What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.

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What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest.  Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital.  An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally.  The wounded man will have none of it.  An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs.  Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole.  With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.

There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit.  Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man.  Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them.  Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself.  So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history.  By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable.  At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.

He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly.  He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing.  On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly.  Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss.  Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent.  His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England.  His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region.  Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law.  In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted.  Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.

With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement.  After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government.  His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation.  He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners.  There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished.  Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.

He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War.  Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt.  He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders.  His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.

Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top.  As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden.  William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900.  At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century.  Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln.  Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.

Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated.  At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States.  Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness.  He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business.  He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures.  President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.

After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest.  He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply.  He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.

Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable.  William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business.  Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time.  Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators.  Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.

So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States.  With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business.  Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party.  Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support.  After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”  Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.

Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite.  While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service.  There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people.  With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong.  Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.”  Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare.  Could such a transformation occur again?  Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness?  Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.


What You Should Think About Prohibition

December 5, 2007

“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse — the existence of a hunted man.”

–Al Capone

When a friend asked me what today was, my response of “Cinquo de Decembero” was not only grammatically incorrect, but it also missed the point. Among other things, December 5th is Repeal Day. No longer a day of widespread national celebration, it nonetheless seems like a good cause for it. The prohibition of beverage alcohol, a.k.a. Prohibition, was one of the biggest policy disasters in the history of American democracy.

Unlike slavery, disenfranchisement of women, capital punishment, etc., this was a distinctively American creation. Guided by overwrought thinking on morality, the citizens of the United States collectively and deliberately volunteered to live in a dry nation. This position is not without merit. Though the cultural movement’s backbone was a camp revival movement analogous to modern megachurches, the rational secular case was not weak either.

The neurochemistry of alcoholism remained mysterious, but the hopeless drunk was an archetype with a venerable history. Even many people who were not chemically addicted to alcohol still had complex feelings as unfortunate experiences cast shadows on memories of happy celebrations. Used responsibly, it is a delightful substance. Used to great excess, it is a poison that sickens. The argument that it posed a problem in need of a solution was not ridiculous. Unfortunately, neither science nor policy were evolved enough to offer constructive responses.

The American people faced a choice between banning this intoxicating vice outright or taking no substantial action. Even in the relatively short life of our culture, alcohol enjoyed an entrenched position. When a debt-ridden federal government sought to expand by taxing liquor production, unrest mounted until a minor armed rebellion occurred. In regions where there was little population density or infrastructure, a working still might be a standard fixture at every farm, and whiskey might serve as a medium of exchange. Economic stresses on frontier agrarians may have motivated the rebels, but a substance already integrated into many European traditions had a place of prominence in early American history.

Some popular drinking establishments in colonial cities served as informal meeting places for the Founding Fathers and other revolutionaries. Many early American warships kept alive the English custom of rationing a full gallon of beer per day per sailor. Several unorthodox Christian sects banned the consumption of alcohol. Yet the first purported miracle of Jesus involved transforming water into wine. Generally speaking, the majority of the faithful, and Americans in general, found this form of drink acceptable.

Thus the association between charismatic evangelists and Prohibition seems counterintuitive at first glance. There were other social forces driving the political change, but American attitudes were shaped significantly by the hyperbolic demonization of alcohol in popular sermons. It was a vicious cycle. Hostility toward alcohol would increase support for a particular ministry while increasingly influential religious leaders would strive to outdo one another in expressing that hostility.

To hear them tell it, all other evils sprang from an excess of drink. Having little experience with, or even precedent for, controlled substance enforcement, there was little forethought about the practical limitations of such a policy. As the public swallowed the hysteria of the temperance movement, lawbreaking would be required to swallow any significant concentration of ethanol. Practically no one so inclined would give up the activity on account of the law.

Yet an already problematic situation was made worse by the change. Widespread demand for an illegal good created an enormous revenue stream for criminal organizations. Legitimate industry, shipping, and retail was replaced by covert production, smuggling, and illicit commerce. There was tremendous economic upheaval as some communities lost major businesses while others gained well-funded criminal networks. The infrastructure of the black market quickly expanded to accommodate a legally dry yet relentlessly thirsty United States.

Yet the social harm went well beyond mobsters and bootleggers. Millions of Americans would come to associate pleasure or relief with breaking the law. Crackdowns by zealous enforcers would intensify urban violence. The need for secrecy prevented useful regulation of alcohol production and distribution. Responsible use more frequently gave way to severe drunkenness, lasting addiction, or even blindness from poison as concentrated beverages of unreliable composition replaced properly labeled and comparatively safe products.

So on this day in 1933, nearly thirteen years after the ban took effect, it once again was legal to sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. While this horrible law was enforced, what was accomplished? Prison populations expanded. Debilitating medical conditions became more numerous. Respect for law and order was diminished. Social connections between career criminals and basically honest citizens were much more widespread. In short, Prohibition was a monumental failure.

So there is cause for celebration in Repeal Day. On the surface, it is an excuse to drink. On a deeper level, it is cause to honor the capacity of democratic governance to correct its own mistakes. It may be that campaigns of rabble-rousing can stir political passions to the point that self-inflicted disaster follows. The intensity of these passions may ruin countless lives and even leave scars on our Constitution. Yet they can be reversed. All that is required is the clarity to see through the hyperbole of blustering moralists plus the will to vote for leaders able to express that clarity in both word and deed.

This sense of hope is all the more important as we live in times when it seems like the hyperbole of blustering moralists is an insurmountable force in American politics. As the titans of talk radio and the panorama of partisan media outlets express messages more and more divergent from evident facts, it can be heartening to know that there is some basis in American tradition for siding with the facts. As a nation, we are not impervious to harm. Yet we are also not incapable of healing.

Beyond the general goodwill Repeal Day should inspire, there is also a specific message. Vice prohibitions from coast to coast invariably do as “the” Prohibition did — address a problem merely by driving it underground and increasing related harms. Several substances banned by law today are much less addictive and toxic than alcohol. Yet even the most pernicious vices are still not consistently reduced by legal prohibition. In the realm of vice, translating the morality of temperance into an outright ban is never a constructive act.

It is fair to argue that many vice behaviors are problematic. By its nature, gambling will always wreak a measure of economic havoc. Prostitution poses serious problems in the realm of public health. Like caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; many banned or restricted substances raise health issues to varying degrees. Yet crackdowns, from the American War on Drugs to the routine execution of minor opium traffickers by the Chinese government, generate misery without accomplishing the social good misinforming moralists cite as their purpose.

Today the influence of charismatic preachers and passionate suffragettes is replaced by that of popular pundits and pandering politicians. Getting “tough on crime” is an effective way to get applause at a rally, though vice crackdowns typically serve increase the wealth and influence of criminal organizations. Our record-setting prison population, along with epidemics of medical emergencies and the direct cost of enforcement activities, amounts to so much waste as to generate significant economic drag.

Repeal Day gives us cause to think happy thoughts about a a political accomplishment that took effect in 1933. Yet it also gives us cause to ask why it has not become the first of many. Similar political follies continue to make criminals of millions of Americans while doing much more to obstruct than support useful activities like regulation of vice commerce, treatment of vice abusers, and assorted other harm reduction strategies. We can do better. We know we can do better. So when next you take a little tipple, have a toast to Repeal Day, then resolve yourself that we should do better.


What You Should Think About Privacy

November 10, 2007

“The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

–Anton Chekhov

What goes on behind the scenes in government is almost always much uglier than the official facade crafted by political leaders. This is especially true in times of crisis or violent conflict. That is all the more reason to avoid letting our own leaders exploit and amplify the terror sowed by terrorists as officials here set about pursuing any agenda that would expand the powers of government. Seldom has the disparity between a party line and a leader’s actions been as dramatic as we have seen with the Presidency of George W. Bush. Seldom has such a vast gulf been inspired by reaction to an enemy with such limited capabilities as well.

By far the most dangerous thing about Al Qaeda and related organizations is that they command the loyalty of people who are willing to die for the cause yet not so debilitated by their insanity as to be unable to follow through on a complex coordinated plan. Yet in the end that is the worst of the threat. Terrorists do not have an air force or a navy nor even an army that could go toe to toe with a mere 1% of our own armed forces. Only an assortment of people willing to train hard then die in acts of spectacular destruction gives our enemies real power.

Yet substantially the American way of life has changed as a response to this threat. For the most part those ways are not well-publicized. Ideally our nation would have reacted by promoting awareness of realities on the ground in the Middle East, implementing truly useful precautions at airports and seaports, and taking action to undermine the hostility coming from the “death to America” crowd. Instead it seems that our government has promoted fictions about the Middle East, pursued the placebo effect more than real countermeasures at points of vulnerability, and taken action to partially validate the criticisms of anti-American clerical firebrands.

Though much less prominent than the war in Iraq, part of this administration’s blundering involves propping up the notion that America’s dedication to liberty is more window dressing than a core value. We accept much higher mortality rates due to car travel, toxic emissions, workplace safety, et al. than terrorism could plausibly cause without compromising our way of life. Yet this source of death is exploited as justification for the widespread erosion of America’s traditional “right to privacy.”

It is true that the Constitution does not speak directly to the matter of privacy. It is a legal right constructed from interpretations of that document, with particular focus on the 4th Amendment. That language forbids “unreasonable” government exercise of powers to search for and confiscate evidence. Important legal doctrines follow from this, including the idea that enforcers must act based on “probable cause” and that intrusive searches that are not a spontaneous response to exigent circumstances must be warranted by judicial approval.

In 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established a secret process that would enable counterespionage investigators to obtain judicial approval for their searches without compromising legitimately covert aspects of their operations. In 2001 the Patriot Act modified this process so that it might also be used by counterterrorism investigators. Unfortunately, under Presidential guidance, organizations like the NSA cast an extremely wide net. Rather than focusing precious investigative and analytical human resources on the most promising leads, everyone from Quaker pacifists to harmless schoolteachers was swept up in the search.

President Bush has often referred to this scattershot approach as a “vital tool” in efforts to deal with terrorist threats. Yet the executive and legislative shenanigans involved in dealing with the legal ramifications of this pose serious problems. FISA courts cannot hope to keep up with thousands upon thousands of investigations spawned by causes that are so far from probable. Even if political pressure caused those judges to behave like a rubber stamps, the sheer volume of bogus cases is overwhelming. Thus the matter of unwarranted wiretapping made the news, and eventually the Congressional docket as well.

This all feeds back into what foreign critics of the United States have been saying about our hypocrisy. Amidst the echoes of a litany of accurate statements about the expansion of the American police state (among other abuses of power,) it becomes easier for potential radicals to be duped into believing the worst of our system and even our people. After all, the authoritarian bent of the Bush-Cheney team was no secret in 2004, yet most of our citizens casting votes that November actually endorsed the incumbents. If we seek to live in a world where hate for America is not widespread, we would do well to condemn, rather than endorse, acts of outright villainy.

The expansion of federal police powers poses other problems as well. Some people take comfort in the mental refuge, “well, they’re only using these powers against terrorists.” The presumption of innocence is not something to be dispensed with lightly. It is a crucial part of the foundation of any legal system in a free society. Technically, they’re only using these powers against suspected terrorists. That one word makes a world of difference. Just as all it took to become a Salem witch was an accusation of witchcraft, even if it was uttered under extreme duress, similar accusations contribute to the ever-expanding list of suspected terrorists.

Then there is the impact on actual investigatory efforts. Even the most diligent G-man can only chase down so many false leads before his zeal for the hunt gives way to frustration or even cynicism. Rather than keeping our counterterrorism personnel focused on pursuing credible threats to national security, the existing approach turns them into blunt instruments. The expectation of disappointment has become the norm, not just among FBI agents, but throughout the web of agencies and military units tasked with hunting down suspected terrorists.

Personally, I believe that it is important to maintain a high standard of personal privacy because that standard is an invaluable comfort (if also something of an illusion) to almost all adult Americans. Even if that comfort is regarded as an expendable luxury, it is also much more than that. It is a vital constraint that minimizes government victimization of innocent people while serving to focus the efforts of the state on suspects that might reasonably be involved with terrorist organizations.

A hammer is a vital tool for building houses, but it tends to work best when it is directed only at nails. Executive orders and legislative proposals emergent from the White House at present take their “vital tool” and use it to bash haphazardly at all manner of targets. In the end, this produces a much weaker structure than if the tool were used with some sort of reasonable control and precision. If the common goal shared by our entire population is to reduce the level of danger posed by terrorist activity, the last thing our policies should do is validate a portion of the radicals’ narrative while spreading counterterrorism resources so broadly as to violate both our proudest traditions and basic common sense.


What You Should Think About Licensing Alien Drivers

November 1, 2007

“I do have a political agenda. It’s to have as few regulations as possible.”

–Dan Quayle

As far as I can tell, political commentary is not popular to the degree it enables people to understand an issue. However, it is popular to the degree it enables people to feel as if they understand an issue. In the best instances, this feeling comes from the satisfaction of having been presented with good information and sound analysis. In countless other instances, this feeling comes from the validation of strong emotions. Unfortunately, strong emotions are often inconsistent with political action based on good information and sound analysis.

After the latest Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate, it was a little disturbing to see so many political “experts” talking about the ramification of endorsing drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens. To begin, there was this jarring use of the term “illegals.” I would say “score one for Rovespeak” on that, but the architect of so much bogus language that almost changed mainstream discourse (e.g. “homicide bomber”) was actually a proponent of realistic immigration reform. Whatever the origins, the distillation of the term “illegal aliens” into the invective “illegals,” an utterance more spat than spoken in some circles, now seems to play a role in shaping the language of major network anchors as well.

Yet this is only the beginning of the problem. It is understandable that a political debate might be followed by discussion of about the popularity of a program that would allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers’ licenses. Experts are not mistaken to assert that, in a general election, any position short of “round ’em up, truck ’em out, and militarize the border” is going to be unpopular. Yet it seems like lunacy when this assessment of the politics of immigration spills over into thinking about immigration and other policies.

The purpose of licensing drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, it serves to provide some basic mechanism by which society can encourage uniform driving practices and promote a modicum of safety on the roads. The purpose of punishing unlicensed drivers has nothing at all to do with designating a national affiliation. Instead, that punishment serves to encourage drivers to obtain licenses and otherwise comply with rules established to promote traffic safety.

A dangerous driver careening wildly down the freeway doesn’t much care whether the blurs nearly missed, or the one eventually hit, are vehicles containing natural born Americans en route from Sunday school to a Cub Scout softball match or undocumented Mexican workers en route from an asparagus farm to a strawberry patch. Keeping the roads safe is a common concern. In a nation that is rational enough to recognize these sorts of universal concerns, practical policy responses are usually not controversial.

With so many political noise machines energizing the hostility toward immigrants who illegally bypass the arbitrary national quota system, it is no wonder that popular sentiments misconstrue a helpful public safety measure as “a reward for lawbreakers.” Were drivers’ licenses readily available to illegal aliens, they and everybody else in the nation would benefit from a more orderly flow of traffic. In a much more direct way than usual, hostility toward a measure like this brings suffering upon the hostile as well as the hated.

A more circumspect analysis reveals even more to consider. It is true that this kind of documentation could help illegal aliens build relationships with financial institutions, set aside funds to prepare for future tax obligations or criminal penalties, etc. This hurts who? Then there is the fact that participation in a bureaucracy like this could make some immigrants more likely to play by other American rules. Also, more information would be gathered and recorded about immigrant activity as it occurs within the United States. Again, is there any harm to this beyond upsetting the delicate sensibilities of political hatemongers?

Yet the parade of folly masking as conventional wisdom continues. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been subjected to widespread criticism for not pandering to opinion polls. In fairness, one might fault a leader for being completely out of touch with the general population. Declaring that it is important to take action with no regard whatsoever for the substance of any criticism is simply stupid. However, it seems a sort of reciprocal error to contend one should always respond to the criticism of the majority without regard to the substance of an underlying position.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, closely linked with this sort of initiative, has long argued that it is a simple matter of public safety. Simple or not, there is no honest informed way to deny that it is a matter of public safety. As with a license to operate aircraft or a license to practice medicine, a license to operate a motor vehicle is not a birthright bestowed on those who happen to be born within a particular set of lines on a map. It is a merit achieved by demonstrating proficiency in the skills required to engage in those activities without posing a public menace.

Thus an incredibly poor understanding of the nature of citizenship couples with a triumph of animosity over understanding in the realm of immigration to create the conditions national leaders must face today. Personally, I am pleased to see Hillary Clinton allowing her voice to favor a good idea over a shrewd opportunity for political pandering. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens who said, “she lacks even the minimal political courage of her husband.” Though my feelings about the Clintons are far from wholly negative, I could not deny a ring of truth in that chilling accusation. It is refreshing to witness at least one bit of evidence that challenges that perception.

On the other hand, I have to say that in my own lifetime I’ve never seen a public figure make it so far in American politics without personally disappointing me as Barack Obama already has. He endorsed licensing illegal alien drivers without so much as a flinch at the thought of how much that would play into the hateful narratives of one particular thriving media fringe. I cannot predict just how this and countless other issues like it will play out as the primary season unfolds and the general elections follow. Yet I can say it is nice not to have to look so far from the mainstream to see actual evidence of personal and intellectual integrity. Now if only the media could begin to catch up with aspiring national leaders . . . we might yet have the makings of a functional democratic process in our midst.


What You Should Think About Flag Burning

October 30, 2007

“If you want a symbolic gesture, don’t burn the flag; wash it.”

–Norman Thomas

What peculiar editorial sensibility television news has developed in our times. When Vice President Dick Cheney slept through a meeting of senior White House officials convened to discuss federal response to the California wildfires, that story was almost immediately cause for self-censorship. Now, it is not for me to say if the underlying truth tells us more about the man’s failing health or the man’s attitude regarding federal disaster relief. Yet to squelch national discussion before it even begins — isn’t that just the opposite of what the Fourth Estate ought to be doing?

On the flip side we have growing concern that the Vice President seems to have spent some time at a hunting club where the Confederate flag is flown. While this too may deserve a little national discussion, I don’t see it as nearly the kind of weighty matter that either “the Vice President is prone to uncontrollable napping” or “the Vice President doesn’t care about disaster relief” ought to be. I agree with those who argue that it is wrong to glorify symbols of the Confederacy. Yet I also agree with those who argue that it is unreasonable for any person to limit his associations to only those people who have never done anything wrong in public.

Perhaps silliest of all in this is the conservative talking point, “how dare anyone get upset about this when those same people encourage burning American flags!” For one, that is the same sleazy dishonesty that comes out whenever one of them argues that some Americans are pro-abortion. Practically no one actually wants to see more abortions performed in this nation. It does not take extraordinary cognitive abilities to understand that there is a world of difference between advocating that women who terminate their own pregnancies should not be designated criminals and calling for more pregnancy terminations.

Likewise, arguing that burning American flags should be protected as free speech is not at all the same as arguing that burning American flags is a good idea. If anything, those who would make a special exception to one of the most fundamental principles of any free and open society, for no better reason than the protection of a hallowed symbol, are much more destructive than political protesters defiling flags. The extent of outrage amongst the political establishment at this tactic only serves to give it more power and meaning. A legal ban would go even further down that path.

It all goes back to a theme I hope to make central in this project. Political action driven by emotion is really no more sensible than political action determined by throwing darts at an array of options. Emotion is not reason. The basis for seeking some special protected status for a particular arrangement of cloth and color is pure emotion. If that emotion can be set aside, the only reasonable arguments for it involve promoting authoritarianism. For people who have already sided with democracy against autocracy, those reasonable arguments are trumped by the very thinking that gave rise to this nation, and thus also all its symbols, in the first place.

Unfortunately, the ideal of separating emotion from political thought is at odds with increasingly popular methods of engaging in public political discourse. Flag burning should never be criminalized, but that does not mean that it is ever a good idea either. After all, it draws its power as an act of protest from the way it inflames the hatreds of emotionally overwrought patriots. This will tend to discourage them from participating in reasonable discourse and giving due consideration to any substantive grievances protesters may have with existing policies.

In some ways it is a metaphor for the vast array of pundits and pseudojournalists who find political hate to be their own stock and trade. Letting the First Amendment cover the act of flag burning is so obviously not the same thing as encouraging that more flags be burnt. Yet again and again and again that warped view is popularized by public figures who somehow addict their audiences to the visceral stimulation of being whipped into a frenzy of hostility toward people who take different political views. The demonization of political liberalism is a failure of, not a function of, human reasoning.

Political liberals may find themselves in similar situations as specific figures, movements, or even an entire party become targets of hate. What may begin as rational objections to horrible public policy devolves into irrational objections based on strong emotional reactions to particular names or labels. In political discourse I am no saint myself. Matters of such great consequence naturally prompt strong emotional responses. In some contexts, revealing the presence of a little “fire in the belly” can actually make language more persuasive. Yet in many contexts, especially those involving adversarial clash, any departure from rational appeals is both a sign of weakness (as the best adversaries can turn venom back upon its user) and an opportunity to derail the discussion (as the worst adversaries will eagerly abandon substance in order to focus on pure animosity.)

So, in the end, I support the widespread consensus that flag burning is far from an ideal way to convey thoughts on politics. It may be a powerful way to convey sentiments on politics, but no good comes from reducing politics to a purely sentimental crusade. In the end, burning flags awaken within a certain segment of our society their capacity to be wholly irrational about political clash. Among others such acts also may enhance the strength of rational critiques leveled at the agenda of involved protesters’. It may be true that many status quo policies are many orders of magnitude more abominable than the burning of American flags. Yet fighting hate with hate only insures one outcome — that hate will triumph in the end. If we cannot do better than that, what is the point of speaking up in the first place?


What You Should Think About Border Security

October 29, 2007

“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Tragically rare is the leader who will take the difficult road of speaking plainly and honestly to the American people. Even some contemporary American leaders reputed to be consistently candid will still pander to fears and hatreds in many instances when doing so is thought to be good for popularity. Our political establishment is propped up by a number of pillars of deception — areas of vital public policy where official action either is a response to a phantom problem or a means of making a real problem worse.

One of these pillars of deception is the argument that tightening border security is the key to protecting America from terrorist attack. It begins with the lack of proportionality that makes counterterrorism an all-consuming agenda item while international relations, lucrative commerce, and even basic human decency are considered comparatively unimportant. Politicians and pundits turn up the heat on concern about a porous border because if they were instead to shine some light on the subject, they would no longer prosper from irrational fears and the irrational policies that unite their hotblooded supporters.

It is true that some terrorist operatives, as with smugglers and spies, are simply too incompetent to manage successful covert border crossings. The bumbling novice is not the sort of terrorist operative anyone has cause to fear. Organizations like Al Qaeda provide training, funding, and support networks to their operatives abroad. Even a competent novice generally does not have trouble crossing lines on a map, given a flexible schedule that allows time for preparation and choosing the right moment for action. The idea that a border might be turned into some sort of magical force field that sinister individuals could never cross is a downright childish thought.

Yet again and again, that kind of childish thinking is encouraged in certain media audiences. Worse yet, such encouragement is answered by groundswells of public support for everything from a continuous fence along the Mexican border to forced deportation of the nation’s entire illegal alien population. There are real terrorists in this world intent on killing Americans on American soil. Yet the whole of the world, or even the whole of the problems faced by our nation, is much much much bigger than the threat posed by a fringe of extremists willing to use violence to protest American foreign policy.

This is not to say that border security deserves only a shrug. In theory, some security measures can be truly useful. In practice, no reasonable tightening (along with most of the unreasonable proposals in circulation today) has any prospect of improving national security. When it comes to the border between the U.S. and Mexico, there are two unstoppable flows. Crackdowns can raise the price of smuggling people or drugs across the line, but they do nothing to address the American appetite for illegal labor and illegal drugs.

A rational approach would hold that these inevitable flows should be subject to some sort of control. Archaic obscenities like vice prohibitions and immigration quotas forfeit opportunities for our nation to assert control over this traffic. The War on Drugs is not at all a sensible method of addressing the American demand for mind altering substances. Focusing punitive measures on industrious laborers is not at all a sensible method of addressing the American demand for low cost labor. So long as those demands persist, increasing border security will only increase the size of fortunes to be made by enterprising smugglers.

To their credit, the sitting administration did back an initiative to legalize international migrant labor. Alas, perhaps for lack of prior experience with such efforts, they were unable to focus public attention on fact-based appeals to reason. In particular, it is a fact that the status quo — not proposed reforms — is at the heart of many social and economic problems related to foreign laborers. Undocumented workers are at the mercy of lawbreaking employers. In many cases, criminal organizations also thrive by preying upon workers legitimately apprehensive of turning to police for protection.

Be it concern about ethnic gangs or concern about unpaid taxes, it is the persistent criminalization of international economic migration that obstructs positive change. Likewise, that persistent criminalization, focused much more keenly on workers than their equally culpable (and arguably much more unethical) employers, perpetuates the lure of American employment while also perpetuating the illegality of crossing the border in response to that lure. Parallel thinking also applies to the War on Drugs, though perhaps that is an analysis best left for another day.

The relevant point here is that if the law recognized inevitable economic activity related to the demands for foreign labor and narcotic substances, controlling those flows then becomes an attainable goal. We could trade a situation where millions of people have real incentives to thwart border security for a situation where only genuine menaces would choose to cross illegally. Rather than impotently whine about health risks, black market transactions, and so much more; we could guide responses to American economic demands through proper channels and screen against real dangers.

Making the existing border more difficult and/or dangerous to cross illegally is no solution. Using legalization to create a less difficult alternative is the key to gaining control. As I asserted earlier, a trained terrorist operative is going to cross borders with ease similar to that of a trained espionage agent. However, when it comes to garden variety criminal fugitives, people with dangerous contagious diseases, etc. redirecting border traffic through legitimate channels would do wonders to enable effective screening. It would also reduce the torrent of illegal traffic today down to a trickle that could be much more easily monitored.

Someone once argued that the best way to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States would be to wrap it in cocaine. That would not be my method of choice, but I see some wisdom in that statement. Insofar as there may be real threats that can be intercepted through brute force security measures, surely those measures will be more effective when applied chiefly to those real threats, as opposed to the real threats plus tens of thousands of other border jumping incidents motivated by nothing more despicable than pursuit of American money.

As it stands right now, international economic migration in excess of what is permitted under an arbitrary quota system is a victimless crime. The same can be said for drug commerce. These activities do not happen because prohibitions are too weak — they happen because no realistic public policy can wipe them out. There is no such thing as a victimless prohibition (unless it is a ban on something that does not exist.) Why then would anyone think that prohibiting harmless acts like shipping a bundle of plant material or moving in search of employment should give rise to such zealous enforcement and punishment efforts? Absolute security is an unattainable goal. Realistic security . . . well, we could take some giant steps in that direction if only we could begin by demanding realism in public dialog about border control policy.