Category Archives: History, General

Is this the story a more thoughtful Trump would tell?

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Some try to explain Trump’s rise by citing local causes like Hillary or the wall.  But there’s something  happening all over the world.  Why?  And why now?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life.  These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.”  Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance.  In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other.  For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups.  Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).

Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others.  Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.”  But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.

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Western colonial empires covered most of the world.  

First, unprecedented planetary war.  War was normal, but the scale of this war was not.  All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other.  One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating.  Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.

Secondly, they didn’t want to.  Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states.  This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress.  Instead, the opposite was true.  Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.”   This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion.  In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit.  This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states.  Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.

Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves.  They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression.  At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened.  Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra.  As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.”  These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority.  They didn’t want to.  It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”

But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt.  They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity.  Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state.  Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.

For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million.  They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014.  In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members.  The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million.  They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period.  In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.

This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China.  Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate).  China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total.  If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate).  Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food.  In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country.  In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.

Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity.  They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc.  Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process

The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization.  Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness.  Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture.  Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own.   They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory.  They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.

These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states.  In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again.  They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it.  New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s.  To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either.  Many were racist.  But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.

Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions.  Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life?  Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture?   Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state?  When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally?  Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”?  Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side.  Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share?  (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time.  I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.)  If it’s not, should it be?

I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life.  In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long.  A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did.  When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard.  I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too.  Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged  American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist.  That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post).  While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals.  This was expected of me and I was fine with it.  How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables?   But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way.  Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.

So is our future a world of states or nation-states?  I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for.  Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.”  Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.

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I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.  My Mommy and Daddy loved me and named me Jeremy.  But that is a super foreign sounding word in Taiwan, so I took a local name too that was easier for locals to remember and pronounce.  It seemed helpful and appropriate to me and I figured that’s the way it worked everywhere.  So it feels strange that I haven’t been able to find an English-speaking culture where the members would feel comfortable having the same expectation of Taiwanese long-term residents that the Taiwanese had of me.  It’s not racism.   It’s just hard to make friends and influence people if they can’t say your name.  


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I also lived in Hong Kong for a while.  My brother (right) still lives there with his family.  Last time my wife and I went to visit, there was a Chinese traditional opera that was performing in the local square.  Apparently the troupe travels around Hong Kong performing for local communities at the public expense.  America certainly does some things that are somewhat similar (e.g. the Smithsonian), but nothing comes to mind quite like that.   Sometimes I wonder about why.  

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The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:

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As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:

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Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).

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Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


2nd Amendment—What’s it really about?

What gun-rights does the 2nd amendment really protect?  When I studied the amendment itself, I was shocked to discover that much of what I thought it meant was bullshit.  In fact, its an amendment only a Democrat could love.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is, undoubtedly, a strangely worded sentence.  I am not sure if the second comma means “and” or “which is.”  Regardless, for the last few decades (Zakaria), the understanding of this amendment has come to mean that it protects an individuals right to bear arms. However, it seems more likely that this amendment is meant preserve the power of the states and other communities in the face of federal overreach.  Washington DC, in other words, can take away the guns in your closets, but not the guns in your community armory; it can potentially take away your handguns, but not your well-regulated militias.

I want to explore some of these terms to better put us in the historic context.

Militia – In 1787, there was no standing federal army.  For years, any attempt to create one was considered suspect.  When Washington called one up to crush the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, it was a highly contentious move.  Most of the colonists wanted to keep federal military might to a minimum (they would be appalled at the size of the federal armed forces today); if a war was necessary, the militias should be called up, not a federal army.  Of course, a federal army was eventually created, but the thought was that state and local militias would always serve as a deterrent to federal power.  The single individual, one should note, was never thought of as a militia.  Militias were always formed via a geographically bound cooperative—state, municipal, county, etc.  After all, what could one man do with one musket?  On their own, individuals had no ability to check federal power.

well-regulated –  Militias, and individuals, were always seen as potentially destructive groups that could quickly turn into roving bands, plundering lands far from their own homes while unsympathetic commanders looked the other way.  Indeed, the founding fathers loved democracy and feared the people at the same time.  This was the rationale, for instance, behind the creation of the electoral college.  It is also why we have a representative democracy, and not a true direct democracy like Ancient Athens, where we, as a people, would vote directly on policy (i.e., should we invade iraq?).  With this fear, colonial Americans of all stripes expected that militias themselves would always be accountable to some sort of local government.  In other words, there was no such conception as a “private militia.”  The individual or group was not supposed to take the law into their own hands.  They had to be connected to local government and subject to it.

being necessary for the security of a free State – The point of having militias, according to the second Amendment, is the security of a free State.  Free states, in other words, required well-regulated militias that were more loyal to them than to the federal government.  The whole Bill of Rights, after all, was an attempt to limit the power of the federal government; Washington must not be allowed to limit the states ability to arm themselves with responsibly-regulated militias.

the people – Is the right of the people to keep and bear arms an individual right or is it a group right?  If “the people” is Joe and Ted, then yes, the 2nd amendment might guarantee Joe’s right to keep and bear arms at his house.  But this is unlikely, considering the context of the first few clauses and how “the people” is used throughout the Constitution.

The phrase, “the people,” is used 9 times in the Constitution.  It is mainly used to describe one enormous will—some sort of collective being even.

  1. In the preamble, “We the people  of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  It seems absurd to think that the people here refers to Joe and Ted.  Certainly some Joes and Teds were not a fan of the creation of the federal government.  Rather, the majority of the people were speaking through their representatives, and their representatives were in turn speaking together, with one voice.  That voice is the people, and the wishes of “the people” is not the same as the wishes of every single individual.
  2. Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the Several States.”  Obviously, “the People” here cannot refer to individuals, but the will of the majority—house members do not have to be unanimously approved by every individual.
  3. In the first Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  In this instance, “the people” has the right to act as a group which assembles and petitions government.  It is also noteworthy that in prohibiting free exercise of religion and condemning speech, or the press “the people” is not mentioned, which might mean that they are supposed to be individual rights.
  4. In the 2nd Ammendment, it is mentioned in the context of groups, i.e. militias, but of course I cannot use this instance of “the people” to prove my point.
  5. The fourth Amendment:  “”The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”  This appears to be an exception to my interpretation of “the people.”  Here, it likely means “all individuals.”
  6. The 9th amendment, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  I am not sure about this one.  Could go either way, but there is not much to go on.
  7. The 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  This one implies that “the people” are smaller than states.  That might mean individuals, but it also might mean counties, townships, etc.
  8. The 17th Amendment: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people.”   Like the second instance, “the people” cannot mean to refer to “all individuals.”
  9. Again in the 17th Amendment: “…the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”  Like the second and eighth instance, “the people” here cannot refer to “all individuals.”

So of the 9 instances where “the people” is used in the Constitution, 4 must be referring to collectiveness, 2 are likely referring to collectiveness, 1 is entirely unclear, and 1 is likely referring to individual rights, and 1 is definitely referring to individual rights.  I conclude that the Constitution uses “the people” differently.  Though usually it refers to groups speaking with one voice, context is king.  Because the 2nd Amendments emphasis on militias, I think it highly likely that “the people” here does not refer to all individuals.  Therefore, I cannot say that the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms is an individual right to own arms.

Arms – Today, you and I cannot imagine the advancements in technology that will be in place 226 years from now.  Even 26 years ago, this was a phone:

This phone was built and in use in 1987.

This model was built and in use in 1987.

Today’s “phone” has a bit more uses:

iPhone with rotary phone app.

iPhone with rotary phone app.

Do you remember when phones only made calls?  I remember the old rotary phones.  Of course, they, like iPhones, were called “phones.”  But it would be absurd to think that all thinking about rotary phones 26 years ago applies to the iPhone of today.  Imagine where “phones” will be in 226 years?

In other words, technologically-based concepts like “phones” are plastic; they stretch and change enormously across times.  So too, is the term “arms.”  226 years ago, when the 2nd Amendment was written, this was an ‘arm’:

Revolutionary war-era musket

Revolutionary war-era musket

These muskets were accurate about 30-40 yards out and trained individuals could fire 3 rounds per minute.  Pistols, likewise, had to be loaded the same way.  After the civil war we slowly got automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  And, of course, with the modern sniper rifle, scopes, etc., an “arm” has enormously more destructive power.

The AR-15 is a weapon protected as an “arm” under the 2nd Amendment.  The Colorado shooter legally purchased one before shooting 70 people in the summer of 2012

The AR-15 is a weapon protected as an “arm” under the 2nd Amendment. The shooter legally purchased one before shooting 70 people in a Colorado movie theater in the summer of 2012

The AR-15, for example, shoots 800 rounds per minute and has an effective range of 400-600 meters.  226 years ago, the founding fathers would have been entirely unable to imagine that this was possible,  they did not know about handguns (revolvers did not come for another 50 years), tanks, bomber aircraft (or any aircraft), and of course the atomic bomb.  They were as clueless then as we are when we try to imagine what arms will be like in 226 years for today, in 2239 A.D.

If not now, at some point, shouldn’t we rethink what an “arm” is and what sensible rules around “arms” might be?  Fortunately, the right to amend our constitution is a constitutional right too.  In fact, Jefferson though that we should have a new constitutional convention every four years, and re-write the thing completely if necessary.  He thought it was tyrannical to subject future generations to laws or systems that might no longer make sense, and that they themselves were not a part of creating.  Prescient, but I would not go as far as re-writing the constitution.  It has been and will be an extraordinary document for centuries to come.  In fact, we do not need to change the 2nd amendment at all.  We simply need to recognize what the Amendment protects and what it does not.

Based on my research, this what I have concluded about the 2nd Amendment:

  • The 2nd Amendment stops the federal government from disbanding well-regulated militias.  States and local governments can form, equip, and train, and must strictly control, groups of individuals who are subject to the authority of local government and act on its behalf.  The local government can arm that group with all the arms necessary for the security of the state.
  • However, if that group is not well-regulated, or is not a group at all, and is not subject to local government, the 2nd Amendment does not offer protection.  Specifically, the 2nd Amendment does not protect the individual right to handguns, automatic or semi-automatic weapons of any type, conceal and carry, grenades, and especially not a basement arsenal.  All “arms” must be used in the context of a well-regulated militia, or, in a word, community.
  • The is my conclusion on what the 2nd Amendment means, but not on what it should mean.  That is another debate entirely, a policy debate, in this blog I have  been attempting interpretation only.

Wars, in 1791, were fought by muskets and cannon, and that is all they knew.  By allowing militias to use muskets and cannon, the founding fathers wished to ensure small communities would be free.  Of course, this is no longer a viable defense when the weapons of war are so expensive (one F-22A fighter costs $150 million).  We have to rely on larger and larger communities to be able to create serious security forces.  But we forget that even muskets were very expensive for American farmers in the 1790s.  Many did not own one.  For this reason, the local township often kept an arsenal which they would use to supply its citizens in the case of, for example, native american raids. Armories, therefore, served an important function of providing a militia with weapons of war yet also controlling their use.  Those who bear arms had to be supervised, trained, and made subject to the authority of the community.

This seems brilliant to me. Crazy people, like the Aurora shooter, would never have gotten guns if he had to participate in a community in order to gain access to them.  So, I suppose you might say I am a supporter of 2nd Amendment rights, but my interpretation might be a little different.


Concept Listening: A Dinner Party Idea

Cigars have scotch.  Peanut butter has chocolate.  Pizza has beer.  Connoisseurs everywhere recognize that by cleverly pairing pleasurable experiences both can be enhanced and blended into something exponentially greater.

While listening to music yesterday as I biked around DC, I realized that these same enhancing dynamics might apply to pairings between particular pieces of music and a particular ideas.  Of course, this is done all the time in movies and musicals where songs are composed for a specific moment in a story.  But these moments are highly structured.  They do not free the imagination because they impose a specific bounded vision.  They also tend to mold the music to fit the story, instead of the story to fit the music.  This is fine, but something is lost.  Something pure and abstract in the music is ignored.

I propose a fun activity to do with a small group of friends.  Each person is responsible to pair a chosen concept with a chosen song and articulate the concept to the group.  Then together the group quietly listens to the song and talks afterward about the experience.  This is a chance to get your artistic hats on.  Of course, the more creative pairings (that still work), the better.  And note, lyrics are not relevant.  This is about the mood and abstract meaning that the music offers and the relationship it develops  with the concept in the cinema of your imagination.  The key: focus only on this activity (dimming lights is good, multi-tasking is bad) and let your imagination run free.

I call this activity concept listening as it is analogous to the popular concept album, an album that crafts its songs to contribute to a theme or overall story.  In concept listening however, the listener picks the concept, which is more explicitly stated, and picks a single song.

Last night, Alicia and I tried concept listening.  We did the idea/song pairing below and enjoyed an amazing shared experience.  Though we have heard this song many times, the concept made the song seem completely fresh to us. I hope you enjoy it.

Is it?  

Yes it is coming.  

The captain orders the crew into action.  A grizzled, bearded man and a younger friend pull an oar on a tireme, an Athenian warship, as it struggles to outrun one of the Aegean’s dreaded winter storms.  They row mightily, land comes into sight, but the wind picks up, chaotically whistling through the sails, and they realize they are too late.  Though the crew is already weary, the captain turns the prow back out to sea.  Their only hope now is to wether the storm.

As two hundred crewmen row in unison, for all they are worth, against mammoth cresting waves, likely death brings a strangely vital and shared energy.  Waves pound.  Salt spray soaks their beards.  And they face the thrill of death together.

song (moulin rouge tango de Roxanne)

Let know what you think!  If you have pairing ideas please share.

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, Turner, by Joe Scotland

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, by Joe Scotland


Why Wars Start

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was working on a new manuscript on pacifism and just war theories.  One pacifist claim I was thinking about is the notion that violence begets violence.  Undoubtedly, this insight is true and useful for understanding cyclical violence, but I started finding wars where violence did not beget violence, or where at least one has to make conceptual somersaults or view history through a strong ideological lens to make it true.

So I set about exploring the roots of 172 wars and conflicts, including the 100 biggest wars in known history (by estimated death toll), all of America’s wars (I am American-ish and it is the biggest superpower), and nearly all important wars in the last 75 years (warfare is changing in nature). I am coding conflicts’ origins and how the war was waged with an evolving schema of 37 reasons for why wars start (triggers and underlying causes).  So far I have completed the 43 largest wars in history.  It has taken me approximately 250 hours of work (just under 5 hours per war).

Why am I doing all this?  Four reasons.

First, second, and third, I can experience spiritual clarity for myself as I attempt to comprehend atrocity, indulge my love of history, and simultaneously satisfy my vain desire to win arguments.  At the end of the process, I can say with some level of certainty that I know why wars start.  I can also disabuse idiotic notions.  For instance, many people, notably pacifists, believe that wars start because of a lack of moral fiber.  However, of the 115 warring parties I have examined, I have found exactly four warring parties whose dominant actors likely considered their involvement in the war to be immoral.

Of these four, only one played an important role in starting the conflict itself: the Yan Dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion.  Therefore, I can say with some certainty that cruel intentions do not start wars. Also, from my research so far, I think that violence does beget wars, but it is not one of the top reasons why most wars start. By the way, again from this preliminary work, religion does not appear to be a major cause either.

My fourth and final reason for looking at why wars start is to end wars.  Once we have figured out why wars start, we might figure out patterns, leverage points, and ways to end them, and be able to guide masses of people in modern democracies towards that end.  Of course, I will fail at this if I am doing all this research myself.  Even people who know me and trust my intelligence and goodwill will wonder about my biases and where I am getting my information.

So here is the big idea:  Enlist a host of intellectuals in identifying the historical causes of warfare and run the numbers. Someone somewhere (not me, I hope, because I have other big ideas that interest me more) needs to get a foundation on board to figure out and coordinate a global effort. From what I understand, some of these activities are being done to various extents. I do not know who, if anyone, is doing them all.

  1. Identify a core team of historians and political scientists to create a rubric for judging the reasons for wars (like my schema).   
  2. Identify ethnically and politically diverse teams of historians who can summarize the historical account of the causal chain that produced a war, how it was waged, and the mindset of the major participants.
  3. Pilot the schema and 172 war descriptions with 10 intellectuals who will grade the reasons for why the war started.
  4. Adjust schema and summaries as needed.
  5. Recruit the top 150 intellectuals in the world with diverse political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to grade each war.
  6. Run the numbers.

The goal: at the end of the day, we can know objectively, or as close we can get to objectivity, why wars start. Of course, the process might be different. For example, we might rely solely on historians to identify the causes according to my rubric, but the goal is still the same.

Some possible findings:

  • We might find out that wars start for very innocuous reasons that are preventable or at least predictable.  For example, the biggest cause of wars that I have seen so far is the emergence of power vacuums.  This, of course, is not the cause of all wars, but it has been a primary cause of 29 out of the 43 I have studied so far.  An obvious example of an exception would include the Jewish wars against the Roman occupation.  
  • We might find that violence does in fact beget violence.
  • We might find that wars are caused by inequality.
  • Moreover, we might discover the causes of different types of wars.  Civil wars, from my research, often have very different causes than wars between nations, as do ongoing unresolved conflicts that span generations (e.g., Isreal/Palestine).  Perhaps, conflicts with such different structures should not be compared.

Being able to have some objectivity when making the claims about the historical causes of warfare, especially the wars waged in the last 50 years, might help focus our discussions on the biggest causes and have numerous other benefits.

So now I am left wondering. Who is already doing this?  I talked to Alicia about this and she mentioned how some people are doing similar things at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute. I need to learn about this more, but for now, I thought I would share the idea and see if I could get any thoughts.


Remember When Dinosaurs Blew Your Mind?

Yup! Stegosaurs really existed.

The topic of dinosaurs, like space travel, strikes me as silly childhood fantasy, that is until I spend exactly 4 minutes learning about it and find myself wanting to devote my life to its study.  The last time I thought about dinosaurs I was a kid.  Like most thoughts I had when I was a kid, I do not trust them, as I am sure they were not based in reality.  So I was happy to discover in a lecture series, “Behold, the Mighty Dinosaur” by Dr. John Kircher out of Wheaton University, that there were indeed extremely large and bizarre giant lizards that walked the earth.  Yes; there really were 100 ton plant eaters.  Yes; there were Stegosaurs that had giant bony plates along it’s back and spikes in it’s tail.  Yes; they really did exist millions of years ago and were mysteriously wiped out.

What were they?

This is the wrong posture.

Dinosaurs were not lizards exactly.  They did not drag their tales, like a crocodile as paleontologists used to think.  We have found many dinosaur tracks, but no tail impressions.  Instead they walked holding their tails in the air, usually balancing their neck and head straight out in front of them.

This is more accurate posture.

They were also were not slow moving or basking in the sun all day trying to heat themselves up.  Instead, evidence now suggests that they were endothermic (warm-blooded) and lived very active lives.  Alicia and I just went to the Colombo Zoo last weekend and, let me tell you as pedantically as possible, it is no fun to watch lizards.  They don’t do shit.  Monkeys, guinea pigs, and birds are great; they are constantly on the move, playing games, fighting, etc.  Alicia and I even had a giraffe follow us around; we are pretty sure it liked white people for some reason (pictures to come later).

Dinosaurs have only one descendant that lives today, and that is birds.  The ostrich is perhaps the closest thing we have to a dinosaur.  (Check out Ostrich feet the next time you see them and think “dinosaur.”)

However, some of the big ones might have become more cold-blooded as they got bigger so as to substantially slow their metabolism.  This would allow a dinosaur five times the size of a full-grown African elephant to only need the energy the elephant needed.  In other words, on African safaris, we would see just as many animals, but they would all be bigger.

There really could have been enormous plant-eaters everywhere.

When were they?

This prof was a Wheaton professor, a good ole’ evangelical school, and he was telling me that dinosaurs lived between 65 million years ago and 245 million years ago.  Many dinosaurs went extinct and evolved during that time; in fact a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have never battled a Stegosaurus, because the former was alive in the late Cretaceous and the latter in the Early Jurassic, nearly 100 million years apart.

To put this in perspective, Earth is guessed by scientists to be 4,500 million years old, but things did not get very interesting until 500 million years ago.  After that vertebrates started coming (animals with spines), than land vertebrates, and then the dinosaurs, until 65 million years ago, when they suddenly disappeared from the fossil record.  From then on exactly zero dinosaurs, except birds, appear in the sedimentary rock.

Why did dinosaurs suddenly and completely die off 65 million years ago.?

In addition to all non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites (type of mollusk), mosasaurs (large sea-faring reptiles), and many types of mammals went extint, along with plants, even a type of extremely plentiful sea amoeba.

There is evidence of two catastrophic events.  The first is a series of volcanic eruptions called the Deccan Traps.  You should know this word.  Use it in poetry and you will sound cool…”My anger is a fiery tumult mightier than the Deccan Traps!”  They are huge volcanoes which covered half of modern day India with lava flows and the whole world with dust and ash.

But the Deccan Traps’ numerous eruptions would have slowly affected the globe over millions of years, maybe even 8 million years (68-60 million years ago), which is not the sudden change that the fossil record shows.   We also need something more harmful and more immediate, which points scientists to the Chicxulub impact.

The Grand Canyon is 18 miles across.

65 million years ago a rock six miles across hit what is now the southern Gulf of Mexico with a force 2 million times bigger than the biggest ever detonated atomic bomb.  It created a crater 112 miles in diameter.  It would have immediately destroyed all life in the hemisphere; the T-Rex’s that ranged over North America were all dead right away; and covered that world in a cloud of soot and dust that poured acid rain, burned off the vegetation, and killed anything that was not small enough to hide—impact winter.  It left a thin layer of sediment, the K-Pg Boundary, found all over the world with dinosaur fossils below it and none above it.  It also contains high levels of Iridium, common on asteroids and not common on earth.

An artist imagines the Chixculub impact, which vaporized all life nearby and started a nuclear winter around the world.

Whatever the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event was, it led to the rise of mammals, which had been living alongside the dinosaurs, but now had a wide open world to populate, and these mammals, apparently, led to us.  Ironically, there were some smart dinosaurs that possibly could have evolved into intelligent creatures.  Brain size roughly correlates with species’ intelligence, and there are some dinosaurs that had a brain to body ratio about halfway between dolphins and chimps and us.  Were there dinosaurs capable of language?  Would we have cities of dinosaurs now, with dinosaur presidents and dinosaur punk rockers?

And now for some random facts:

Dinosaurs were quite possibly extremely colorful.  Many could have had feathers.  Many could have had strange anatomical features which could not fossilize, like trunks or skin flaps.

A sauropod protects her young.

Those big Sauropod plant eaters probably did not chew a thing.  The only way their enormous bodies could be fed by such tiny heads is if they just stripped plants and swallowed.  Smooth stones have been found in the rib cages that they think were swallowed to aid in digestion, like some birds do, like Ostriches, who can swallow stones up to 10 cm across.

Because these Sauropods were so enormous, we do not know why they had such long necks.  They would have towered over most any tree that was around.  My personal theory is simple: long necks were a big dinosaur turn-on.

T-Rex’s often suffered from gout and, as one aged, probably became more of a scavenger than a hunter.

The biggest flying dinosaur had a colossal 40 ft. wingspan.  That blows my mind.  It was an actual thing!  Not some disney character.

Everyone who loves history has a moment when they realize how real history was; Napoleon and Thucydides was as real then as you or me are now.  In the last week, I was simply overjoyed to discover that this Lost World of childhood fantasy turned out to be history.  Dinosaurs really did live on this earth and roamed lands on which we all now tread—where we write and read blog posts.  (I even categorized this post under ‘History.’)

And we still live in the age of giants.  The biggest animal ever, at 180 tons, happens to be  around today: the blue whale.

Cool…


Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

So in addition to strategic planning with Habitat, and relaxing, this summer I have been drafting a manuscript on just-war theory and pacifism.  As part of that project, I am conducting a survey of about 150 major wars and conflicts throughout recorded history.  I want to get some sense of what actually causes wars and when they might be justified.  I have finished 40 so far and it is, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 in China, where potentially 15% of the worldwide population was wiped out.   I also discovered that Afghanistan was a very peaceful and stable monarchy from 1933-1973 that was progressively modernizing.  Trouble started when a progressive king pushed democratic reforms, which led to communists finding their way into the government, which led to a backlash, which led to a communist coup, which led to a soviet invasion, and the rest is history.

I will post more random observations that may or may not find their way into the manuscript, but I wanted to share one right now that likely will not: it is interesting how in earlier epochs of history military power was surprisingly unconnected to money and economic power.  In an earlier time, though still unlikely, the little guy could really take on the big guy and win.  Today, economic might is tied directly to military might, and the rich country is, almost automatically, the more powerful. Obviously, the country that can produce more tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition, food, etc., should generally win.  However, before the industrial revolution, a bigger economy did not guarantee your safety and better military technology was not automatically had through vibrant industry.  Consider these examples:

  1. Ancient greece before Pericles or the Aetolian League was, compared to it’s neighbors Egypt and Persia for example, a cultural backwater of poor sots, of city-states trying to scratch out a living on relatively infertile lands and a comparatively fish-less sea.  Egypt was already a well-established and wealthy civilization.  When the Athenians and Spartans fought the Persians, it was roughly equivalent to America fighting Honduras, and Honduras winning.  The greeks might not have had much money, or commerce, or industry, but they had the phalanx, and that was enough to defend themselves against the mighty Persian empire.
  2. Even within the Greeks, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece, and beat the Athenians at the height of Athenian power.  But they were famously poor.  Please enjoy the following quote from Thucydides that I love dearly (I neglected to include this when I first published this post).  It comes at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history, and makes a clear point: wealth does not equal power.”Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly skeptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”  Source.   Emphasis added.
  3. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered the persians, and the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and others too.  He did not have much more money.  Instead, he had a phalanx too, but one in which they got rid of their shields so they could hold longer spears.
  4. Rome, that pantheon of wealth and economic power, fell prey to relatively poor barbarian hordes.
  5. The mongols were poor nomadic peoples whose hordes conquered the wealthy Chinese civilization, the wealthy Persians, and many others.  Those steppe peoples had excellent cavalry, but very little money or economic power.
  6. The nomadic Arabs conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia, the Byzantines, etc., and they also did not have incredible economic might.
  7. The English under queen Elizabeth went up against the mighty Spanish, who were far superior in money and arms, and yet were still defeated.

The list goes on…

It is hard to imagine this world because it is so different from our own.  Our basic understanding of geopolitics is thwarted.  Imagine if the richest countries in the world fearing invasion by poor neighbors who might covet foreign wealth.  This is a world where the United States would fear an invasion by Haiti, and where starving Haitians figure they might try their hand at an invasion, since, after all, it might succeed.

In theory, I like the old world.  I like the romance of powerful peasant countries.  But perhaps, in our new world order, war will become increasingly unlikely because a poor country can’t just invade a rich country because they covet foreign wealth.  But it also means that the rich will get richer, and their wealth will be unavailable to the poor, even if they are incredible soldiers led by Alexander the Great himself.

But maybe I am wrong.  But what about Vietnam?   What about Afghanistan?  Aren’t these modern examples of the little economy beating the big economy?  Perhaps, or perhaps these are exceptions that prove the rule, or perhaps victory of the little guy over the big guy is still possible—at least when the little guy’s military equipment is being shipped in from rival big guys’.


Adams vs. Jefferson Repeat in 2012

In 1800, John Adams was accused of being an out of touch, arrogant, elitist while his opponent, Jefferson, won with the image of a real American, a man of the people, and a champion of liberty.  For example, in a well-publicized national discussion, when the new republic was trying to decide what to call the president, Jefferson pushed for the title “Mr. President” while John Adams was willing to call him “His Excellency” or something that lent the position more gravitas.  Adams, spending years abroad in England and France, was viewed as having been poisoned by aristocratic and foreign sensibilities and communism was to Joe McCarthy’s USA as monarchy was to Jefferson’s.  As part of the Federalist Party, albeit a reluctant member, Adams wanted to consolidate government power while Jefferson, of the people, by the people, and for the people, had spent his whole life in America and was the people’s man.  He wanted their freedom and saw the small-holding farmer, as opposed to industry, as central to American life.

But biography is ironic.  Jefferson was the son of a rich plantation owner.  At age 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 slaves, livestock, his father’s notable library, and a gristmill.  In 1768, he used his slaves to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello.  In 1773, the year after Jefferson married a young widow, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres and 135 slaves.  With these additional slaves, Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albermarle County with one of the biggest estates. The number of slaves from this time forward would fluctuate around 200.

Jefferson enjoyed an enormous income for his entire life, yet was almost always deeply in debt.  He spent lavishly and was constantly remodeling Monticello for no particular or practical purpose.  He spent great sums of money while abroad, especially in France, where he enjoyed the French aristocracy and their way of life.  He loved fine wine, expensive furnishings, and speculation, and died 1-2 million in debt.

Adams, on the other hand, was raised by a farmer who farmed the land himself.  Young Adams loved farming and he ran a farm his entire life, which he worked whenever possible, shoveling manure and plowing fields without the aid of slaves.  (Adams thought the only sensible investment was in land.)  As a boston lawyer, he had trouble making ends meet, and had to farm.  He hated taking cases without merit.  In fact, he took the case defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre, the case that launched his public career, in part because he was having trouble finding work.

Throughout his public career, Adams was frugal with his modest income, especially while serving abroad in the company of high socieity, which, unlike Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, he hated.  He could not stand the theatrics, the sleaziness, the politics, the make-up, the decadence, or the rich food; it disgusted him and he never fit in.  In fact, Franklin had the Continental Congress recall Adams against his will because he was too blunt and impolite; he was a “bull in a china cabinet.”

Nonetheless, for decades, no matter what he did, Adams could not shake the public image of an elitist snob who had been poisoned by foreigners, and Jefferson won the 1800 election.

Barack Obama has also been called an out of touch, arrogant elitist.  I hear it daily.  Indeed, he has given some fodder for this charge.  During his 2008 campaign, he mentioned that rural Americans can “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  He called the economy “fine” a few weeks ago.  He spent some parts of his life in foreign countries.  Maybe he is out of touch with real America?

But Obama, we must remember, was raised by a single mom who worked for non-profits.  Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire, Governor of Michigan, Sec. of HUD, and ran for President against Nixon.

Obama finished paying off his school debt in 2004 and, though he is a millionaire now, only became one from book sales after his 2008 campaign picked up.  Romney, on the other hand, is worth over $250 million, making him the richest man ever to run for president — he always has been the 1%.

Obama was a community organizer working closely with underserved populations in Chicago before he became a lawyer, professor, state senator, Senator, and then President.  Mitt Romney worked as a Mormon missionary in France, a high-powered business consultant, a wildly successful venture capitalist executive for 14 years with an initial $37 million, chaired the 2002 Winter Olympics, became governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007, and has been running for President ever since.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what “out of touch” is supposed to mean.  Everyone is “in touch” with something.  As for me, I like Obama because he, like me, is multi-cultural and has been exposed to poverty.  Like me, he knows what it is like to worry about school debt and making ends meet since the majority of his life he paid close attention to electricity bills, travel expenses, and food prices.  He understands why they are important.  Romney seems like a good guy, but he has been enormously wealthy nearly his entire life.  Romney is Wall Street to Obama’s Main Street.

Did you hear about the $12 million expansion to his Ocean Front property in San Diego?  It includes a car elevator.  But car elevators can be super cool right?  Romney could be just a rich guy having everyman fun, like Obama when he enjoys the perks of bringing the musicians he loves to perform in the White house, or flying up to NYC for a dinner and a show with Michelle.  But surely all excess does not signal everyday humanity.  Maybe some excess is just excessive, such as the time and ink spent on this whole discussion of who is more ‘out of touch.’

So, vote for Obama?  It’s not really my point.  Instead, let’s just all try mightily not be as out of touch as the electorate in 1800.


I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.


Sri Lankan Church Bulletin Quotes Teddy Roosevelt

Today I went to the Grace Evangelical Church here in Wellewatte, a southern suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and ran across a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that was printed in the bulletin.

“It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood…and who…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Right now I am meandering through a colossal audio series of 90 lectures on American history, and I am eager to get to Roosevelt.  The man was uber egotistical, great, and terrible, but besides the elitist desire exhibited in this quote to be set apart from lesser, more timid souls, I think he is right on the money.  I had a hard time paying attention to the sermon cause I was thinking about Teddy and failure.

More and more, I have come to feel comfort in failure because it is a sign that I am in the game.  Of course, we should never love failing, but we can take pride in it.  There is great dignity in having your business fail, a lover leave you, or receiving rejections from potential employers or schools.  All one can ever do is give it their best shot, and God and luck do the rest.  Instead, honor dies when our energy wans—when we remove ourselves from the “arena” of judgement so that we can pretend ourselves to be immeasurable.

Mostly unrelated to that: I find it interesting that so many great American politicians were never presidents, and were often more powerful figures than their contemporary presidents, and yet considered themselves to be failures because they did not become presidents: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglass…ok, I’m only to the 1860s.  I was trying to think of great politicians in modern times who did not become presidents, and I could not, at least not anyone of the stature of these men.  Any ideas?