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Archive for the 'Books People and History' Category

Enjoying the Four F’s

March 25th, 2009

The pace of spring is quickening, and like that of nature it seems our lives are becoming equally hurried.  We spent last weekend running all around, essentially a of couple days with family, friends, food and fun.  Which included an uncharacteristically large gathering for dinner with relatives from out of town.  Lots of great food and conversation, and birthday celebrations too.  A magician was brought in for entertainment- that was a hoot.  I’ve never really been to a “magic show” on a birthday, but the kids really loved it.  The gent was pretty funny and the kids were mesmerized.   It was one of those nights where you eat too much, and it all ends too soon with everyone heading back to rejoin their own lives.  We also spent a day with the cub scouts on a grand outing for the kids.  It was a busy, fun-filled day that included a train ride and a tour of some impressive sights.  

See if you know where the mystery photo of the day is from…  isn’t it beautiful? This is very large, probably thirty feet across the side.

stained-glass

 
For a closer look, here’s an inset from the right side, rotated to show a better view. Maybe it holds a clue! I can’t imagine how long it must take to design and build stained glass art. 

stained-glass-inset

 Update: Yes! It’s the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City- an amazing building.  Under the capitol dome above, between the two cherubs is a banner- which says “Missouri State Capitol – Made from Missouri stone.”  The entire capitol building, inside and out, is made from limestone marble from various sites throughout Missouri.  The only exception are eight columns in the House chamber that were made in New Hampshire.  They are one-piece solid granite columns weighing over 26,000 pounds each.  The murals, paintings and stained glass throughout the capitol were incredible.

The tour was very interesting, as well as learning more about Missouri’s history. With a band of active young kids it wasn’t all about art and history though. We finished the day by spending a few hours playing ultimate frisbee football, which is kind of like touch football, only you have to stay where you are when you catch the frisbee, and then throw it to another player on your team. A few of the adults joined in- what a great time! I can’t remember when I’ve had grass stains on my knees from diving catches while playing a game outdoors… its been many years.

Searching for Tocqueville

February 20th, 2009

And now, for something completely different, a reading recommendation.

Do you ever wonder the Why of things?  I do that a lot…

Why?

For example…

Why must our government subsidize- no, in fact reward- poor financial behavior by giving millions of taxpayer dollars to many of those who probably can’t afford their mortgage anyway? Or to the banks who propped up those mortgages?  Okay, we’re all in this together.  My neighbor’s foreclosure affects my financial life too.  But why not offer financial incentives to those who are financially responsible?

Why does the FCC need to hire 4,000 callcenter workers to explain how to receive digital television signals, and yet we expect our citizens to raise children, drive cars and take out enormous mortgages all by themselves?

Why do some people think it’s a good idea to place a device in my car that monitors how many miles I drive, and tax me on each of those  thousands of miles each year commuting across rural America for work, travel or tourism and for such needs as to buy groceries and take my children to school, church, cub scouts and sporting activities?

Why do some people want to restrict free-speech and use national government control to regulate radio content?

Why do some of the most evil people in the world seemingly have more rights and privileges than millions of victims of such evil people?

*******

So many questions.   I find myself recently thinking about what might be the evolutionary path for this Great Republic we call America over the next several decades.  Opposing views and ideologies will always be present in in our political discourse, and yet I wonder if there really isn’t a quiet revolution of some nature taking place?

In considering my many questions, I happened upon an inciteful recent essay by Christopher Oleson, Senior Fellow at the Westchester Institute, who begins by examining that very question:

“Aristotle, in the fifth book of his Politics, noted that political revolutions sometimes take place unobserved due to the fact that they occur over a long period of time through slow incremental changes in the constitution of a political community. This happens, he noted, œthrough gradual relaxation of the principles ordering a community such that œeven a small change can be a cause of revolution. For when they give up one of the details of the constitution, afterwards they also make another slightly bigger change more readily, until they alter the whole system. Thus, in the end, there comes into being a noticeably different political order without any outward subversion of the official system of government.”

Mirroring my own feelings, he goes on to describe and contrast viewpoints written by Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America.

“Rereading Tocqueville™s magisterial account of the American democratic experiment recalled this [Aristotle’s] passage to me, for after having put down Democracy in America, I could not quite shake the feeling that something like what Aristotle was describing must have taken place with respect to our own political institutions.” (Emphasis mine)

Maybe this does not seem very engaging, or too extreme to consider in some way.  But I would offer to you that indeed this is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves right now, especially considering our individual political views and ideologies.   The heart of my own yearning for understanding involves precisely what Mr. Oleson has centered upon: The consquence and long-term ramifications of the evolution away from local, or small government, and the migration to a larger national or central government.  Oleson continues by describing what Tocqueville cited as crucial:

“Tocqueville™s America looked somewhat different, and this difference, he argued, was a crucial bulwark of American liberty. I am referring to the importance of the reality of local government if the people are to be authentically free and self-governing. Tocqueville referred to local government as œthat fertile germ of free institutions. œThe strength of free peoples, he wrote, œresides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people™s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.

As Oleson further describes the local experience of freedom, I find myself very much wondering how America today has moved so far, so fast, from the roots of our liberty:

“In other words, the experience of local and participatory self-government, of citizens of a local community governing and ordering their own affairs in matters truly significant to their common good, is the seedbed of a free society. It is the primary place where a free people exercise their liberty, form socially significant associations, and deliberate together so as to rule themselves in accord with what they think it means to live well.”

It is frustrating, nay, disillusioning to me to see the centralization of democratic power in the national government, and the centralization of media control happening with the major media organizations and communications structures.  The internet has certainly helped foster individual retention of expression, and yet I think we have lost something along the way of the nation’s ideals and founding principles.  I fear a loss of real and ideological liberty, and our understanding of what freedom is, to the continuing detriment of what this nation will become many years from now.   Oleson continues by describing Tocqueville’s understanding of democratic politics of that era:

“This is the meaning, for Tocqueville, of free and participatory democratic politics. And it was precisely because he saw Americans living this kind of local and substantive political life, first in their townships and then in their individual states, that Tocqueville came to regard the citizens of the United States as a genuinely free, self-governing people, and not the passive subjects of a distant, bureaucratic, and centralized power.”

Looking at our personal situation, we live in a rural area, with a vibrant small town serving the needs of the community.  It’s not too far to travel and find more diverse metropolitan pursuits, but we enjoy living where we do, as well as the sense of community and local structures that exist to serve people’s needs.   And yet I find the above passage striking in that we have often assummed our heritage as Americans exists on a similar basis across the nation when in fact it is less and less so.  Oleson also describes a greater fractioning of liberty, where Tocqueville wrote from personal experience how freedoms may erode over time.  

“Tocqueville saw this dynamic at work in the dangerous version of democracy that had taken shape in his own beloved France and warned that it was unfortunately the perennial temptation of every democratic nation.  If not vigilantly resisted, he foresaw the emergence of a novel form of benevolent, democratic despotism, œan immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing [its citizens] enjoyment and watching over their fate.  That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentleIt gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritancesThus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties

Such a vision may seem too surreal or practically extreme on the basis of our individual lifetimes and day-to-day experience.  After all, we seek good!  We want a better country, cleaner air and water, safer streets, financial security, a more peaceful world… we only want what is best, right? To make the world a better place? 

And yet how if not for the action of creeping, extreme and misguided despotism did the horrendous events leading to the Holocaust unfold?   And we don’t even see it!  How do millions perish in Darfur and millions more starve across Africa in recent years under the watchful eyes of the United Nations?   How is the world today being shaped by a desire for social equality?  How are countless millions infected and die of malaria in Africa each year when we have great means to combat it, yet do not for fear of the social environmental consequences of pesticide use?  How do the terms “social justice” or “economic justice” fit into the constructs of a free, democratic Republic based on the rule of law? 

So many questions.  Through the last century- more recently the last decade, we find ourselves struggling through dueling paradigms, a move toward a more European model of social order, contrasted with a struggle for the very roots of the Great Republic itself.   Today we continue searching to define the kind of nation we will be generations hence.   Personally I find myself struggling to understand why people do not yearn more for independence and freedom, but rather seem to embrace government control and sponsorship of the ideas and actions we should be handling at a more personal or local level.  I do not believe that only government can support long term structural equality.   Big (centralized) government has failed and continues to fail, critically, at the individual level.  And it is the individual level at which all else begins.   Oleson describes what, for me, is the chief concern:

“Tocqueville himself was not unaware of the centralizing drift inherent in democratic peoples whose passion for equality outstrips their love of freedom and thus continually increases the centralization of state power. The problem with such centralization is that it robs people of their freedom, saps them of their capacity for self-rule, and reduces them to passive and needy subjects of a vast bureaucracy.” (Emphasis mine)

A centralizing drift… have we not seen that taking place these past years, especially the past few months, and in terms of the financial tumult taking place?  Is this a temporary occurence, or some quasi-permanent shift in the political and socio-economic landscape?  Is it inevitable?

Oleson concludes by considering the political changes we’ve seen and wonders what Tocqueville may have to offer in light of “…the commitments we have lost, and the threat we face now in a looming, omnicompetent nanny state.”

I don’t think we’re quite there yet.  Looming is a good word however, and we’re going a lot faster in that direction than I ever imagined.  Personally I don’t like it, and yet there’s nowhere on earth I would rather live.  It’s true- I’ve seen most of it.  Okay, a very large part of it.  Freedom and the rule of law simply do not exist across the world as it does in America.  Nor do many other things.  Of course for some of you that may be a good thing.  I kind of like the 2nd Amendment for example, but it scares the heck out of folks in some other countries.  I’ll admit America’s not perfect, no nation is.  But I believe it’s the best thing going.

I don’t expect that I may ever find satisfactory answers to my questions.  But I’ll keep asking them.   In addition to asking ‘why’, perhaps it’s time to consider Mr. Oleson’s thoughts toward reading Tocqueville once again.

*******

And as for rewarding poor financial behavior?  Seems pretty simple to my son’s second grade teacher.  She’s got this neat little box in the front of the room.  It’s called the treasure box, and it’s filled with lots of neat little doo-dads that little kids like and, if they do well, they get to pick from each week.  It provides an external reward or stimulus to help motivate young kids to behave and accomplish tasks, especially for those who haven’t developed their intrinsic motivational skills as yet.  Ideally, we hope our kids will grow up and learn right from wrong, how to do things for themselves, to make healthy choices, and because they want to achieve, grow, etc.  Hopefully they grow up to become productive, contributing citizens of our society.  But should we reward their poor choices and behaviors?  No. 

I’m not going to debate the merits of using a treasure box in a classroom to motivate kids, especially since I can hardly imagine what it’s like to be an elementary teacher these days.   But I do like the second grade teacher’s rules…  You don’t go to the treasure box unless you get your work done each week, and you behave properly within the classroom.   Seems to me America’s treasure box is being emptied for a lot of the wrong reasons.

Where the Buck Stopped

January 6th, 2009

A few weeks ago I was quite disillusioned with the political antics taking place in a neighboring state (which continue to lead to great confusion).   But coincidentally I saw an email about Harry Truman that day, one you may have come across before.   In his day, Harry Truman was not a popular President.  And he was charged with making the kind of decisions that we hope no one will ever entertain again.   But he made them with courage and conviction.  

With the passage of time his legacy has grown along with the appreciation we feel for someone who led such a humble life, especially after leaving office.  I think I would have enjoyed meeting him.  In some ways I feel like I already know him, or at least can identify with him, in part because he hails from Missouri.   But also because I had the chance to wander around Wake Island on a transitory visit once- a desolate, historical place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where President Truman journeyed to that historic meeting with General Douglas McCarthur… only to relieve him of command six months later.   

I also know of him from reading the excellent biography of Truman written by David McCullough.   (Side note: I haven’t read very many Presidential biographies, but some of our more ambitous blogging friends have chosen to undertake that effort in total…  It’s neat to read where Ed at Riverbend Journal shares his thoughts about a George Washington biography for example.)

But my distinct impression about Harry Truman is that he was one of the hardest-working and more principled leaders (and yes, politicians) our country has produced.  And that he was quite a simple man in terms of needs.

I don’t know who wrote the following, but it’s fairly accurate according to Snopes… (Side note 2:  How did Snopes become the WWWebs leading authority for getting to the bottom of urban legends, myths, scams, rumors and half-truths anyway?  It’s a great “first place to check” for those questionable emails that too many people always seem to send out.)   

But what is written below about Truman is such a stark contrast to what we see today throughout the political landscape that I thought it worth sharing.

Harry Truman, from Missouri, was a different kind of President.  He probably made as many important decisions regarding our nation’s history as any of the other 42 Presidents.  However, a measure of his greatness may rest on what he did after he left the White House.  Historians have written that the only asset he had when he died was the house he lived in, which was in Independence Missouri .  On top of that, his wife inherited the house from her Mother.
          
When he retired from office in 1952, his income was a U.S. Army pension reported to have been $13,507.72 a year. Congress, noting that he was paying for his stamps and personally licking them, granted him an ‘allowance’ and, later, a retroactive pension of $25,000 per year.

After President Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess drove home to Missouri by themselves.  There were no Secret Service following them.

When offered corporate positions at large salaries, he reportedly declined, stating, ‘You don’t want me.  You want the office of the President, and that doesn’t belong to me.  It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale.’

Even later, on May 6, 1971, when Congress was preparing to award him the Medal of Honor on his 87th birthday, he refused to accept it, writing, ‘I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.’  (President Truman passed away just over a year later).

He never owned his own home and as president he paid for all of his own travel expenses and food.
Modern politicians have found a new level of success in cashing in on the Presidency, resulting in untold wealth.
Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Political offices are now for sale.

Good old Harry Truman was correct when he observed, ‘My choices early in life were either to be a piano player in a whore house or a politician.  And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.’

President Truman died on the morning of December 26th, 1972 in Kansas City, Missouri, just over 36 years ago.  A write-up by Mary McGrory in the Washington Star the next day remembered him in a simple and profound manner.

“He was not a hero or a magician or a chess player, or an obsession.  He was a certifiable member of the human race, direct, fallible, and unexpectedly wise when it counted.   He did not require to be loved.  He did not expect to be followed blindly.  Congressional opposition never struck him as subversive, nor did he regard his critics as traitors.  He never whined.”

“He walked around Washington every morning- it was safe then.  He met reporters frequently as a matter of course, and did not blame them for his failures.  He did not use the office as a club or a shield, or a hiding place.  He worked at it… He said he lived by the Bible and history.  So armed, he proved that the ordinary American is capable of grandeur.  And that a President can be a human being…”

May we always be so fortunate as to find such men- and women- as our nation’s leaders.

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