Locke and Responsible Citizenship

In reading Locke some ideas have come back to the front of mind that I want to talk about here briefly, perhaps with more to come in the discussion about Locke’s essay.

In political discourse today, we sometimes here assertions such as “all taxation is theft” or “all government is based on violence.” Locke’s essay talks about why and how people form governments: the primary reason is to solve disputes in an impartial way and to help ensure everyone’s freedom. In “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,” Locke writes about how people can exist in a state of nature and then form governments as a way of managing affairs among a larger number of people. The government, then grows out of the desire of people to have a society that uses reason to extend beyond the state of nature.

So, when someone says that all government is based on violence, it means that they do not have an understanding of what government is or what it is supposed to do. Similarly, to say all taxation is theft on the part of the government is to assert that the government is some kind of other entity.

In a representative democracy, however, the government is us. We are the ones that are doing the taxing and spending the taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to do that, and mistakes will be made, but to assert that all taxes are theft implies that the speaker is too lazy to be involved in the government at even the most superficial level to make sure that the money they contribute is spent correctly. Alternately, making the assertion that all taxes are theft could simply be a reflection that the speaker is a freeloader who wants all of the benefits of living in our society, but doesn’t want to pay their fair share. It is the person who goes out to dinner with the group, orders the expensive meal and then disappears before the check shows up.

As for government being based on violence, again this is an assertion of the lazy. Government is based on the agreement that everyone needs to play by the same set of rules to keep society going. It is not important that the policeman has the gun; it is important that the policeman has a set of laws that everyone has agreed to in order to keep the society running. While any individual can say that they did not write or create a particular law, that is a cop out for the self-indulgent. A person, particularly one living in the United States, has the ability to work to change the laws or, if that fails, to leave. But either do one or the other.

Don’t sit around whining about how the government is bad. We are the government, and we get what we put into it. We live in an age where outrage and extreme views are attention getting. We live in an age where everyone has a broadcast platform, thanks to the Internet. Sadly, there are not enough editors and reasonable readers to challenge the extremism. While we all seem to have a good sense of our rights, no one wants the responsibilities that come with them. Yes we have the right to free speech, for example, but we also have the responsibility to speak up when we think things are going wrong.

Government is an agreement that we all make. If there are problems with the government, then it is because we are shirking our responsibility to make sure it runs well.


How I Got a Gun License – Freedom Isn’t Free

As I follow the on-going gun debate in this country, one unspoken assumption seems to be that anyone can buy a gun anywhere at any time. Although the recent mass shootings show that bad people can get guns legally, as part of finding the middle ground, I want to explain what I had to do to get my license.

We all have rights, but those rights need to be earned. “Freedom isn’t free” is a popular catch phrase, and I think that is true when it comes to responsible gun ownership. State law says that the chief of police in each town grants the license. While this certainly has the potential for abuse, I think that the rules here are a good starting point.

First, I had to have no criminal record, be over 21, and not have been treated for mental illness, drug addiction, or alcoholism. I also must not have any protection orders or outstanding arrest warrants. This is common sense stuff, and I agree with it.

Second, I needed to submit a letter detailing the reasons I wanted a gun license. That’s pretty reasonable. I was advised to use that language that I wanted a license ‘for all lawful purposes’ so as not to exclude anything, but I also detailed the reasons in my earlier post. That was reasonable both to me and the police department. I highly doubt that the shooters from Tucson and Aurora ever submitted a letter like this. It is also a way to open a line of communication to demonstrate that you know your rights, and understand your responsibilities.

Third, I had to prove my citizenship and residency. Again, these are both reasonable requirements as I am exercising the rights of a citizen in a particular place.

Four, I needed to prove that I completed an approved firearms safety course taught by a certified instructor, approved by the Colonel of the State Police. An approved safety course should be mandatory for everyone wanting to own a gun. If anyone thinks this is unreasonable, then I doubt we will ever find common ground. If you want to drive a car, then you take a driving course. It should be the same with guns. My course covered safety rules, loading and unloading guns, cleaning them, gun laws, and we even talked about teaching children what to do if they see a gun. Having it approved by the Colonel of the State Police means that standards are in place. The Nation Rifle Association’s course meets those standards.

If I wanted a ‘target shooting only’ license, then I needed to belong to a gun club. I joined a gun club anyway because I wanted a place to practice. To join the gun club, I had to attend another safety class and then demonstrate safe gun handling on a firing range.

Five, I had to submit two letters of reference from people saying I would be a safe and responsible gun owner. I think that if this requirement had been in place where the mass shooters bought their guns, then the United States might have had three or four fewer massacres. Really, if you cannot find two people to say you aren’t crazy, then you probably should not have access to guns.

Six, we had to go through background checks and interviews with detectives at the police department. Again, this was another way to check people out to ensure they are okay to own guns. The detectives that interviewed me were professional, friendly, and most importantly struck me as fair people. You need to pass a driver’s test with a qualified instructor, so an interview is not a hassle.

What I hope to show by this is that even though the process was a little long, it was not impossible or unreasonable. It makes sense to have a safety class, a background check, and letters of reference. I think these things could have helped prevent tragedies. Note that in Colorado, there was one gun club that did not grant a shooter membership. Unfortunately, he already had his guns.

At the same time, I had two safety classes, a range test, a background check, and multiple interviews. I have earned my right to own firearms. I should keep that right unless I abuse it or do something wrong. The idea that it is all or nothing is unacceptable to me and should be to any reasonable person.

Why I Own Guns

This blog is about reading great books, but there is another conversation going on right now, and I feel like there is something missing from it. I will continue talking about the books, but will add a few other thoughs into the mix.

Since the mass shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been a lot of talk about gun control. The discussion has devolved into two irrational camps shouting at each other.

On the pro-gun control side, the argument is that guns are only for killing people and have no place in private hands. On the anti-gun control side, the argument is that people need to own guns for self-defense, fighting foreign invaders, or defending against a tyranny imposed by our own government.

These arguments do not represent me, and I don’t think they take into account most gun owners in the United States. So, I want to talk about why I own guns to maybe add something to the discussion that has been unheard.
In my house, right now, we own two .22 caliber, bolt-action rifles. One was left to me by my grandfather, and the other I bought for my wife. We own these guns because we wanted to take part in summer biathlons and be able to practice outside of races.

For those who don’t know, the summer biathlon combines running and shooting. The winter biathlon combines cross country skiing and shooting. It is an exciting sport to watch and participate in because it is a race determined both by speed and skill.

In the summer biathlon, I run an 800-meter course, and come into the shooting range. There I have 5 shots to hit five targets at 50 meters. If lying prone, the targets are the size of a silver dollar. If standing, they are the size of a compact disk. The targets are steel knock-down targets, so when they are hit, they flip from black to white. The competitor knows instantly if they have hit or missed. For every miss, before you start the next 800 meter run, you have to run a 100-meter penalty loop. It pays to run fast, but it also pays to shoot well. There are five loops plus penalty laps from four shooting stages.

This sport is a wonderful challenge because you run as fast as you can, and then you need to calm your breathing and heartbeat and take your best shots. It is a test of physical fitness and your ability to center yourself.
While doing this sport, I have met a lot of wonderful people who are concerned about two primary things: safety and fun. Before every event, there is a safety lecture. The two rules are nobody gets shot and everyone has fun. The people are interested in helping one another learn a new sport and get better at it. They are not gun nuts, they are athletes.

I have also had the good fortune to be on the summer biathlon course with an Olympic athlete from the winter biathlon. This is not because I am so good. It is because the sport is democratic enough that Olympians will come by local competitions.

My wife and I tried biathlon because she had seen it at Salt Lake City Olympics. We had borrowed guns from the host club for our first event. In the car on the way home she said to me, “We have to get rifles. We need to practice.”

So we got licenses and bought her a rifle.

Since then we have joined a gun club to target shoot to prepare for the summer events. We’d like to do the winter biathlon at some point as well. We have also talked about doing just target shooting events. The sport of target shooting develops discipline and self-control, traits that can carry over into other parts of your life, and the practice of maintaining your equipment, your guns, further improves that discipline.

I am not alone. There are a lot of gun owners like me out there: people concerned with sporting and personal excellence. But we are left out of the gun debate. I will write more on the issues surrounding the topics of guns in America to explain how someone in my position sees these issues. But next time, I will explain exactly how I got a license to own a gun.

Modern Works: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate LifeTwelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My karate dojo is reading this book as a group to learn about compassion and to expand out training beyond punching and kicking. We plan to tackle a chapter a month, though I have read the whole book in keeping with the author’s suggestion and will go through each step along with the rest of the dojo.

It is a thought-provoking book that has led me to try to look at people and events in my world in a different way. I try to think about approaching situations from a position of compassion rather than aggression or dispassion.

The author of the book, Karen Armstrong, perhaps by design raises more questions than she answers. Compassion is never strictly defined. So, there are points in the book where compassion seems to be identical to politeness or doing a good deed. I don’t think this is exactly compassion. I think that there needs to be an element of commitment of one’s personal power, or resource to be in compassion.

There are aspects to the book that I think are interesting from a philosophical point of view, though I don’t know that they matter to the overall message.

First, she talks about Socratic dialogue being a compassionate tool and says that Socrates was compassionate with those he spoke with. Yet, Socrates was put to death as a result of how he treated others when speaking with them and dismantling their arguments. Anytus in “Meno” unlikely found Socrates compassionate.

Second, I don’t think that Armstrong gives Western civilization enough credit for Compassion. Compassionate organizations such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and hundreds of others grew from the Western notion of the importance of the individual. I understand Armstrong’s desire to promote cross-cultural understanding, but I think she misses some important examples of compassion in that emphasis.

I have a few other quibbles (for instance, I think she takes an unjustified swipe at E.O. Wilson), but overall I think this is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in living a life that includes concern for other people across the planet and for those trying to develop a broader sense of the interconnectedness of people.

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The Pragmatics of Philosophy

It has been awhile since I published my last post, but I have not stopped thinking about the ideas we talk about in the blog. The daily grind has prevented me from reading and writing as much as I want to, and that has gotten me thinking about the practical side of all of this.

Does Montaigne, or Plato, or even the Bible have anything useful for us as we go through our daily lives? On one level, I acknowledge that this is all an academic exercise, but I value the reading, writing, and conversations that happen here. Of course, the thinking is the most important part of it.

On another level, though, these works and this conversation make us better people and gives us something to use in the rest of our lives. That is the faith that underlies this entire blog. Still, I am left with the thought that it is incomplete.

These books tend to give us the ‘why’ of our lives, but not necessarily the ‘how.’ Over Memorial Day weekend, there were a lot of war movies on television, many focusing on World War II. As I watched scenes of Nazi’s and imperial Japan occupying other nations, I wondered what good understanding philosophy would be in the face of invasion. You have the philosophy that what is happening is wrong, but what can you do about it?

That is an extreme case. What good is philosophy in the face of an earthquake, hurricane, or wild fires like those in Colorado? What will it do in a drought?

Even in daily life, what does all of this do when we are thinking about how to conduct our professional and personal lives?

I’d like to think that this knowledge helps me make better decisions at all of these times. It will help me act as a better person. I would know what side to join in a war, what to prioritize in a disaster, and when to tell a boss or friend that something is wrong.

Still, the how sometimes bothers me. I sometimes think that something like the Popular Mechanic’s top 100 skills (http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/skills/4281414) ought to be part of the curriculum for people in the humanities. That way, when the time comes to act, there is at least the beginnings of making something meaningful and right happen.

Still, I am open to suggestion, what skills should we all have if we hope to make our lives better and make the world a better place?


Earl Shorris Made The Great Books Relevant To Modern Life

Earl Shorris was an author and social critic who died last month. In addition to his writing, he created the Clemente Course at  Bard College that was designed to teach low-income people about philosophy, art, and literature. The aim of his work was to show that the way out of poverty was not just skill training or financial literacy education, but was instead an education that helped people think about their world in a broad context and to understand that there is more to life than just survival.

I was fortunate to hear him speak once, and to have participated in the Odyssey Project which was the Chicago extension of the Clemente Course. I was a writing tutor and helped facilitate the classroom discussions. I enjoyed it because I learned as much as the students.

When you are working on helping someone understand philosophy or literature, it is necessary to both meet them half way and pull them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. For many of the students I worked with, their only exposure to these kinds of topics, to challenging books at all, was the bible. To get them to step into another author’s world required me to be a diplomat — respectful, yet committed to an agenda that was perhaps different from theirs.

You can’t work with people without studying them as well. There were several tutors and teachers in the course, and seeing how different personalities and students responded to the different styles taught me a lot about teaching and learning.  Sometimes you need to give people the question and the answer so they can debate it and make it their own. Sometimes you need to give people clues to what you want them to learn. Sometimes you put something out there and see what they teach you.

Discussion Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a man who has lost a son is a different experience than sitting in an undergraduate course with a bunch of kids who have no real world context that compares.

At the same time, talking about whether or not saving a drowning child is a good act if part of the reason you do it is because you know it will help you get dates with the girls on the beach can show you how much students can adopt the thinking of the things they read. (For the record, I think it would be a good act, even if you might get a date out of it. The students in the class, not so much.)

There was another reason that I felt it was critical to participate in the Odyssey project. I felt like the more educated people we could produce, the less chance there would be for demagogues and tyrants and bullies to do damage. The more people who could call shenanigans on the lies and vitriol that come at us from so many directions each day, the more likely we are to survive as a civilization. I realize this sounds a little melodramatic, but it is people who understand the humanities who prevent massacres.

Earl Shorris and Robert Maynard Hutchins both said that the education for the best — meaning the leaders of society and the upper classes — is the best education for all. That is not a very Platonic idea. That said, it is one I happen to agree with as someone who has made the journey from relative poverty into a comfortable middle class life.  I hope that in some small way, I helped make a difference and contributed to his vision.



Montaigne, Meritocracy, and Why It’s Good That Occupy Wall Street is not Reading This Set

When Montaigne wrote his essay about cannibals, by which he means Native Americans, who were new to Europe, I don’t think he meant it as a meditation on meritocracy. Yet, as I read the essay, I find a number of lessons on meritocracy and its limits.

He begins his essay with an admonishment to us all about how we judge the world around us.

“When King Pyrrhus invaded Italy, having viewed and considered the order of the army the Romans sent out to meet him; “I know not,” said he, “what kind of barbarians” (for so the Greeks called all other nations) “these may be; but the disposition of this army, that I see, has nothing of barbarism in it.” As much said the Greeks of that which Flaminius brought into their country, and Philip, beholding from an eminence the order and distribution of the Roman camp formed in his kingdom by Publius Sulpicius Galba, spake to the same effect. By which it appears how cautious men ought to be of taking things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and that we are to judge by the eye of reason and not from common report.”

Montaigne is telling us to judge things as they are, and to find out for ourselves, rather than just listening to what people say and basing our opinions on that. If only more people did this with everything, I think we would end up with a better world, though one cannot possibly research everything.

That said, Montaigne begins his essay this way to warn us about making judgments about the tribes from the Americas. He says that the nations of people there are not barbarians, but they are closer to nature. I think this is probably the beginnings of the idea of the ‘noble savage.’

Montaigne writes that these people have “no use of service, riches or poverty…the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.” In describing their society, he says that the most important attribute is valor in war, and that the wars are fought solely to prove the manhood of the combatants because there is enough land and food for everyone. They are just testing themselves. Those who are most valorous have the most wives but all property is held in common, according to Montaigne. Those who are captured in war are taunted, teased, and prodded so as to get them to beg for mercy, but that the proudest thing the captive would do would be to invite his captors to eat his flesh, because the captive had eaten the captors’ ancestors and family members.

In all of this talk, Montaigne also described the Americans’ reaction to things they had seen when they had visited the King of France, Charles IX and the city of Rouen.

“After which, some one asked their opinion…what of all the things they had seen, they found most to be admire?….They said that in the first place, they thought it very strange, that so many tall men wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king (‘tis like they meant the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and that they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer such so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats or set fire to their houses.”

It is a good thing Occupy Wall Street was reading Montaigne and using this passage to guide their actions. Wall Street might still be on fire. The cannibals view the world simply as one where those who display the most valor get the spoils. It is a meritocracy of battle, but one that is pure in that the goal is not to take ground but instead to fight well.

This idea of people being able to earn their way based on their performance is a seductive one, and we like to believe that it exists in our lives. The meritocracy argument is often used by Wall Street to justify salaries and bonuses. One wonders what Montaigne’s Cannibals would have thought of them. All the same, it has its limits. When, post-bailout, companies that received government money argued they had to pay high salaries in order to retain talent, that seemed to be generally accepted by society and the government. But, was it true? What were the investment bankers going to do if they did not receive the salaries and bonuses that they did? Those skills are not readily transferable to another industry, and there is no other industry offering as many positions at comparable pay scales. Stepping back for a minute from the morality question, even in terms of “The Market” that has become the object of its own fundamentalism, there does not seem to be a competing buyer for those bankers at that price.

The question raised by the Cannibals about obeying a child is also interesting, because it essentially says that the emperor has no clothes. When nothing but heredity is the deciding factor for leadership, it seems the meritocracy concept has broken down. It makes sense that a child should not lead grown men, but the concept of what merit meant was twisted. Meritocracy at its best can be quite democratic.

On the other side, for the sake of argument, let’s say that there is a meritocracy somewhere, and that in that place, everyone is truly judged by their merits and performance. One could argue that exists in sports, where playing the game well is what really counts. Still, Montaigne gives us a lesson in the limits there by telling us about the priests and prophets of the Cannibals.

“This prophet declaims to them in public, exhorting them to virtue and their duty: but all their ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives. He also prophesies to them events to come, and the issues they are to expect from their enterprises, and prompts them to or diverts them from war: but let him look to’t; for if he hail in his divination, and anything happen otherwise than he has foretold, he is cut into a thousand pieces, if he be caught, and condemned for a false prophet: for that reason, if any of them has been mistake, he is no more heard of.”

There is the other limit to meritocracy – you can’t get it right or be perfect all of time. There will be times when you screw up, when things won’t go your way. If everything is based on your last performance, then you will face a lot of ups and downs. The problem is that those who do well have advantages, and we don’t all start from scratch with every undertaking. So it is important to keep our performance and everyone else’s in mind as a totality. We should seek to improve when we can, and understand and learn from our mistakes. There needs to be a moderating force on meritocracy to keep us from losing it all at the first one.