Monthly Archives: December 2011

If You Want to Understand the US Government…

… read the Constitution. Don’t just read it to look at the words and then say, “there! I’ve read the Constitution!” Read it in character. Read it like a slave owner of 1787, seeking to protect his way of life. Read it like a New England businessman bent on securing protections for his aspirations. Read it like a Virginia planter, wary of surrendering his aristocracy to a democratic mob. In so doing, you’ll see that it’s a document full to the brim with compromises, tradeoffs, and concessions. Realize as well that that’s not a bad thing.

What’s bad is when the compromises, tradeoffs, and concessions come to a halt. Politics is the art of the compromise, the “art of the second best,” as one wag put it. We seem to have lost that art in American politics today. Both sides of the aisle are highly polarized, and legislation has ground to a halt. When extremist positions can halt the government of a nation, those positions force a crisis that either succeeds in giving them power or reduces them to irrelevance. The sad thing with that is when an extremist position gains power, it’s typically of an authoritarian bent. Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, Communists in Russia and China, Khmer Rouges in Cambodia, Peronistas in Argentina, Militarists in Chile, Baathists in Iraq and Syria, Khomeini’s party in Iran, Nationalists in Egypt – the list goes on, if you’d like me to keep going, but I’ll stop here as I’ve made my point.

The United States is a special place on earth so long as we continue to be able to make deals with ourselves. That Constitution, written over two centuries ago, endures as a national bond only so far as we’re willing to make compromises and accept the tides of history as they wash over us. Our own descent into extremism over the slavery issue produced our nation’s worst war ever. In terms of repercussions, we still face the fallout of that war today. Although we don’t have any one issue that truly divides the nation today as slavery did in the 1850s, we have the partisans ready to seize upon any issue that, through division, enables them to make a bid for total power. This is a very unsafe place to be.

Now, if extremists aren’t really trying to gain total power and they’re not really extremists, we’re going to need some extraordinary proof to back up those extraordinary claims. Surrender a point or two. Make a concession. Give an inch. Let the government of America continue, inefficient though it may be. The continuance of government lends stability to the nation, and that stability translates into economic growth. We seem to actually have a slight recovery underway, but one more argument over taxes and spending that produces no results is enough to scare us into thinking things will get worse and then it’s goodbye, recovery. Historically, high levels of extremism coupled with hard times produce massive upheavals in government. We were lucky in 1789 that our leaders then weren’t ideologues. They were practical men and they did a practical business in Philadelphia.

Our current system, with the big money of corporations unfettered in the mass media and lobbyists and congressmen rife with corruption, has left the electorate feeling so unempowered that it produced the aimless “Occupy” movement. While there was a bit of excitement to actually have a street protest in the USA, the apathy was so massive that the movement failed to put forward a list of demands. It simply awaited the inevitable police sweep to clear the parks for some other bums to loiter there. The Tea Party was a genuine uprising as well, until the Koch brothers hijacked it to serve their own needs. We’re out of solutions when protest movements either fizzle or become co-opted and the legislatures refuse to compromise.

All we need for a massive crisis would be a galvanizing issue. The global economy could easily provide that issue in the coming year (or even the coming few months), and then we’d be in an awful fix. If the Republicans and Democrats collectively fail to reach a compromise to stabilize the nation, one side or the other may gain the presidency only to lose any ability to govern because of a permanently split Congress.

And that then prompts one more reading of the Constitution, this time as a modern extremist looking for ways to halt all changes other than the ones of his own faction’s choosing. Like any document, the Constitution is one whose words can be twisted to provide perverted meanings contrary to the spirit in which it was written. Our Constitution was written so a diverse group could co-exist peacefully and effectively through compromise and agreement. When we fail to compromise, we fail as a nation.

The Simplest Charity

One of my favorite teachings I’ve gleaned from Islam is that smiling is a form of charity. I love that thought, and it’s something that’s universally true, I believe. It’s certainly where we can start giving to each other, and from it can follow so much other goodness.

Take some time to smile at other people today. I know that every time I’ve been smiled at by a random stranger as we pass by, I’ve had a better day. When a good friend or someone in my family smiles, it’s even better. If reading this makes you smile, I’m glad I helped in some way. If you go and start smiling at others because of this, then we may have a movement on our hands.

Or should I say on our faces? No matter: smile, and make your brothers and sisters in humanity feel better. 🙂

Joyeux Noel

I love this film. It has been criticized for a sentimental bent and for not being as biting as Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, but the film still has a punch to it, before and after the quiet dignity of a moment of peace celebrated in the middle of a war.

There really was a Christmas Truce in 1914, and I see it as one of the most glorious moments of history, no matter how brief it may have been. The film looks at the consequences of the truce, and that’s the part that speaks volumes in its subtlety.

Basically, after the truce happened, the generals in charge realized that fighting would not happen, which would spoil their lovely little mindless war. There was absolutely no point to World War One, remember that. It was not a war to save anyone from anything. It was the ludicrous conclusion of jingoistic nineteenth-century nationalistic bombast. It was Europe attempting to commit suicide. It was a war that should have been cancelled. There was no justification for it at all, and there the soldiers were at the end of 1914, cancelling it. And that made the generals furious.

Soldiers were transferred to different fronts, units were disbanded, and officers were disciplined. In the film, all that is shown. It’s easy to shrug that off and say, “Oh well, no good deed goes unpunished. So what else is new?” The repercussions, however, are juxtaposed with the reverence and quiet joy of a mass celebrated in no-man’s land. That makes a key difference.

If peace on earth and good will to men are the words of Jesus – and truly, they’re also the words of Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mohammed, and Lao Tzu – then what of the notion of “kill them all, every one?” Even if one rejects the notion of the existence of a Satan, the notion itself is a Satanic one. The governments and their state religions, educators, and civil servants in uniforms present an enemy to peace and good will. The men in those places hold power, and they use the threat of violence to compel otherwise good people to do things that maintain that power while exploiting or harming other people. This is something that was not unique to the world of the Great War. It is something that is a standard condition here on earth.

In essence, government is naturally the enemy of peace. In a blissful anarchy, it is the man who grabs a weapon to enforce his will that shatters the tranquility with the ugliness of despotism. Therefore, it is the duty of the righteous to provide an alternative to despotism in which justice and peace can prevail as much as possible for the people so governed. Sadly, what men can no longer seize from without they corrupt from within and what men created to ensure liberty and order becomes the very thing that destroys both. This message is conveyed quite clearly in the film.

Looking at the world of today, it is quite evident that no politician in the USA, not even my locally-elected representative, is truly working for the people. Each is beholden to interests that form a plutocratic oligarchy that I have no access to. To preserve the special privileges for those at the top, we here down below are made to suffer. It matters not who is in Congress or the Presidency or the Supreme Court: only those who will betray the poor in a Satanic bargain with the rich will be permitted to rule. The film shows that they will continue to do so, but hints to us all through the scenes of peace that there is a higher power and we are all accountable to it.

While those that promote the ideals of peace and good will are the dread enemies of the worldly power brokers, it is still worth promoting the ideals of peace and good will. One will never see massive wealth or great power through a policy of peace and good will, but why would one want that massive wealth or great power if it meant harming one’s fellow man? It is the Satanic bargain of murdering – even if only a little, through a lie or a cheat – to get gain versus the Godlike covenant of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you in order to have peace.

Educate Yourself, If You’ve Got Any Guts

When I was in the 8th grade, I found a biography about Frank Zappa. I read it and it changed my life. It changed my life because of this quote:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read. Forget I mentioned it… Rise for the flag salute.” – Frank Zappa

I already didn’t like pep rallies, so this resonated with me. Then I thought about the “drop out… and go to the library” part. I knew dropping out wasn’t an option, but the library was right there. I took Mr. Zappa’s advice that day and resolved to educate myself. I decided I had the guts to do it.

30 years later, I’m glad I took that advice to heart. Never mind my college degree: my real education happened whenever a teacher went on a tangent, when I got a chance to listen in on a discussion, and when I got to hit the library. The best thing about the University of Texas at Austin was its massive library system. I used it. If there was something I wanted to learn, I made the time to get to the library and to read all about it. I didn’t necessarily need a class in a subject: after all, a class was pretty much reading books, listening to a professor rehash his own book, and taking a test. If I read the books on my own, what need was there to test to see if I’d read them? And if I read enough books, it would be like a graduate course, right?

With the advent of the Internet, I found it that much easier to continue my education. I hate seeing people sit and wonder about answers to questions while they wait for someone else to Google up the answer. Start with Google and Wikipedia, and see where it takes you, if you want to know the answers. They’re great places to start, but please make sure you don’t finish there.

Another key part of my self-education was the original 10-part series of James Burke’s Connections. The episodes are as vital today as they were when they first came out. If you haven’t seen them, you need to. Burke shows how anyone can teach himself or herself anything and then use that information to make his or her life better.

By “better,” I don’t necessarily mean making vast fortunes with huge inventions. I do mean keeping the wolf from the door through clever thinking and innovation. I mean having a good life through constant learning.