Sunday, July 31, 2016

The 2016 Summer Olympics

Less than a week from now, the 2016 Summer Olympics will open in Rio de Janerio. To say I am excited would be an understatement, for I absolutely love the Olympics. I always have. I remember being enthralled watching the 1984 Summer Olympics as an eight-year old, imagining myself one day being some sort of track-and-field star myself and standing on the podium to receive a medal on behalf of my country. Four years ago, watching the opening ceremony of the London Games, I freely admit that I got a bit weepy when the seven nominated teenagers jogged around the stadium to lit the Olympic cauldron to the sound of Caliban's Dream, a hauntingly beautiful song which had been specially written for the occasion.

The Olympics is nothing less than magic created by humans. At its best, it gives one hope that the world can be the peaceful paradise or excellence and virtue we all want it to be.

Of course, this year's Olympics has had more than its share of preliminary troubles, what with the Zika virus, the drug-related ban on Russian athletes, public safety concerns, fears of terrorist attacks, and the common stories of inefficiency and corruption involving the construction of stadiums and infrastructure. I dearly hope - indeed, I pray - all that will turn out well and the troubles will be forgotten as soon as the epic music rises up and the opening ceremony begins.

Like most other good ideas, the Olympics was first thought up by the Greeks. According to the legends, the first Olympic Games consisted of a series of races held by five brothers, semi-divine beings known as dactyls, to entertain Zeus when he was a newborn. The poet Pindar said that the games were established by Hercules. Although history becomes murkier the farther back we go, the traditional date of the first Olympic games is said to be 776 BC, not long after the end of the so-called "Greek Dark Ages" between the fall of Bronze Age civilization and the emergence of Classical Greek civilization. It's as good a date as any, I suppose.

As with the modern games, the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years (other games were held in other years). Every polis was required to observe a truce, called the "ekecheiria", and not engage in war for the duration of the games, so that athletes could travel to the games and return home in safety. The competitions featured many sports we still see at the games today: foot races, long jumps, discus throwing, and wrestling. Winning athletes were heaped with honors in their polis, sometimes had statues commissioned in their honor and received benefits from the state. Even today, the torch relay that carries the Olympic flame to the opening of the games always begins in Olympia. I like this, for it manifests a very real connection between the ancient world and our own time.

The modern Olympics began in 1896, being the brainchild of a wonderful Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee. He idealized classical civilization and hoped that the revival of the Olympic tradition would help bring some of its values back into the modern world. I happen to agree with Coubertin on the need for the modern world to rediscover many of the values of classical civilization, which is probably the main reason I find the Olympics so enthralling. The Greeks believed in excellence and virtue, both of which we all too often lack in the early 21st Century. Competition is natural and healthy, so what better way is there to channel it than through athletic competitions? As with the World Cup, isn't it better to have national rivalries played out in the sports arena or the playing field rather than on bloody battlefields?

The Olympics also demonstrates the profound yet often ignored difference between patriotism and nationalism. I'm a patriotic American, as any reader of this blog knows, so naturally I cheer on American Olympians and feel a sense of pride and delight when I see them presented with medals as the Star Spangled Banner plays. But I'm no nationalist. There should never be anger or resentment when another nation's athletes best our own, nor should the defeated be mocked or made fun of. We should respect the courage and prowess of athletes from all the competing nations. After all, in addition to being citizens of our respective nations, we are all citizens of the world.

One of my favorite parts of the Olympics is the Parade of Nations, where the completing athletes of the different nations march in under their flag. Appropriately, the Greeks always enter first, with the other nations appearing in alphabetical order according to the host nation's language. Looking at the eager faces of the young athletes, all of whom had to overcome tremendous obstacles to get to where they are, fills me with admiration and delight. Nations like the United States, France, China, and Germany might send hundreds of athletes to the games (this year, it seems that my nation if sending four hundred and four athletes), but I feel an especial appreciation for the small number of participants from less prosperous nations. The tiny nation of Togo, for example, is sending only one, a female rower named Claire Akossiwa. This woman will be on the same global stage as everyone else, representing her country and no doubt being cheered on by the people back at home. When she marches into that stadium under the Togolese flag, I will applaud heartily.

However, there is one aspect of the Parade of Nations that raises my eyebrows, and those of many others. As the teams march past the box where the host nation's leaders are sitting, it is an accepted tradition to dip their flags as a sign of respect. Only one nation refuses to do this: the United States. The law that created the United States Flag Code specifies that the flag "should not be dipped to any person or thing". Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how seriously I take this sort of thing. I'm the kind of guy who marks on his kitchen calendar what days the flag is supposed to be displayed so that I don't forget. But we're talking about the Olympics here, We should know the difference between pride and arrogance. By being the only nation that refuses to dip our flag, we are looking like a the jerk who refuses to thank the host of a dinner party. This is what I think should be done. Rather than dip their flags to the host nation's seat box, all flags should be dipped to the Olympic flag as they pass it. This is in line with the tradition of flags on naval vessels being dipped in salute as they pass one another. It does not violate the flag code, since the Olympic flag represents the Olympics as an institution and is therefore not a "person or thing".

When the games themselves begin, I will watch as much as I can. I will cheer on the American athletes and see their own achievements and medals as being earned for our country as well as for the athletes themselves. I will respect and admire the athletes of the other nations. There is nothing like the Olympics that compels you to embrace your identity as a citizen of your nation as well as your common humanity as a citizen of the world. And through it all, we can hear the faint voices of the ancient Greeks whispered to us, telling us that it's never too late to rediscover the virtues of the past and reincorporate them into our own time.

Bring on the music. I'm ready.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Gerrymanding Must Be Abolished

It's a presidential election year and it has already proven to be one of the most bizarre elections in living memory. I know for whom I'm going to cast my vote in November, but haven't decided if I'm going to mention it in my blog. I'm not a member of any political party, nor do I fit the generally accepted definition of either a liberal or a conservative. When anyone asks me to define my political views, I usually reply that I am a 21st Century Jeffersonian. So I don't think I will be posting blog pieces that support or oppose Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, though I reserve the right to change my mind later on.

I don't want to ignore the election altogether, though, so I have decided to write about various proposed election reforms that I think are urgently, even critically, needed here in the United States. I personally feel that election reform on all levels of government is the single greatest issue facing America today, for the lack of such reform has been the root cause of our national inability to deal with the great challenges such as climate change or the national debt. The media, ever the guardians of the status quo, rarely bring the subject up, because the last thing they want to see is substantial change in the way politics works in America. Unfortunately, unless we can enact such reforms in the very near future, I fear for the survival of ultimate survival of democracy in our nation.

Today, I'm going to write about what I think is the most urgently needed measure: the abolition of gerrymandering.

The principle of government in a republic is that the voters choose their legislators. In most of modern America, however, we are faced with the absurd reality that legislators choose their voters. This is due to the process known as gerrymandering, by which the majority party in a state legislature draws the lines of congressional districts in such a way as to pack as many voters who support the opposition party into as few districts as possible. This has the effect of maximizing the number of districts their party will win and minimizing the numbers of districts the opposition will win, regardless of the actual difference in the number of votes each party gains. In pursuit of partisan advantage, absurd district shapes are created, usually taking no account of such things as natural borders or keeping communities such as towns or cities within the same legislative district.

Gerrymandering is not a new invention. During elections for the very first Congress in 1788, Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat in Virginia (thankfully, Henry was unsuccessful). Indeed, the very term "gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th Century who used the gerrymandering of his political enemies as a standard tactic. But the fact that it has been done for a long time is no justification for its continuation, for partisan redistricting is blatantly undemocratic and should be abolished as soon as possible.

Because of gerrymandering, the vast majority of congressional districts in America have become extremely skewed towards one of the two major political parties, usually by a ratio of around 70% to 30%. This means that if a person is unfortunate enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, he or she has no real representation. A member of Congress who represents such a district can safely ignore the concerns of a constituent who supports the opposition party and suffer no electoral punishment for doing so. A reasonable case can be made for the idea that the majority of Americans are not genuinely represented in Congress at all. In that case, we might fairly ask whether America is really a republic anymore.

Another negative consequence of partisan redistricting is that a shockingly large number of representatives face no competition on election day. Since the minority party in a gerrymandered district sees little chance of victory, they often decide it is not worth the effort and resources to contest the election and either don't run a candidate at all or simply put up a token candidate who they know stands no chance. This means that the incumbent need not fear the judgment of the people, and can act in ways that would otherwise get him thrown out of office by his constituents. The easier it is for an incumbent to remain in office, the less attention he needs to pay to the wishes of his constituents, thus degrading the very principles of representative democracy.

Gerrymandering also contributes to voter apathy. Seeing the incumbent win reelection over and over again, citizens often see little or no value in casting their vote on election day. Why bother, when the outcome has already been settled ahead of time by the gerrymandering process? Even worse, since a representative in a heavily gerrymandered district is more likely to have to worry about a challenger from his or her own party in a primary election than a challenger from the other party in a general election, office-holders are pushed into more extreme positions, with Republicans increasingly moving to the far right and Democrats to the far left. This increases partisan gridlock and rancor in Congress, making it more difficult for the two parties to compromise on important issues and alienating the moderate voters, who have no one for whom to vote.

The essence of any democracy is that the wishes of the people form the basis for the actions of the government. Through gerrymandering, however, partisan factions can achieve decisive political power even if the majority of the people do not want them to have it. Gerrymandering stifles political debate and allows incumbents to be free from the threat of defeat by their constituents. In most years, well over 90% of incumbent members of Congress win reelection, even though polls suggest that less than 20% of the people approve of the job Congress is doing. For a country that is supposed to be a vibrant democracy, this is ridiculous.

I've been speaking about the gerrymandering problem in terms of Congress, but it is equally detrimental to democracy in terms of drawing the district lines for state legislative races, where precisely the same problems apply on a more local scale. Indeed, incumbency is perhaps an even bigger problem in state legislative races than in congressional races, since the constituents are ironically less likely to have information their representative due to lack of media coverage. Most people, frankly, are hard-pressed to name their congressman, let alone their state legislator, which is a state of affairs the office-holders are usually fine with, though they would tell you otherwise.

Rather than allowing state legislatures to keep the power to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which will inevitably result in the continuation of the practice of gerrymandering, each state should have a nonpartisan committee of citizens to undertake the redrawing of district maps after each census. This, in my opinion, is the single reform measure most urgently needed in the United States today.

Seven states - Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington - currently have redistricting commissions which possess full authority to draw congressional and legislative districts. Three others, Florida, Maine, and New York, have commissions which draw up proposed plans, though the legislature still has final say. Iowa has a unique system in which a bipartisan group of legislative staff draw up district maps and, if the legislature rejects them, the state supreme court makes the decision. It's no coincidence that congressional elections in those states have become more competitive, resulting in greater attention paid by incumbents to the wishes of their constituents and more fruitful debate and discourse in their political campaigns. Indeed, of the 25 most competitive congressional districts, sixteen are in one of these eleven states (and Montana doesn't really count here, since it only has one representative in the House).

The legislation creating such commissions must be carefully crafted to prevent the politicians from pulling a fast one on the people, giving them the appearance of a reform without its reality. As an example of a good piece of redistricting reform legislation, consider the bill repeatedly introduced in the Texas Legislature by State Senator Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican. Wentworth's bill envisioned a nine member commission, with four members each from the largest and second largest parties in the legislature (the Republicans and Democrats, for all practical purposes), with a ninth member being chosen by the other eight. Membership on the commission was barred to people who held elected office or people who held official positions with political parties. The legislation required that whatever plan put forward by the commission creates districts of roughly equal population, must be "compact" and "convenient", and (most important) not be designed to discriminate against any political party of group. Had this bill become law, the days of packing members of one political party into as small a number of districts as possible would have been over.

Redistricting reform could happen on the level of the individual states, as has already taken place in many states. It can also happen on the federal level. Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to require the states to create independent redistricting commissions. Indeed, during the last few sessions of Congress, well-intentioned congressmen (there are a few, believe it or not) have proposed legislation which would do exactly that. However, it should come as no surprise that the bills have gone nowhere in Congress. After all, because the members of Congress are the ones who benefit from gerrymandering, why should we expect them to vote against their own individual self-interest?

What must happen is a comprehensive grassroots effort by American citizens to put enough pressure on both state legislators and their congressmen and senators to get them to get these bills passed. As seen above, many states have already done so, and as more follow suit momentum will be built to the point where it will be like a snowball rolling down a hill. If enough momentum is built, it can overcome the political inertia that currently holds the process back. We, as citizens, must make redistricting reform a priority, because until we do, the idea of a true representative democracy will remain a mere dream. More to the point, until the power of the ruling political elite is broken, the country's most pressing problems will remain unaddressed.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Wisdom Of Cineas

Pyrrhus of Epirus was one of the many Greek or Macedonian warrior monarchs, known as the Diadochi, who emerged during the chaos following the death of Alexander the Great. His life, recounted brilliantly by the 1st Century historian Plutarch, is one long story of battle and political intrigue. At times he was the King of Epirus and occasionally made himself King of Macedonia as well (half of it, anyway). He was a bit of a freelancer, fighting on behalf of Greek colonies in Italy against the Romans and in Sicily against the Carthaginians. He is most famous today as the source of the term "Pyrrhic Victory", which is used to describe a victory gained at such cost that it might as well be a defeat.

Pyrrhus comes across to me as a restless, unfocused man driven by intense ambition. A story recounted by Plutarch speaks not only to the ambition of the man himself, but the very nature of ambition in general. It has to do with one of the king's chief advisors, a Thessalian named Cineas, speaking to Pyrrhus on the eve of his departure for Italy to fight the Romans. Cineas asks what Pyrrhus intended to do once he has conquered the Romans. The king replied that, naturally enough, he intended to conquer the rest of Italy. Cineas then asked what he intended to do after that. Conquer Sicily, of course. And after that? Conquer North Africa. And after that? Conquer Greece and Macedonia. And then what? Pyrrhus, having run out of potential conquests, airily replied that he and Cineas could then spend their days and nights talking about philosophy while enjoying good food and fine wine. Cineas, perhaps a bit smugly, pointed out that there is nothing stopping them from doing that already.

There's nothing wrong with ambition, of course. Some of my greatest heroes - Cicero, Lincoln, Churchill, to name the first three that pop into my head - were men of extreme political ambition. Cicero sought political office because he was ambitious, to be sure, but he also did it because he wanted to save the Roman Republic from disintegration. Lincoln entered politics out of personal ambition, of course, but also because he wanted to help stop the spread of slavery into the American West. Churchill was destined by his family name to go into politics, and his ego knew no bounds, but he also had a vision of Britain's place in the world that he was determined to defend. Ambition, coupled with vision, can be a force for tremendous good in history.

Place ambitious historical figures with vision next to those without vision and you can see the difference. Pyrrhus was a general who simply liked to fight battles. He went off to fight the Romans in Italy because he had become bored with the fighting in Greece. When he grew bored in Italy, he went off to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily. In his later years, almost because he had nothing better to do, he went off to fight the Spartans in the Peloponnese, a decision that cost him his life. As Cineas realized, there was no vision behind what Pyrrhus was doing, any more than there is a vision in the minds of a dog chasing a fire truck down the street. Pyrrhus wanted to win battles, but not to any real purpose. Had he achieved his dream of conquering the Mediterranean, he would have had no idea what to do with it.

The subject of ambition is on my mind these days, because we are in the midst of an election year. There are literally thousands of political candidates running for every office from the presidency down to the state legislatures and local municipal offices. Unrestrained ambition is covering the ground so thickly that one will slip on it and fall flat on their face if they're not careful. Candidates are swamping us with television and radio ads, Facebook posts and website ads, messages on Twitter, images on billboards, direct mail, automated telephone calls, and sending out their armies of idealistic volunteers to knock on our doors and hand us their pamphlets. As a man who made his living in politics between 2004 and 2009, I know how it's done.

What frightens me about the ambition of the average American office-seeker is that it is very rarely linked to any worthwhile vision. The vast majority of men and women seeking office in this year's election have no vision beyond getting themselves elected and, once that it is accomplished, being reelected as long as possible, preferably until they die. To this end, to win office and to stay in office, the average American politician will lie to their voters, prostitute themselves to special interest lobbyists, push legislation making it harder for citizens to vote against them, and adopt positions on issues based only on polling data and not at all on practical or moral considerations. Making what is already bad even worse is the fact that the personality types which are most likely to seek political office are exactly those personality types most dangerous to the people when they obtain positions of influence. If a person has no vision, but only an ambition to win and then keep political power, then how can they be trusted by the people they ostensibly represent?

When I look at political candidates, I see them repeat the conservative or liberal talking points given to them by their handlers, thoroughly vetted by pollsters and focus groups. Very rarely do we see a member of Congress articulate anything original or anything that might leave them politically vulnerable. There is never any display of any real vision, any real purpose for which these office-holders strive. America, which once produced men like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, is now led by a gaggle of corrupt crooks or vacuous nonentities, who possess ambition in obscene quantities but possess not even the barest ounce of vision. It reminds me of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

My question is this: if a person has no vision, if they don't really care about political ideals of any sort, why do they bother running for office at all? Is it just they they enjoy the trappings of power, rather in the same manner as French aristocrats did before 1789? Do they just enjoy having people wait upon them and laugh at their unfunny jokes? Do they just enjoy they police escorts to and from the airport and the congressional gym, barbershop, salon, and dining room, all paid for by the taxpayers? Do like just enjoy the junkets overseas, dubiously framed as being in the national interest, and the flights on private jets paid for by special interest lobbyists? Do they have some hidden demons in their soul that drive them to seek public acclamation, rather than be content with an honest and virtuous life?

If so, they are to be pitied, for they are throwing away the priceless opportunity to do something good for their fellow citizens and thereby make a good name for themselves in the annals of history. You can't take any the power, glory, and material wealth with you when you die, but you can leave behind the knowledge that you did something good for the world. By all means, be ambitious, but do it for the sake of a worthwhile vision, not merely in the service of your own vanity or aggrandizement.

That, I think, is what Cineas was trying to tell Pyrrhus and I think that it what he would tell us.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

What We Owe to France

Thursday is Bastille Day, the national day of France, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution. That being the case, this week I want to talk about what we Americans owe to our French friends across the Atlantic.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess at the start that I love France and I love the French. I love French wine and have worked hard to learn as much about it as possible. I love French cheese. I love the devotion the French exhibit towards food. I love reading the writings of the French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot and French playwrights like Racine and Moliere. I love the general French attitude towards life, working to live rather than living to work. I love the French language, though I must admit that my repeated efforts to learn it have not been very successful. It probably won't come as a surprise that I will be cheering France on when they go up against Portugal in the UEFA Euro Cup final later today.

I have been lucky enough to visit France twice. Quite in contrast to their reputation for rudeness, all of the French people to whom I was introduced were very warm and welcoming. I had been told that Paris was the most beautiful city in the world, and as I looked upon the clean and lovely buildings and the statutes and fountains that seemed to grace every intersection, I thought that something had lived up to the hype for once. I've since wondered why we Americans can't make our cities as lovely as Paris.

American and France have a long relationship and it has frankly not always been a good one. During the colonial era, the French were the sinister enemy over the western horizon, constantly stirring up the Indian tribes to attack the settlements in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In 1798, France and the United States actually fought an undeclared naval war with one another which sometimes threatened to blow up into an all-out conflict. During the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt famously despised Charles de Gaulle, which led to unnecessary tensions between the United States and the Free French forces. Throughout the Cold War, although ostensibly on the same side, France never fully agreed to toe the American line in regards to the Soviet Union. In the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, France's refusal to go along with American plans led to puerile proposals that "French fries" should be renamed "freedom fries".

If an American tells a joke about France, he or she is almost guaranteed a laugh. A common joke is that, were it not for the Americans, the French would today be speaking German. While I generally abhor insults of any kind and especially those directed towards entire nations, there is some truth behind this particular snide remark. Although the Allies probably would have eventually won the First World War even without American help, albeit at a later date and higher cost, there can be no doubt that it was the United States which made possible the liberation of France from the tyranny of Nazi Germany in the last years of the Second World War.

The French haven't forgotten this. There's a reason that one of the busiest stations on the Paris Metro is named after Franklin Roosevelt. All across France, military cemeteries where lie the remains of tens of thousands of American soldiers are meticulously maintained. On the anniversary of D-Day, Frenchmen in Normandy gather to honor the American soldiers who landed on the Utah and Omaha Beaches to begin the campaign that would liberate their country.

Americans who lack a historical memory might be tempted to say that, thanks to what we did for them in 1944-45, the French owe us one. But in truth, though, in liberating France, the United States was simply paying back of a very old debt. For without France, the United States would never have existed at all.

When the American colonists rebelled against the British in 1775 and declared independence a year later, the odds of success were long. Britain was the mightiest empire on the planet, the Royal Navy ruled the seas, and the British Army was the most feared fighting force from North America to India. The only hope, and the American rebels realized quite early, was to win the support of Britain's old enemy, the French.

This was not going to be easy. The American colonists had been fighting against the French for more than a century in the wilds of North America. France was still an absolute monarchy and couldn't be expected to support an anti-monarchical rebellion for idealistic reasons. The average aristocratic noble giving advice to King Louis XVI recoiled in horror from the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Finally, there was a religious angle, as most of the American colonists were Protestants and the French were Roman Catholics. There seemed to be little to link the two peoples together.

Besides which, the French did not want to throw in with an ally who might not have the stomach for a war. Compared to the economic and military might of Britain, the colonies were weak and disorganized. There were scarcely any facilities in America for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition, to say nothing of uniforms, camp equipment, and the other necessary supplies of war. Britain had intentionally crafted its economic policy with regards to the colonies to prevent them from developing manufacturing of their own, so as to leave them dependent on imports from the mother country. America relied upon a militia for its defense and could not be expected to stand up against the professional army of the British. There was no American fleet to challenge the might of the Royal Navy. Nor were all Americans on board with independence; a substantial chunk remained loyal to the crown.

It would have been foolish for France to have rushed into openly supporting what might turn out to be the losing side. Besides which, the last time France had gone to war against the British Empire, it had been thoroughly beaten and lost virtually its entire colonial empire, to say nothing of its prestige. It was an experience they were not anxious to repeat.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Revolutionary War, the French were trying to figure out ways in which they might assist the American rebels. The French began covertly sending supplies of weapons and ammunition to the Americans through the Dutch port of Saint Eustatius in the West Indies, which they could not have otherwise obtained. A very large proportion of the gunpowder and lead used by the Americans in the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandwine, Germantown and Saratoga, as well as the rifles with which it was all fired, had been supplied by the French. Without such assistance, it is doubtful whether American resistance could have been maintained during the truly dark days of the war.

With news of the American victory at Saratoga, France decided to go all in. It officially recognized American independence and signed a treaty of friendship with the United States. This, as expected by everyone, led almost immediately to war with Britain.

The direct role France played in the defeat of the Britain in the Revolutionary War can scarcely be overestimated. With French entry into the war, the resources the British could deploy against the Americans were severely restricted, for fleets and armies had to redeploy to protect Britain from a possible French invasion and fight on new war fronts in the Caribbean, India, and elsewhere. This had an immediate impact in America, as the British had to abandon the captured American capital of Philadelphia, having decided they lacked the men to hold both it and New York City. The changed situation can also be seen in the fact that Lord Howe had invaded New York in 1776 with an army of more than 30,000 men, yet Lord Clinton was able to launch his campaign in the southern colonies in 1780 with scarcely 13,000 men.

Aside from diverting British forces away to other parts of the world, France dispatched troops to fight directly alongside their new American allies. French troops fought at Savannah in Georgia, at Newport in Rhode Island, and, of course, at Yorktown in Virginia, where the combined American forces under George Washington and French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau forced the surrender of an entire British army under Lord Cornwallis. Yorktown is often remembered as a glorious American victory, yet French forces composed nearly half of the victorious force and the French engineers played a crucial role, in that the Americans had little siege experience. Moreover, it was the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse which trapped the British in Yorktown in the first place.

Setting aside logistical and military support, France provided enormous financial loans to the nascent American government which, lacking effective ability to tax, had virtually no way to generate revenue on its own. Without this support, the American war effort would undoubtedly have collapsed. It should be pointed out that providing these loans put a severe strain on French government finances and played a not inconsiderable role in bringing on the French Revolution only a few years later.

No one should be deluded that France helped America win its independence out of any sense of altruism. That's not the way nations do things. France did what it did as a way to strike at Britain, its traditional enemy, and gain revenge for its defeat in the Seven Years War. Nevertheless, the fact remains that without French support, America never would have won its independence. France indeed owes a debt to America for the role it played in the liberation of the country from the Nazis in 1944, but America owes an equal debt to France for its very existence as an independent nation. I say we call it even

So, on Bastille Day, I shall open a bottle of Bordeaux wine, cook a French recipe, and raise a glass to France. And I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

All Honor to the Founding Fathers

Tomorrow is Independence Day. Like millions of other Americans, I am thinking of fireworks, beer, and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. But being what passes for a patriotic American these days, I am also thinking a lot about the Founding Fathers. In this strange age in which we live, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to these legendary men. On the one hand, biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson continue to be bestsellers on the nonfiction lists. Adams was the subject of a brilliant HBO mini-series not that long ago, and Hamilton has emerged as the subject of an astoundingly successful Broadway musical (which surely would have driven Adams insane with jealousy and rage). All of this indicates a popular desire on the part of the people to know more about the men who created our republic two-and-a-half centuries ago.

On the other hand, living as we do in an age of historical revisionism and political correctness, we are constantly swamped with vitriol against the Founding Fathers. We are told that the Founders cannot be seen as representatives of America because all of them were white males. We are told by some that they were nothing but a bunch of  greedy, slave-owners who revolted against British rule entirely for their own self-serving purposes. We are told that those who crafted the Constitution did so in such a way as to ensure the dominance of America by people of their own class and rank, and not for the benefit of the country at large.

This is all rank nonsense. The Founding Fathers were heroes. They were perhaps the wisest and greatest gathering of statesman in one place and age that history has ever seen. America should be honored to have been founding by such great men and they deserve to be celebrated, especially on the Fourth of July.

In the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that to support the cause of independence "we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." This was not idle boastfulness, for every man who signed the document knew that they were committing treason against the British Empire and could expect no mercy if they lost the war. The last time there had been a serious rebellion against British authority, when the Scottish Jacobites had risen up scarcely thirty years before, many of the defeated rebels who had not been massacred by the King's troops on the battlefield had been rounded up and executed. Those lucky enough to escape had been forced into exile, their property confiscated and their lives utterly ruined. There was no reason to think that this would not be the fact of the American rebels if they, like the Jacobites before them, failed to win.

One only has to look at the history of the American Revolution to learn of the sacrifices made by the Founding Fathers in service to their cause. Many joined the army and risked their lives in the fighting, while others sent their sons into the army to fight and possibly die. Many had their homes ransacked or destroyed by the British. Some were taken prisoner by the British and suffered brutal mistreatment at their hands of their captors. Many of the Founding Fathers freely gave of their own money to support the cause and ended the war with their prewar fortunes in tatters.

As a single example, consider Henry Laurens. A wealthy South Carolina rice planter and colonial politician when the war began, he was exactly the sort of man who benefited from the status quo and might have been expected to throw in his lot with the British. Indeed, he insisted on having his sons educated in England rather than America. Yet when the war began, he unhesitatingly joined the cause of American independence. He was elected to the Continental Congress and eventually served as President of that body. He was chosen to be sent as a diplomat to the Netherlands, but was captured by the Royal Navy while crossing the Atlantic. Charged with treason, he was brought to England and cast into the Tower of London, where the terrible conditions destroyed his health. Meanwhile, his estate in South Carolina was burned by the British and his vast prewar fortune was lost. His son, the promising young John Laurens, who had served as an aide-de-camp to Washington and formulated a plan to emancipate slaves, was killed in battle outside of Charleston. Henry Laurens died a few years after the war ended, due in no small part to the conditions he had endured during his captivity.

Does anyone think that Henry Laurens served the cause of American independence merely to further his own, selfish aims? For his story is by no means unique. Many of the men whom we rank as members of the Founding Fathers were ruined by the struggle. Those who assert that the Founders were greedy men exploiting the situation for their own ends are ignorant of history and dishonorably maligning a principled and august group of men.

What of the charges that the Founding Fathers cannot be seen as representative of America, since all of them were white males? Although women and blacks played their part in the war (a surprisingly large proportion of the soldiers in the Continental Army were African-Americans), it's undeniable that no women or people of color can be ranked among the important Founding Fathers. But to be upset by this is to fall victim to the logical fallacy of "presentism", of trying to impose modern standards onto a past era. It can't be done, any more than the very different standards which shall inevitably exist in the future can be imposed on our time. We don't know what those standards will be, so it's not our fault that we are not currently adhering to them. Had you or I been born in raised in that 18th Century, we should have shared the same values and would have seen the world the same way.

The racially charged question of slavery hangs over the Founding Fathers in our own day and age, for it is undeniable that a large number of these men did own other human beings as "a species of property" (to use Washington's shady phrase). It's true that the majority of signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves at one time or another and that nearly half of the signers of the Constitution did so as well. Again, this was the way of life into which these people were born and as unnatural and sickening as it rightfully seems to us, to them it was just the way things were. As a comparison, consider the use of automobiles in our own time. We know that cars cause pollution and contribute to global climate change, thus damaging the environment for ourselves and even more so for future generations. Yet we continue to do it anyway, because it is simply our way of life.

(And to any self-righteous PC warriors who happen to be reading this. . . no, I am not saying that owning other human beings was on the same moral level as driving cars, so don't bother going there).

The most important thing to keep in mind is it was the very values and ideals of the American Revolution, so brilliantly articulated and made into reality by the Founding Fathers, that laid the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery and the raising up of all people - blacks, women, Native Americans, homosexuals, and every other once-marginalized groups - to the same level of equality as citizens before the law. By proclaiming that "all men are created equal" the Founding Fathers unleashed a social and political hurricane that swept away the old order and brought into being the modern world, which has been characterized by the steady expansion of freedom and equality. Today, what we call "American values" - representative democracy, individual liberty, freedom of religion and expression, and all the rest of it - are embraced by everyone, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else.

It is easily seen how the ideals embraced and propounded by the Founding Fathers impacted the rest of the world by seeing how frequently Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence have been used as the basis for revolutionary documents in subsequent years all over the world. One can see its influence in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen during the French Revolution, in many of the independence declarations in the Spanish colonies in Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s, and among the East European revolutionaries in 1848 and 1918. Ironically enough, even the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, issued by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 in Hanoi, begins by directly quoting Thomas Jefferson's famous words from the Declaration of Independence. The women who launched the campaign for female suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention based their Declaration of Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, and Martin Luther King quoted it in the midst of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

Moving beyond mere ideals, the political framework the Founding Fathers set up in the aftermath of their successful Revolution has been the most successful in modern history. The concepts put into practice by the men who designed the Constitution, such as checks and balances and the separation of powers, and the insistence by the Anti-Federalists on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights, have massively impacted governments set up in other countries since the 1780s. More directly, the constitutional structure put into place by the Founding Fathers has allowed the country to ride the waves of one political crisis after another, and even a long and bloody civil war, always emerging intact in the end. And while I think our national experience has brought to light the need for some changes to our Constitution, I don't think any reasonable person can deny that it has been an extraordinarily successful governmental system.

So on July 4, fly your flag, watch the fireworks, cook out on the grill with friends and family. But take a moment to remember the courage and brilliance of America's Founding Fathers, to whom we all owe so very much.