History – Does The Declaration of Independence Define What It Means to Be an American?

24 Nov

One of my college textbooks for a political science class averred that being an ‘American’ – and by that I mean a citizen of the United States – is a uniquely political proposition.  ‘Political’ because being an American meant that a person bought into the ideal of the United States, as opposed to being born in a particular place or belonging to a particular tribe.

I have not been able to recall what book had this proposition, but I think the idea is the unspoken assumption when we think about what the United States should be for its people. This assumption was placed in our collective unconscious by the Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—”

We know from history that the drafters of the Declaration were not thinking of everyone when they wrote these words, but in the long run, it didn’t matter. Americans developed this idea that everyone was equal and should be treated as such.

This idea has been at the heart of much political and legal struggle, and it has even had a fair share of violence associated with it. But the Declaration of Independence helped to set the curve for history bending towards justice, to borrow a phrase. Consider this passage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech:

“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent works of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Over time, we have expanded the words of the Declaration to include even those that may not have been present in the Founders’ minds. As we think about applying these important concepts of equality and rights, there in another historical fact to keep in mind.

The equality and rights outlined in the Declaration did not only apply United States citizens. In fact, there was no United States then, and the Articles of Confederation even put one other government between the Declaration and the United States.

Today, we see the United States divided over how we should think about issues relating to immigrants, racial groups, religious groups, and so on. In solving these problems, we should return to first principles – that all men and women are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Despite nuances and extenuating circumstances, let’s start the evaluation of proposed solutions with these ideals. We are much more likely to build a better country and a better world, when we think of ourselves as all seeking similar goals.


Politics — The Founding Fathers Want a Blue Wave

5 Nov

The Founding Fathers would have loved to see a “Blue Wave” in the 2018 midterm elections, leaving the United States with a divided government.

This is not because they were particularly partisan towards any of the groups who claim to be leaders today, but rather because they believed that the power of the government does not belong in the hands of any single party.


The evidence of this is clear in Federalist number 10

. The Federalist Papers were comprised of a series of articles published in newspapers to argue for the ratification of the Constitution of what became the United States.

Federalist 10 focuses on the dangers of factions in government.

“Among the numbers advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”

The Constitution sought to break and control the violence of faction by splitting the powers of government into three branches, further dividing the legislative branch into two houses, and staggering terms of office, among other measures. The was to deal with the following problem.

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice an the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

Remember that these complaints were made about the confederacy of states before the Constitution (regardless of how applicable they might or might not sound for today).

The Founding Fathers attributed the existence of factions to the nature of people to be tribal and look out for their own interests. Since getting rid of factions would require either destroying liberty or “giving every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests,” they decided it would be better to control the problems caused by factions through a federal, republican system of government.

“It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.”

So instead of a simple, direct democratic government, power was split up. The other value of the Constitution in their eyes was that it would bring a larger number of people into a single government. This diversity of people would help keep one faction from oppressing everyone else.

“Hence, it clearly appears that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic — is enjoyed by the Union over the states composing it….Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised with in the union increase this security.”

The Founding Fathers would have wanted more diversity in our federal government than one party controlling the entire government, as it stands today.

“Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.”

Election day is an opportunity to extend the sphere of parties and interests represented in the United States government. Changing control of one or both houses of Congress will help protect the rights of everyone — even the losers.

So, vote for a divided government — the Founding Fathers would approve.

Current Events — Egypt’s Experience and a Worry for the United States

29 Mar

“The Fires of Spring” is a book about the Middle East that is part analysis and part travelogue through Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia.

The book is worth reading because it is a snapshot in time that gives a sense of history and also where we are today. But, when I read further into it than I probably should, I get a little concerned about the future of the United States.

Shelly Culbertson, the author, interviews Egyptian Diplomat Nabil Fahmy. He says that one of the great things about the United Stats is that its institutions are self-correcting.

“I lived in America during 9/11 and also when the U.S. went into Iraq. There is a laundry list of when U.S. institutions went overboard. But the strength of your system is that you came out yourselves and said that this is unacceptable — we need to change this,” Fahmy said.

He also said that U.S. did well because when one group lost an election it lost its influence in the government, but not its rights. He said Egypt needed to cultivate a more pluralistic approach.

“You need also to cultivate a political ethic where people of a different point of view not only express their opinion but also accept the role of other opinions,” Fahmy said.

Culbertson reflects on this in a particular context and writes:

“But I wondered now if Egypt’s Islamists were left out, with their identity taken from them. A sustainable system, in which people (both secularists and Islamists) thought they could make their voice heard without resorting to violence, would depend on including both.”The Fires of Spring Hardback Book

My worry is that we in the United States are losing our political ethic where people accept the role of other opinions.  Everything has been ratcheted up to a place where shouting, assuming the worse, and believing people on the other side are villains, rather than other people that we disagree with.

It is worse than the fans of sports teams. They at least can admit when one of their players makes a boneheaded move or a bad play. Sports fans will critique their teams’ coaches and management. In politics, it seems that there is no room to admit that your guy made a mistake, or that anything the other side does or even thinks could be good.

Perhaps it was always a fiction, but people used to be proud of saying that they voted for the candidate rather than the party. Now, it seems to be the opposite, people seem to think that voting for someone from the other party would be the ultimate betrayal of their moral fiber.

I worry that we are going to get to a place where the United States is full of irreconcilable differences. I don’t think it has to be that way, but we do need a change in our national conversation. Somehow we need to educate ourselves so that we slow down, think first, and stop engaging in outrage as our favorite sport.

I am not the first to think this. Jon Stewart tried to get people to calm down, but it was seen as a collection of laugh lines. I guess that is why we are here today.

Rousseau, the Social Contract, Snow Shoveling and America’s Current Situation

16 Mar

In “The Social Contract” Rousseau tackles the question of why we have governments and societies at all, what the limits are, and what the responsibilities are.

Rousseau gets to the heart of the matter when he says that people form societies and governments in order to survive the forces of nature.

“I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition then can subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.”

In an odd way I think this man against nature justification is evident in winter when people shovel their sidewalks. It seems like an over-simplification, but when the whole neighborhood shovels their walks and pays taxes for snow plows, then the winter is much more survivable.

Rouseau Social Contract

The Social Contract revealed by snow shoveling.

By the same token, though, the ease that our modern society has provided us causes people to think that they can operate more independently of society than they might in other circumstances.

“’The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while united himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.’ This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contact provides the solution.”

Rousseau writes that people must give themselves over to the community, and because each person does so, and agrees to play by the same rule, retains his or her freedom.

“We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves, is liberty. “

What we see today is people who assert their rights to be free and act as they wish, but they take on no responsibilities for the communities of which they are a part. Listen to any modern political debate, and you will hear plenty of screaming about rights, but very little talk about the responsibilities that we owe to one another by being part of the state. The Founding Fathers wrote a Bill of Rights, but perhaps we need to add a Bill of Responsibilities to it.

In a book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this site, former U.S. Marine Jess Goodell writes about how when she returned home from Iraq, one of the things that shocked her was how selfish people were in civilian life and how much of their behavior would never be allowed in a combat zone. While I don’t think that we should all need to live on yellow alert, I think we would be better off if we all took a few minutes to realize that civilization is here because we all take on responsibilities and that those are as important as our rights.

“In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constituted the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfill the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.”

I think this is the risk we face today with everyone thinking about their individual rights and their own interests. They never see the need to set aside their own interests for the larger good because they are too far removed from the dangers that exist that forced people to enter into the social contract in the first place. When disaster strikes, we often see people pull together in ways that seem unlikely, until you consider the beginnings of the social contract. Of course people help each other after the hurricanes or blizzards – they understand the need for survival.

But I worry about the future because even those returns to the fundamental social contract are increasingly being used to score political points. If we cannot come together and recognize the duties we owe one another voluntarily, then the position we will soon find ourselves in because of our selfish behavior will force us to renegotiate and re-enter that social contract. That will involve some very hard times before it happens, though.

It is worth noting that Rousseau does not believe that recognizing we owe duties to our society means that we all become cogs in a big machine. It means that there need to be limits on our behavior in recognition that we are part of a larger whole.

“I have already defined civil liberty; by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself: which implies, on the part of the great, moderation in goods and position, and, on the side of the common sort, moderation in avarice and covetousness.”

“Such equality, we are told, is an unpractical ideal that cannot actually exist. But if its abuse is inevitable, does it follow that we should not at least make regulations concerning it? It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends to continually destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.”

Rousseau causes me to think more deeply about the rights and responsibilities that we all have. If we had more conscious thought about the social contract in our public discourse, I think we would be better off. If we continue to lose sight of that contract because life is made less risky by technology and a general inertia that keeps society going, then we will eventually be forced to come to an ugly reckoning with our own selfishness. We have to think bigger and smarter in order to reach our true potential both as a society and as individuals.

I, Tonya: American Tragedy?

16 Jan

Do Aristotle’s virtues hold true in modern life? How about in figure skating? Below is another blogger’s take on how the classics still have something to teach us today.

mimesisity: on art, reality, etc.

In his Ethics, Aristotle argues that we acquire virtues like justice, temperance, moderation and wisdom through exercising them, and our fundamental dispositions of character are formed by the habits of reaction and behaviors instilled in us in childhood. (Yes, this is a review, of sorts, of the film about the figure skater Tonya Harding. Bear with me.)

…the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or…

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Homeric Tweets, or The Epic Poetry of Donald Trump

11 Jan

Donald Trump’s communication quirks have gotten a lot of attention, but commentators have missed what he shares with Homer and the other epic poets.

Books of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

Homer has lessons for modern communication.


Something was familiar about his patterns of “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hilary,” and lately “Sneaky Diane Feinstein.” (If you want to see a more complete list, The New York Times has one here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/us/politics/trump-nicknames.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FTrump%2C%20Donald%20J.) It was in a bar conversation with my friend Steve, with whom I went through a couple of classical literature class, that it became clear.

Trump was using epithets – Homeric ones as well as insulting ones. In epic poetry, epithets are used to help the poet remember the poem both by providing guideposts and helping to maintain the meter, or rhythm of the poem.

Some of the Homeric ones described things, like “the wine dark sea” and “rosy fingered dawn.” More importantly, they were used to describe people, both groups, like “flowing-haired Achaians,” and individuals, like “swift-footed Achilles.”

The use of these epithets and repetition of them anchors a character trait to the individual and provides a memory anchor for listeners. Looking at the names he assigns, there also is a flow to what he says: two syllable epithets. It provides almost a metrical foot for his poetics.

Consciously or unconsciously, Donald Trump is tapping into an ancient, and effective communication tool to drive home his point and build recurring associations.

His use of repetition and anchoring phrases is similar to the epic poets who first had to recite their works out loud for audiences. They used repetition, epithets, and themes as guideposts to help them remember their poems and help people keep track of the story. He’s not quite using ring composition, where he returns to his starting point in every instance, but he comes close by trying to bring things back around to particular points.

Consider his tweets about his mental stability.

mental stability

He starts with stability and brings it back to stability.

In a more general sense, Donald Trump is tapping into the traditions of epic poetry by doing his best to turn everything he does into an epic struggle or into an epic success. This is interpreted as narcissism or self-aggrandizement. While it may be those things, it is also an attempt to have a story worth telling, an epic tale. Let’s face it, no one seems to be able to stop listening, as the press reports on every tweet as though it came down from Mount Olympus.

I don’t know if Donald Trump ever studied epic poetry, but his communication style has tapped into a human tradition that has been effective throughout human history. People may not like the story being told, or the person telling the story, but in an age where politics has become a performance art, it doesn’t seem too surprising that these techniques should be effective.

The effectiveness of the communication doesn’t mean that the content is good. Plenty of effective communicators in history have used that power to do bad things. But recognizing how the message is delivered can help us separate form from content and to decide whether something is really worth hearing. This is part of the value of studying the classics.

Philosophy – Why Do We Have Governments? Locke Attempts to Give Us an Answer.

13 Nov

What is the purpose of government? Why do we even have it in the first place? Locke takes on answering these questions as his task in his “Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay.”

Locke is answering many of the questions that have come up in some of the modern political debates. Perhaps if more folks were to read Locke, then perhaps the discussion could start from a place where the first principles had at least been considered.

So, what is the purpose of a civil government? It is to take people out of a state of nature where everyone needs to shift for themselves to a state where they can live together. The purpose of government is to resolve disputes between people impartially and peaceably.

“Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”

What’s more important is that governments are created because the people come together to create them voluntarily. But creating the government does come with responsibilities.

“And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of Nature.”

People who benefit from the government have a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of that government. We have seen instances in the United States where people have tried to set themselves outside of the law, and even tried to use force or the threat of force to make their case. Locke would say that these people are essentially freeloaders who are taking advantage of the safety and benefits offered by a government without holding up their end of the bargain.

“And to this, I say that every man that has any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tact consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it, whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging for only a week; or whether it  be barely traveling freely on the highway; and in effect it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

“Whoever therefore from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchases permissions or otherwise enjoys any part of the land annexed to, and under the government of that commonweal, must take it with the condition it is under – that is, of submitting to the government of the commonwealth, under whose jurisdiction is it, as far forth as any subject of it.”

All of that said, Locke does not believe that people should just be blind subjects. If there is a problem, he writes that people should turn to the law first and work through problems with the government in accordance with the law. A well-constructed state will have laws that prevent tyranny and prevent governments from acting arbitrarily. But when governments start to infringe on peoples’ rights, then they can be changed.

“The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community….But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary; or else when, by the miscarriages of those in authority, it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture of their rulers, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves or place it in a new form, or new hands, as they think good.”

While Locke thinks that the first step should be finding a remedy within the laws and finding a peaceable solution, he does believe that the people have right to resist governments that threaten them. He rejects the notion that there are kings who would be somehow so superior to the people that they can act capriciously. When the government gets really ugly, then the people have the right to return the favor.

“But if they who say it lays a foundation for rebellion mean that it may occasion civil wars or intestine broils to tell the people that they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties…this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world; they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.”

Of course all of this requires people to actively think about their government and to engage with it. People need to think through why the government is there and realize that it is there because we have all agreed tacitly or explicitly to have it. Our political discourse would be improved if we could all start from the place Locke suggests: we have agreed to a government because it is better than living in a state of nature, and we need to work to configure it in such a way that it works for the good of people and, as Locke would say preserves “their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name – property.”