Of Dead Family Members and Getting to Know Them

Some years ago a radio commentator expressed revulsion toward the popular fascination with genealogy. To make his argument short, he did not see the point. In his view all of those people are dead and gone. What do they matter?

Inasmuch as the comment was made before recent notable advances in research on gene-based hereditary diseases, we can excuse the radioman’s ignorance of how important genealogy can be to tracing the roots of many things that make us ill. At the time, however, I would have liked to relieve his ignorance of other points perhaps even more relevant and important.

In all fairness, I agree with a narrow part of his argument, his objection to the democratization of the old aristocratic practice of using genealogy to prove yourself better than someone else. Such a pitiful exercise in arrogance and pride is pointless. Given how family trees intertwine in just a few generations, there is probably nary a person of western European background who is not a descendent of Charlemagne. The story is similar for people from other parts of the world. And we are all descendants of Noah and Adam, so where are the bragging rights?

It is on his central point where the radioman’s rejection of genealogy falls to the ground. What a woeful and lonely view of man’s condition is embodied in the view that once someone dies he is forever gone! Genealogy, or more broadly speaking, family history, is founded on the belief that the dead in profound respects live on, that they do matter to us. Let me suggest three ways among many, ranked in a generally progressing order of importance.

  • The members of our family who have passed on are in many aspects part of us, beyond the shared DNA. Much in our habits, practices, language, beliefs, and our culture in general has deep roots in those who raised and taught those who raised and taught us. Most of that is probably worth retaining and cherishing, some of it in need of overcoming, but there is a rich heritage there to be discovered. Significant personal meaning can be found in the recognition that the current generation is only the leading edge of something very big that has been going on a long time.
  • As I mentioned, you do not have to do much family history research to discover that we are linked together, more connected than separate. Few genealogists can avoid the powerful realization of being part of the family of man. Our respect for humanity and for each other deepens.
  • Most important, the dead are not gone. They have merely passed from this brief state of mortality, brief for all of us, to the next state on the journey that makes up eternity. Each of us will soon be joining those who once walked where we walk. Family history is the effort to get to know them now, whom we have the privilege of knowing better for a much longer time than mortality has to offer.

Explaining the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reminded them that our Father is God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:26, 27). The mission of Jesus Christ is to provide life to all, to carry out the “work and the glory” of God, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Jesus Christ speaks more than symbolically and beyond His own relationship when He refers to God the Father. The family relationships and ties, so precious to us now, are eternal. That means that they not only are intended to last forever, but they reach across the generations, beyond death—to generations past and future. They can be among those few precious things we take with us to the grave and beyond. That is not a vain wish of every loving husband and wife and father and mother. It is an inheritance from our Divine Father.

We can begin to build and extend and preserve those relationships here and now. Why wait?

(First published January 6, 2013)

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.

Of Closed Governments and Coming Together

Battered and bruised and stretched and torn, our Constitution still has life in it. One of its central principles is that no one person can do much by himself in Washington, for good or ill. We are watching that play out in this year’s appropriations process. We see that it is impossible for one man, the President, to make a new law. It is similarly impossible for one House of Congress, whether Senate or House of Representatives, to do so alone.

Under the Constitution, all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives, where they are given their initial shape and substance. Next, the Senate must concur or amend. If the Senate chooses to amend, the bill goes back to the House, which can either agree to the Senate amendment, disagree, or disagree with a further amendment. If there is disagreement, representatives from House and Senate can meet to resolve those differences. If they do and succeed, then each House, first one and then the other, passes the bill, after which it is sent on to the President.

It is still not a new law. According to the Constitution, the President may not amend the bill that has passed both Houses of the Congress. He can choose to sign it, making it a law. It does not become a law unless he does. He can choose to veto it. In the latter case it goes back to the Congress, where it can only become law if both Houses override the President’s veto.

I lay this process out in some detail, because to listen to the institutional media and most of the pundits you might think that they have all forgotten, or never learned, how the constitutional process of making laws works. It is not an easy process. In fact it was meant to be difficult. Some seem to wish it were easy, at least for enacting the policies that they favor. They would wish to make one or more constitutional parties to law making redundant and of no separate account or purpose other than to do the will of their favorite other. They should, instead, take comfort that it is easier to defeat policies that they oppose.

The genius of the Constitution for making laws is that it requires three separate parties of people, sometimes with very different views, to come together to make anything a law. The Founders made it difficult because they were not very fond of new laws. They knew that an abundance of laws could mean a scarcity of freedom. And so it is today, but it has taken over 200 years to build up the awesome pile of laws that regulate so much of our lives, and yet it still is harder to make a new law than many would wish.

Our Constitution requires that a lot of people have to work together to make a new law. When they do not, nothing happens. That is why much of the federal government has run out of money and has “shut down.” A new law is needed to appropriate the money for these shuttered parts of the federal government to open.

They will continue to be without operating money until the elected representatives in the House and Senate and the President work together to make a new law. The Constitution forces them to work together. Nothing will happen until they do, whether that takes a day, a week, or longer. The Constitution requires sufficient cooperation for law making. For either House, or Senate, or President to be able to make laws without the other would impose the tyranny of one set of views over the rest. The Constitution will not allow that. The Constitution forces a meeting of the minds, either by persuasion or by compromise, or in practice some of both.

The Constitution is a beautiful thing. I rejoice in it. I can be patient for a while as it does its work and forces our elected leaders to come together. The issue is not keeping parks open. The issue is preserving our freedom and our society. The Constitution still has some power to do that.

(First published October 1, 2013)

Of Personality and Order

While making no personal claims to psychological insight, I have found great value in the Jung-Myers approach to understanding human personalities. Part of that approach identifies four major personality temperaments toward which each of us gravitates to one degree or another. The work of Carl Jung and Isabel Myers—and many others building on that work—has elaborated the theory that in the world of people there is a variety of personalities all interacting and contributing to the social richness of humanity. None of these four temperaments is “right” or “wrong.” They are just different, and that difference is valuable and, moreover, worthy of understanding so that we can get along better in our interactions with each other.

I have seen all four of these temperaments in my small family of a mere 7 souls. I consider the variety enriching to our family more than frustrating. This insight has helped me understand where my children are coming from when I might otherwise think that any one of them has been replaced by a space alien.

Using that framework and watching my fellow travelers through life over decades of interaction, I have personally found it useful to describe the four temperaments in the following way, with regard to each person’s approach to his environment, or the world around us.

• First (in no order of priority or relative value), there are those who come to grips with their world by seeking to be in harmony with their environment. My wife is in this category.

• Second, there are those who primarily seek to enjoy their environment. I believe that two of my daughters are in this group.

• Third are those who seek to organize their environment. I think that I would consider myself as being in this group, along with perhaps a son and a daughter.

• And a fourth group would be those who seek to protect themselves from their environment. I believe that one of my sons would be found here.

Again, I emphasize that no temperament is better than the other. They are just different. And we need them all. Moreover, some of each can be found in the attitudes of any one of us from time to time. The point is which approach is dominant in the way we each live our lives. Together, they all contribute to the success of our society. That is to say, that whatever our temperament, we rely upon our brothers and sisters who have different temperaments to help make us and our society complete.

I do not consider this to be an accidental development but an essential element of God’s plan for the society of His children. In several places in the scriptures God reminds us of the variety of gifts that He has given, emphasizing that we can and need to embrace and profit from each gift, all taken together. “For the body is not one member, but many,” the Apostle Paul explained, and no part of the body can say to the other, “I have no need of thee” (see 1 Corinthians 12:14-21).

But does not all of this difference lead to disunity and perhaps even chaos? It can, and has, but it does not need to. Any personality trait, any temperament, any gift, if taken to the extreme or out of balance can result in harm to others. There are plenty of examples in the long history of mankind of one taking advantage over another, either into anarchy or tyranny. This is one of the structural failings of absolute monarchy or dictatorship, where too much of the society is guided by one person and his or her approach to the world. The temptation to fit all of the people into that mold is natural and hard for the dictator to resist (if he even recognizes it). On the other hand, there would be chaos if all had full license to live their preferences in disregard of others.

Many of the commandments of God are intended to help us to keep our differences in balance and to maintain the close society that allows us to be fully enriched by one another. One of the chapters in The Book of Mormon explains this process as being the establishment of order by means of the ordinances of God (see Alma chapter 13). The similarity in the words is not accidental.

Entering into the kingdom of God is nothing more nor less than making a solemn covenant—pledged and witnessed by the physical ordinance of baptism by immersion—to accept God’s commandments for a society of order as defined by God, an order that accommodates all human gifts and temperaments and organizes them into an harmonious whole. The two greatest commandments of the kingdom of God are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). In this system there are universal standards to bind us to one another by binding ourselves to our Savior Jesus Christ, who sacrificed to give us all the freedom to choose and be what those choices make us.

This verse from Alma chapter 13 describes the matter this way:

Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord. (Alma 13:16)

Within the Savior’s order of peace there is full room to be at harmony with one’s environment, to enjoy it, in a well organized whole, where all are safe and at rest from fear. Indeed, in the Kingdom of God is the one place where we all can have it all. There is nowhere else like it for any of us.

(First published April 27, 2013)

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Duty and Law

The concept of duty is worthy of careful consideration, particularly in its relationship to law. You genuinely subject yourself to law only after you consider it a duty to observe the law. This would also seem to involve an element of humility. When you humble yourself enough to recognize a duty to the law, the law then has force and operates within you (as contrasted with operating upon you).

Through the operation of duty the law becomes internalized. No police force or compulsion of any kind is then required. This is how true law, law in harmony with eternal justice, has a transforming effect, changing you for the better. Through continued growth in this process, of employing duty to internalize good law, you can actually “become” the law, even as Christ meant when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis added).

One who feels no duty to a law, but observes it only because of the coercion attached to it—from the fear of the consequences of breaking the law—has not yet submitted himself to the law. He observes the law only because it is enforced; when the enforcement is removed and no longer binds him to the law, he will do as he pleases regardless of the law’s mandates. Without a sense of duty to obey the law, he remains a law unto himself, subjecting himself when necessary to a greater force but not to the law.

Without this sense of duty, a system of laws becomes a competition of wills, of competing forces. It is not a system of rights and duties. Thus, the erosion of the sense of duty also erodes the moral and transforming force of law, and it erodes rights, that find their protection in law. Civilization is replaced with gangs and brutality.

(First published August 21, 2008)