One hundred years ago today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day on the eleventh month, the world heard something it hadn’t heard in over four years: silence.
It was the Armistice. The War to End All Wars was finally over. The world knew it had changed, but how much so wasn’t readily apparent. Before the year was over, the ancient Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties would be consigned to the scrap heap of history. The lack of strong central government and the economic blight imposed by the Treaty of Versailles would soon be the causes of another, even more terrible war.
But on this day, at this hour, people truly believed that never again would great powers wage war on one another. The carnage of the one just ended was unlike anything ever seen. Millions of men, some bold, most scared, all of them heroic, had breathed their last in the mud and vermin filled trenches of Europe. Millions more were made infirm, the loss of limb, eyes or even lungs a permanent reminder of their service.
But November 11, 1918 seemed to be the end of all that. It harkened of a new era, one of peace, one in which young men of every nationality would never again need to worry about fighting against terrible odds on a battlefield far from their homes.
We haven’t lived up to that ideal over these first hundred years since the first Armistice Day. Maybe I’m being naive, but shouldn’t we rededicate ourselves to that purpose over the next 100?
Because, quite frankly the world doesn’t need any more of these.
September 11, 2001.
There are only a few dates in a person’s life that can be recalled in perfect clarity. Dates where your memories are supercharged by the emotions felt that day, dates that haunt your dreams and whose events can be replayed like an old video.
My wedding day is one such day for me. The other is not nearly so happy: September 11, 2001.
It was my first day off from work in nearly two months, and I rewarded myself by sleeping in that morning. I was sitting at my kitchen table, a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper (yes, back then, a newspaper was not unusual) in front of me when my wife hollered from the living room. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” she yelled. “It’s on the TV. Come and see!”
I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was that it was a bad accident, but one I had been expecting for years. After all, those two skyscrapers jutted out, almost into the air lanes at the very southern tip of Manhattan. That no pilot had accidentally run into them before I considered a miracle.
I went into the living room, coffee in hand. My wife had the Today show on. They were showing the smoke pouring from the building via a helicopter shot and Matt Lauer was babbling about the WWII bomber that ran into the Empire State Building. I remember thinking that as much as I had dreaded a pilot losing his way and flying into one of those towers, I couldn’t wrap my head around how one had done so on that morning. The weather seemed so perfect, the skies so clear, that it seemed impossible that a pilot couldn’t have seen where the hell he was flying.
Fast forward a bit, and the first reports came in that air traffic controllers had lost contact with the plane before the crash. “Maybe the pilot had a stroke,” I remarked to my wife. It was 9:01 am. I remember the time because I had glanced at the wall clock as I turned to go back into the kitchen. I was hungry and about to root around for some food.
2 minutes later, my wife was screaming, “Another plane just crashed into the South Tower!” It was the moment our world changed. Because at that moment, I knew this wasn’t an accident. It was a planned, coordinated attack on the very heart of our economic might, on symbols of our national strength. Someone had just declared war on the United States.
Do you remember how you felt at the moment you first realized that? I do. I was pissed off. And confused, because like most Americans I had no idea who it might be. I had never heard of Al Queada, and never in a million years would I have guessed a bunch of cave dwelling goat herders could be sophisticated enough to use our own aircraft to attack us.
After that, of course, came the mad scramble. I called my store, told my employees to lock up and head home for the day. Called my DM to tell him what I did and why (like a lot of people, he was already at work and had no idea what was going on yet). And then the phone lines were jammed – nobody could a call through, which just added to my wife’s anxiety. I wasn’t certain if it was another attack or just everyone in the country trying to call one another, but I wasn’t taking chances. We raced to the school to grab our kids, just in case this was a precursor to a larger attack.
Of course, there were two more attacks that morning: flight 77 rammed into the Pentagon, and the heroes of flight 93 averted a major disaster by taking back their plane and crashing it before it reached Washington.
At 9:59, the South Tower collapsed – and like everyone else, I was shocked. One plane brought down a 1000 foot skyscraper? A few minutes later, the North Tower followed it’s sister to its death.
I was numb. I was angry. I was afraid.
And I wanted whoever had done this to be beaten to a bloody pulp, heads ripped from their necks, a pike driven so far up their asses that when it rained they could get a colonic.
When a date is so traumatic, so vivid, that it can be shared by a generation, it is a milestone event, a moment in history that can galvanize and define nations. Such is September 11.
God bless those who lost their lives that day and the men and women who toiled for weeks after to search for survivors and perished as a result.
May God bless the United States.
A recurring theme among our media betters is a disbelief that President Trump would treat the other members of the G-7 with so much more disdain than he treats Russia, China and North Korea. Their difficulty is because for all of their expertise and hubris, they can’t get past their navel gazing. If they simply opened their eyes and thought about it, the reason for this would be so obvious it would jump up and slap them in the face.
The reason is not that Trump is a bombastic crybaby, nor that he lacks empathy, nor that he misunderstands history. It isn’t that he disregards what are regarded as diplomatic and foreign policy norms. It has nothing to do with his narcissism or love of McDonald’s burgers.
Indeed, he gave us the biggest clue to the one driving theme of his foreign policy in the impromptu news conference prior to the start of the G-7 confab this past weekend. Mr. Trump said, “We have a world to run.” Was he talking about the assembled “world leaders” of the G-7? Or was he alluding to something else?
One of the most interesting things I constantly hear is that President Trump has no grasp of history, no concept of the United States role in shaping world affairs, or the post-WWII international order. I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever. If anything, he has demonstrated a more focused understanding of those things than the talking heads on TV, or the failed diplomats who clutter the airwaves with their talking points. They prattle incessantly about a world order that has never existed anywhere except in their minds. It was the relentless pursuit of this fiction that led to many of the disastrous American foreign policy actions over the last 25 years.
Trump regards the lesser members of the western alliance (what we usually refer to as “first world nations”) as nothing more than vassal states. For those of you who don’t understand the concept (Hi, cast members of Morning Joe!), a vassal state is one that has pledged loyalty to a larger state. It receives a promise of security from external threats and financial assistance, along with a pledge of limiting interference in internal politics. In exchange, the vassal provides some military forces and pays tribute to the dominant partner.
Vassal states have existed for as long as human civilization. The Egyptians and Hittites both had clients in the Middle East even before anyone invented writing. (We know this because the earliest written tablets known to us, from both Egypt and Anatolia, describe those civilizations relationships with everyone from the Ammorites to the Sumerians). And contrary to popular myth, they did not disappear with the end of the First World War.
If you stop to think about the post-WWII order, this is exactly the scenario the world found itself in. There were two dominant states (the USA & USSR), and each had a collection of vassals. For the US, those vassals were the members of NATO, Japan, Australia, and other various small countries. The Soviets had vassal clients in the Warsaw Pact, China, Cuba and most of the Arab world. The occasional squabbles between vassals on opposing sides led to conflagrations that would involve the sponsors (the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950’s and 60’s, or Vietnam, or the Korean War). Presidents from Truman through Bush 41 might have smiled at their allies, but they never treated them as equals. If they had, Jimmy Carter never would have been able to strong-arm Menachem Begin into the concessions needed for the Camp David Accords. Bush never would have rounded up the international force to launch Desert Storm. And so on, and so forth.
Like it or not, this is the world view that the President has. He sees Russia reasserting its control over her vassals (Ukraine, most prominently). He sees China moving to gain an equal footing as the United States, without any actual vassals (but not for lack of effort). He sees North Korea as a vassal of China, but one that is recalcitrant and one that China refuses to hold tight enough rein on.
Within this framework, he sees the other members of the western post-war coalition as forgetting their rightful place. He won’t treat them as equals because in his world view, they are NOT equals. They are vassals, subservient and reliant on the United States for their very existence. Additionally, he sees the fecklessness of the three administrations immediately prior to his as largely responsible for the sad state of affairs between the US and our “clients.”
In the same vein, he treats Russia and China as equals because in his world view, they are our equals. Each is a dominant nation, like the United States. While the vassals, like bratty children kicking at our shins, complain about unfair treatment, Trump is staying focused on where he believes the real international political struggle begins and ends: the battle between the three superpowers for world supremacy. He sees an opportunity to, at worst, turn North Korea into an independent player (much like Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia was) or at best, reunify the Korean Peninsula as a client state of the USA.
He may be right in his view of a modern realpolitik. The problem he runs into as that while the client/sponsor relationship was an unacknowledged fact for the late 20th century, the 21st is somewhat different. Yes, the client states are still dependent on the US for their international security. But whereas once their economies were independently reliant on the US, that is no longer the case. The last 25 years has seen the global economy changed from one of many clients subservient to one dominant economy, to a symbiotic economic relationship between nations. What’s more, the tangle of trade agreements and international corporations is such that any disruption anywhere in the flow of goods threatens the economic order of the planet., threatening a conflagration that would make the last two world wars pale by comparison.
This is the conundrum facing the American President. During the height of the Cold War, the US economy accounted for nearly half of all global economic activity. As of last year, we accounted for less than 18%. While we may hold all the cards militarily, we are now trying to draw to an inside straight economically. The notion of returning international trade to one where most economic activities is controlled by US companies is less an economic decision than a militarily strategic one. Heck, the President said as much when he imposed the latest tariffs. In the face of this situation, our nation is faced with two choices. We can attempt to rebuild the original postwar order, or we can remove ourselves from a position of global dominance, recalling and reducing our military strength.
When you look through the prism of vassal state relationships, you can see which option the President has opted for. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it has been his stated world view for the better part of 40 years now. That nobody in the media seems capable of grasping this is the only surprising thing about it.
If the idea that all news is fake somehow shocks you, then you haven’t paid much attention to the world around you for the last 40 years or so. It wasn’t always this way. In the not so distant past, journalism truly was our “fourth estate,” and journalists actually did their bit to keep government more or less honest. This reached it’s peak in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was Walter Cronkite who was the only person with enough cache to convince Americans that the war in Vietnam was not going well and American lives were being sacrificed for a feckless foreign policy. It was valiant newspaper editors who risked everything – even imprisonment – to publish the Pentagon Papers. It was intrepid reporters who blew the cover off the Watergate conspiracy. It was a dogged reporter who went against his own political bias to doom Gary Hart’s candidacy.
Sadly, the Gary Hart story was the last hurrah for journalism. Already, political bias was creeping further and further into our evening newscasts. Reporters were feeling their oats and network news executives were feeling the heat to make their divisions profitable. The combination of the two was a slow turning of serious telejournalists into entertainers. David Brinkley gave way to Sam Donaldson. Walter Cronkite was replaced by Dan Rather. Barbara Walters was moved from interviewing monkees for Today to co-anchoring the evening news.
Likewise, newsprint reporters were no longer satisfied with reporting on the dull, mundane day-to-day things. No, now they had to be the news as much as they reported on it. One, John Anderson, even mounted a presidential campaign in 1980. Getting the above-the-fold, banner headline wasn’t just a matter of of industry prestige. It became both the means and the end, the potential springboard to fame and glory. Woodward and Bernstein had done it. Why shouldn’t they?
Of course, that was a generation ago. In the intervening years, the emergence of the internet as a news source not only intensified the drive for eyeballs. Before, the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times might have competed somewhat, but each had it’s own region. No more. Now, each of those papers was not only competing nationally with each other (as was every newspaper and magazine), but they found themselves in virtual warfare with the television networks and he newly emerged 24 hour cable news stations. Stories became more salacious and the telling more over-the-top as each source competed for those same eyeballs.
There had always been reporting errors, of course. Human beings are fallible, and that includes the ones reporting the facts. But whereas before, editors had been dogged in protecting their brands by ensuring accuracy, now they found themselves forced to protect their brands by ensuring they got a story out first, even if it meant having to make corrections later.
But even that bit of true editorial control fell apart in 1998. Newsweek had uncovered and sourced a story about President Clinton and a 21 year old intern, but refused to run it because the editorial board hadn’t been able to talk to the intern herself.
That intern was Monica Lewinsky, and the story was broken by a previously fringe newsman, Matt Drudge, on his internet blog. It wasn’t so much a blog as a news aggregator (as now), but the moment his site announced that bombshell story – which eventually led to the first impeachment of a president in 130 years – news was changed forever. Getting a story out first was no longer a big deal, it was the only thing that mattered. Editorial standards were demolished. It wasn’t long before reporters were openly editorializing on-air. Cable news became less news, and more talking heads arguing about the “issues.” As networks and news organizations began to target their editorial slant to be either pro- or anti-Clinton, the audiences that viewed their content sorted itself likewise. What was once a non-partisan fourth estate had fully migrated into becoming the propaganda arms of the two major political parties.
The lack of any true balance or bias in news reporting for the last 20 years has led to where we are today. Everyone in the news industry is either spinning the news around an editorial cyclotron to extract the content most craved by their target audiences, or just simply creating “infotainment” to reinforce those preconceived notions. It’s how you get CNN declaring the President is about to have a heart attack. It’s how you get MSNBC declaring the President has early-onset Alzheimer’s. It’s how you get Breitbart declaring that Hillary Clinton had a secret stroke.
It is how you get fake news, and how you get news arguing over what qualifies as fake news and what isn’t fake news. Here’s the only thing I know for certain: if Ben Bradlee were around today, here’s what he’d tell current reporters. Go back to reporting the facts, and nothing else. Leave the editorializing for the editorial pages (or in the case of television, the editorial segments). Leave the creative writing for writing novels. The message he would have the suits would likewise be similar. News is about disseminating information, not ratings, not clicks per page – just information.
Until that message gets through, though, here’s what you need to do. Break out of your bubble. If you’re not a reader (and if you are not into reading, then I really need to thank you for reading this!) and getting your news from television, then please, vary your sources. Watch a little of everything. You’ll note the four or five points in each story that CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, etc will agree on. The rest of it? That’s the spin, the emotional tug. The same thing goes for reading newspapers. And if you can’t at least double-source a story, you can bet that it’s the ultimate in fake news: the contrived story.
You can do this, America. And that’s the real No Spin Zone.
Like most of you, I watched President Trump’s speech last night with great interest. Of far more interest to me than any possible deployments was that this was billed as the President’s strategy for Afghanistan and Southwest Asia. Potential deployments are important, of course – but understanding why those deployments are happening and what the objective is, is far more important.
First of all, I have to give the President kudo’s for not pretending we’re withdrawing, as his predecessor did on multiple occasions. Likewise, I have to give him props for understanding that no military campaign can be run on a clock. It’s over when the objectives have been met, whether that’s tomorrow or 10 years from now. And I respect that finally we have a Commander-in-Chief who understands that battlefield commanders should be the guys calling the shots, carrying out missions created by folks who understand military strategy (such as General Mattis). Politicians understand political strategy, but generally they’re lousy at real battle plans. The last guy who sat behind the Resolute Desk proved that, over and over again.
But as far as the actual strategy we’re pursuing, I don’t actually see anything different than what we have been doing for the past 8 years. Trying to train up the local armed forces to defend their country from insurgents and rebels? Check. Pressuring the Afghan government to step up operations in the troubled provinces? Check. Pressuring the Pakistani’s to stop Afghan insurgents from using their territory as safe havens and travel routes? Check. We’ve been doing those things and none have worked. We train the Afghan army, but they can’t even recruit properly – and our advisors get shot on their bases. We threaten to withhold funding for the civilian Afghan government, but in addition to being more corrupt than an eastern European smuggler, they know it’s only threats. We aren’t about to financially cut them off at this point, because doing so would mean leaving our soldiers behind as hostages. As for Pakistan, we’ve actually withheld both military and civilian funding, with no effect.
The only new wrinkle was trying to draw India into the conflict. The President must have started drinking if he thinks this is going to work. India has nothing to gain – and everything to lose by meddling in this conflict. India’s biggest rivals are China and Pakistan. As long as Pakistan has to keep forces along the Afghan border and internally has to deal with the Haqqani and Pashtun populations, it’s less force India needs to worry about on their shared border. Quite frankly, given the rise of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist coalition, India has no problem with Pakistan dissolving into chaos. They would welcome it.
As for Pakistan itself, the President is fooling himself if he thinks that nation truly has a strong central government. They have a strongman as Prime Minister, but as with his predecessors, he is far more concerned with India to his southeast than ethnic Pashtuns in the north. Everyone who has ruled the territory that comprises modern-day Pakistan has had to deal with the Pashtun, from Alexander the Great through Genghis Khan, various Indo-Turk rulers, the British Empire to the 21st Century. In those 24 centuries, most ruled by benign indifference, as the exertion required to bring the region to heel would cost more in blood and treasure than the effort is worth. The same holds true for today.
The President’s yardstick for success – “a lasting political solution among the Afghan people” – is little more than a pipedream. As mentioned above, the central Afghan government is incredibly corrupt, but that’s only part of the problem. Afghanistan is dominated by dozens of tribes, each with a stake in maintaining their individual fiefdoms. Not only are there the tribal considerations, but there are some serious ethnic divisions – it’s generally accepted that there are at least 14 different ethnicities within Afghanistan’s borders, and they don’t all play nice together.
Finally, there is a serious gap in the strategy the President laid out last night. He failed to mention the other nations that border Afghanistan, namely Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For instance, Turkmenistan has a large, ethnic Turkem population, as does Afghanistan. Tajikistan has an area controlled by ethnic Pashtuns. Iran still considers the territory centered on the city of Herat to be theirs, since it’s ethnically Persian. Nor did he mention how Russia and China, who are both major players in the region, would have their considerations addressed.
In short, what I heard was the President basically saying we’re in Afghanistan until the conditions that led to the region becoming a home for terrorists and insurgents are rectified. He may not want to call it nation building, but essentially that’s what he’s committed us to doing. It’s the overarching strategy we’ve tried for the last 16 years without success. With all of the loose ends that aren’t even acknowledged under his version, I can’t see how it will be successful now.
One of the unique things about being a citizen of the United States is that unlike other nationalities, we often have these discussions about what being an American actually entails. We’ve been engaged in just such a discussion for the past four or five years now, and many people have landed on many different definitions.
Are we defined by our borders, the territory we control as a nation? Are we defined by our ethnicity or ethnicities? By our economic circumstances, both as individuals and as a nation? For many, these definitions, or a combination of these definitions, is what defines “Americanism.” These may be aspects of American life, but they are not what defines us as a people. As we saw this past weekend in Virginia, clinging to those notions is more divisive than unifying. They cannot define a nation as diverse as ours, one where wealthy and poor from every ethnicity on the planet call home.
Likewise, political leaders who foster these views cannot be unifying. They can only divide the nation along religious, ethnic and class lines. Both our last President and our current one have willingly used the imagery and language of grievance, attempting to force the nation as a whole to view the world through the distorted lenses of one subset of Americans or another.
The reality is the United States is not confined by our borders, defined by our economic clout or existent by our military power. You might have heard the United States identified as an ideal, and that is what our nation is. The glue that binds us are not the temporary trappings of wealth and power. The power that has allowed our nation to grow, to prosper, despite welcoming every ethnicity, every religion, and every race on the Earth was given to us by the men who created this country:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I think that for many of us, these words have lost their meaning. After all, we’ve all heard them countless times. I can scarcely think of anyone who can’t recite them word for word.
Yet, we cannot deny the power they hold. It is those words, more than anything else, that drew our ancestors to this country. Those words are the birthright of every American and it is those words that are our unifying force.
One of the things I like to do, when faced with a passage whose meaning is difficult to comprehend, is to reword it in a way that is easier to understand. Bear with me as I do so here.
We: Who were the Founders referring to by “we?” The document this passage is taken from – the Declaration of Independence – was an open letter to the King of England and Houses of Parliament, on the behalf of the citizens of the new nation they were creating. “We” is nothing less than every American citizen.
hold these truths: to hold a belief is to accept it without question; a truth is an incontestable fact.
to be self-evident: something that needs no outside proof of its existence.
that all men are created equal: everyone, everywhere is no different than anyone else – and we are born into this condition. Whether you have the privileges and wealth of a Wall Street billionaire or are left scrounging for subsistence in the Somali sun, every person that will ever see this world is the same.
that they are endowed by their Creator: While the majority of the Founders believed in the Christian god, it’s important to note that not all of them did. George Washington and John Adams were deists, as were notable non-signatories of the Declaration, including Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. It should also be noted that New York and New Jersey already had sizable Jewish populations by the middle of the 18th century (indeed, Dutch Jews were among the first settlers in New Amsterdam and Newark). Even among the devout Christians, there were religious differences – Charles Carroll of Maryland was a practicing Catholic, for instance. But the one thing all of them agreed on was a belief in a higher power, or Creator.
with certain unalienable: something which can neither be granted nor taken away by human authority.
Rights: Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin all were well versed in the philosophy of John Locke. While Locke’s ideas regarding natural rights were already well-established in philosophical circles by the mid-18th century, the Founders were doing something truly revolutionary here: they were claiming that by our existence, human beings have entitlements that no government can interfere with.
What follows is a listing of what those entitlements are.
that among these are: Whoops! make that a partial listing. Jefferson is saying there are other, unspecified rights, and he’s selected only the ones pertinent to why the Colonists are creating a new nation.
Life: Yes, you have a right to live. Sounds almost silly, until you watch this.
Liberty: for the 18th century thinker, Liberty was well defined by David Hume – “By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; this is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.” I’ve read many other definitions of liberty, but this one – despite it’s age – still seems the best.
pursuit of Happiness: While nobody can guarantee that you will find peace and joy in the world, you’re entitled to try and find whatever it is that lets you achieve it.
One 36 word sentence carries quite a bit of import, I would say. If we were to reword the entire thing, it would come out something like this:
American citizens agree that the following is a statement of fact:
All people are born the same, and the Creator that grants us our existence does, by that existence, grant us certain privileges and entitlements that no person, government or entity can take away. Some of these entitlements are our lives, our freedom of movement and thought, and our attempt to derive peace and joy from our existence.
It isn’t as flowery or memorable as the original, I know. But this statement is what separates America from every other nation. It is what defines us a people, and as a country. America has not always lived up to the ideals laid out in this statement, but it is the fact we continue to strive towards it – rather than abandon it – that has characterized our place in history.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said he dreamed of the day when his children wouldn’t be judged by their ethnicity, but by who they were as people. It was Dr. King’s way of restating our guiding principle, the American principle of natural rights. We haven’t gotten there yet, as the events in Charlottesville showed. Call me a sap, a sentimental fool or a man blinded by his beliefs, but I still think the vast majority of the people who call the United States home believe in our founding principle, but are being led astray by fear of an unknown and rapidly changing future.
Thank you for your time today, and may God bless America.
*The video I linked to above can also be watched here. You’ll need about 20 minutes to watch the whole thing. It’s painful and at times angering, but I suggest you do.
This morning, our President-elect took to Twitter with this:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Immediately, the world became unhinged.
“Flag burning is reprehensible, but it’s protected by the Constitution” is the general refrain I’m hearing. But does that statement hold water?
The supposed Constitutional protection for flag burning isn’t actually written anywhere into the Constitution. In fact, 48 states and the federal government have explicit statutes proscribing a penalty for burning, or otherwise desecrating, the United States flag. The federal statute is 18 US Code 700 and in part reads,
Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
I realize I’ve probably just sent your heads spinning, so I’ll give you a moment to recover. Go ahead, grab a glass of water (or whatever) and I’ll wait.
(Oh, good. You made it back. Had me worried there, for a minute. I know this is pretty shocking stuff and I’d hate to think I just gave someone a heart attack.)
Chances are, anyone under the age of 45 has been indoctrinated that flag burning is a Constitutional right. Indoctrinated by the media, indoctrinated by schools, indoctrinated by every institution controlled by the socialist (and treasonous) left in America. Sadly, that’s most of them. Actually, liberals have been trying the “Constitutionally protected” approach to flag burning going all the way back to 1907. That was the year the Supreme Court decided in Halter v. Nebraska that flag desecration was not a fundamental right.
What most people point to now in their zeal defend flag burning is the 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson, in which the court invalidated the conviction of Gregory Lee Johnson. In 1984, Johnson decided to make his displeasure with President Reagan’s policies known by burning a flag during the Republican National Convention. He was convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and fined $2,000. He appealed, claiming his First Amendment right to political speech was violated.
What’s interesting is that the court did not overturn his conviction on First Amendment grounds. That narrative springs forth from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence, in which he wrote:
For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself. But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution. So I agree with the Court that he must go free
Kennedy felt the need to mention the speech issue in his concurrence because that is not the grounds the Court used for issuing it’s 5-4 reversal. Instead, the court based the majority opinion on the basis that the Texas statute was designed to prevent rioting. Since both the state and defendant agreed that there was no riot, or even an incitement to riot, the statute violated the defendant’s 8th and 14th Amendment rights.
Not his 1st Amendment rights.
Why does this matter, you might ask? Isn’t a violation of a citizen’s rights still egregious, regardless of which right was violated? That’s rhetorical, of course. Any time the justice system violates Constitutionally protected rights is a perversion of justice. That’s precisely what the Court upheld.
However, buried in the Court’s decision was an affirmation of the 1907 decision in Halter v. Nebraska. That was the first Supreme Court case that upheld flag desecration as not protected by the Constitution. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Brennan dances around the subject of 1st Amendment protection of flag burning. He states that while the Court cannot find reason to grant a special class to speech involving the flag, it is within Congress’ purview to do just that, concluding:
Congress has, for example, enacted precatory regulations describing the proper treatment of the flag, see36 U.S.C. §§ 173-177, and we cast no doubt on the legitimacy of its interest in making such recommendations.
So, if you set aside what you’ve been told and what you’ve been taught, all of a sudden the President-elect’s statement is no longer quite so outlandish as at first seems. I cannot say I agree with his idea of stripping citizenship. After all, there is no crime for which we strip citizenship, not even treason. But jail and a fine? That seems perfectly acceptable. And as it turns out, Constitutional, as well.
Clinton supporters are claiming that since Hllary won the popular vote, it proves the Electoral College is a dysfunctional anachronism that impedes modern democracy. They don’t seem to understand, or care, that statements like those only prove the reasons for the Electoral College in the 1780’s remain with us today.
First and foremost, the Founding Fathers had deep, abiding distrust of unfettered democracy. James Madison wrote in Federalist 10:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
This understanding that direct democracy is an unwieldy form of government, certain to end in direct violence of neighbor versus neighbor, is what drove the Founders to establish the United States as a representative republic. They strove, at every level of the federal government they were creating, to isolate the democratic forum to the smallest, most localized unit possible. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of American governance is the interplay between the states and the federal government they devised.
A large part of the reason for establishing that interplay between state and federal government was the Founder’s understanding that, even in the earliest days of the nation, there were stark differences between the various states and regions, and competing interests between heavily populated areas and sparsely populated ones. In establishing a federal government that was an equal partner of the states as regards most matters, they allowed local control over local issues, while allowing for an overarching national policy that might be in direct contravention to what a state preferred. Factionalism, which they understood was an unremarkable and inevitable feature of human society, could thus be controlled. No single faction could become so omnipresent as to impose its will on the rest of the nation.
This theory of government extends through to the idea of the Electoral College. Most of us are familiar with the idea of the Electoral College as stated by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68:
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
But very few of us have given much thought to this part of the same essay:
The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
Here we see expressed the idea, once again, of deference to state preference, even when contemplating a federal election. Yes, the election of a President would occur in all the states simultaneously, but it was not a singular electoral event. Rather, it was to be the continuation of state elections. To ensure that each state was not pressured by outside influences, each states electors are to meet in that state and vote. They are not to travel to the seat of national government. The method of their meeting and deliberation is left to the states to decide.
So how does the 2016 general election demonstrate that these ideas are still needed today? Consider this: Mrs. Clinton will assuredly wind up with more raw votes, if tabulated nationally, than Mr. Trump. But, that is due to her extreme support on the Pacific Coast. Her share of the popular vote in California, Oregon and Washington is around 65%. Of the roughly 61 million votes she received, nearly 9.5 million of them came from those three states versus only 4.3 million for Mr. Trump. To look at in reverse, in every other region of the nation, Mr. Trump outpolled Mrs Clinton by some 5 million votes and had the far higher share of the total, with nearly 53% of the votes cast.
If we were to do as Mrs. Clinton’s supporters ask, and amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College, we would be saying that only 3 of our states were electing the President. The other 47, despite a preference for the opposing candidate, would be shunned.
But the hidden beauty of the Electoral College is in ensuring that every state and every region receives import upon the selection of the President in proportion to its size and influence in the federal government. So yes, Mrs. Clinton is assured the 74 electoral votes from those states. All she needed was another 196 (or 38% of the remaining) electoral votes to win the Presidency. But Mr. Trump, by virtue of his running a broader campaign that appealed to more voters across a wider swath of the nation, gained more electors in the other states. He outpolled Mrs. Clinton in the deep south, the midwest, the plains states, the mountain west and battled her to a near draw in the northeast.
I understand its a bitter pill for her supporters to admit that Mrs. Clinton’s message did not have the type of broad appeal that resonated across the nation. But one again, the Electoral College is ensuring the candidate with the broadest support will assume the Presidency on January 20.
Too often, in our poorly educated minds, the words “fascist” and “Adolph Hitler” are transposed. While Uncle Adolph is certainly history’s most infamous fascist, he was hardly alone. Fascism as a political system has existed for nearly two centuries and been used far too often and by far too many dictators to pretend Hitler was it’s only proponent. He was, in fact, only one of several fascists who rose to power in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo and Chiang Kai-Shek preceded Hitler to power; Francisco Franco, Antonio Salazar, Juan Peron, Engelbert Dollfuss, Getulio Vargas, Jorge Marees, Ionas Metaxas, and Robey Leibbrandt were all peers. More modern adherents include such luminaries as Manuel Noriega, Ferdinand Marcos and Tudor Ionescu.
It is obviously a false equivalency to say they are all acolytes of Adolph Hitler, especially as several of them rose to power as much as a decade before the Reichstag burned. Indeed, Mussolini considered Hitler to be his student. Nor is it correct to say all fascists are natural allies. The Axis powers of World War II were all led by fascist governments, but distrust rather than cooperation was their hallmark. And let’s not forget that despite the aid from Germany and Italy that helped Franco secure power, Franco snubbed all overtures to join them. Franco was busy in an on-again, off-again shooting war with his protege Salazar (one that lasted into the late 1960’s). What this illustrates is the variances within fascism: nazism, clerical fascism, falangism, and so forth.
So, if HItler wasn’t the proto-fascist, who was? Who founded the ideology that dozens of tin-pot dictators have adopted as their own in the past century?
That would be Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a British philosopher, writer and mathematician. Indeed, if modern students hear of Carlyle at all, it is usually because of his work in mathematics: he is credited with developing the quadratic equation (you know, the joyless algebra equation written as ax2 + bx + c = 0). And while high school freshmen the world over hate him for making their homework harder than they want, their real derision should be directed at his influence on sociology.
Carlyle was a reactionary in his approach to what he viewed as the shortcomings with classical liberalism. Whether the free market economics of Adam Smith, or the idea of natural rights borne out in our Declaration of Independence, Carlyle viewed the advancements made in the 18th Century to be the direct cause of the chaos overtaking Europe in the early 19th. This culminated in his 1840 opus, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History”. It is a rather long tome in which he lashes out at the idea of democratic rule and free markets as the antithesis of history’s natural order. He passionately argues that in accepting these ideas, society abandoned the natural roles of the hero as leader, of war as the principle means to glory, of industry being directed towards producing the means of war, and of societal hierarchies (today we would call them “classes” or “castes”).
Carlyle advocated that Great Men are the natural leaders of both government and society and should be elevated as such; if society refused to accept them, then it became their duty to wrest power away from the masses. He had tremendous scorn for free markets and coined the term many use today to describe modern economics, “the dismal science.” It isn’t that Carlyle didn’t believe that business owners shouldn’t be able to keep their profit (after paying the government their “equitable duty”); but rather that anyone in business not producing goods and services that directly benefitted the state should not be in business. A natural hierarchy was emplaced of men, but natural rights were not. The amount of rights a common man could be expected to receive were commensurate with his place in society; those at the top naturally had more rights than those at the bottom. And as for those at the bottom, they were generally an impediment to the advancement of the society. Enslavement or even execution was their only natural right. (Carlyle expounded further on this in “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” in 1849).
Further, Carlyle was a proponent of the state as the only viable method by which the Great Man, or Hero, could extend his rule and direct his will. The principle role of the common man within the state was to prepare for war. Treason in thought or deed were the only crimes that truly promoted social disorder; treasonous activities included anything that could subvert the rule of the Great Man and should be eliminated at all costs. And since the state was the engine that made society possible, it was incumbent upon all citizens to ensure that undesirables be kept out, by all means necessary.
In short, Carlyle’s view of national socialism (he coined the term to separate his philosophy from that of his contemporary, Karl Marx) relied on these key points, in order of importance:
- A Great Man or Hero; the natural societal leader
- A strong, insular state
- A hierarchical society, down to and including slavery
- Policing of society to ensure adherence to societal norms
- Directed markets
- Denial of Natural Rights
Of course, today we call this fascism, not national socialism. That term we reserve for nazism, which differs from straight fascism in its adoption of some Marxist principles, particularly as relates to property rights and the veneer of popular rule.
So the question is, does Donald Trump embody those 7 principles in his vision? Anyone who’s paid attention to what he’s said – and just as importantly, not said -in not only the past 15 months of campaigning but also the past 40 years of public life, will have already recognized Trump’s themes in Carlyle’s worldview. But for those who need further convincing, let us see how Trump and Carlyle agree.
- A Great Man should be our natural leader: An entire forest’s worth of paper has been produced detailing Trump’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement, so no need to expound further on that. Suffice it to say anyone willing to proclaim the virtues of every dictator from Benito Mussolini to Deng Xiaoping to his current infatuation with Vladimir Putin sees himself as a man of similar abilities – and traits.
- The strong, insular state: His motto, “Make America Great Again,” is a paen to this idea. In case you still weren’t sure, remember one of the hallmarks of the strong state is keeping undesirables out. From his proposed Mexican wall to the Muslim ban, a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign is keeping the undesirables out – by all means.
- Hierarchical society, including slavery: Trump certainly views American society as existing within a strict hierarchy. He launched his campaign by demonizing those of Mexican heritage as “rapists and murderers.” He has been sued by the federal government for housing discrimination, but various state governments for employment discrimination and once by a trade union for refusing to pay immigrant workers. It isn’t overt racism, so much as revelation in his belief that if you aren’t in the correct class, you have fewer rights and if you reside at the bottom, you’re unworthy of much more than crumbs.
- Police State: At various times, Trump has advocated for expanded police power to ensure the classes remain in their correct position. Undesirables should be rounded up. Agitators should be put down, with force. Indeed, Trump’s idea of “Law and Order” is less about law and a great deal more about order, enforced at the point of a gun.
- Militarism: “I’d bomb the hell out of them.” “Keep the oil.” “The military would not refuse my orders, even if they found them illegal.” “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.” “I’m more militaristic than even George Bush.” Tie all of that in with his expressed desire to spend trillions on rebuilding the military machine to Cold War levels, along with his willingness to economically attack the rest of the world and yeah. Donald Trump is definitely a militarist.
- Directed Markets: The other prominent cornerstone of Trump’s candidacy is a complete refutation of free trade. It’s also, in addition to a lifelong commitment to the hierarchal society, the one thing you can go back decades (his very first Wall Street Journal interview, in 1980, in fact) and find a consistent view. In fact, Trump hates free markets every bit as much as Carlyle did in his day. After all, as Trump has said, any business that puts profits ahead of Making America Great Again is engaged in treason and should pay a heavy price.
- Denial of Natural Rights: There are two documents that historians point to as delineating natural rights. One is the French The Rights of Man. The other, fortunately, is enshrined as law in our Constitution; our Bill of Rights. At various points throughout this campaign, Trump has shown contempt for the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th Amendments. He loves the 7th (I can’t think of another politician who’s filed more lawsuits). He likes the 2nd, but only for certain people (here we go back to the hierarchical society again). That Trump thinks natural rights are a figment of some 18th century scholar’s imagination is pretty obvious.
So, is Trump a fascist? Undoubtedly, and as such, he is the antithesis of every idea this country was founded upon and supposedly stands for today. While frightening, it isn’t that he is, or that he has come within a hair’s breadth of the Presidency that worries me. No, what’s truly frightening is that so many of our fellow citizens remain blind to his nature – or worse, not blind but fully supportive of his goals.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 14 years since our nation was brutally attacked. Every American remembers where they were, what they were doing and how they felt on September 11, 2001. Certainly, those of us in the NYC metro area (and I’m certain, in and around the Pentagon) have the images and feelings indelibly printed on our souls. For me, I watched – in person, not on TV – as Tower 2 crumbled to the ground. God forgive me, but to this day it is all I can do not to erupt in a spasm of rage and fury – and hatred.
Because here’s the thing: that day brought home, literally brought HOME, a fact most Americans had been happy to ignore for the previous 22 years.
The United States is at war with the Islamists.
The war began when the Ayatollah imprisoned the Iranian embassy staff. It continues to this very day. If you deny that, you are guilty of treason – not only against your nation, but against your civilization; indeed, you probably don’t even give a damn about your own survival. And here the rub: even if YOU want to deny it, the Islamist still wants to see your head on a pike. You have no say in the matter. There is no suing for peace, no negotiation possible.
For the first time, as a nation we seemed to understand this in the wake of that horrific day. We finally seemed to realize that this was a match to the death. Pundits and politicians alike compared the struggle to the one we faced in WWII. We were ready and willing to put all of our combined might into the fight.
In the intervening years, we’ve lost that. We’ve forgotten that we’re facing an enemy who wants us dead. Not just subjugated. D-E-A-D. We’re so busy trying to be politically correct that we’ve forgotten that this enemy does not think like us, does not share any of our values, does not care if they die in this war (as long as they take a few of us with them) and is willing to wait us out, for decades if need be. We’ve become so desirous of peace we’re actually negotiating our way to mass annihilation. It is a fool’s errand we’re chasing.
So this morning, I want you to remember the pain, the anguish, the horror, the rage you felt 14 years ago. Channel it and direct it. It’s time we, as a nation and the leaders of our civilization, rededicate ourselves to this fight. It’s time to end this, defeat – destroy – the Islamist.
For all our sakes, I hope you do.
God bless the United States.
That might sound like a strange article title from a libertarian. After all, aren’t we supposed to be ultra-isolationist types? Aren’t libertarians not supposed to care what happens anywhere else in the world? While that is ordinarily true, the situation in the Ukraine differs from, say, that of North Korea on a whole bunch of levels. First and foremost, the odds of the US entering a shooting war with the Koreans (or Iran, a host of other nations) is infinitesimally small. Should the Koreans actually be dumb enough to lob a nuke at Anchorage (or Seoul, or Tokyo), they fully understand their half of the Korean Peninsula won’t be suitable for human habitation for another 10,000 years. Let them rattle their sabres and keep Dennis Rodman busy. If they want to become a glass parking lot, I could care less.
What separates the situation in Ukraine from others around the globe is the agent provocateur, Russia. I know what you’re about to say – I can see the eyes rolling over from here. “What does the Russian interest in Ukraine have to do with the US?”; “If it’s Europe’s problem, let Europe handle it”; “The Ukranians can fight their own fights” and my favorite, “Haven’t the Russians been part of the Ukraine for centuries?”
Well, yes – the Russians have used Sevastopol as the home port for the Black Sea fleet since Catherine the Great was “Tsar of all the Russias.” In fact, Sevastopol was the original “Potemkin Village.” It also marked arguably the bloodiest loss for the Russian Empire during the Crimean Way, when after 11 months of siege the city fell to British, French and Turkish troops – but only after the classic Russian “scorched earth” stratagem of burning the city to the ground and scuttling the Black Sea fleet. But the entire argument that the Russians are simply securing a port and region with historic ties to Moscow is as fallow as the Sahara in July. When Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, one of the provisions was recognition of the “special status” of both Crimea and Sevastopol. The city is (or was, until Saturday) jointly ruled by both Russia and Ukraine; the region was given semi-autonomous status and under the Ukrainian constitution, allowed to pursue it’s own relations with Moscow. The Russian naval base was leased to Moscow until 2042. In short, Russia had no pressing reason to invade Crimea. Indeed, if anything, the situation after the Orange Revolution in 2004 would have dictated military action more so than the current one.
The middle two arguments and part of the first are debunked by more recent history than the Crimean War. When Ukraine gained independence, there was an immediate problem faced by the entire world: Ukraine inherited an entire Soviet ICBM fleet – and those missiles were armed. Overnight, the world was faced with a new nuclear power – in fact, Ukraine commanded the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It was larger than the combined nuclear forces of Great Britain, France, China, South Africa and Israel. The answer to resolving the potential nightmare was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Under the terms of that treaty, Ukraine agreed to relinquish her nukes in exchange for guarantees of her sovereignty and protection from the other signatories: the United States, Great Britain and Russia. There can be no doubt the Russians have violated the terms of that treaty (as of this writing, 2 regiments have taken up strategic positions with Ukraine and another 3 full divisions are poised to complete the invasion). The question before us is, do we agree to abide by our treaty commitments? Failure to do so demonstrates to every other ally of the United States that we are a feckless, irresponsible partner in world affairs. Already, the fealty of the US is being questioned after our actions (or inactions) during the Obama presidency. Failure to act now will destroy what remains of 75 years worth of credibility built by successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican.
But ultimately, the decision of what our country should do regarding the current situation in Ukraine belongs to We, the People. Just as an outcry against the planned bombing of Syria nearly a year ago persuaded the government to abandon those plans, a similar outcry of support for Ukraine could lead to action. But why should we, as citizens of the United States, care about what Russia does to her neighbors?
To understand that, you need to know a bit about the history of the principle actors on the stage. First and foremost is Vladimir Putin. I think most of my readers are aware of Putin’s ties to the former KGB. But I doubt few understand the type of command Putin has over the Russian government and the thrall he has over Russia’s people. As a politician, Putin is an ultranationalist, appealing to the Russian desire for a return to the type of world dominance once enjoyed by the Soviet Union. As a leader, he has been every bit as ruthless in the political arena as he was during his 16 year stint as a KGB colonel. Indeed, he rose within the infant Russian democracy to take the reins of the FSB, the successor to the KGB – and used the power of that office to “convince” Boris Yeltsin to appoint him Prime Minster in 1999. Only 3 months later, Yeltsin agreed to resign and appoint Putin as acting President. In the 14 years since, Putin has assumed autocratic command of every aspect of Russian political, economic and military life. As to Putin’s intentions on the world stage, he has made it clear his overarching goal is to first expand Russia’s border to encompass the territory of the old Soviet Union. Additionally, he regards any countries that were formerly in the Warsaw Pact as Russian “protectorates,” even should those nations decide to join the EU or NATO.
Part of Putin’s strategy has been to install puppet leaders in several of former Soviet republics. As a strategy, it has proven quite effective – for minimal expense, Russia effectively brought all of the former Soviet Republics back into herself. One place it didn’t happen was Georgia, which led Russia to invade South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and occupy those territories ever since. It was the ouster of one puppet, Viktor Yanukovych (who has since turned up in a dacha outside Moscow), in the latest Ukranian uprising that led to the Russian incursion in Crimea. Yanukovych’s career is a strange one. This marks the second time Ukrainians have deposed him, the first being the Orange Revolution in 2004. It was the chaos among competing democratic factions that allowed Yanukovych to return to power, but it was his insistence on doing the Kremlin’s bidding that ultimately led to his downfall.
Perhaps it’s paranoia speaking, but if so my family’s history justifies a little paranoia. The Russian crackdowns on dissidents and “undesirables” are very reminiscent of two of the most horrible regimes in world history, that of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Putin has, like Stalin, Lenin and Hitler before him, made no secret of his desire to control the world. My family suffered at Dachau and Auschwitz; those that survived suffered near equal indignities at the hands of their Russian “liberators” in Austria. So, yes, I grew up with those horror stories, with the tattoo on my grandmother’s arm and with an innate understanding of the types of atrocities autocratic regimes impose upon the populace. As an American, one of the things I’m proudest of is our commitment to the principle of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a principle we abandoned in the 1930’s as Adolph Hitler absorbed country after country in central Europe.
But even if we allow our founding principles to stand aside, there is another compelling reason to actively engage Putin’s Russia now. Our failure to take decisive action from 1933 – 1939 led to the invasion of Poland and World War II. Indeed, although FDR is not one of my favorite Presidents, I do commend him for pushing through the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed Britain to continue the fight once hostilities began – despite strong objections from the “America Firsters” in both parties. We have see any number of tin-pot dictators come and go in the 70 years since that war ended, but this marks the first time that one has seized control of a nation that is actually capable of plunging the world into general war. If Hitler had been confronted in the Ruhr, the Sudetenland or Austria before Poland, that great conflagration would have been avoided (in the case of the Ruhr and Sudetenland) or played out dramatically differently. Instead, we (along with Britain and France) played a geopolitical game of appeasement, believing that “giving” Germany predominately German-speaking territories would sate Hitler’s appetite.
My fear now is we will have forgotten the lessons learned at the expense of over 100 million lives and try to appease Putin. Tin pot dictators always mean what they say – the only question is if they have the ability to make those threats reality. Vladimir Putin has that ability, and this failing to stop him will cost the world far more than 100 million people.
Yesterday, Senator Frank Lautenberg died. While I doubt there was anything politically speaking we agreed on, I still respected the man’s commitment to our home state (New Jersey) and country. When I posted those thoughts on Facebook, I was blasted by a sizable number of my friends for memorializing a liberal Democrat. The commentators disparaged him for everything from “spitting on his oath of office” and “attempting to overturn the Constitution” to being an “outright fraud” or “typically corrupt NJ politician.”
Those last two made me stop and think for a moment. Had Lautenberg ever been associated with any sort of corruption or abuse of of his office? The answer is no, and that is saying something for a New Jersey politician. The only association with scandal in his 30+ years of public service is that he replaced a Senator who was convicted for his role in Abscam. Was he a classic liberal? Yes. Corrupt. No.
But why the vilification of a man whose biography is the epitome of the classic American success story? Within the answer to that question lies the answer to much of what ails our political system today. And the answer is not a matter of liberal or conservative principles, but rather what defines those principles in the 2010’s. Undergirding those definitions is not racism (though it is always an undercurrent) or sexism, but ageism.
A little relevant history is probably in order here. I was born in 1965. This makes me either an old Gen X’er or young Baby Boomer, according to demographers. Frank Lautenberg was born in 1924, making him a member of the “Greatest Generation.” Now stop to consider what those demographic distinctions mean, politically speaking. Senator Lautenberg would have been in kindergarten at the start of the Great Depression. By the time he was entering his junior year in high school, Germany was invading Poland and World War II was underway. After a youth of watching New Deal programs like the WPA and CCC save his hometown from disappearing from the map, his young adulthood would be spent fighting the Nazi’s. He would spend the rest of his twenties attending college under the GI Bill. In his 30’s, government programs helped him found ADP – and government contracts helped him grow ADP into the world’s largest payroll processing company.
In contrast, my youth was dominated by the debacle of the Vietnam War and shame of Watergate. The economic stagflation of the Carter years ended with the ignominy of the Iranian Embassy. After my time in the Marines, there wasn’t a GI Bill – it had been replaced by the Veteran’s Education Assistance Program (VEAP), which paid for one semester of college. My first business wasn’t assisted by the government; rather I spent more time than I really had ensuring I wasn’t running afoul of some obscure regulation or another (something that still plagues entrepreneurs to this day.
In short, Frank Lautenberg witnessed an activist government that worked to improve lives, that won the most critical war of the pre-nuclear age and that literally saved the world. As Robert Samuelson points out in this op-ed, I grew up witnessing an activist government with rampant corruption, rife with incompetence, incapable of managing even a comparatively small crisis. Lautenberg’s political views were largely shaped by watching a government managed economy, that while imperfect, at least managed to make poverty tolerable. Mine are the result of watching a government managed economy that has eroded the earning and savings power of it’s citizens and thrown millions into poverty (see chart below).
This clash on the views of the efficacy of Big Government is at the heart of the the turmoil within the Republican party. Baby Boomers, such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner share the view that Big Government isn’t inherently bad – just that our current government is poorly managed. The Gen X’ers (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, etc) simply believe that government has grown too large and unwieldy – or as Samuelson put it, government has “bitten off more than it can chew.” Democrats have largely staved off this demographic upheaval because (a) the vast majority of their Congressional Leadership is comprised of people over 70 and (b) the current President is also an unabashed liberal. The clash of identities that marked the Clinton presidency (Clinton, while more liberal than his Republican counterparts, certainly isn’t as far to the left as the current president).
So how does this story end? It can only end one way, and that’s also a result of demographics. The old standard bearers will eventually die off, leaving the Gen X (and eventually, Millenials) in charge of the Republican brand. Although my friends on the left probably do not want to hear this, eventually the liberal wing of the Democrat party will also die off (liberals are a declining percentage of the population, as recently as last year’s elections only 24% of the electorate declared themselves as “liberal” or “progressive”). That will leave the more conservative DLC wing in command. Future arguments will focus entirely on what role is appropriate for the federal government in our republic, not the size or machinations of said government.
And that is a good thing.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.
First off, I’d like to welcome everyone back from their Fourth of July vacations. I know I enjoyed mine and I hope you enjoyed yours.
As we head into the languid, steamy summer months most of us aren’t paying particular attention to the Presidential campaign. Both candidates, as is typical for the 6 weeks or so leading up Labor Day, are concentrating on fundraising and polishing their message. Unless either commits a gaffe of historic proportions (something the Romney family is well acquainted with), don’t expect either to make much news.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Mitt Romney. Unlike his opponent, he is relatively unknown to the American voting public. If he uses these next few weeks wisely, he can create the underpinnings of a successful candidacy. If not, he will get crushed in November.
A little historical perspective is in order. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination and faced off against an incumbent with a high personal favorability rating. The incumbent, Jimmy Carter, presided over a nation seemingly in decline. The “stagflation” of the late 1970’s – marked by persistent underemployment, inflation and low economic growth rates – had taken its toll on the American labor force. Combined with what seemed like capitulation to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and an inability to deal with the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran, the 39th President had few policy successes to point to, other than the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. The future 40th President was known by the country primarily as a former “B” movie actor and Governor of California. That July, Carter made his now infamous “malaise” speech, in which he laid out his vision of an emaciated America, impotent in foreign relations and incapable of robust economic growth. “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation,” said Carter in that speech.
Although initial polling indicated the speech gave Carter an 11% boost in approval and most operatives thought he was crazy to do it, Reagan sensed the opening Carter’s opinion of the American People presented. He countered with an approach that said the problems the nation faced were not from ordinary people, but rather from an intrusive government that seeked to micromanage the American Dream. When he unleashed “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” during the October 28 debate, the nation responded with a heartfelt “NO!” Reagan, of course, went on to win the Presidency with an overwhelming mandate, carrying 44 states and besting Carter by 10 points in the popular vote. Reagan, despite national polls showing him trailing by as much as 8 points a mere week before the election, had stayed on message, trusting in his instincts. His aplomb – and characteristic belief in the American people and their belief in him – had carried the day, the same as it would for the next eight years.
Fast forward 32 years: President Obama could just as easily have delivered the speech Carter gave in July 1980. (In fact, Obama has delivered at least three similarly-themed speeches in the past year). Consider these talking points – can you guess which President delivered them?
“What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends…All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.”*
Like Carter two generations ago, Obama is preaching a gospel of government dependence, of sacrifice and demonization of “special Interests.” Of course, we know from our history that when Reagan forced a Democratic Congress to accept much of his program, unleashing the private sector to grow and innovate in ways it hadn’t been able to since the 1950’s, growth exploded and America went back to work. “Morning in America” became the central theme of Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, and a proud President was able to speak to a proud nation about the accomplishments we achieved over the previous four years. He did not have to fear anyone asking if the nation was better off. We were, and we knew it.
The central question of the 2012 campaign is not whether the economy will rebound in time for President Obama to win reelection, or if PPACA will fire up a coalition of conservatives and libertarians that leads to his ouster. No, the biggest question in this election is whether Mitt Romney can emulate the Gipper. Like Reagan, Romney faces off against an incumbent that’s generally well liked as a person, but whose executive ability is met with ambivalence. In terms of policy positions, Romney is as far from Obama as Reagan was from Carter. But as anyone who has followed politics knows, personality matters. If Romney wants to win, he needs to do more than hammer the President on his failings. He needs to demonstrate some of the same optimism about the USA’s future that exemplified Reagan’s campaign style. He needs to show that he can and will lead. He needs to ditch the handlers and speak from the heart about his vision for what America looks like in four years.
Can he overcome what has been a wooden personality and achieve a similar result? Certainly, the opportunity is ripe. Despite his personal favorability ratings, President Obama consistently polls under 50% on policy – in fact, his poll numbers mirror those of Carter at similar points in their respective Presidencies (actually, Gallup had Carter with a bigger lead over Reagan than the one enjoyed by the current incumbent). The American People, much as they were in 1980, are looking for a real leader; someone who believes in the future as much (if not more) than they do. If Romney can project the same confidence as Reagan, Obama will suffer a similar electoral fate as Carter. If not…well, that is the end of the American Dream, isn’t it?
*Delivered by Jimmy Carter during National Address, July 15, 1980.
It doesn’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I am not a fan of Barack Obama. I never have been. I’ve never seen in him the things the media generally transposes onto the Obama persona. I’ve always seen him as nothing more than another cold, calculating politician. Just another in a long line of despotic Chicago politicians; a man after whom Bill Daley would find more in common than the typical working stiffs that populate the Windy City. And like all politicians, I always figured he was more than a bit narcissistic.
But then today came word that the Obama White House is attempting to actually rewrite history, to include one Barack Hussein Obama in some of our country’s greatest Presidential moments. If you’ve heard about this already, then it was probably the rewrite of the Reagan Presidency that got your attention:
“In a June 28, 1985 speech Reagan called for a fairer tax code, one where a multi-millionaire did not have a lower tax rate than his secretary. Today, President Obama is calling for the same with the Buffett Rule.”
It’s actually beyond narcissistic to rewrite this bit of history. Reagan was not arguing for higher tax rates on anyone, as Obama contends with his historical rewrite. Rather, the Gipper was proposing a complete revamping of the tax code – lowering rates for everyone and eliminating loopholes. You can read the full text of the speech here, but I figured I would give you the portions where he talks about the need for a simpler, fairer tax code. Keep in mind, this speech was given at the commencement for Northside High School in Atlanta. The main thrust of the speech was celebrating the students achievement in turning their once failing school into one of the ten-best in the nation, while also lauding the nation’s economic turnaround. Neither of these are accomplishments that the Obama administration can even hope to match.
“We’ve already come a long way. Just 5 years ago, when some of you were in junior high, America was in bad shape, mostly bad economic shape. Rising prices were making it harder for your parents to buy essentials like food and clothing, and unemployment was rising; there were no jobs for seniors in high school and college to graduate into. It was as if opportunity had just dried up, and people weren’t feeling the old hope Americans had always felt. And that was terrible because hope was always the fuel that kept America going and kept our society together.
Just a few years later everything’s changed. You and your parents are finally getting a breather from inflation. And if you graduate and go out into the work force in June, there will be jobs waiting for you. Hope has returned, and America’s working again.
Now, you know how all this came about, how we cut tax rates and trimmed Federal spending and got interest rates down. But what’s really important is what inspired us to do these things. What’s really important is the philosophy that guided us. The whole thing could be boiled down to a few words—freedom, freedom, and more freedom. It’s a philosophy that isn’t limited to guiding government policy. It’s a philosophy you can live by; in fact, I hope you do…
As you know, that last week I unveiled our proposal to make the Federal tax system fairer, clearer, and less burdensome for all Americans. Now, someone might say it’s odd to talk about tax policy with young people in their teens. But I don’t think so. You not only understand what taxes are, what effect they have in the average person’s life, but if you don’t understand, you will pretty soon when you get your first job. I know some of you already have part-time jobs, and I know you keep your eye on the part of the check that shows what Uncle Sam is taking out.
What we’re trying to do is change some of those numbers. We want the part of your check that shows Federal withholding to have fewer digits on it. And we want the part that shows your salary to have more digits on it. We’re trying to take less money from you and less from your parents…
We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy. It’s time we stopped it.”
Of course, Warren Buffet was already a successful investor by the time President Reagan assumed office in 1981. And he was one of those millionaires Reagan was referring to, the ones who were paying nothing while bus drivers were paying 10% of their salary. The only difference is now, Warren Buffet still pays nothing, but that bus driver (assuming he’s still employed) is paying over 1/3 of his salary in taxes. And do you know who was at the forefront, leading the charge against the type of tax reform Reagan advocated? Yep, the same Warren Buffet who today is still against tax reform – instead opting for the Obama option of the “Buffet Rule.” And the reason for that is as simple as can be. Today, there are even more loopholes in the tax code than there were in 1985. Guys like Warren Buffet will still pay nothing. Note the difference in approaches: Reagan supported eliminating loopholes to equalize the tax rates. Obama just wants to raise rates.
So, yes, Warren Buffet is being disingenuous with his chicanery. But Barack Obama is, once again, flat-out lying to the American people – and all to make his ego feel better.