Politics — The Founding Fathers Want a Blue Wave

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.
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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.

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

“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

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?

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

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.

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.”

Current Events – Chelsea Manning Lives in a Cage – And Says One is Closing on All of Us

As she sat in a metal cage in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, one thing stood out to Chelsea – then Bradley – Manning, PFC: the cage was made in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

At the time, she also felt she was caged in the wrong physical body.

Despite having a thirty-five year prison sentence commuted after seven years and beginning the process of transitioning to a body that feels more like her own, Chelsea Manning is still living in a cage.
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At the New Yorker Festival, Chelsea Manning was interviewed by Larissa MacFarquhar, during which she revealed the outlines of the cage she lives in. She also described how all of us are being increasingly caged in, slowly but surely.

Chelsea’s Current Cage

Ms. Manning’s cage is partially built by legal settlements, and partially built by her own sense of honor, duty, and right and wrong.

The legal sides of her cage come as a result of her court martial from the videos she leaked of the Iraq war.

“There’s a particular statement I read at court martial – that’s what I can talk about,” she said.

Even when she was asked about the most famous video that she leaked, which shows a helicopter attack that killed journalists and children, she said she was legally bound not to talk about what was in the video. That video is all over the Internet, but she still cannot talk about it.

Nonetheless she is adamant that she did not reveal anything that would harm the interests of the United States.

“I knew what was in them. I worked them every day. It is historical data. There’s nothing sensitive in there – no troop movements or mission critical data….We’ve proven that repeatedly. There’s no identity of sources….It’s what happened. It’s historical data.”

But the legal constraints are not the only reason she wouldn’t talk. When asked about the work she did, she refused to give away things that might be military secrets. She described her work in the military as doing data analysis on large data sets, similar to what marketers might do, trying to predict people’s behavior, but when Ms. MacFarquhar asked for details about what she was analyzing and how, Ms. Manning’s response was simple and direct.

“I can’t tell you.”

It was clear she was not going to give up any of the information or methods that she had learned which were secret. This seemed to be less out of any legal responsibility, but more of the sense of duty. Her tone was that of any military person who has reached the limits of what they can tell you.

She also wouldn’t violate the sense of camaraderie she had with her fellow soldiers, refusing to characterize the ribbing she got from fellow soldiers as hazing.

“I’ve never said I was teased and bullied by my colleagues. Maybe it is something we just did in military culture and we justify it. There were times it crossed the line. I don’t think that [the disclosures and transitioning or being picked on by fellow soldiers] are connected.”

Ms. Manning said that she felt she had to share the videos and files that she leaked because Americans needed to know about what was happening in Iraq.

“It was like drinking from a fire hose of death and destruction every day,” Ms. Manning said.

Feeling boxed in was the reason she ended up in Iraq in the first place. After struggling with family troubles, homelessness, and a sense of being in the wrong body, Chelsea Manning was trying to figure out her life. Her father said she should go into the military to gain structure and discipline.

Looking at what was happening in the world she joined the army for two reasons.

“I saw the images of the Iraq war and thought I could make a difference. And I thought I would not be trans. I can’t be trans [in the army]. I joined the army because that is where the fight was and I thought I could help. I was 18.”

The idealism of the 18-year-old Bradley Manning was tempered by death and destruction she saw, and the imprisonment that she endured. After all that she went through, Ms. Manning said that she realized that it did not make sense to try to be someone else. Instead, she had to try to become the person she felt she was and that is when she decided to transition from being a man to being a woman.

The Banality of Cages

Despite leaving the cage of prison and even the confines of a body that didn’t fit her, Ms. Manning thinks the she and all the rest of us are becoming entrapped by two macro trends: 1) the growth of the surveillance state, and 2) the growth of algorithms determining what information we get.

“I got outside, and I said ‘this is a different place. It feels like the most boring and predictable dystopian novel I ever read.’ There is a dystopian element, but it is banal.”

She said that prison has encroached on the outside world. While she acknowledges that her time in prison may have made her more sensitive, Ms. Manning said that she notices how often she sees surveillance cameras and heavily armed police officers everywhere.

“Everything that makes prison bad is starting to happen out here.”

The other thing that she warned about during her talk is that the use of algorithms in technology is creating feedback loops that could end up restricting our knowledge and our choices, which could lead to societal harm.

“There are systems that if misused could be very dangerous to society. There are feedback loops going on.”

She said that we can see this with the way data sets are analyzed. As an example, she used Google search results, which programmers will use to optimize algorithms in order to make the information more relevant.

“What ends up being the top search results changes society over time. It makes [the results] more relevant, which makes it more prevalent, which makes it more relevant. Who’s in control? Us or machines?”

She said that she saw examples of destructive feedback loops in the data she analyzed in Iraq. The military would look for trouble and enemy activity and then go into specific neighborhoods to try to deal with it. By going into those neighborhoods, the military would draw more of the enemy, and sometimes instead of decreasing violence and stabilizing neighborhoods, the data would lead to an increasing spiral.

Can We Escape The Coming Cages?

The question that arises is, of course, what do we do about it?

Ms. Manning brought up three things, perhaps not in direct response to the big question, but both of which were related to the solution.

First, people need to assert their rights. She said that she learned this in the context of being a trans person. What she came to realize is that we all have rights, and that they are not something given to us by judges, or police officers, or institutions.

“We all have rights. No one gives them to us. We don’t win them. It’s how we assert them or demand them. You already have rights; you just have to assert them.”

Second, she said that we need to recognize institutions, no matter how good they may be, sometimes fail. And that is when something like her leak becomes important, because it gives the people the knowledge to hold the institution accountable.

Third, people need to think about what might happen with the work that they do. She said that technologists, software engineers, and others need to think about what can be done with the tools that they are building. They need to think about how those tools might be used in other contexts, and they need to talk to one another, whether formally or informally to get outside perspectives.

“Software developers have an inherent ethical obligation. We need to think beyond meeting deadlines and meeting criteria.”

She recognized that this has real world costs in time and money, but she said that they need to “red team” more of their work – have someone look at it oppositionally – to make sure that the tools they are developing don’t cause harm.

“Let’s take some chunks of time and say ‘what are the consequences of this system.’ How can this be misused?’”

Throughout the interview Ms. MacFarquhar came back a few times to the question of what advice Ms. Manning would give someone facing the decision about whether or not to leak information or take some similar action. But there was no easy answer or guidelines.

“There’s not a one-sized fits all answer. It depends on what is in front of you.”

Ms. Manning said that her leak was a political act. It was done out of the sense that sometimes people need to do something that goes beyond the ballot box to make up for when institutions fail. Individual circumstance and conscience will often determine what should be done, but people need to realize that they have the power to do something, she said.

“Every single person has to make their own decision. Every single one of us has the innate agency to act.”