What You Should Think About Thomas Jefferson

May 31, 2011

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred. . .”

–Thomas Jefferson

Before our country was a sovereign nation, it was a series of ideas.  Some among the ancient Greeks wrote about and lived by the belief that specific populations were well-suited to self-government in the form of direct democracy.  Both the ancient Romans and the people of 18th century England had experience with rule by elected representatives.  Yet the Greek concept of popular governance was thought unsuitable for most people born outside specific city-states, and the British Parliament formed as an outgrowth of compromises designed to maintain order in a society where monarchs presided by a claim of divine right.

The notion of intrinsic and universal human rights was not widely accepted in the 1770s.  Even among the most progressive societies today, the struggle continues to recognize and address increasingly subtle ramifications of commitments to liberty and equality.  In the time America struggled for independence, many British loyalists remained skeptical of the idea that life without an official aristocracy would be an improvement over the status quo.  Before soldiers and arms could be rallied to the cause of freedom, voices and printing presses had to make the case that freedom was a cause worth fighting for.

Abusive policies and a fundamental lack of fairness in the dealings between England and its colonies created the unrest needed to drive rebellion.  Yet fear and anger never accomplish anything productive when they are given free reign to shape the course of human events.  It took rational men, acting with benefit of calm reflection, to reshape this unrest into a constructive force.  Most of the Founding Fathers were men of ideas, reasonable and thoughtful by nature.  When it came to declaring their intention to rebel, they turned to the foremost intellect in their midst — Thomas Jefferson.

Like so many other architects of the revolution, Jefferson was an educated lawyer.  However, no single discipline could monopolize his mind.  He took an active interest in farming, both as a landowner and a believer in agricultural productivity as the foundation of any prosperous economy.  He studied architecture, pouring much of his own time and money into neoclassical buildings like his beloved Monticello.  His personal library was among the largest in the New World.  When British troops burned the original Library of Congress, it would rise from the ashes through the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal book collection.  He was also a prolific inventor, perhaps second only to Benjamin Franklin in terms of his contributions to early American technology.

Yet Jefferson’s greatest invention was the argument that the fight for independence was both just and necessary.  He did not fall back on the worldly concerns of rising taxation, unfair trade, or coercive garrisons.  He claimed that rule by unelected authorities, even the most enlightened of despots, was an intolerable abridgement of “certain unalienable Rights.”  He gave voice to the will of the people in his time by insisting that the will of the people in all times and all places must determine under what laws and institutions those people would live.  He could have chosen the path of the incendiary bombast, ridiculing royalty while stoking the fires of hatred.  Instead he embraced the way of the philosopher, invoking reason and principle to shape the world’s grandest experiment in the history of civics.

Thomas Jefferson embodied so many of the best qualities of our nation.  He lived much of his life in debt not for lack of accomplishment, but because he thought his greatest inventions were too important to be constrained by the doctrine of intellectual property.  Enriching the nation and the world were much more important pursuits to him than personal enrichment.  He always hungered for knowledge, yet he was also not shy about thirsting for wine.  Though he lived much of his adult life as a debtor, he was the first U.S. President to push for an end to the federal debt.  His reluctance to tax made that pursuit one of his few great failures, but it was the start of a tradition that has produced balanced budgets as recently as the Clinton administration.

Keenly aware of the importance of land, it was Thomas Jefferson who made the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States and paving the way for the modern scope of our nation.  He also dispatched Lewis & Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi.  Were it not for his vision, the U.S.A. might still find France in control of the entire western bank of that river and lands beyond.  West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were also achievements of his Presidency.  Though he did not favor costly standing armed forces, he understood the value of professional officers and other military specialists constantly prepared in ways only possible through a career of service.  His lofty ideals did not blind him to the need for actions of practical advantage to our young nation.

Such were the dividends of rational and brilliant leadership.  Like all nations, America never thrives and grows quite so well as when it embraces thoughtful guidance and elevates those persons most intent on advancing the general welfare.  This makes it all the more unfortunate that we have lost our taste for pursuit of the public good in modern times.  In military matters, the euphemisms of “defense” and “security” disguise belligerent posturing that builds at least once per generation into a misadventure of epic proportions (and epic losses.)  At the same time, “liberalism” and “socialism” have become epithets that malign one of the central purposes of all governments.

The Constitution expressly limits acts of war to those authorized by Congress. It also repeatedly articulates a national duty to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry.  Alas, legislative reflection is long lost as a prerequisite to war, and even the most reasonable efforts to improve the American way of life are attacked as a betrayal of the very traditions and documents that dictate such efforts should be undertaken!  The perversions of this modern “ownership society” make it seem downright un-American for a corporation to balance any other concerns against stockholder gains or for an individual to forfeit a fortune in the name of making new technology available more quickly and cheaply.  In this nation conceived so that people might peacefully enjoy the fruits of worthwhile labors free from the imposition of aristocrats, we instead concentrate rewards on a new aristocracy of do-nothing heirs and downright harmful wheeler-dealer types.

Thomas Jefferson lived in bizarre times fraught with suffering and injustice.  His boldest actions served to make this land a better place for inhabitants both present and future.  The suffering and injustice we see in America today is so much less severe than the hardships faced by colonists in the 18th century.  Yet to some degree it is also more intractable.  Because we are the architects of our own misfortunes, we must look inward for remedy.  Wisely, the Founding Fathers gave us a system capable of supporting perpetual revolution.  Through voting alone, it is possible to replace leaders and even amend our Constitution.

Yet to get those votes — to make those changes and build a better tomorrow — we need great ideas and wonderful language with which to popularize those ideas.  The voices of fear and anger are upraised in ever newer and more powerful ways.  A booming choir of willful ignorance constantly threatens to dominate the process by which we practice self-government.  There is no need for this to continue.  There is no reason for this to continue.

Progress requires turning the greatest minds of our times away from the crafting of ever more arcane financial instruments or ever more trivial enhancements to common medications.  Progress requires turning that brilliance toward the invention of new systems of economic organization and new technologies of real benefit to humanity.  This would improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine.  Once this land was a haven for the greatest of ideas.  We can and should choose to make it so again.

What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.

What You Should Think About Communism

November 7, 2007

“I am not a Marxist.”

–Karl Marx

Like many, if not most, Americans, I was assigned a reading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. Like most Americans familiar with the book, I was instructed that it was a condemnation of communism. My teacher failed to make a significant distinction. Animal Farm is actually a condemnation of Stalinism. The Red Scare left America with deep psychological scars, including an inability to make that crucial distinction between communism — an economic ideology that emphasizes egalitarianism — and Stalinism — among the most murderous approaches to politics history has ever known.

Still, as Marx himself observed in private correspondence, his contributions to the philosophy of social justice spawned a movement vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Violence and even terrorism had already become tools of anarchists. Yet all their fury was directed toward incoherent, almost senseless, idealism. Communism does not transcend all practical concerns, but it is a more sensible form of idealism than simply annihilating all civic institutions. Thus whatever promise it might have offered in terms of overturning stagnant outdated economic paradigms was tempered with the potential to motivate acts of violence.

The fall of the Romanov dynasty was a much more complicated confluence of events than common knowledge would suggest. Some scholars prefer to think of the transition as two distinct revolutions. Regardless of how the process is labeled, it was the case that the ultimate architects of the Soviet state were only one faction of many working to break czarist control over the peoples of the old Russian Empire. Democrats and communists fought side by side in a struggle for liberation that was much more bloody, but no less idealistic, than the war that gave birth to American democracy.

As it happened, a Russian patriot by the name of Alexander Kerensky led the most organized provisional government in the chaos that followed the fall of the Romanov dynasty. At that point, Bolshevik communists were radicals widely regarded as part of a political fringe. In fact, the term “Bolshevik” is merely Russian for “party of the smaller part” as contrasted with “Menshevik” meaning “party of the larger part.” Taken less literally, they may be thought of as ways of saying “minority” and “majority.” Because they advocated violent methods of political action while calling for more radical and immediate changes than most communists supported, a rift separated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks.

Yet 1917 was a year of wild-eyed hope for all Russian populists. Just as democratic reformers sympathetic to capitalism were happy to share power with Menshevik activists, imprisoned Bolsheviks were set free and welcomed into the revolutionary coalition. The incendiary rhetoric of these radicals had an especially strong effect on masses of urban workers still struggling with extreme poverty even after the detention of the Romanovs. Before the year was over, Kerensky would be deposed and Vladimir Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, would rise to power.

Chaos continued, with counterrevolutionary forces deploying assassins against many leaders of the emerging Soviet regime. Lenin would dodge bullets before they found him, but find him they did. In the mean time, actually being hunted by enemies fueled any paranoia that might have existed in the Soviet leadership. To Lenin this meant the need for a ruthless secret police force. To Stalin this meant the need to impose autocracy, eliminate rivals, and conduct a nationwide political purge that would ultimately lead to the deaths of millions upon millions of citizens.

It is hard to say what would have happened to the creatures in Animal Farm if Old Major had lived or if Snowball had become his successor instead of Napoleon. It is also hard to say what would have happened if Lenin had lived or Leon Trotsky had become the second head of the Soviet regime. The veil of Orwell’s allegory was deliberately thin. It is only a lack of historical perspective that enables many Americans to twist the work into a McCarthy-style diatribe against communism. More astute reading reveals that it is a very specific lamentation about quirks of fate that ultimately placed the full power of the U.S.S.R. under the control of a malicious paranoid little man literally afflicted with a Napoleon complex.

Thus it is that people from the President of the United States to high school sophomores being assigned Animal Farm readings this year all come away with the misconception that communism is incompatible with democracy, civil rights, governmental accountability, etc. For some of my fellow Americans, the term “communism” invokes a primal hostility along with a sense of superiority that comes from the misconception that capitalism is uniquely capable of fostering free speech, free travel, fair elections, etc. Literary and historical misinformation is systematically passed from one generation to the next because these crucial misunderstandings are so widely accepted as ironclad fact.

I would never contend that one should be sympathetic to Stalin or Stalinism. Even the heroism and sacrifice of Soviet military personnel turning back the forces of Nazi Germany is mitigated by the way in which Stalinist purges compare to the Holocaust in terms of both death tolls and institutionalized cruelty. Yet the thing to keep in mind in all of this is that Soviet oppression and mass murder was not a function of the desire of revolutionaries to live in a more equitable society than czarist Russia. It was a function of an extreme bunker mentality made manifest through the personal failings of an arrogant yet insecure world leader.

Of course communism is not the alpha and omega of wisdom about distribution of wealth. It is a perspective that has limited utility. The madness born of the Cold War and maintained even today in the United States is a belief that capitalism is the alpha and omega of wisdom about the distribution of wealth. In fact, it too is merely a perspective with limitations on its usefulness. Being able to see things from a Marxist or communist perspective is not at all a personal failure or a source of danger. Adopting a taboo mentality about this realm of philosophy only degrades the discourse emergent from people practicing this form of willful blindness.

Part of what makes Karl Marx’s insights worthy of consideration in modern times is that they had tremendous predictive value, by philosophical standards. He foresaw the rise of automation, pressures to increase the economic gaps between investors and workers, and even the danger of a new aristocracy. Corporate titles have replaced hereditary nobility, but the inherited fortunes and the extent of cradle to grave privilege remain much the same. It seems as if some capitalist societies have come to be dominated dominated by hereditary aristocrats lacking any sense of noblesse oblige.

Likewise, today’s working poor may have cable television and used cars, but that does not mean the power imbalance is without drawbacks. Much to the puzzlement of other civilized peoples, in America the debate today is about whether or not the working poor are worthy of access to medical care. Even more than with educational opportunity, the existing national compromise in that area is an anti-growth policy that perpetuates hardship based on some bizarre notion that an easier life for laborers will reduce the level of interest working folks have in pursuing professional advancement.

Ultimately this rests on a profound misunderstanding of human nature. Other nations pursuing downright generous welfare policies, never mind merely implementing universal health care, have not been brought to their knees by an epidemic of idleness or a lack of ambition. Such claims may be popular talking points for conservative political campaigns in places like France or Sweden, but the underlying reality reveals stable growth. Then there is the matter of fiscal solvency, but surely that is a “glass houses and stones” issue considering how our cutthroat economy continues to break new ground in the field of deficit financing.

Personally, I believe in a sort of selective socialism. “Privatize everything” is surely as counterproductive, not to mention stupid, as “nationalize everything.” Yet there is a wonderful and vast middle ground where a range of practical concerns can be brought to bear. In that moderate zone, decisions about profit vs. public interest can be made based on relevant realities.

This requires nuance and attention to detail, but those things are obtainable if one has the good sense to try and evaluate the world from multiple perspectives. Just as being blind in one eye eliminates depth perception, constantly deferring to a single economic ideology leaves one much less informed about contemporary realities.

Of course, in an ideal world everyone would treat every ideology as a frame of reference. There, everyone would engage in something deeper than pure ideology when it comes to analyzing the great issues of our times. Hope alone cannot transform Earth into an ideal world, but it may guide us as we seek to become closer to useful ideals in our individual approaches to civic life.