Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Do We Stand for?

Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and now candidate for the presidency, used an interview with the Atlantic Monthly to distance herself from Pres. Obama. She criticized his conduct of foreign policy for lacking a clear organizing principle. Obama is extremely cautious. His motto is "don't do anything stupid." But Clinton finds him deficient because he has no clear goals and no clear sense of what we stand for.
She is certainly right that foreign policy needs to be guided by more than a desire to avoid stupid errors. You need a sense of what foreign policy should accomplish. How can we tell that our foreign policy is, what it should be?
Clinton's organizing principle of foreign policy is well known. We can put it in fancy language: America must maintain its leadership in the world. (Pres. Obama actually shares that principle.) Or we can put it in the language of the common man: "America Number One."
Such a national chauvinist stance may appeal to many voters but it is, of course, no more serviceable when formulating foreign policy than "don't make any stupid mistakes." It does not tell us what we need to do to maintain American leadership.
The Internet provides us with many rankings of countries with respect to healthcare, education, industrial productivity, and much else. In these rankings, the United States holds the 35st place with respect to life expectancy. We are in 21st place in the educational ranking and with respect to overall happiness of the people, we are in 17th place. In these and other international rankings America is not in a leadership position. If we really wanted to be "Number One" we would struggle mightily to improve our ratings in the international comparisons.
But that is not what Clinton is talking about. What she seems to have in mind is American officials going around the world and telling people what to do and – that's the important part – the other countries paying attention to them. Her view of leadership is thoroughly patriarchal. America is the father of all the countries and what America says, goes. What Clinton really means by American leadership is: 'Be a bigger bully than everyone else, America.'
That is an effective organizing principle but should not be ours. We present ourselves often as champions of freedom and equality and of democracy. You cannot champion those and be a big bully at the same time.
Telling people what to do is, at best, a part of leadership. The other, more important part is listening and being really attuned to what the followers think and need. Bullying is not leading. Good leaders need to be good listeners.
As all parents and teachers know only too well, one does not lead by preaching, one does not lead by haranguing people. One leads by example. If America wants to maintain its leadership position it has to practice what it preaches. If we are really concerned to promote peace around the world, we cannot continue to be the country that spends more per capita on its military than any other country.
It is important to remind ourselves that the sort of leadership Clinton wants to maintain has passed from our hands a while ago. We did not manage to create a peaceful Iraq where different ethnic groups lived and worked together for their mutual benefit. We did not manage to defeat communism in Vietnam and our fighting in Korea left the world with the bizarre state of North Korea and no reconciliation between the two Koreas in sight. Clinton and many other leaders are completely in the dark about the limits of American power in spite of the humongous amounts of money we spend on the military. There is no world leadership to maintain for us.
We pay a high price domestically for adopting Clinton's organizing principle for foreign policy. (To give her credit, she did not invent the principle. Being a big bully has been the ambition of many previous US governments.) Being so concerned that other countries listen to us and do what we want them to do, distracts us from what we should be aiming for. We should put much more energy and money into improving healthcare, improving education and improving the happiness of all of our citizens.
If we did this, others might have more respect for us. They might actually listen to us not because they are afraid but because they admire us.
Now that looks like a good organizing principle for foreign policy to me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness?

According to the Declaration of Independence we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government actions are thereby delimited as well as government obligations defined. Governments may do nothing to limit their citizens life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. On the other hand governments must secure these rights as far as possible. They must protect our lives and liberties and safeguard our pursuits of happiness.
We do not often reflect about what that means. I shall try to do that here. Our "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" is not straightforward at all; it raises questions we may find difficult to answer.
The right to pursue one's happiness, we believe, implies that one is free to follow one's own desires and ones own beliefs about a good life. For many of us that means that we should be able to marry whom we please. No one else should be able to force us into marriages we do not want. We should be free to follow occupations we choose for ourselves. No one, whether family members or government agencies should be allowed to choose for us what work we do.
We should each be able to shape our daily lives as we consider best. This family says prayers before and after every meal. In that other family everyone eats at different times what ever they please. There is no private or public agency that should be allowed to criticize the way of life we choose. It is a task of the government to protect us against anyone who would interfere with how we choose to pursue happiness.
So the government needs to guarantee for us the freedom to choose life partners, to choose occupations, to choose where we learn and what style of life seems best to us.
No doubt questions come to your mind as you read this. Some people choose lives that are clearly destructive of the lives of their family members: they take drugs, they drink too much, they lead a life of crime, they are violent and coercive. Should someone not try to stop them and protect their family?
The government's duty to protect our pursuit of happiness is very unclear and full of difficult decisions.
Are there other ways in which we can expect our governments to protect our pursuit of happiness?
Children who are unable to go to school are severely limited in their life choices. We therefore restrict child labor and we believe that educational opportunities should be available to everyone. (It is another matter that we do not always act on that belief.) Ill health restrict life choices and many of us believe that everyone is entitled to the best health care that is available.
I have recently, purely by accident, read several novels that describe in excruciating detail the suffering war imposes on its victims. One novel describes the terrible struggles against PTSD of a young woman Iraq war veteran. Another follows a German and a French child through the crucible of World War II. In a third we hear of the brutality practiced by both sides in "The Troubles" in Ireland. The experience of war, whether as a soldier or a civilian, if we survive at all, leaves us overwhelmed by our losses and consumed by fears and regrets, by guilt long after the hostilities have ceased.
What future is ahead for the children in Gaza who emerge from the shelters to find the streets blocked by the rubble of their houses? Their parents, if they survive, are consumed by grief and hatred. Their chances for choosing a life they want are severely limited.
If it is true that one role of government is to protect and foster our possibility to choose the best life for ourselves, then governments surely may not engage in the violence of war. Our government has fought a number of major wars since the end of World War II. In each we sent massive troops and airplanes into foreign countries. In each case the wars ended with many Americans dead and many veterans whose lives continue to be seriously afflicted. In each war we left foreign countries in ruins, we affected the genetics of the population that survived so that after several generations their children remain frequently afflicted by terrible genetic diseases.
The wars we have fought left masses of people whose lives will never be freed from the burden of terrible loss, people would never be able to feel completely safe again, people who would always struggle with profound despair, with guilt and horror.
If all human beings have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, if governments are to protect that right, must governments not abstain from violence?
The temptation is to reject this question as silly, to say that we needed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Korea and Vietnam to protect ourselves and our liberties. But before you soothe your conscience with that bromide, think hard about the victims of war, both of the wars we have fought, and the wars we have enabled by supplying military hardware to one or both sides as happened in the conflict in Gaza. The cliché that governments take refuge in, that they must wage war in order to promote peace, is laughable. Governments have killed and plundered for thousands of years in order to promote peace. So far that hasn't worked. Why should it suddenly begin to work today?
If governments are to protect our right to pursue happiness, they must dedicate themselves above all to an end of all violence.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Violence in America

If one looks carefully at the different disagreements between advocates and enemies of gun control, one finds that each side has their own reading of history and their own set of facts. Appeals to history and appeals to facts therefore will not serve to resolve this disagreement. At issue are deeply buried attitudes, ancient themes in our culture. The pressing question is what we can do to weaken the influence of those cultural themes.
The disagreements:
1. The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. "
Advocates of gun control claim that this Second Amendment refers only to militias and not to the rights of individuals to carry weapons when not serving as members of a militia. (Today we call that the National Guard.) It is unclear what makes Gun Control Advocates so confident of their reading of the Constitution.
Opponents deny that. They provide a detailed history of England in the 1600s – a history that was very much alive in the minds of the authors of the Constitution. According to that reading of English history, the opponents of monarchy and of what they called "tyranny" insisted on the rights of individual citizens to own and carry weapons as a necessary defense against dictators, tyrants, or absolute monarchs.
But this is a tendentious reading motivated by a belief that there is an individual right to bear arms. That belief precedes rather than being supported by the actual history.
2. There is wide disagreement about the facts with respect to the usefulness of private ownership of guns. Gun advocates cite between 2 and 3 million cases a year where someone managed to protect themselves and their family by the use of guns. Owning a gun makes a real difference, they say, in enabling citizens to protect themselves. Opponents believe there are somewhere between 60 and 70,000 such events per year. They cite, instead, large numbers of casualties of privately owned guns. Millions of guns owned by citizens make us less rather than more safe.
The people who collected these facts approach the matter with their minds made up. Each side believes that guns save lives or that, on the contrary, guns take lives. The facts do not convince anybody.
3. The debate over guns is in part a debate over the extent to which the federal government controls the lives of citizens today. One does not have to be a flaming conservative to see evidence of overreaching by the federal government wherever you look. In medical care, in education, in day care new rules are constantly being imposed and the individual practitioner is more and more under the supervision of bureaucrats.
But on the other hand, life is becoming more complex by the day and there are more opportunities for people to be ill treated, defrauded, or humiliated. The government has good reason for stepping in to protect citizens.
In each situation, defensible limits on government regulation are not easily established. More often than not choices for or against more government regulation will respond to some deep seated values which some Americans share and others do not.
What are those values? Here we need to look back at our own history. The original immigrants pretended that the North American continent was uninhabited. Europeans came and settled it, they said, and made it yield abundant crops. But that story falsifies the actual history: about every 10 years since Europeans first came to this continent, warfare erupted between whites and Native Americans. The feeling that one needed to carry a weapon at all times rests on the reality of whites stealing the land against the determined, often violent, resistance of Native Americans.
Add to that, the history of 200 years of slavery and another hundred years after the Civil War when African-Americans were regularly lynched with impunity. The history of slavery and Jim Crow is, above all, a very violent history. The condition of the slaves and the regime of Jim Crow could only be maintained by regular and unrelenting violence. It is a history of whites imposing their regime by force of arms. To maintain themselves they needed to carry weapons and always to be ready to do violence to the people they enslaved.
This history is still alive in the very basic attitudes of many Americans. They still feel that they need to be armed in order to be relatively safe. The imminent need for armed self-defense is a strong theme in our culture. That theme is not weakened by arguing about the Second Amendment or the usefulness or a danger of everyone carrying handguns.
We inherit our gun culture from our history. Our task is to weaken those traditions by resisting the glorification of violence in all aspects of our lives: in sports, in movies, in computer games, and, yes, in the debate about going around armed.
But the enemy is not the Second Amendment. Statistics about self protection or injury by handguns are beside the point. America must acknowledge it's terribly violent history and resolve to put it behind us.