of their citizenship (which would be clear violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, by the way). I wish college students would quit whining of about "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" and instead focus on things like economics, law, science, history, engineering, and so forth. We have very serious problems to address in the America of the early 21st Century and I wish people would use a little common sense in formulating their priorities.

Wait, my list isn't done. I would love to receive the gift of living in a society where politeness is valued. I would love for people to refrain from talking during the movie, to return their shopping carts to the cart return stall rather than leaving them in the parking space, to slow down when someone is trying to change lanes, and to tip waiters and waitresses a decent amount. I wish people would refrain from loudly talking on their cell phones in otherwise quiet coffee shops and, for that matter, in pretty much every other place as well. I'm sure there are a million other examples of rudeness I wish would could exterminate from society, but I only have so much time to type out this list.

Another item on my list is for people to try to live lives of deeper authenticity. I would like for everybody, but especially young people, to put their smart phones down and read a book instead. I would like for people to take food more seriously, cooking meals at home using local and organic ingredients rather than running through the drive-through at McDonald's or ordering the chicken fingers at Chili's. I wish people would spend more time going to see live music and take in plays put on by community theaters. I would like people to get there news from serious newspapers rather than partisan websites or cable news networks. I wish people spent more time with their friends and families and less time indulging in digital entertainment.

Finally, I'd like Chelsea Football Club win the Premier League and the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl. And I wouldn't mind a winning lotto ticket, either.

That will do for this year. Next year I may want more.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Declarations of War

Last Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, logically enough, was the 75th anniversary of the American declaration of war against Japan, which was approved unanimously in the Senate and with only a single dissenting vote in the House of Representatives (cast by Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, a strict pacifist). The vote came after one of the most recognizable moments in American history: the "day of infamy" speech of President Franklin Roosevelt. Within the space of twenty-four hours, a previously isolationist United States had been forced by history onto the global stage, from which it has never since withdrawn.

Roosevelt was faced with a problem, for he clearly saw that Nazi Germany, and not Imperial Japan, was the greater threat to the United States and to the world in general, yet Germany had not attacked the United States. Hitler solved this problem for Roosevelt in one of the more stupid moves made by a world leader in history when he declared war on the United States, despite not being required to do so by his treaty with Japan. The United States, logically enough, declared war on Germany (and Italy, which made the same mistake) on December 11. Just to make it all a nice packaged deal, the United States declared war on the smaller Axis nations of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania on June 5, 1942. We never bothered to declare war on Finland, which was sort of a special case.

The American declarations of war during 1941-42 were the most recent occasions that the United States formally declared war on any other nation. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that this took place only four other times in American history: against Britain in 1812, against Mexico in 1846, against Spain in 1898, and against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917 (we never bothered to declare war against the other members of the Central Powers, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War). During the American Civil War, the Confederate government formally declared war on the United States, but the reverse never happened as it would have required the Union to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government.

A very important point needs to be made about all of these declarations: they were issued by Congress and not by the President. Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution specifically states that the power to declare war is held by Congress and not the President. Since 1945, America has fought several major military conflicts, including Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1964-1973), the Persian Gulf War (1991), the Afghanistan War (2001-present) and the Iraq War (2003-2011). None of these involved a formal declaration of war, yet only a fool would describe them as anything other than a war. In all cases, Congress passed resolutions giving the President permission to engage in military action, although under dubious circumstances in the cases of both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. What I find troubling is that Congress essentially legislated so as to give to the President the power to decide whether or not to go to war, which certainly violates the spirit, and probably violates the letter, of the Constitution.

Then you have the countless smaller military actions, that might not reach the level of an out-and-out war but which cannot be described as insignificant. The first memory I have of a news event was the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, during Reagan's ill-fated intervention there. Since then, we have the invasion of Grenada in 1983, the invasion of Panama in 1989, the various interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Some of these actions were approved by Congress, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, while some were not.

The Founding Fathers lived in an age when kings and emperors still ruled most of the world. Such men were natural seekers of glory and generally cared little for whatever suffering might be inflicted on others as a result. Only a few decades before their time, Louis XIV of France had sought to immortalize his reign through martial achievements and during their lives Frederick the Great of Prussia had done the same. Moreover, being products of an education largely centered on classical history, the Founders could look to the past and see examples such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. It was a concession to common sense, therefore, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gave the power to declare war to Congress rather than the President. To place such a momentous decision in the hands of a single individual was simply too dangerous.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted to prevent a permanent standing army from ever being created. Article One, Section Eight, specifies that the Congress has the power to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy". Why this wording? Why didn't the delegates say "provide and maintain an army and navy"? It seems pretty clear to me that the Founders intended the navy to be a permanent force, but only expected armies to be raised in time of war. During peacetime, the state militias were expected to provide whatever military force would be necessary. After all, having a powerful standing army would not only be expensive, but might provide the President with an irresistible temptation to foreign military involvement either for the sake of personal glory or to distract the people from domestic political problems.

The question of whether Congress or the President should have the final say on questions of peace or war has been on my mind lately and not just because of the anniversary of our entry into the Second World War. President-Elect Donald Trump will take office next month and he is a man famous for shooting from the hip and making decisions based on gut instinct rather than long consideration. He has also expressed support for military actions that are clearly illegal, such as torturing prisoners and killing the innocent family members of terrorists. Some have suggested that the military would refuse to follow such orders if President Trump were to give them, which would make for quite the dilemma for a military officer. Frankly, the very fact that we have to ask the question at all is deeply troubling. Upon entering office, will President Trump respect the constitutional fact that Congress, and not the President, is the part of government which has the power to declare war? Based on his past statements, I would have to assume he won't.

This question is about far more than President Trump, however. It's about the presidency in general, no matter which individual happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. Since the Second World War, our country has quietly allowed the presidency to assert far greater authority in the sphere of war and peace than was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In 1973, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, Congress attempted to reassert its war declaration authority with the War Powers Resolution. Unfortunately, this simply made an already bad problem even worse. It specified that the President must obtain congressional authorization for any military action that lasts for more than sixty days. This implies, obviously, that the President does not need congressional authorization for a military operation of a shorter duration. An airstrike lasts a matter of minutes, so does the President have the constitutional right to order an airstrike against any country he wants, for whatever reason he wants? Can he order a Tomahawk missile strike against a restaurant in Paris if he didn't like their soup?

This becomes all the more frightening when we consider the possible use of nuclear weapons. If Congress has abdicated its war declaration responsibility to the President so completely, what constitutional barriers are in place to prevent the President from ordering a nuclear strike on his own volition? If the President has a gut feeling, absent any real evidence, that China is about to launch a nuclear attack on us, can he unilaterally order a preemptive nuclear strike? Under operational procedures, the Secretary of Defense must confirm any launch order from the President, but this is only to confirm the validity of the order and does not technically give the Secretary of Defense the power to block the order itself.

In 1973, an Air Force major named Harold Hering, who was attached to one of the units operating Minuteman ICBMs with nuclear warheads, asked his superiors whether he would have to follow orders to launch his missiles if he suspected that the President was "deranged, disordered or. . . damagingly intoxicated" or showed some other sign of not being in possession of his faculties. For the simple act of asking this question, Major Hering was discharged from the Air Force.

The Founding Fathers were quite right to invest Congress rather than the President with the power to declare war, for they well understood the danger of granting such authority to a single person. They would be both astonished and horrified to see how the executive branch has gradually accumulated that power to itself over the past few decades, under multiple presidents of both parties. To me, it is terrifying enough to have the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers potentially placed at risk due to the whims of a single person. In an age of nuclear weapons, it's not too much to say that the stakes are raised to the level of the survival of the human race.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The "What Ifs" of Pearl Harbor

Wednesday will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the seminal events in American history. It stands with the fighting at Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the 9/11 attacks as an event that marked a sharp dividing line in the course of our nation's story.

The event is so well-documented and so burned into the American psyche that it scarcely needs to be retold here. The Japanese government, dominated by its military, had decided to make a play for imperial domination of East Asia and the Pacific. They had been launched a war of conquest against China a decade earlier, had occupied French Indochina, and were flexing the muscles of their naval power over the American, British, and Dutch possessions to the south. The United States had imposed economic sanctions against Japan, cutting them off from vital imports of oil and various raw materials necessary to continue prosecuting their war in China. Deciding that the direct approach was the best, Japan elected to launch a wide-ranging offensive throughout the Western Pacific, starting with a preemptive strike against the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Across the distance of time, even a patriotic American like me can acknowledge that the attack was a masterful military operation. It was extremely well-planned and executed, with the two waves of attacking aircraft arriving over their designated targets almost exactly on time. The logistics involved with fueling and provisioning such a large fleet so far from Japanese bases was a considerable achievement. And the fact that the Japanese achieved complete tactical surprise testifies to their ability to maintain operational secrecy.

Flying from six aircraft carriers, roughly three hundred and fifty Japanese aircraft blew the Pacific Fleet to pieces in a matter of hours. Eight battleships were destroyed or rendered inoperable, along with a number of cruisers and destroyers. Nearly two hundred American aircraft were destroyed. More than 2,400 American personnel were killed. From a military standpoint, it was one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the United States of America.

President Franklin Roosevelt was correct when he called December 7 "a date which will live in infamy." After all, at the moment that the first Japanese bombs and torpedoes were dropped at Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at peace. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a cowardly, dishonorable act and it has rightly been remembered as such by history.

The United States, of course, took its revenge. Despite the success of its attack and several months of whirlwind victories across the western Pacific Ocean, Japan could never hope to prevail in a war with the United States, whose industrial power utterly outmatched that of the Japanese. Within six months, the Japanese advance had been halted and the Americans, aided by their allies, began to drive their enemies back. The ended with an unconditional Japanese surrender in the summer of 1945, with its cities reduced to smoking ruins by relentless Allied bombings, including the only two instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.

There has been much discussion of how the events surrounded the attack on Pearl Harbor might have gone differently. Let's a look at some of these scenarios.

1. What if the Pacific Fleet had not been caught by surprise?
As with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor generated intensive self-examination on the part of the Americans to comprehend how such a failure of intelligence had been possible. It was subsequently revealed that there had been many chances to have discovered the coming Japanese attack. American radar picked up in the incoming swarms of Japanese bombers, but it was dismissed by inexperienced and poorly trained operators as friendly aircraft. A Japanese midget submarine was sunk by an American destroyer near Pearl Harbor an hour before the attack, but the base was not put on alert.

These warning signs should have been quickly passed up the chain of command, so that fighters could have been scrambled to intercept the incoming attackers and anti-aircraft defenses of Pearl Harbor could have been manned and ready. Had this happened, the damage inflicted by the Japanese attack would have been considerably lessened and the number of Japanese aircraft shot down would have been substantially greater than was the case historically.

This would have been very good news for the United States, which spent the first few months of the Pacific War reeling from the loss of its battleships. If, say, the USS Arizona or the USS California had not been destroyed, they could have served as the main capital ships of a much more powerful Pacific Fleet, which could conceivably have sortied towards the Philippines to rescue their beleaguered comrades. In any case, considering the enormous time and cost required to drive the Japanese from the territory they gained in the opening months of the war, any improvement in the American situation vis-a-vis the historical reality would mean that Japan would be defeated earlier and at a lower cost in American lives.

On the other hand, if the Americans had obtained knowledge of the attack several days in advance, rather than a few hours, the situation oddly could have turned out worse for them then it historically did. For the Pacific Fleet would clearly have sortied to meet the Japanese on the open sea. The Japanese would have had a numerical advantage and events would prove that, in late 1941, they were simply more skilled and experienced in naval fighting than their American counterparts. It could therefore be expected that the Americans would have the worst of any such encounter.

What would make this situation more dire that the actual attack on Pearl Harbor is the fact that any ship sunk on the high seas would plunge to the bottom of the ocean, rather than the shallow waters of the naval base. Of the eight battleships put out of action in the attack on December 7, six were eventually raised and put back into service. Had the battle been fought on the high seas, any American battleship sunk would be gone for good.

2. What the American aircraft carriers had been present at Pearl Harbor on December 7?
While the death and destruction wrecked by the Japanese in their attack was terrible and costly, in truth it could have been much worse. The primary targets of the Japanese attack were the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet: the USS Enterprise, the USS Lexington, and the USS Saratoga. Had they been in port, they surely would have been blasted to pieces, as aircraft carriers made easier targets than battleships.

As chance would have it, however, none of three carriers were in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. The Enterprise and Lexington were ferrying aircraft to American bases farther west, while the Saratoga was near San Diego. All were so far away that they never were in any danger from the Japanese attack. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, these three carriers would be the only effective force contesting control of the Pacific with the Japanese. They played crucial roles in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May (in which the Lexington was severely damaged and had to be scuttled) and the epic Battle of Midway in June, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Had the carriers been in dock at Pearl Harbor, they would have been destroyed and the American war effort in the Pacific over the next few months would have been much less effective than it was historically. It would have allowed the Japanese to solidify their positions in the Pacific and perhaps extend their conquests (although suggestions that they might have invaded Australia seem too far-fetched to be taken seriously). Historically, the American counter-offensive began at Guadalcanal in August of 1942 with the landings on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Had the American carriers been lost at Pearl Harbor, any American attempt to drive back the Japanese probably would not have been able to begin until sometime in 1943 and would have much more ground the retake.

3. What if the Japanese third wave had been launched?
The attack on Pearl Harbor consisted of two waves of attacking aircraft, both of which had targeted the warships of the Pacific Fleet. It was proposed that a third wave be launched, focusing its attack on the facilities of the Pearl Harbor base itself. These vital machine shops, drydocks, and fuel storage sites later proved crucial not only to repairing the warships that had been damaged in the attack, but maintaining the Pacific Fleet when it fought the Battle of Midway and organized the great counter offensive against the Japanese.

Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, in overall command of the Japanese task force, elected not to launch a third wave. There were several logical reasons for this decision. He did not want to risk having his returning airmen land on the carriers during darkness, something in which the Japanese were not well-practiced. He did not know the location of the American carriers and was afraid that they might be nearby and able to launch a counter strike. Finally, his fuel situation was becoming critical. For all these reasons, Nagumo decided to play it safe and head home without launching a third wave.

Many people on both sides of the conflict, including Admiral Chester Nimitz, later stated that the failure of the Japanese to launch a third wave targeting the port facilities was a crucial mistake. Had the dock facilities been destroyed or several damaged, it might have been a more crushing blow to American operations in the Pacific even than the loss of the warships themselves. At the very least, the later counter offensives would have had to be launched much later, with similar historical results as the hypothetical loss of the carriers.

Conclusion
One thing has to be remembered above all. No matter what changes one could envision in the events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they would not have affected the ultimate outcome of the war. There was no conceivable way in which Japan would have emerged the victor over the United States in the Pacific War, for the industrial power of America  The oft-repeated statement (which is probably apocryphal) of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that all Japan had achieved at Pearl Harbor was to awaken a sleeping giant was all too true.

The United States had an economy seventeen times larger than that of Japan and its level of industrial production was perhaps seventy or eighty times as large. There was no conceivable way to defeat such odds in the age of industrial warfare. To give an idea of the disparity, consider this. Between 1941 and 1945, the United States produced ten battleships, forty-eight cruisers, and thirty hundred and forty-nine destroyers. Japan, by contrast, produced only two battleships, nine cruisers, and sixty-three destroyers. Counting small escort carriers as well as large fleet carriers, the United States put out one hundred and forty-one carriers of all types, while Japan built only seventeen. Between 1939 and 1945, the United States build more than 324,000 aircraft, while Japan built only 76,000. In the same time frame, the United States built nearly thirty-four million tons of merchant shipping, while Japan achieved a paltry four million.

How on Earth did Japan's war planners expect to have a chance against such long odds? Granted, a large proportion of America's war production was geared towards the defeat of Germany in Europe, but there was more than enough left over to crush Japan into rubble sooner or later.

If the Americans had been alerted to the incoming Japan attack a few hours ahead of time and taken immediate action, the damage to the Pacific Fleet would have been greatly reduced. We could then expect the defeat of Japan to occur considerably earlier than it did historically, perhaps in 1944 or even 1943. This raises a fascinating if troubling question, for the atomic bomb would not have been ready for use by that date. Would the end of the war have seen an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands themselves? If so, the war might have turned out to be both more successful for the Americans, yet also more costly and horrific.

Had the American carriers been in base and destroyed, or had the third wave destroyed the port facilities so vital to the war effort, the Japanese would have enjoyed a much more successful 1942 than they historically did. In such a case, we might expect them to conquer all of New Guinea and more of the islands west of it, and perhaps Midway Island as well. The defensive perimeter envisioned by the Japanese war planners would have been complete and made as strong as possible. The overall war plan of Japan was to create such a strong barrier to an American counter offensive that the United States would have sought some sort of peace agreement rather than endure the cost in lives and treasure required to break it.

By underestimating the political will of the United States and the social cohesion of the American people, the Japanese committed one of the great miscalculations in world history. Even had the attack on Pearl Harbor been more successful than it was historically, the United States still would have built an unstoppable navy and then they would have gone on to win the war. Even if Pearl Harbor had been utterly destroyed and the Americans had had to start from the coast of California, they would have done so and there was nothing Japan could have done about it. The war would have been far longer and far bloodier, but the end result would have been the same.

The moment that the first Japanese plane dropped the first bomb on Pearl Harbor, the fate of Japan was completely and utterly sealed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Remembering Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was one of the greatest heroes in the history of the world. I don't make this statement lightly. Aside from Themistocles, Fabius Maximus, and perhaps Charles Martel, no one else but Churchill can be truly said to have saved Western Civilization. As Wednesday will mark the 142nd anniversary of Churchill's birthday, I thought it would be worthwhile to write about Churchill in today's blog post.

He was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace. The magnificent home in which he was born had been a gift from the nation to his great ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his great victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim. It was entirely fitting that Churchill was born there, for he had some of the most aristocratic blood of the English nobility flowing through his veins, being descended from both the Churchill and the Spencer families. He himself held no noble title, for his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke and so did not inherit the dukedom. Still, Churchill was as pure a member of the aristocracy as could be, at least on his father's side. His mother's side was rather different, for she was as American as Churchill's father was English. Jennie Jerome, beautiful and vivacious in the extreme, came from a New York family that had made a fortune on Wall Street.

So, at the moment of his conception, Churchill was a fusion of Britain and America. He would come to be known as the great defender of the British Empire and a final embodiment of Victorian values. Yet he always valued his American heritage, relishing the fact that ancestors of his had served in George Washington's army and the rumors that his mother was partly of Iroquois descent. He saw the alliance and shared heritage of Britain and America, along with the Dominions of the British Empire, as the creator and guardian of liberty in the world. His epic multi-volume work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, is a testament to his belief.

Churchill always intended to follow his father's footsteps into politics, but in the last years of the 1890s, he was a British soldier in the service of Queen Victoria, fighting bravely on the Northwest Frontier of India, in the Sudan against the Dervishes, and in the Boer War, always in the thick of the fray but never suffering so much as a scratch. He became a war hero, especially famed for his daring escape from a Boer prison camp. Upon returning to England from South Africa, he made use of his celebrity to campaign for and win a seat in Parliament in 1900. He would remain in Parliament, with only a brief interruption in the 1920s, until 1964.

Churchill was a man of principle rather than party. He was first a Conservative, then went over to the Liberals over the issue of free trade, then went back to the Conservatives after concluding that it was the better bulwark against creeping socialism. His policies cannot be firmly labeled as either right-wing or left-wing in any real sense. He cherished tradition, was an avowed imperialist, favored free trade, was certainly an imperialist and a "law and order" man, and despised socialism. But he also pushed legislation to help the unemployed and was a key figure in the passage of the "People's Budget" in 1910, which sharply raised taxes on the wealthy to fund programs for the disadvantaged. Churchill was his own man and did not feel bound to obey the dictates of imagined political ideologies. I rather wish more of our modern politicians would follow his example.

For half a century, Churchill was one of the major figures in British politics, exerting enormous influence on both domestic and foreign policy and holding virtually every Cabinet position at one point or another. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he prepared the Royal Navy for the conflict with Germany that indeed broke out when the First World War erupted in 1914. In other offices, he oversaw the creation of the constitution of South Africa, negotiated the agreement that gave birth to the Republic of Ireland, and tried to organize stronger international opposition to the rise of communism in Russia. Of course, given his long presence in British politics, he made his share of mistakes, as when he oversaw a disastrous British return to the Gold Standard as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1920s.

Churchill went into the "political wilderness" in the 1930s due to his opposition to the independence of India and his frequently publicized concern over German rearmament. He rejected the idea of Indian independence not only out of a loyalty to the Victorian image of the British Empire, but also out of fear that the different religious communities within India would commence slaughtering one another the moment British power on the Subcontinent vanished. Sadly, events proved his fears all too real. His desire to maintain British control of India, however, was fundamentally rooted in his refusal to believe that Indian peoples could govern themselves and, in this case at least, placed him on the wrong side of history.

Very much the opposite was true when it came to Germany, however. During most of the 1930s, it seemed that only Churchill and a very few supporters in Parliament truly understood the deadly menace represented by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Men like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain refused to acknowledge the threat, their minds turned only towards their personal political advantages rather than the good of the nation. They operated under the false impression that if they simply pretended the threat didn't exist, then it would somehow go away. Churchill knew it wouldn't go away and bent his energies through the 1930s towards raising public awareness of the danger and discrediting those calling for appeasement.

When war finally did come in 1939, everyone saw that Churchill had been right all along and he was brought into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Seven months later, as the German onslaught against France and the Low Countries commenced, Churchill was made Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, achieving his lifelong dream.

I have always been mesmerized by the description he penned in his memoirs of how he felt at that moment:

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . I was sure I should not fail.

In the days following Churchill's assumption of leadership, the armies of the British and the French, along with their Belgian and Dutch allies, were catastrophically defeated by the German blitzkrieg. The British army only escaped total destruction by the miracle of Dunkirk. Churchill tried desperately to persuade the French to keep fighting, but though they still possessed considerable military power and might have continued the war from North Africa, the French political leaders were demoralized and beaten men. They elected to seek terms from Hitler rather than continuing their resistance. The nightmare of Vichy France was born.

Churchill wouldn't follow their example. Under his unswerving eye, the British went into battle. In the skies over Britain itself, the Royal Air Force fought fiercely against the vaunted Luftwaffe to maintain air superiority. At sea, the Royal Navy battled against U-boats in the Atlantic, the Italians in the Mediterranean, and the warships of the Kriegsmarine in many theaters, doing honor to the memory of men like Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson. And in the deserts of North Africa, the gallant British Eighth Army fought tooth-and-nail against the German and Italian army of Erwin Rommel.

For a year that seemed to last forever, from the French surrender in June of 1940 to the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Britain stood alone. When pressured by some of his Cabinet colleagues to consider a peace agreement with Hitler, Churchill angrily replied that "[i]f this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." He bore the British war effort on his shoulders almost through sheer force of will alone. The British people were given hope that, with Churchill at the helm rather than the spineless nonentities like Baldwin and Chamberlain, there might be a chance of victory, or at least survival.

And Britain did survive. Hitler's two terrible miscalculations - invading the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and declaring war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year - assured the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. It would take years and many millions of casualties, but the ultimate outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.  Once Russia and America were in the war, of course, Britain's decline into second-rate status was sadly assured. Churchill did what he could to prevent or at least delay it, but even he could not win an appeal against the judgement of history. This should not detract from his glory in the slightest, however. After all, had Churchill not come forth to lead the British in their finest honor in the summer of 1940, Hitler's triumph would have been assured. By saving Britain, Churchill also saved Western civilization.

How was it that Winston Churchill prevailed when almost every other imaginable person would clearly have failed? I think it's because he had certain strengths of character that made him unique in the world. Let me try to compile them here.

1. Churchill was a man with a deep historical perspective.
We think we live in a sort of post-historical world, in which the lessons and rules of history no longer apply, Nothing could be further from the truth, as Churchill well understood. He saw the present through the prism of the past. When he faced the threat of a Nazi invasion across the English Channel, his mind went back to the Spanish Armada of 1588 or the danger of a Napoleonic invasion of England in 1804. When he contemplated the difficulties of coalition warfare, he remembered the lessons of the Duke of Marlborough, who had to manage a coalition of British, Dutch, Austrian, and assorted German armies. When he debated the ideas of free trade in his mind, he not only studied the latest policy position papers from contemporary economists, but also study how free trade had impacted nations in the past. When he spoke of the decline of the British Empire and the peril in which it might place the world, much of his thinking arose from his extremely close reading of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he had studied while on duty in India as a young army officer.

One of the main sources of trouble in the world today is that our elected letters lack a historical perspective. Churchill not only understood history, but wrote it himself. He was a historian as much as a statesman and this was one of his chief sources of strength.

2. Churchill was never bound by a political ideology and could build a consensus.
We live in a ideological age, when a political leader is judged almost exclusively by where he or she sits on the left-right spectrum. Churchill defied easy characterization. His love of tradition and order certainly suggests a strong conservatism, yet his advocacy of policies to support the poor and destitute would seem to place him among the progressives. The bottom line is that Churchill was not guided by ideologies, but by principles.

This is not only admirable in and of itself, but it gave Churchill an ability to build a consensus that is extremely rare in our own time. To face the unprecedented peril of Nazi Germany, Churchill built a War Cabinet consisting of members of every political party, when the Labour Party whose policies he so despised. His Deputy Prime Minister was Clement Attlee, a man with whom he had ferociously battled before the war and would battle again after it. This didn't stop Churchill from forming a close working relationship with Attlee during the war, when both men set aside their political disagreements in pursuit of a greater good.

I have often thought that, had George W. Bush followed a similar tack in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, our country would have avoided much of the trouble it has subsequently gotten itself into.

3. Churchill valued tradition but refused to be bound by it.
There is no question that Churchill was a traditionalist. He said that he would much rather have lived in the court of Louis XIV than in the 20th Century. He was one of the greatest champions democracy has ever known, yet his mind refused to budge from the world of aristocratic privilege into which he had been born. His adherence to the values of a bygone age struck many of his contemporaries as ridiculously outdated, yet they formed the core of an iron personality that gave him the strength to stand up to Hitler.

He professed to despise aircraft, preferring the stately methods of sea travel, yet he earned a pilot's license, championed the creation of the Royal Air Force, and was an innovative strategic thinker in matters of aerial warfare. He did not like the internal combustion engine, wishing he could simply travel by horse and buggy, yet that didn't stop him from being the brainchild behind the development of the tank. Even though he valued tradition and tried to preserve it, he never let it blind him to what needed to done in order to defeat the evil of fascism.

4. Churchill absolutely refused to give up.
On October 29, 1941, amidst the turmoil of the Second World War, Churchill found the time to go to Harrow School, where he had once been a young student, and give a speech to the assembled boys. He said, "Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor or good sense, Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

Churchill never gave up. When he assumed the mantle of leadership in Britain in the spring of 1940, most men probably would have given up, but the thought never entered Churchill's mind. His fortitude, built upon the foundation of a historical perspective, a refusal to be bound to a political ideology, and a cherishing of tradition and a willingness to buck it when necessary, made him the infinitely strong statesman that he was.

Add to it a ferocious intelligence, a skill in rhetoric and oratory that seemed to come from grander times, and a charisma that somehow made him a natural leader, and it's easy to see how Winston Churchill was able to become one of the greatest heroes in the history of the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Quoting Thomas Jefferson

Last week, an open letter from several hundred students and staff at the University of Virginia was sent to the institution's president, denouncing her for quoting Thomas Jefferson in some recent communications to the student body. To describe this as stupid and childish is an exercise in stating the obvious. One might also describe it as sickeningly ungrateful, given that Jefferson was the founder of the University of Virginia. The professors and students who signed this letter would have no place to either work or learn if hadn't been for the Sage of Monticello.

This isn't the first time that Jefferson has been dragged into the mud by people utterly lacking any sense of historical perspective. Indeed, poor Thomas Jefferson seems to have become a punching bag in early 21st Century America. I've written about this phenomena before. It's absolutely true, of course, that Jefferson largely held to 18th Century attitudes regarding matters of slavery, race and gender, but that's because he lived in the 18th Century and not in the 21st. Why this is not immediately obvious to everyone is a mystery to me.

What we're seeing here is yet another manifestation of a sub-culture within American higher education that rejects a common American identity in favor of narrow group-based identities. We see it in all the nonsense about "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and whatnot. We see it in the efforts to prevent lectures by speakers with whom some faction of the student body disagrees. And we see it in opposition to the existence of classes about the history of Western Civilization or classes which include classics written by white males in the curriculum.

Call it whatever you want, but this way of thinking is dissolving our once great institutions of higher education like a steady dripping of acid. It teaches that victimhood is somehow empowering, that we should shield ourselves from ideas different from our own, that we need to be coddled and protected rather than taught to stand on our own two feet, and that the values our republic was founded upon are worthless simply because the people who founded it happened to be white males.

Well, as my own little act of resistance, I've decided to allow Jeffersonian quotes to form the bulk of this particular blog entry.

Let's start with the epic, immortal, thirty-five words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which will be quoted so long as humans retain the ability to read and continue to care about liberty.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Fifty years later to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at his home in Monticello. He had been invited to come to Washington D.C. to participate in the anniversary celebration, but his frail health would not allow it. Instead, he wrote the following words about the document he had created, in a letter to Robert Weightman on June 24, 1826. It was his last public letter.

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be. To some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all, the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessing and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights. and an undiminished devotion to them.

Contrary to how he is so often portrayed, Jefferson was always the champion of the common people against the ambitions of the powerful, wealthy elite (who found their champion in Alexander Hamilton). In particular, Jefferson saw the future of the republic as being tied to the fate of his yeoman farmers. His vision of an agrarian republic was beautifully articulated in an especially moving passage of his book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the earth.

These words should be etched in stone above the entrance to every gardening store in America. And if we have long since passed the point where Jefferson's agrarian paradise was possible, if indeed it ever was, that does not diminish the point Jefferson was making. A strong republic must have a foundation of free and self-sufficient citizens, not people who are in thrall to the wealthy and the well-connected. It's a lesson we need to remember today more than ever.

Having just passed through a presidential election of exceptional rancor and divisiveness, I think it's worth recalling the words of Jefferson's First Inaugural Address. After all, he was the first leader of a party to take up the reins of government from the opposing party and the 1800 election had been every bit as nasty of that of 2016. The very fact that the handover from Adams to Jefferson was accomplished by an election rather than through bloody violence marked, in a certain sense, the final victory of the American Revolution. Jefferson knew that he had to be conciliatory.

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. . . [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

The First Inaugural Address of President Jefferson also contains, in my honest opinion, the most concise yet comprehensive statement of general policy that all wise American administrations would follow. It is worth quoting in its entirety.

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of our State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations of our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people - a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of the person under the protection of the habeus corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Then there are the countless sentences taken from any numbers of letters or pamphlets Jefferson wrote, which sum up fundamental truths clearly and concisely.

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a healthy thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. (Letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787)
I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800)
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. (Letter to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816) 
Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. (Letter to E. I. du Pont, April 24, 1816)
Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. (Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816)

The last quote is one that the students and staff who signed this open letter should take a moment to consider, for they are simultaneously guilty of both bigotry and "enthusiasm" (used in its 18th Century sense, which might be expressed today with the word "fanaticism"). They seem to know only a single fact about Thomas Jefferson - that he was an owner of slaves - and conclude from their black-and-white worldview, from which historical perspective appears to be entirely absent, that the man had nothing to say that would be worth listening to. If they had genuinely embraced education and free discussion, they would easily see that this point of view is utterly and completely wrong.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men ever to walk the face of the earth and his words are filled with wisdom that modern Americans need to rediscover. Indeed, we need to reclaim his wisdom now more than ever.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Are We the Roman Republic?

History is fascinating in more ways than one. It is, first and foremost, a rollicking good story, with amazing characters and unbelievable plot twists. It is better drama than the works of the finest novelists and filmmakers, made all the more enthralling by the fact that it is true. Yet history also has important lessons to teach, both to individuals and to entire nations and societies. The Roman historian Livy, whose writings I love deeply, said it best when he wrote the following:

The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind, for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see. In that record, you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models and base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

Livy is appropriate to quote here, because the historical story I wish to talk about today is one that he witnessed with his own eyes: the fall of the Roman Republic. And the reason I want to talk about it is because I see surprising and worrying similarities between the collapsing Roman Republic of the 1st Century BC and the United States here in the early 21st Century, many of which have been put on display for all to see in the presidential election that has just concluded in our country.

In the 1st Century BC, the Roman Republic had the outward appearance of the most powerful state in the known world. It had risen to power on the Italian peninsula, despite numerous setbacks, between the 6th and 3rd Centuries BC. In a series of three brutal wars between 264 and 146 BC, Rome had crushed the power of Carthage and taken control of the western Mediterranean. In the decades following the destruction of Carthage, Rome had expanded into the eastern half of the Mediterranean, vanquishing the powerful Hellenistic states, defeating the mighty Pontic Empire, and securing its position as the unrivaled master of the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless, foreign wars continued; it seemed as though the more Rome conquered, the more people Rome had to fight. Even after becoming the world's superpower, a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts continued between Romans and assorted Germans, Gauls, Parthians, and other intractable enemies.

Inwardly, the Republic was becoming rotten to the core. Since the Romans had driven out the last king in 509 BC (according to legend, anyway), it had been governed under a system of laws and precedents that had generally served it well, the underlying principle being that no one individual should ever have enough power to subjugate the state. Two consuls held supreme executive power, but each was able to check the other and they held office for only a single year. A myriad of lower offices - praetors, quaestors, aediles, and the like - performed other duties. Everything was presided over by the Senate, ostensibly composed of the wisest and best citizens, buttressed by centuries of tradition. To check the power of the Senate, the people elected officials known as tribunes who had the power to veto legislation.

By the 1st Century BC, however, this system of government was beginning to break down. The Senate had degenerated from an august body of statesmen into a corrupt hive of ambitious and greedy men. The Roman army, once made up of patriotic citizen soldiers, morphed into a professional force more loyal to its commanders than to the state it served. Self-serving men, albeit men of ability and even genius, came to the fore to establish themselves securely in power. In the 130s BC, the Gracchi brothers, both tribunes of the plebs, sought to undermine the power of the Senate in pursuit of populist aims; both ended up assassinated, establishing deadly violence as a central feature of Roman politics. Then came the long struggle between Marius and Sulla, showing that Roman armies were happy to fight against one another if the reward being offered was sufficient enough. Finally, there was the bitter political and eventually military conflict between Julius Caesar and his enemies, in which Caesar emerged the absolute victor after a series of brilliant military victories. Caesar, as is well-known to every educated person, fell to the assassin's knife in 44 BC, paving the way for the emerge of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor and the final extinguishment of the Roman Republic.

We live in a rather cynical and pessimistic age ourselves, with many Americans feeling that their country is on a steady decline. Polling companies regularly ask people whether they feel the country is on the right track or wrong track; for the last few years, those who feel the country is on the wrong track always significantly outnumber those who feel the opposite. There seems to be a palpable feeling that American is decline, that our institutions are failing, that our global power is fading, and that there is nothing we can do about it. The cynicism and anger that characterized the recent election, and which have now propelled Donald Trump into the White House, are impossible to ignore.

Modern American naysayers often rhetorically compare our nation to the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, when it finally collapsed. In truth, they would do much better to look to the Roman Republic of the 1st Century BC for lessons applicable to our own nation in our own time. Allow me to lay out a few unsettling similarities between the United States in the early 21st Century and the Roman Republic as it existed in the 1st Century BC.

1. Government is gridlocked between two rival political factions, neither of which is concerned with the common good.

In the Late Roman Republic, it was the Optimates or "best men" - people like Cato the Younger, Cicero, and eventually Pompey the Great - and the Populares, those "favoring the people" led by Caesar. Generally speaking (and the membership of these factions was vague and loosely defined), the Optimates believed in aristocratic government by the leading families, ruling through the Senate and holding to traditional values, while the Populares asserted the rights of the common people and believed that the land of the rich should be redistributed among all citizens. The Optimates wanted to maintain the status quo in which the wealthy aristocracy ran the state. The Populares were generally ambitious demagogues who exploited the disenchantment of the common people as a vehicle for their own political advancement.

In our time, it is the Republicans, the so-called "conservative" party, and the Democrats, the so-called "progressive" party. As with the Optimates and Populares, both the Republicans and Democrats claim to have the best interests of the nation at heart, yet each seems interested only in amassing the maximum amount of power and influence for itself and thwarting the ambitions of the opposing party than anything else.

In Early 21st Century America, as was done in the Late Roman Republic, both political factions spend an enormous amount of time and effort creating committees designed to investigate real and imagined crimes committed by the other faction. People on both sides constantly try to haul members of the other faction into court. Both sides seem willing to sacrifice the good of the nation if, by doing so, they can embarrass the opposing party or score political points. Republicans have been perfectly content to shut down the government in petty disputes over the budget and cast blame on . Democrats have been happy to accuse Republicans of bigotry over things as trivial as wedding cakes, friend chicken, and which bathrooms people should use.

Nowhere can one find a sense of setting party loyalty aside from the good of the nation.

2. The electoral system has broken down amid massive corruption.

The integrity of the Roman Republic was based on annual elections. All the tribes of the Roman people gathered together on the Field of Mars and voted for the magistrates of the coming year: consuls, praetors, quaestors, and the like. Before each election, auguries had to be taken by priests, a special unit had to declare that the city was in no danger of attack, and other ceremonies had to be done and precautions taken, for elections in the Roman Republic were a sacred event.

By the 1st Century BC, however, elections in Rome had become a farce. Massive bribery was the rule of the day and whether you won or lost an election depending almost entirely on how much money you had and how willing you were to give it away. Financial supporters provided money to use as bribes in exchange for political favors. After serving as consul or praetor, it was customary to give a senator a "proconsul" or "propraetor" assignment as the governor of a province, during which they would tax the provincials to the limit in order to pay off the debts they had accrued getting elected consul or praetor in the first place. Cato the Younger, a man of ironclad integrity, refused to resort to bribery. It should come as no surprise that his one attempt to win the consulship failed miserably, for his opponents had no compunction against engaging in mass bribery. After all, that was just how things were done.

Are we that different? The voting system is indeed rigged, though not in the way President-Elect Donald Trump spoke about. Even before the disastrous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010, special interest money was flooding into American political campaigns on an obscene scale. A politician promises to support the special interests, sometimes subtly and sometimes not to subtly, and the lobbyists for that particular interest chalk up the money to fund his election campaign. When the election is over, the office-holder then uses their legislative power to protect and advance the interests of their campaign contributors. Those who see our present system of campaign finance as anything other than bribery on a massive scale are deluding themselves.

Our corrupt campaign finance system is only part of the story, however. The practice of gerrymandering allows office-holders to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, thus making it quite easy for incumbents to remain in office, year after year. Independent candidates or those from third parties are systematically ignored by the media (which is perfectly happy with the status quo) and barred from participating in election debates, which, along with overly rigorous ballot access rules, essentially limits participation only to members of the Republican or Democratic parties. We also have the sickening spectacle of state governments passing laws clearly designed to make it more difficult for people to vote, under the reasonable assumption that fewer people voting works in favor of incumbents.

In other words, elections in the America of the early 21st Century are as much of a farce as elections were in the Late Roman Republic.

3. Populist rabble-rousers are largely driving the public debate.

In the late Roman Republic, there was a whole cast of ambitious seekers of political office who had been stymied in following the traditional path towards the consulship. Rather than accept defeat, they instead decided to ignore legal and constitutional norms and continue clawing for power and influence.

The most famous of these men was Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was a senator, but was disliked and seen as obnoxious, known mostly for a ridiculous sex scandal involving him dressing as a woman to gain access to a religious ceremony in which only females could participate. Unable to advance in the Senate, he bizarrely had himself adopted by a a younger flunky of his who was a plebian, thereby allowing him to run for the office of tribune of the plebs (only plebians could be tribunes). Once he had secured that office, he continually went over the head of the Senate and had legislation rammed through the popular assemblies, which was technically legal but went against all norms of how politics in the Republic was supposed to work. Clodius used his period of legislative dominance to pass legislation designed to destroy his enemies (Cicero being his primary target) and expand his own power until he was assassinated.

The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States marks the triumph of populism in our own society. So, incidentally, did the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. While there is a vast difference between Trump and Sanders, in that one is a decent human being and the other decidedly is not, their support sprung from similar sources. Populism is the ideology of the disaffected masses, who have real or imagined grievances against the powers-that-be and look for would-be saviors to magically and painlessly solve all of their problems for them.

Trump's supporters said that they were angry about immigration, so Trump has promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico. They were angry about Muslims coming into the United States, so he has promised that he won't let them come in anymore. Whatever the perceived problem, Trump has simply promised to make it go away. He has never laid out any specific policy proposals, much less suggested how he would get such proposals through Congress or how he would pay for them. It is demagoguery at its clearest. I frankly expect him to be remembered by history as the American Clodius.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders hold more nuanced and less confrontational views, but they share with Trump supporters a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a willingness to believe that the problems they care about could be easily fixed if only their leader were placed in power. College education is increasingly expensive? Sanders promised to make it free. The Affordable Care Act isn't working as well as expected? Sanders promised to simply make healthcare free. Whatever the problem, Sanders told his supporters that he would wave a magic wander and the problem would be fixed. While Sanders never sunk to the xenophobia, misogyny, and borderline racism of Trump, in many ways his support stemmed from similar sources.

To fix the problems facing our countries, we need leaders like Cicero, not Clodius. That needs to be remembered next time we go to the polls.

4. There is a huge and increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

By the First Century BC, the old designations of "plebeian" and "patrician" had ceased to have much meaning in everyday life. A senator or wealthy man was just as likely to be one as the other. Yet Roman society was frightfully unequal. Whether they were plebeians or patricians, those who had money and family connections were in control of the government and economy. Those who didn't were expected to be quiet and do what they were told. While an occasional "new man" like Cicero might sometimes make his way up the political ladder in Roman government, it was exceedingly rare. The same small number of powerful families controlled the Senate and had for centuries.

Roman society had not always been like this. In its heyday, it had been largely a society of yeoman farmers. Indeed, no man could serve in the legions unless he met certain property qualifications, the thinking being that property-owners had the most to lose if Rome were ever defeated in war and so would fight harder than mere mercenaries. As its victories brought more and more territory under Roman control, however, most of the land fell under the control of the wealthy, who established enormous estates and worked them with slave labor. Small freeholders could not compete and gradually began losing their land, crowding into Rome and the other cities and being forced to live off the grain dole.

We are seeing something similar today. Powerful multinational corporations are slowly squeezing independently-owned businesses out of existence, while massive agribusiness entities have made traditional family farms a thing of the past. More broadly, the expanding economy disproportionately benefits those who are already immensely rich, with the status of the poor and the middle-class either remaining static or actually declining. Just as so many Romans became dependent on government support through the grain dole, millions of Americans no dependent on government welfare for their survival. It is no surprise to me that economic anxiety is infecting so much of America these days, creating opportunities in which populists like Trump can flourish.

5. The country is locked in foreign wars from which it can't seem to extricate itself.

As I write this, American warplanes are bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. American soldiers remain deployed in Afghanistan in a conflict that has been going on for a decade-and-a-half. Having withdrawn from Iraq in 2012, our forces are now being slowly drawn back into the country and are playing a crucial role in the ongoing fighting around Mosul. Special forces raids and air strikes are being mounted in Yemen and Libya. Our military is in the midst of increasing its presence in the Pacific to counter the threat of a rising China and in the Baltic region to counter the threat of a resurgent Russia.

In the First Century BC, Rome was also almost constantly at war. Caesar battled the Gauls and invaded Germany and Britain. In the east, Sulla, Pompey the Great and others battled assorted enemies, including the powerful Kingdom of Pontus that briefly threatened Roman power in the region. Wars against recalcitrant tribes seemed to never end in Spain. And mighty individual leaders rose up to challenge Rome. In Gaul, there was the terrifying chieftain Vercingetorix, the only man in the region who could match himself against Julius Caesar. In Pontus, there was the great King Mithridates, a man so ruthless that he ordered the slaughter of eighty thousand Roman citizens in a single day.

There are eerie similarities between these wars of the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC and America's military activities in the early 21st Century. They were fought far from home, for just as Italy was never threatened by any of Rome's enemies during this period, so is there clearly no possibility for America to be successfully invaded in our own time. Yet taken together they formed a sort of "perpetual war" of the sort that George Orwell warned us about. A never-ending war served as a means of distracting the people from internal problems and helped the rich become even richer. It also slowly drained away the society's resources, like a cut that stubbornly refused to stop bleeding.

6. Old values of civic virtue are disdained.

The Romans during the glory days of the Republic believed deeply in virtus, which we might roughly translate into English as "civic virtue". People were naturally expected to pursue their interests and seek to enrich themselves and their families, but the idea that anyone would do so at the expense of society as a whole was an almost unthinkable concept. When Rome battled the fearsome Samnites and other Italian peoples, or warded off the terrible threats of Pyrrhus or Hannibal, Romans of all ages and classes served in the army and accepted heavy taxation in service of the Republic. Senators served in their various official positions without receiving pay. There was a common understanding that the good of the community required the collective sacrifice of everyone.

There once was a concept of civic virtue in America. Without it, we never would have won the Revolutionary War, held the country together through the fires of civil war, endured the sufferings of the Great Depression, or rid the world of fascism and communism. Yet it seems to have vanished like the smoke of an extinguished campfire. We have become a society in which everyone is quick to take offense at every perceived slight or "microaggression", where we cast our votes based on what will put the most money in our pockets rather than on what is genuinely good for the country, where we waste of time playing video games or consuming vacuous and inane pop culture products as if they were candy.

If 21st Century America is to avoid the fate that befell the Roman Republic in the 1st Century BC, it needs to rediscover the old civic virtue of the past. We need to turn off our televisions and video games and open our books. We need to remember the ideals on which the republic was founded. We need to again place the needs of our nation ahead of our own individual needs. Restoring our old sense of civic virtue is the prerequisite for fixing all of the other problems, for a virtuous people would choose wise leaders rather than run-of-the-mill politicians and casino moguls, would insist on reforming our broken electoral systems and on extracting us from perpetual war, and would insist on a fair economic system which was rigged for no one, in which everyone had an equal chance at prosperity.

Will we be able to do it? I don't know. It's up to the American people. But history has put these lessons before us and we would be foolish not to heed its warnings. The Roman Republic collapsed into the autocracy of the Roman Empire, but the United States of America still has a chance to save itself.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

None of the Above

Two days from now, Americans across the country will go to the polls to choose our next President. Whether you are descended from someone who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower or are a recently naturalized immigrant about to vote for the first time, it's your civic duty to engage in the democratic process and choose our chief executive and legislative representatives. Democracy is glorious and the fact that we get to participate in it so freely and fully in this country is the most precious gift America has given its people.

I only wish that the presidential candidates we have to choose from this year were worthy of our democracy.

I haven't ignored the election on this blog, but I have focused on discussing electoral reforms that I would like to see enacted (like ranked choice voting, redistricting reform, and a national popular vote for President) rather than discussing the candidates themselves. Well, since the election is now only forty-eight hours away, I've decided to go ahead and put my cards down on the table.

I can't really say anything about Donald Trump that hasn't already been said by hundreds of commentators. He is a puerile, ignorant, bigoted, dangerous, unstable, misogynistic maniac. Throughout his entire career, both before and after he announced his run for President, he has given ample proof that he has no business being an elected official. I wouldn't vote for him to be a city council member and I certainly won't vote for him to be President of the United States. The idea of Trump speaking as our nation's leader to the United Nations General Assembly, or placing a medal around the neck of a war hero, or addressing the country after a national tragedy, is simply revolting.

Trump's policy ideas, to the extent that he has really articulated any, are absurd. Banning Muslim immigrants from entering the United States is not only deeply immoral and against everything America stands for, but is blatantly unconstitutional. His trade policies would cause prices to skyrocket on just about everything and almost instantly throw tens of thousands of Americans out of work. His longstanding pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it, which has been the centerpiece of his campaign, is nothing but anti-immigrant, borderline racist grandstanding. But, of course, none of his policy statements are very solid or make much sense. On healthcare, for example, Trump's policy is to replace the Affordable Care Act with "something terrific". Such vacuousness is typical of the man.

His admiration for Vladimir Putin is particularly disturbing. Trump has asserted that he will say nice things about Putin simply because Putin says nice things about him and many of his advisers have close connections with Russia. If it were limited to this, it would be unsettling enough, but Trump has gone further and openly advocated a pro-Russian foreign policy. He has suggested at various times that he would recognize Russian territorial conquests in Ukraine and decline to come to the aid of NATO members in the event of a Russian attack. The latter is especially outrageous, for failing to meet our treaty obligations to our allies would smear our nation with dishonor and destroy our credibility with the international community. It needs to be stressed that Vladimir Putin, before becoming the de facto dictator of Russia, was a highly trained and skilled intelligence operative. He would be able to play a man of Trump's temperament and psychology as easily as a violin player plays his violin.

Another repeated phrase in Trump's rhetoric has particularly frightened me. During the second presidential debate, he told Hillary Clinton that, in the event that he won the presidency, he would immediately appoint a special prosecutor and "lock her up". This not only demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of how the American justice system works (the whole point of special prosecutors is that they are independent of the President's authority), but made plain the deeply disturbing authoritarianism that runs through Trump's character. Arresting and imprisoning your political opponents in something done by strongmen in Latin American banana republics or corrupt African dictators, not by Presidents of the United States of America. By repeating this idea again and again, and encouraging his supporters when they chanted "Lock Her Up!" at countless campaign rallies, Trump made it clear that he cares nothing for the Constitution, nor for the long tradition of the rule of law that has characterized the United States since its foundation. His statements about arresting and imprisoning Clinton constitute one of the worst moments in American political history.

Equally concerning is Trump's repeated suggestion that he would refuse to recognize the validity of the results if he ends up losing the election. I wrote about this in another blog post recently, so I won't dwell on it here. Needless to say, such deliberate undermining of America's constitutional system is corrosive of democracy and it sufficient by itself to rule him out as a person deserving of my vote.

Trump's casual and habitual degradation of women should disqualify him for the Presidency as a matter of course, even if the accusations of sexual assault that have made been against him are false. Add to that his past insulting of Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people, war heroes, and just about every other group, along with his lifelong avoidance of paying taxes and his refusal to pay contractors what he owes them, and a pattern emerges that has been clear for a very long time. Donald Trump is simply an odious human being, without a shred of honor or dignity. He has never exhibited any sort of civic virtue in his life, always putting his own interests ahead of the common good. There is no reason to think this will change were he to take the presidential oath of office, which is precisely why it would be a national disaster if he were to do so. The very fact that Trump has come so close to the office of the presidency should make all Americans deeply ashamed, for it reveals that there are many, many things very wrong with our country in this day and age.

All of this might suggest that I am eager to cast my vote for Donald Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton. Sadly, I am not. I consider Clinton to be a dishonest, corrupt, tool of the establishment. She is a poster child for the kind of politicians who have been slowly and steadily been pushing our once great republic towards ultimate ruin over the past few decades.

Clinton appears to me to have no firm political principles. There is a difference between changing one's views in response to long reflection and new evidence, but Clinton shifts her positions like a weather vane in response to shifting poll numbers. She opposed gay marriage and only changed her view when it became politically expedient to do so. She supported the Iraq War and only changed her mind when the war went badly. She was a supporter of free trade agreements and only turned against them when forced to by the pressure of her presidential primary opponent Bernie Sanders. It's impossible not to sense the obsessive ambition to be President that seems to emanate from Hillary Clinton whenever she speaks. One gets the clear impression that, if polling data suggested that she would have a better chance at winning the election if she supported having all schoolchildren dress in clown suits in class, she would propose a law to that effect the following morning.

While most of the alleged scandals associated with Hillary Clinton have clearly been inflated out of all proportion by her Republican enemies, there is no denying that her connections with Wall Street bankers and various foreign financial interests, made clear by the activities of the Clinton Foundation, certainly raise eyebrows. If she wins the election, I don't think we will have a person in the Oval Office who has the best interests of the American people at heart.

I took advantage of early voting and cast my ballot over a week ago. Walking into the polling both, I had a problem. I had to vote against Trump, but I didn't feel I could vote for Clinton. Perhaps I might have turned to one of the two third party candidates, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party or Jill Stein of the Green Party. Neither has a snowball's chance in hell of winning, of course, but perhaps a symbolic throwaway vote would have served my needs. Unfortunately, this didn't seem to be much of an option, either. Taken a whole, the policy positions of both the Libertarian and Green parties are a mixture of the absurd and the unworkable. Johnson seems entirely uninformed about critical policy issues, while Stein holds many positions that I strongly oppose. Evan McMullin seems intelligent, sincere, and sane, which I think makes him better than other candidates in this race, but he isn't even on the ballot in several states.

Nor was simply not voting an option. I make it a point to vote in every election, even the most minor ones, because I believe I have a civic duty to exercise the franchise that was earned for me by the blood and sacrifice of our ancestors. People who do not vote insult the memory of thousands of men and women who died to preserve secure and maintain free government in this country, as well as the memory of the Founding Fathers who brought our republic into being in the first place.

I won't tell you what I ended up doing. I will tell you that I dearly wished that our ballots had a "None Of The Above" option, for this year I would certainly have used it. In the meantime, go cast your vote on Tuesday and say a prayer for the future of our republic. It's going to need all the help it can get.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Importance of Latin

I took two years of Latin in high school. I frankly didn't do very well, barely scrapping by with passing grades each year. Part of this, I will freely admit, was due to my natural laziness as a student, but some of it can also be attributed to the fact that my Latin teacher and I did not like each other at all. While many of my friends went on to more advanced classes after they had fulfilled their minimum foreign language requirements, I was happy to say goodbye to Latin after my sophomore year. I now look back on this decision as one of the worst I have ever made. If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, one of the first things I would tell myself would be to embrace the learning of Latin and make it a deep part of my life.

David McCullough, perhaps America's most popular historian, once had this to say:

One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of classical virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

McCullough knows what he's talking about, for he is the author of one of the most respected biographies of John Adams, a remarkable man largely shaped by his classical education, as well as an outstanding book about the American Revolution during the months before and after the issuance of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the great Founding Fathers could read Latin as easily as they read English. Education in those days was largely based around the reading of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, and the rest of the great Roman historians.

When confronted with the attempts of the British government to establish arbitrary rule over the colonies, the American political leaders could look back to the stories of King Tarquin being driven out by Lucius Junius Brutus, the political conflicts between the patricians and the plebians, the Grachii brothers espousing radical populism only to be cut down by the aristocratic reactionaries, the long struggle between Sulla and Marius for control of the Republic, and the civil war between Julius Caesar and his enemies. The history of Ancient Rome provides more insight into politics and human nature than all of the government textbooks ever written and, thanks to their ability to read Latin, the Founding Fathers could access this history in its original language.

And it wasn't just history. A fluent Latin reader could dip himself into the oratory of Cicero, the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, the epic poetry of Virgil, the lyric poetry of Horace, and so many other deep and soul-nourishing forms of Latin literature. This made them into fully formed human beings with cultivated and well-rounded minds. The contrast between their time and ours, when we have swapped the joy of reading the classics for the mind-numbing entertainment of video games and reality television, cannot be starker.

I am a firm believer that Latin education should be mandatory beginning in middle school. My fellow public school teachers generally look at me like I'm insane whenever I say this. Many simply laugh, assuming that I am telling a joke. But I'm not. To me, education is not a job training program, but the path for children to develop into adults with well-rounded minds and a strong sense of civic virtue. As the example of the Founding Fathers shows us, there is no better way to do this than by teaching children Latin. If a student is pursuing a career path that requires them to have advanced knowledge of technology or higher mathematics, let them acquire that in college. Not everyone needs such information, but the republic as a whole would be greatly improved, as with a great breath of fresh air, if all citizens had a working knowledge of Latin.

It goes far beyond simply being able to read the Latin classics in their original language. Latin is valuable to students for any number of more practical reasons. First, since the vocabulary of our language is based largely on Latin, having a grounding in that language gives one a deeper insight into English and a much greater ability to read and write it. It is no surprise that a large proportion of the greatest orators in the English language had a solid grounding in Latin. It helps one master the often complicated jargon of law, theology, medicine, and other fields. If one wants to learn Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, having a Latin background makes the task much easier. Studies have shown that students who study Latin have higher SAT scores and, upon entering college, higher GPAs than students with no background in Latin.

Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (a book everyone should read), had this to say:

Composing in the language of Cicero and Seneca, once again, can transform the way we use our own language. Writing in Latin especially spurs us to speak and write in complete sentences containing complete thoughts; a complete sentence is a complete thought. Here is a gain none too small these days when we're beset with verbal clutter and half-baked notions parading as serious thinking. Latin composition encourages us to structure the things that we have to say before we say them. It teaches us to communicate efficiently and well with finely tuned clauses and well-considered words. The practice of Latin composition helps to eradicate loose thinking and feeling. We learn to be responsible both for the words we use and the thoughts we broadcast to the world. 

Living as we do in an age of vacuous and sophistic language, filled with irony and deception rather than clarity and dignity, a firm grounding in Latin among our young people would work wonders. Just as importantly, even a passing knowledge of Latin allows a person to dip their mind into the thick layer of Ancient Rome that underlies almost everything about our civilization. Our legal system, our political ideas, our art and architecture, our notions of the rights and responsibilities of members of a society, have been carried down to us through the centuries from the Romans. The deluded modernist and postmodernist "philosophers" can argue the point, but whatever we are in the present is merely the summation of the past. The foundation of Western civilization is Rome, and Latin was the language of Rome. By learning Latin, we are reaching out towards our own past.

Beyond all this, though, is the basic fact that learning Latin is the best way to train the mind, allowing a person to develop the mental framework necessary to acquire any other skill or form of knowledge. It takes years of discipline to master anything worth mastering, whether it is martial arts or French cookery or chess. Working with middle school students, I would say the thing which alarms me most about them is their assumption that their future life is going to be easy and things will come to them with a minimum effort. If students were forced to learn something that was unusually difficult, it would instill in them an understanding that they are going to have to struggle for what they want in life.

The men of the Founding generation were schooled in translating Latin works into English and then back into Latin, over and over again. It was an exercise that trained the mind precisely as a fit person trains his or her body with countless hours of cardiovascular or aerobic work at the gym. Little wonder that they possessed a mental toughness infinitely superior to that of our own generation.

One does not need to be a cynic to realize that America is in decline in our time. There are many reasons for this, but it's no surprise to me that this decline has moved in lockstep with the general disappearance of Latin education in our public schools. As already stated, most of the Founding Fathers received classical educations largely based on Latin. A century ago, half of American high school students still received Latin instruction. Today, it's uncommon for high schools to even have Latin as an elective option and only a few thousand students nationwide take the AP Latin Literature exam. I believe that the decline of Latin in American education has been a contributing cause to the overall national decline we are seeing in our age.

There remains a devoted movement supporting classical education, both in terms of home schooling and private schools and in terms of reintroducing it as a major component to public education. I support this movement wholeheartedly, for I believe that a renaissance of classical education in our school systems is one of the prerequisites to a revitalization of America. Ideally, every American student should get serious exposure to Latin beginning as early as possible in their education.

And once all the children of America have Latin pretty well figured out, then we can get started on Greek.