Friday, February 29, 2008

Out of the mouths of clowns... (Wait, that's not right...)

Mystery Solved

Finally, an explanation for why I'm always right and you guys are always so misguided.


I can confidently predict that in the future... people will wonder why it took us so long to replicate something we were able to do in 1973... with a car from 1959. An Opel no less.

Makes you wanna throttle someone. Pun intended.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Is there a threat to Western civilization from radical/fundamentalist Islamic jihadists, or not?



Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Mermaid Sleeps...

It's risen to the top of the list of my all-time favorite headlines...
"Starbucks closes to learn how to make coffee"

Let your coffee cups rejoice!

Today at 5:30 PM, a day that Scott's dearest dream is fullfilled. At that hour, our nation will be - ever so briefly - Starbucks-free. For three hours, our nation will have to order 20oz things as... 20 oz things. No Vente, please, just gimme 20 ounces of sweet nectar of freedom! Yes, they are all closing. For only three hours, alas, but it's a start. Americans will be forced to seek their caffienation elsewhere...

There's coffee out there that's... you know... actually good.

Three whole hours where no one will sell you a coffee drink under the name of a different and unrelated coffee drink. Go to a real coffee shop and order a macchiato. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Take the time to discover that there are places where the beans aren't roasted to nubbins in the interest of removing all trace of regional characteristics so that every cup tastes the same as the last. Coffee isn't supposed to all taste the same! Every cup should be a different experience! The flavors should evoke the flavors of the region, and that region is not Seattle!

Wake up and realize that Starbucks isn't gourmet anything, it's the coffee equivalent of Budweiser or Franzia in a box!

Go out there and spend those three hours exploring the neighborhood, find the small roasters and hard-up locals. Need help? Try the yellow pages. Or go here or here.

Oh... and one more thing. If you happen across anyone claiming they're "Seattle's Best"... keep walking. They're not. Trust me, I live here. They're just one more tentacle of the mermaid, trying to entice you into running aground on the shoals of burnt, characterless coffee beans that lurk under the cool waters of her siren smile.

Keep looking, there's good coffee out there if you're willing to find it.

BIL and TED's Excellent Adventure...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On estupidment

Jules Crittenden has an interesting post on the "estupidment" of science, among other fields of endeavor. I've argued the same basic premise for awhile. I'm interested what others might think.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Local Politicians

This guy knocked on my door this morning. My wife let him in to warm up a bit. He was officially campaigning for Obama. When he asked her if she had thought about who she was going to vote for, she said, “I usually vote Republican.”

He replied, “I’ll put you down for ‘no’.”

I’m not sure if he meant that as an insult, or a joke, or if he was just cold enough that he was the one not thinking about his answer, but I thought it was funny.

Turns out he’s running for Congress himself (OH-3), and his name will be on the primary ballot in March against two “big-names.” He’s a Democrat, but apparently isn’t taking money or receiving approval from the Party to make his run.

He was nice enough, and we chatted for a few minutes. He didn’t say anything substantive about Obama, but he got me to check out his website. I’ve just scratched the surface, but I thought I’d share:

"Q: What’s the difference between an ad campaign and a political campaign?
A: In an ad campaign, if we don’t tell the truth, we get sued. In a political campaign, you get elected.
Face it, anytime you have to beg a few hundred million to get your message out- no matter who you are, you’ll owe to many favors to do any real change no matter who you are or what you say."

Then he has a ton of blog-like posts, like this one on Saving Downtown Dayton. His site is organized into categories, like “education” and “end corporate welfare.” One is called Backassward Ohio. And of course, there’s the obligatory You-Tube Video.

Anyway, he said he didn’t necessarily need my money (although it would be nice). But he did ask me to talk about him to my friends. So, guys, here it is. Should we invite him to contribute here?

(No comments about how he’s a libertarian-leaning Democrat, who’s slightly balding and named “David.” We need to look beyond those kinds of things…)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An inch deep...

One of the all-time great headlines... "Children are Not Decor"
NYT: Parents find the trendiness of late-life childrearing aesthetically challenging...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hey, look, it's Haley's Comet!

Keba points out that there is more to talk about in America than politics. As a fan of A-ball, I agree.

PS: If you have a minor league affiliate or an independent league team near you, consider paying a quarter of the price and visiting them. The baseball is better, the fans more entertaining, and the concessions won't give your checkbook a heart attack.


Living freely and happily in the land of “the Government should”

I have heard the collective gasp that I, an otherwise avowed libertarian, would grant the government the power to eavesdrop on my communications in order to prevent harm to myself, my fellow citizens, or my nation. “How can you possibly believe the government should have such power,” people ask. Bluntly, I think the government should have that power because the government works for me and because I believe in the system of checks and balances our system allows for.

Again, I point out that I am an active, engaged, participating citizen in a nation governed of, by, and for the people. Part of that engagement is that I understand, as a citizen, what tools I have available and what tools I am then willing to let the government use. I also understand that, if the government decides to take tools I do not allow for or fails to give tools back once it is done with them, I have options that I can exercise.

Perhaps, the problem that so many people have with this reasoning is that they want to give the government a carefully crafted blank check then be able to forget once that check has been issued. I, on the other hand, do not believe for a moment that the government should be able to do anything without the constant, hawkish watching of its citizens. This watching is the citizen’s role in republican “democracy” and is the price of liberty.

What strikes me as so odd about the current reaction to warrantless wiretapping and its associated issues is that people ignore their history and their practical application. People have this image of a monstrous, overpowering government watching over each and every one of us with Gestapo-like powers. If such a government comes into existence, then it is our fault for not stopping it.

Now some people, at this point will shout, “But that’s exactly what warrantless wiretapping is allowing to happen!” I argue, however, that is not what is happening at all. Instead, warrantless wiretapping represents the inevitable results of other choices, made a while ago, that limit our ability to effectively protect ourselves as a nation. Does warrantless wiretapping mean greater vigilance? Certainly. Does it mean the police state has come into its own? Absurd…

For those people who just cannot accept that warrantless wiretapping should be allowed, there are solutions. The broader power exercised by at least the past two administrations and the current one would not be necessary if we had not allowed our intelligence agencies to be decimated and hamstring since 1989. If our intelligence agencies had enough funding, manpower, and resources, they could pursue our enemies “over there” instead of having to do so from here. If our military had not been allowed to shrink to such a small size, we could keep our enemies over there instead of being worried about them coming here. If we had not allowed our diplomatic service to atrophy to the point where it cannot tell the difference between over there and here, we would not have this problem.

Warrantless wiretapping is the result of our own national laziness toward our own wellbeing. We want our government to protect us, to defend us, and to do the things we are unwilling or unable to do ourselves, but we are not willing to be vigilant enough to ensure that it can do the job. Is warrantless wiretapping the best answer? Hardly. If not, then how would you do it differently?


Manipulating the Market

President Bush does something that definitely should concern us.

With the constant concern over wiretapping, the war in Iraq, and healthcare, no one seems to be paying attention to the President's and Congress' direct intention to prevent the market from correcting itself, thereby creating worse economic realities down the road.

Free markets work best when they work freely. The dirty secret of this housing mess is that the people who are defaulting would have defaulted anyway. Many, many of these people bought way more than they could afford in markets they could not afford to live in. In the long run, the whole economy is better off shedding this weight now than waiting until we can't afford the credit at all.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Some Interesting Reading

The Wall Street Journal spreads lies as our Congress continues to cede away our right to privacy and encourge lawless behavior (at least among people with enough money to buy their influence).

And an interesting piece about the military's appeal to us which relates to a small piece of Denny's and my discussion in comments to another post.

And now... the news.

(Satire Alert!)

Friday, February 8, 2008

That's Life In the "Other" Washington...

Our primary/caucus system sucks.

"Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!"

Thanks Chris. You helped me solidify in my mind something that's been bugging me this whole time. Because my problem all along is simply that I didn't understand how anyone can cling to one issue to such a degree that he will (as I perceived it) blindly assign loyalties to the first candidate to raise his hand and say "I support/am against ____." Surely even such a large issue as the war isn't of a single dimension and cannot be solved as if it were. There are matters of diplomacy, war, strategy, and yes, the economy all of which play into the successful execution of a war strategy.

You helped me in my attempt to shoehorn Denny's thought process into my own in some manner, and for that I thank you... because I was about to give up.

And yet, I take issue with your summary of the argument insomuch as I still don't see what you're describing as a single-issue decision. If I weigh all of the factors, then the decision was a culmination of those factors pro and con. To borrow your example: if I'm out of peanut butter, the decision to go get more isn't merely weighed against the price of gas or the depth of the snow, but an assessment of the accumulated return on investment. Is a jar of peanut butter worth the return on a trip or do I wait? All factors are weighed, some given more weight than others, and some factors can indeed be equal. Hunger can only be my prime mover if I am either psychologically obsessed with peanut butter or we assume my cupboard is actually bare and my decision took on a portent beyond mere peanut butter. Otherwise, the thought experiment breaks down as I shrug and make grilled cheese.

Obviously I'm being a little silly, but as I see it, it's necessary to point out the very real peril of a wartime presidential election forces us to think in terms of portent and consequence in a manner in which we might normally let slide. In short, we cannot assume ideal circumstances in our experiment, which makes the conclusion that all decisions are ultimately single-issue driven overly simplistic. Your logic path is well and good when one of the two candidates speaks to at least one of your primary motivators, or if you're making a decision with multiple possible outcomes such as peanut butter or a car. But when the field of available choices is narrowed by outside forces, what do you do if no one meets your primary criterion? What if both of them do? ( Don't laugh, it could happen. If your core issue is certain aspects of immigration reform then all the candidates begin to look oddly similar...)

So... Do you stay home? Of course not.

Say that Denny wants to vote for a conservative candidate that speaks to his libertarian views on the narrow role of the presidency. Well and good, but none exists. So he goes down his list until he finds a candidate that speaks to the one thing remaining on his list that is written in red ink and votes for the guy he sees as best serving that issue -- in this case the war and that means McCain. McCain doesn't speak to his core issues - the role of the federal government - and neither do any of the others in either party. So he takes his second or third or tenth choice, moving down his list until he finds a candidate that suits him.

That's not single-issue voting. Or at least it doesn't fit my definition of single-issue voting. Which I admit is a summary of something I think Denny tried to say awhile back but it got drowned out. (My apologies)

I can't tell you how Denny thinks, per se. I can tell you that we disagree on certain salient details of constitutional law and one or two other things, and we agree that the government has taken too much power for itself and needs to cough it up. From recent discussions I've come to the following conclusion, and feel free to check me on this. What I see here is a decision made because his choices were limited for him by external forces and his more nuanced views could not be brought to play. That doesn't mean his choice lacks nuance or that he is ignoring the full panoply of issues. His core issues aren't being addressed by any of the candidates, so he has to chose based on the one core issue that is being addressed.

I retroactively object to calling this a "single- issue vote" simply because he only has one issue that he agrees with his candidate on. (Some of us should be so lucky.)

For most voters, the final decision comes down to weighed alternatives and sometimes, there is a single issue that puts one or the other over the top. But pretending that this is really voting on a single issue denies the complexity of the decision-making process.

Back to our decision-making & logic argument then. In a wide-open field with multiple possible choices and the very real possibility of getting close to your ideal choice, I see the equation working. In the binary state of the ballot, I think it breaks down.

In the binary decisions at the ballot box where we are constrained by the nature of the process from having the full panoply of choices to select from, this appears to be a single-issue decision but that doesn't make it so.

What about when the choice we would have made - based on the deal-breaking issue - isn't in the offing? Then a voter must then examine their views, match as many as possible to the expressed views and record of the candidates we do have to chose from, hold their noses and vote. In that case, the decision wasn't because of one issue, it was because the accumulation of multiple issues which tipped the scales in the direction of that candidate.

Decision making - even in constrained circumstances such as an election - is not often the result of a single deal-breaking issue burning a hole in your ballot (unless the candidates are so diametrically opposed as to become caricatures) but a series of conditional statements ("if____, then____") that ultimately lead to the most acceptable conclusion. Many factors weighed, some of them equally, building to a logical conclusion. Not one issue, but many contributing to our choice.

The more your available choices are narrowed for you, the more invisible this decision-making process becomes because external factors are limiting your ability to respond as you might or might want to. But that does not necessarily translate into a single-issue vote. And if it does, then the term is being artificially applied.

And yes, it's funny, but it's entirely possibly we could all end up voting for the same man for a whole host of different reasons. If I do, you can bet I'll have more than one of them... and here's the thing... and I think you will too.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


When people make decisions, there are three considerations which will usually ― consciously or unconsciously ― be a part of the decision-making process: (1) because, (2) in spite of, and (3) as long as. Let’s take a look.

Usually, we decide on a course of action because of a significant factor (or perhaps factors ― more on that later). I eat because I am hungry. I watch TV because I can’t or won’t think of anything better to do. I’ll go to the grocery store because I’m out of peanut butter.
But that’s not all. In all but the most simplistic decisions, we also decide on a course of action in spite of a significant factor or two that would indicate action to the contrary. I eat in spite of the fact that I don’t really need the calories. I watch TV in spite of the fact that I’ll be exposed to hours of odious advertising. And I’ll go to the grocery store for peanut butter in spite of the fact that it will cost me $1.69 in gas to do so.

And, whether we are conscious of it or not, our decisions usually involve action as long as a particular undesirable consequence does not occur, or as long as a suitable alternative does not exist. I eat as long as I don’t have to steal to do so. I watch TV as long as no one is around to have a conversation and a glass of Scotch with. And I go to the grocery store for peanut butter as long as I don’t have to shovel 8 inches of snow to do so.

All of which is a very long-winded way to say that human beings, when making almost any substantive decision, are wont to prioritize. Very few decisions are able to be boiled down to a simple, binary, either/or. There’s always another choice, or another “contributing factor” (there’s a plug for our blog!), or another complication to the decision-making process.

Say I need a vehicle. I need to consider many things. How many people will I need this vehicle to carry? What kind of gas mileage do I want? What sort of status do I wish to convey? What color do I like? What country’s industry do I want to support? How much money do I have to spend? How reliable do I want the vehicle to be? Whatever vehicle I end up buying, my decision-making formula will have looked something like: I bought this car because it x, y, and z, in spite of the fact that it a ― and I’ll be happy with my decision as long as b turns out like I expect it to.

The good news for vehicle buyers is that there are a myriad of choices available, almost infinitely customizable so that all but the most exquisitely selective purchaser can have his x, y, and z without having to worry much about the a, and can pretty much count on b as well.

The bad news for voters is that the same variety of realistic candidates is not really available (not to mention the fact that, unlike your car decision, the person for whom you decide to vote might not end up winning) ― such that voters need to be a lot more picky about their x, y, and z; a lot more tolerant of their a (and their a1, a2, a3 ...); and a lot more skeptical about their b.
All of which ends up being an encouragement that our discussion of “on what basis am I making my vote?” be both a little more, and quite a bit less, nuanced than it has been.

A little more nuanced, insofar as I’m not sure that Denny (stubborn and intransigent though he is) is not really a “one issue” voter. He might not have a y or a z in his consideration – in fact, he says that he doesn’t. Denny is voting for McCain because he thinks that McCain will be the best CinC for our nation in the War on Terror. The lack of a y or a z (and the fact that McCain’s “in spite of” list of a1, a2, a3... is so long) makes Denny see himself as a “one-issue” voter (and for that David and Scott are chiding him and urging him to have a wider view). But the reason I see Denny as a slightly more than one issue voter, and ask for a little more nuance, is the existence of b. Denny is more than happy to consider only McCain’s strong stance in the War on Terror, as long as he sees McCain as a principled, and generally reliable enough person. There simply aren’t that many as long as items to worry about. (To over-simplify: “I support John McCain because of his strong stance in the War on Terror, in spite of the fact that I disagree with some of his voting record in Congress, as long as I can be sure that he has the basic conservatism necessary to not triple my income taxes, try to force mandated health care down all of our throats, and give Texas back to the Mexicans.”) I’m sure David and Scott would have a fun time dreaming up imaginary in spite of and as long as items and asking Denny hypothetically how far he would continue to support a strong CinC who faced significant deficits in the a and b areas. To summarize, I think Denny is, practically speaking, a one-issue voter because to him all other issues pale in comparison to national security ― but only because there is no realistic threat to the as long as side of the equation.

On the other hand, I ask for a quite a bit less nuanced view of the question insofar as David and Scott (open-minded and wide-viewed though they are) still only get to pull the lever once. And as many factors as play into their decision, and as many issues as they find important and pressing in our time, their decision-making formula is still the same as Denny’s: I voted for Candidate Lizard Q because of x, y, and z, in spite of a, and I’ll be happy with that as long as b turns out like I expect it to. And, as much as we wish the opposite were the case, I don’t even think we can count on x, y, and z falling where we want them to. In so many lizards, like in so many other decisions in life, we might line up perfectly on x and y, but end up differing on z, or even agreeing wholeheartedly on x but agreeing to disagree on y and z. All of which makes our vote, that frustratingly binary choice of “him or her?” really at the end of the day always a matter of one issue.

One issue, that is, and the priority which we choose to give to that one issue. It’s easy to find a candidate who agrees with us on our primary x issue, and then be happy because he agrees with us on a couple of other, slightly-less-primary y and z issues too, leaving the less significant a to a “happy inconsistency” and a b or two in the not-bloody-likely column. But if push came to shove (and I’m sure Denny would love to play this game with David and Scott as much as they with him) I’ll bet there is a real, live, potentially-deal-breaking x issue with all of us. It’s the issue we give the highest priority to, and it’s the issue which will ultimately decide our vote.

So quibble with your fellow contributors all you want about the most important, priority-number-one issue in this election. But let’s not waste a bunch of time pretending that, at the end of the day, a one-issue vote is a bad thing. Because we’re all one-issue voters ― and the real one-issue, the one thing that matters more than anything else when we cast our vote, is our own prioritization of our country’s most pressing issue(s).

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Take Me To Your Lizard...

A spaceship lands and when the gangplank lowers, a robot clanks its way down to terra firma and grinds to a halt in front of the assembled armies of the world. Two people watch on television, Ford Prefect (an alien) and Arthur Dent (who is a human, but not very good at it). The electronic creature stares at the army men arrayed before it, looking slightly confused... after a moment, it speaks.

"I come in peace," it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, "take me to your Lizard."

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.

"It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see..."

"You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"

"No," said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like that straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."

Quoted from So Long and Thanks For All the Fish by Douglas Adams

Monday, February 4, 2008


Recent events called to mind the following quote from the great - perhaps the greatest - war correspondent Ernie Pyle... "All the rest of us - you and me and even the thousands of soldiers behind the lines in Africa - we want terribly yet only academically for the war to get over."

I think I might well be the only one here who has been a journalist, or at least majored in it and saw my byline appear above the fold in a couple of newspapers ere I headed off to art school. So it's incumbent upon me to speak up in light of some of the charges of bias that are bandied about here in recent days...

I've known correspondents who are in war zones, though I can't think of anyone I personally know who is in the thick of this one. And it's important for all sides to realize that every piece of news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan bears the indelible stamp of the person who wrote it. Conservative, liberal, libertarian, and the persistent caucus of the "leavemethehellaloneandgetthatclipboardouttamyface"... all of us are the product of our inner selves. And thus all writing is suspect on those grounds alone.

Everyone posting here is a Writer in some regard. Some of us write for money, some of us for something to do, and some to attempt to inculcate the love of the written word in others... most of us all of the above at one time or another. But we are Writers. And we all know that what I just said is true. Whether a reporter is embedded and subsequently agrees to a certain degree of censorship, or freelances out of the greenzone and relies on the local stringers for photos and story leads... none of it is beyond reproach. And I reject out of hand that the Iraqi's who die to get the story out are somehow less than us, less than reporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists released their findings for 2007 today and of the 32 journalists who died in Iraq last year, all but one were Iraqi. I don't think that reduces the story they died to tell, I think it underscores it.

Regardless of all that, no one of them is telling the whole story. Because they cannot. No more than Ernie Pyle told the whole story of WWII. He (and they) could only tell the story in front of him, the stories of the men around him.

Great as he was, our understanding of the second world war doesn't from Pyle, nor any other one journalist. It came then and as historians it comes to us now from an amalgam of sources. Our grandmothers pieced together redacted letters home and the radio broadcasts of Edward R Murrow's stories from the Blitz, Pyle's newspaper stories from Algiers, Earnest Hemingway's posts in Collier's and Margaret Bourke-White's piercing lens... and a host of others you've never even heard of. All of them gave us pieces and from that we assembled our view of the war then as now. Small parts of the greater puzzle.

And just as our grandparents did then, we have to assemble all of the pieces that are put at our disposal - pieces expressing doubt, pieces of jingoistic fervor, pieces of propaganda from the reigning administration and from that we must assemble the best image of the overall campaign as we can. Looking at once source for anything and saying "This is the way it is" is logically unsupportable. It's what keeps these fights going and keeps us distracted from the real play within the play.

Do I want all of my news from a single source? No. When the press is in unanimous agreement on something, or spends all their time carrying water for the Powers That Be, then that is when they stop serving their constitutional function. When the fix is in, no one wins.

I do not lack the intellect to assemble the larger picture, to find the nuance... the signal amid the noise if you will and I think that finally the American people are starting to remember how to do that too. That's why you see polling indicating changes in the American viewpoint from "by-jingo" a few years ago to the lowest point and back up to the current guarded optimism laced with a desire to see it end quickly and in our favor -- if such a thing is still possible.

The deplorable unanimity of the press in the run up to this war was nothing short of criminal. Their unwillingness to examine the claims or to question power injured their credibility beyond measure. It will take a long time to repair it, if indeed it can ever be fully recovered. That they no longer agree on a single viewpoint, or pay unthinking, unblinking lip service to a certain summary of events makes me believe more than anything that sanity has at long last reasserted itself in the international press corps.

And there's no time like the present.

Furthermore... This situation, this election, this war requires a similarly wide-angle approach. And so for that matter does the presidency of these United States. Single-issue candidacy and even single-issue advocacy isn't going to sway me one iota. And it's certainly not going to win this "Long War" everyone keeps talking about (accepting for the moment the premise which I'm not sure that I do).

Do as you will with your vote; it's your God-given right to do so, as enshrined in the constitution. But forgive me my bluntness, in my view to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else strikes me as myopic.

There have been no great presidents crafted from single-issue candidates. What if Roosevelt had been a single-issue candidate? We'd have still been embroiled in the Great Depression when Japan bombed Pearl. The economic status of this country, our indebtedness to other nations, the state of the US Dollar, the deficit, the trade imbalance, the moving of vital industries offshore... all of these things are issues of critical national security, critical national import. And by all that's reasonable, I want my candidate to have an informed opinion about them and won't vote for anyone who does not.

Our greatest tactical advantage in every conflict in which we have ever become embroiled dating back to before the Marines fought pirates in Tripoli was the juggernaut of the American economy. Do I want a president whose vision is turned solely outward to the exclusion of all else?

No thank you.

I think a wider vision is called for.

"In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory - there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else."

-Ernie Pyle
War Correspondent

Sunday, February 3, 2008

It’s Academic – Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

In his last post, Denny Hitzeman takes me to task for what he characterizes as an “academic understanding of the Constitution, the war against fundamentalist Islam . . . and the role of the President and the federal government in our lives.” He doesn’t believe I understand our nation’s toolbox or the reasons for its hammer, our military.

Generally the charge that someone has an academic understanding of something is tantamount to saying he is being unrealistic. I think it is fair to suggest that Denny is using the charge in this way, though he does so respectfully. Denny himself gives mixed signals about how he weighs the academic and the real. He has no problem using his academic understanding of the Constitution and his understanding of the reality of history to conclude that the President’s domain is international in scope, but what are we to make of his reading of the Constitution and history to suggest that we are a nation that “otherwise chooses to deal with its own affairs by actions other than the government?”

This statement seems to be a denial of the legislative role of the Congress that is laid out in great detail in the Constitution and the long history of its role in our affairs. He further clarifies his position in the comments section of his last post. In a response to my comment he says, “Put another way, I take the Constitution very seriously when it doles out responsibility, and want my elected leaders to do the jobs the[y] have been assigned and nothing else.” It is a wonder, then, that he seems willing to ignore the Senate’s important role in balancing and enforcing the limits on the Presidency or, in fact, legislating.

Regarding the Constitution and the role of the Presidency, Denny rejects the President’s role in solving domestic issues. “I do not elect a president,” he says, “to stimulate the economy, force me to accept government health care, or create moral dictates for me to abide by. I elect a president to abide by the role he occupies as clearly defined by the Constitution and nothing more.”

Denny places great weight on the fact that the first of the President’s duties is as Commander in Chief. Though he picks up on the importance of the placement of the enumeration of the President’s powers, he doesn’t give enough weight to the actual words. The President only assumes the role of C in C when “the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States” are “called into the actual Service of the United States,” in other words, when Congress declares war. Further, the President’s other international role, that of treaty making, is a power he only has “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” It is clear from such a reading of the Constitution – a reading, I would argue that is at least academically accurate, if not an indication of what now actually happens – that the powers of the President are extremely limited even in the international arena.

This confusion between the academic and real, if that is what it is, is easy to understand. We the people have not been particularly vigilant of what has become of our Constitution over the years. As a group, we have been all too willing to let the office of President gather power to itself well beyond the intentions of the people who framed out our government. This fact is far from academic. The Constitution is a living document, not only in the sense that it can be amended, but in the sense that it provides a blueprint, one adjudicated by our Supreme Court, for how to run our government. That process has very real effects on our lives. How then are we to set aside what that document says in some instances and not in others?

All that said, Denny takes a realistic view of the situation. As he says in his comment, “We're not going to achieve limited government in one President's term.” He does acknowledge that change needs to be made but that it will take time. On that point we agree.

Denny also claims I possess only an academic understanding of fundamentalist Islam. On this point he is certainly being too kind. I’ve heard a lot about this threat, how vast and deadly it is, but only in the most vague terms. It is almost always as part of some doomsday scenario where the fundamentalists acquire a nuclear or dirty bomb and obliterate our civilization. There’s a lot of talk about “us” and “them” and “over there” and “good” and “evil” and all of it, or most of it, is very non-specific.

Denny and I do not disagree that fundamentalist Islam is a threat to us. Fundamentalism of almost any sort is a danger to rational beings everywhere. What we seem to disagree on is the level of that threat. I can’t speak to Denny’s inside knowledge, but I know that I can’t say with certainty what the level of threat is because I have never heard it specified. How many fundamentalist Islamists are there? How many actually want to destroy us (all of them, I assume, but again, how many is that)? What weapons do they actually have at their disposal? What are their finances? Where are they located? How likely is it, really, that they will be able to obtain and successfully deploy WND? We never get this information. We only hear about a most dire, amorphous, usually faceless “threat.” How are we to gauge our response or even accurately target that response if we don’t have this information?

One might assume that someone has this information. We are certainly asked to trust that the President and his administration do, yet they have given us little reason to trust either their judgment or intentions. Certainly, I believe he and his advisors want us to be safe, but I fear that this simple motivation is mixed with others less simple and obvious. Again, it is a matter of just how big a threat fundamentalist Islam presents that determines whether or not our current actions – which appear on the surface to be out of line with our stated principles – are justified and appropriately measured.

So to the extent that I know anything on this subject, it is, in fact, academic. A point to Denny on that score.

On Denny’s last point, that our struggle against fundamentalist Islam is a war and one “fought on behalf of the United States by an all-volunteer fighting force made up of professional, educated, dedicated, and willing warriors who understand better than anyone of any political ideology what our nation is and why it is necessary to fight,” I clearly have to tread carefully. That it is a war may be true. Wars are generally fought between nations, but perhaps the term is fitting for this struggle. His other contention about our military is a trickier issue.

While I have not myself served in the military, I have many family members, both immediate and extended, and friends who have. I say this not to somehow excuse my own lack of service; I do not believe I need an excuse for not joining the military. I say it because I know some military people and have had some exposure to their demeanor and their reasons for joining. Their service, particularly the service of those who have seen combat whether direct or from rear positions, is commendable and, I would never do or say anything to impugn the sacrifices they and their families have made.

However, as a nation, we have perhaps become overly sentimental in our views of the military. We have created icons out of the men and women who serve and have often forgotten their humanity, both the positive and negative aspects of it. Returning veterans do not always receive the care, treatment and benefits that our government has promised them. Too often, we find that once they have completed their service, veterans are no longer actively appreciated though we speak emotional words at various times about their brave service.

Similarly, we tend to lionize these men and women. Yes, they are as Denny says, “professional, educated” – at least in the arts of war – “dedicated, and willing warriors” – for the most part. However, I don’t think it is fair to say that they “understand better than anyone of any political ideology what our nation is and why it is necessary to fight.” This sentiment may be true of Denny and certain people with whom he has served. It is certainly true of some number of our military personnel, whether that is many or few, I cannot say with certainty.

However, it is also certainly true that many of the people who volunteer do so for reasons that surpass an undying commitment to and understanding of the principles that lie at the heart of this great nation. Some number enlist to escape economic hardship – which is saying something when you consider how little the average soldier in any branch is compensated – some enlist because of promised money for higher education, some enlist for the training, because they have no other driving goals, or simply because they like the romantic idea of being a soldier, traveling to far lands, and using modern weaponry.

These are not bad reasons to join, merely common ones. They aren’t the noble reasons that Denny and others assign to our military personnel in our eagerness to create that romantic vision and pay rightful homage to their sacrifices when they have been called upon to make them. I do not seek to denigrate them – any of them – but I do seek to clarify that you do not need to have survived boot camp and carry a gun or faced enemy fire to understand the intended nature of this country’s founding principles in either a very real or an academic way.

Furthermore, that the men and women in our armed forces continue to serve during this period may be an indicator of their understanding of the threat, as Denny implies, but I find it far more likely that it is an indicator that for them to leave the military before the term of their service is up would be a crime that would certainly be punished. For those that re-enlist, I suspect that the commitment to their fellow soldiers and the guilt they feel leaving others behind has more to do with their re-enlistments than their supposedly superior understanding of our nation’s principles and the threats arrayed against us.

In a final analysis, our entire discussion is, to a great degree, academic. Neither Denny nor I are in a position to make policy decisions. Denny clearly has the right to vote as his conscience leads him. On that point, there can be no argument. However, in my view, the internal threats we face to our nation – an economy groaning under the weight of debt and an increasingly unaccountable government that has grown disconnected from the people it serves among others – are at least as important to the future strength and safety of our country as the threat from the fundamental fringe of an otherwise peaceful religion.

We’ve seen what adherence to a one issue government policy has wrought over the past eight years. It’s time for a course correction, and that will require a leader who has a broader vision. If Denny feels McCain it that man, so be it. But I hope others won’t take such a narrow view of our future.