Of Free Speech and Insensitivity Training

There is a poignant scene in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a movie with many poignant scenes, in which Lawrence demonstrates to a fellow officer how to snuff out a candle. He pinches the flame with his fingers. The other officer gives it a try but jerks back his hand when his fingers are scorched.

“That hurts,” the officer complains. Lawrence replies, “Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

There is a lesson there, particularly important for a society that has become hypersensitive to injury, real or imagined. Hurt may come from something as small as a look—or failure to look. It may come from an article of clothing, either worn or neglected. Lately flags have been targeted as sources of personal and even societal pain. Hurt may come from something as small as a word. Indeed, I think that most often today and in our society, both words and our sensitivity to words have become sharpened.

If we are to preserve freedom of speech—in all its important varieties—we need to develop some insensitivity, as in not minding when it hurts. Freedom of speech only matters when someone hears something he does not like. The choice then is intolerance and silence or freedom and not minding the hurt.

Another way to look at it is that we most desire freedom of speech when we are the speaker. From the point of view of listener, we may have mixed emotions. We may like what we say, but when we do not like what we hear do we wish to silence the speaker, or do we accept the options of free speech, to turn away or to endure another’s unpleasant rodomontade?

Freedom of speech was made part of the First Amendment, because rulers and monarchs were at pains to inflict genuine physical hurt whenever they took offense at the words of their subjects. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech was needed to protect people using words that hurt people in government, that offended people in power.

Even though enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of speech has to be won by each generation, because it is constantly in jeopardy. Americans are nearly unanimous in their support of freedom of speech when it is speech that they like, speech that reinforces their own views, and especially speech that praises and flatters. We do not particularly need the Constitution to protect that kind of speech. Speech that is unpopular, speech that goes against the grain, speech that is obnoxious to our opinions, speech that challenges our beliefs, that is the speech the Founders fought to protect. Most of human progress has come from that kind of speech. It is speech that is worth protecting today and that many try to silence.

President Obama and his political friends are fond of declaring that “the debate is over,” whether referring to Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank Act, climate change, same-sex marriage, or other important issues of significant disagreement. I expect that soon we will hear President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration spokesmen insist that the debate is over with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran. In a free republic, can the debate ever really be over?

This is nothing new; it is a continuation of a very old struggle. Despots great and petty since early ages have exercised what power they might to silence ideas and expressions they did not want to hear, or did not want others to hear. The gallows, flames, and torture chambers of yesteryear are matched today by bullets, bombs, and bayonets from radical Islam and totalitarian governments. In the West, where constitutions solemnly embrace free speech, voices are silenced by public ridicule, elaborate and intrusive regulations on what can and cannot be said and when and where—reinforced by government fines, restrictions, confiscations, and jail time.

I recently visited my son at his new job at a large factory. He was very careful to spell out to me a lengthy list of subjects I should not bring up, whether from fear of his colleagues, company policies, or federal, state, and local regulations. I have been given similar training at my place of work.

When I was young I was taught to be courteous and not seek to offend. I was also taught to be slow to take offence. Do children today repeat the rhyme I heard as a child? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I wonder. Or are our children taught today that there is great reward in being the sensitized “victim” of someone else’s “offensive” words? Where do we find freedom in that?

Of Signs and Deception

It may seem immodest of me to point out how “insightful” was my posting, published at the very doorstep of the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I think I am in no danger, however, as the predictions were all too easy to make, the signs too clear then to justify special credit now. More significant, I believe, are how the lessons taught then apply as we enter another presidential election season. Give the greatest weight to what candidates do and what they have done, particularly when such evidence is distinctly at variance with what they say.

 

A well-known principle of propaganda is that if you are going to tell a lie, the bigger the lie the more believable it will be. Most people are so trusting that they do not want to believe in the enormity of a big lie. They do not want to believe that someone can intentionally say something appallingly false. Rather than disbelieve the liar, they will want to disbelieve the person who exposes the lie.

One of the biggest of lies is asserting something to be exactly the opposite of what it is. Such is the warmonger who claims to be the leading pacifist, the thief who claims to be the victim of theft—and accuses the real victim of being the criminal—or the bigoted radical who accuses opponents of intolerance.

In recent travels on the streets, roads, and highways I notice at this time of the year the beautiful Fall foliage—and the many political campaign signs. While for some there might be a distaste for seeing these, I feel to rejoice in the signs as evidence of a vigorous system of subjecting our political leaders to public vote.

Having said that, I do draw the line at the steady growth of the mega-yard and curb signs, the five-foot by eight-foot broadsides. So, already inclined to dislike such construction-size boards, I have been particularly disturbed to see what appears to be a planned series of Obama-Biden signs advocating policies that these two Washington insiders have long worked hard to oppose.

I have noticed three in this series. There may be others. The ones that I have seen show the names of the two candidates, followed by a motto reading something like, “Better Schools,” “Lower Taxes,” and “Energy Independence.”

If facts matter, and I believe that they still do (even if they are optional in the mass media), such messages on the signs of these two politicians should be jarring to the honest in heart. The political record of Obama and Biden are unequivocal on these three issues. They both have strongly and consistently opposed school reform, supporting doing more of the same old stuff that has been steadily undermining the quality of government-run schools since the 1960s.

Both have been leading advocates for raising taxes and opposing tax cuts. Even in the current campaign they advocate new tax hikes. They try to disguise their intentions with the assertion that their proposals supposedly would reduce taxes on 95% of Americans (including the 40% who pay little or no income taxes), while raising them on the rest. Either they failed with the simple math, or they hope that voters cannot or will not be able to apply simple math, but you cannot get enough taxes out of 5% to pay for genuine tax cuts for 95%. In fact, their proposals are just another camouflage for the old tried and failed policies of tax and spend. Not only does that always put more power into the hands of the politicos who take and then redistribute, but it is a highly dangerous thing to do in the teeth of an economic downturn. Taxes fall on income and investment, and whatever you tax you get less of. Now is not the time for less income and investment.

And as for energy independence, both Obama and Biden support programs that will yield little and have yielded very little new energy—at very high expense in government subsidies—while staunchly opposing expanded use of the energy resources that are abundant in the United States, particularly oil, coal, and nuclear energy. Independence seems to me to increase reliance on your own resources. Obama and Biden are consistent supporters of policies that keep U.S. energy resources under lock and key.

This should not be surprising from two candidates who campaign on change while advocating the oldest political formula in the history of government, that government knows best, that decisions about spending, whether for health, education, or job creation, are best made by power brokers in the halls of Washington power centers, rather than by families in their homes. Calling that change may be the biggest lie of all.

(First published November 2, 2008)

Of Humanism and Religious Freedom

Can a creed that claims to be non-religious be itself a religion? Is the professed irreligion of the leading social elites not only a religion but America’s state religion, reinforced by Federal, state, and local governments?

Consider a typical school commencement ceremony, whether college or high school. A speaker declares that we must leave all talk of God behind, toss into the dustbin the dogmas of religion that divide us, and embrace a view of life that brings people together in a common cause of humanity, a village of fellow passengers on this tiny planet as it wends its course through the universe. At another similar commencement ceremony a different speaker declares that we should rise above the hates and lusts of mankind and embrace the love of God, join together in our common heritage as children of the family of God, learning to live with each other here that we may all the better live with our Heavenly Father in the eternities. Which of these, today, is likely to receive the greater applause and public commendation? Which of these speakers, on the other hand, is more likely to be censored and not even permitted to present his views, perhaps under threat of a lawsuit? Or, to make the question easier to answer, which is more likely to receive favorable coverage in the media?

Expressions of skepticism about God and His existence are embraced, praised, and rewarded in contemporary American society. Declarations of faith in God meet anything from patronizing smiles, to hostility, to punitive sanctions under the prevailing culture. The predominant American society, while professing to be neutral about religion, has some very strong opinions about religion and its expression.

In a land of constitutional free speech, that allows no state religion, this should seem an odd discussion, a throwback to history. Cursory familiarity with the historical chronicle would bring to mind other places and times when an incautious word on religion could earn a speaker severe punishment, not excluding cruel execution. Deviation from the local religion was certainly risky business anciently. We also may recall tales of the Spanish Inquisition and the bloody controversies of the Protestant Reformation, as well as the perennial anti-Semitism that has followed the House of Israel throughout its Diaspora. Social revolutions have dealt harshly with religion, from the French revolution to every communist regime, while clumsily endeavoring to create new secular religions (that failed miserably to engage adherents).

The malodorous plant of state religion followed the colonists to America, but it had trouble taking root, particularly among the English colonies. The freedom of wide open spaces, and the need for an armed populace, made oppressive government difficult to maintain. Thomas Jefferson considered the establishment of legal guaranties of religious freedom in Virginia to be among his life’s most important achievements (the other being the founding of the University of Virginia). The principle of that law was later made a part of the United States Constitution with the adoption of the First Amendment.

The public outcry from media and politicians (with little echo from the general populace) over recent efforts of states to reinforce freedom of religion against encroachments by regulatory dicta and court edicts strongly suggests that there is one—and only one—protected national religion in the United States today. It needs no protection offered by these state laws, because its tenets are the motivating heart of the government actions threatening all of the other religions. It goes by many names—as do many broad religions—and includes a variety of sects, also not uncommon among religions. For facility of discussion, I will refer to just one of its appellations, Humanism.

The religion of Humanism has a core belief—shared by all of its sects and denominations—that man is the measure of everything. Man decides what is truth, what is good, what is real. Yes, that is more than a bit narcissistic, which is probably the key to its attraction, particularly among the intelligentsia and the elites. The chief corollary to this main tenet is that God does not matter, whether you believe in Him or not (some Humanist sects tolerate a belief in God or some sort of Supreme Being for reasons of nostalgia and to broaden popular acceptance).

Humanism has an elaborate set of dogmas, commandments, taboos, and rituals. It has its own liturgical language, which is required to be used, for example, in all doctoral dissertations—especially those in the social sciences, though its linguistic hegemony is now reaching to hard sciences as well—and in more colloquial versions observed by all media outlets, especially broadcast journalism. Humanism has its sacred texts along with its college of revered and beatified Humanists of yore.

I was going to write that Humanism has its own seminaries, but, frankly, that includes nearly all colleges and universities in the nation. The clergy of Humanism is largely self-appointed, though it has intricate, Byzantine hierarchies, with no one at the top for long, though all presume to speak for everyone. The clergy are supported by varieties of orders of acolytes and sycophants, the gathering of disciples a key method of rising in Humanism’s hierarchy, and the loss of disciples a sure path to disfavor and obscurity.

While most religions preach exceptionalism, exclusivity, or preeminence, whether in faith or favor with God, Humanism may be the most intolerant of all. Being the state religion, it uses the full power of legislatures, regulators, law enforcement agencies, and the courts to advance its cause and bring in to line people who disagree with its tenets and prescriptions, who violate any of its taboos—particularly who utter any of its taboo words—or who remark on the foibles of its revered demigods. Significantly, any practice by any other religion that interferes with Humanism must yield to Humanist demands, not excluding the profligate use of federal, state, and local moneys to fund its projects, prescriptions, and priests.

Therein lies the explanation for both the desire of various state legislatures to reaffirm religious freedom and the inveterate and fierce hostility to these efforts from the media and a bevy of national celebrities. Freedom of religious belief and practice is a threat only to an established national religion, erecting obstacles to forced conformity with the state church. Failure of efforts to reaffirm the protections of the First Amendment will result in an increasingly intimidating society, constraining intellectual freedom and unauthorized religious observance to a degree unseen in the United States since 1787.

In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Those words are the most prominent inscription in the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson might get into trouble saying such a thing at a modern commencement ceremony at the University of Virginia.

Of Majorities and Modesty

Perhaps with some weeks enough dust has settled to allow a few reactions to the recent American elections, with more perspective than can be gathered from listening to reporters interviewing reporters. I will offer views that focus mostly on the results of the congressional elections, drawing upon experience from more than two decades of work in the Senate.

I do not, however, wish to minimize the importance of the elections for governors and state legislatures. In fact, I suspect that the next President of the United States will more than likely be a current or former governor than a Washington politico. Most Presidents, historically, have come from the state governments, which I find encouraging for our federal system. Moreover, judging from what we have seen, former Senators do not seem to make very good Presidents. I cannot name one to whom we can look with admiration for what he accomplished in the White House. There seems to be too much Washington blindness in them to govern effectively for our whole nation.

I am straying to an election yet to come, though. Back to this year’s results, I will begin with the view that we should expect, with the media-scorned Republicans holding the majority in both House and Senate, that the finger of blame for all problems—real or imagined—will be pointed at “Congress.” Disputes between legislative and executive branches will tend to be cast as exposing the nation to great danger as a result of congressional intransigence and/or “politics,” as if no real issues of policy—no questions of life, freedom, or wealth—are involved.

It is happening already. In one bizarre report I heard this week on a major network “news” report, some Amtrak railroad drawbridge in the northeast is over a hundred years old and prone to getting stuck when it opens to let ships pass. Amtrak wants a billion dollars or so to fix it, but, as the “news” story would have it, Republicans in the new Congress “are not looking for ways to spend money.” That was the story. Note the nothing new here. The bridge has been around for a hundred years and did not suddenly become prone to malfunction this November. But the election has now made it a story; a problem is arising, not because the President or the Democrats in Congress for several years did not seek to fix it, but because the new Republican majorities are not interested in spending money. The bridge is not the problem in the story, the Republicans are. Expect more of this kind of media “news.”

Second observation: in recent decades Congress has increasingly surrendered more and more authority to the executive branch, including to the regulatory agencies. The Senate, under the misleadership of Majority Leader Harry Read, has given up even more power and authority (perhaps in another post I will expound on lessons from the Senate of Rome, which by avoiding decisions paved the way for the Caesars—who were all too ready to make decisions). The Democrats retain full control of the executive branch. No small thing. In the remaining two years of the Obama Administration look for more aggressive activity from the White House and the regulators as they test just what they can try by regulation and regulatory fiat, without any detours to Capitol Hill. To quote Jacob Marley’s ghost, “Much!”

When it comes to big Republican plans to make major changes, the quidnuncs will be fed explanations of the thinness of the Republican majorities, along with the “responsibility” of Republicans to share power with Democrats that the Democrats failed to win at the ballot box. When it comes to work that needs to be done, the repeated common wisdom will be that the Republicans have the majority, so nothing should stop them from getting on with the job. There will be little mention that the President can veto what Congress passes, and that Democrats in the Senate will likely filibuster anything that the White House threatens to veto, saving the President the trouble—and political risk.

Yet, there are things that the Republicans, even with working but not overwhelming majorities in Congress, will be able to do. Most important, they get to set the agenda. They get to decide what issues will be debated, what hearings will be held, what will be put to a vote, even when they may not have the votes to break Democrat opposition in the Senate. It will be some relief that instead of the familiar series of proposals to curb liberties, raise taxes, or stifle economic growth and opportunity, the agenda will tend toward ideas of freedom and prosperity, though actual accomplishments will of necessity be modest against the strong opposition of the President and his media allies. I will take modest improvements over the calamitous policy fails of the past several years.

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)

Of Wars and Rumors of Wars

The Lord Jesus Christ declared the hearing of wars and rumors of wars to be significant among the signs of the latter days preceding His personal return to the earth in glory, to rule and reign. This from Matthew, in the New Testament:

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars . . . For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. (Matthew 24:6, 7)

This from Mark:

And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled . . . For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles . . . (Mark 13:7, 8)

And this from the Lord through a modern prophet:

And in that day shall be heard of wars and rumors of wars, and the whole earth shall be in commotion . . . (Doctrine and Covenants 45:26)

As well as I can recall, I have always thought—from my young childhood—that I was living in the latter days, shortly before the return of the Savior to the earth. I cannot remember a time when I did not suspect that to be true. Perhaps many in many ages have had similar thoughts.

My study of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and the words of the prophets, dead and living, matched against what I have witnessed in my life have confirmed my belief that the day of the return of Jesus Christ, to live and dwell among men as the resurrected Lord, is near. I do not predict precisely how near. It may not happen in my lifetime. The Lord said that the Father has not confided the precise day even to the angels of heaven (Matthew 24:36). But if I do not live to see that day, I do not expect that the Savior’s return will occur long after I die, in which case I hope to come with Him together with many who lived and died faithful to the testimony of Christ.

Until recently I had considered these prophecies of wars and disasters to be a sign of something new. Yet wars of men and convulsions of the earth are found throughout the annals of history. Perhaps the prophecies refer to an increase in frequency and intensity. Maybe that is so. Looking back on the recent twentieth century it is hard to find a year without war raging one place or another, and I cannot identify another century in which so many tens of millions were destroyed at the hands of their brothers and sisters. The Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance, if not many other ages, were also racked with constant conflict and mayhem. Their numerous wars seemed interminable, including a Thirty Years War and even a Hundred Years War.

I have come to suspect that in reading these prophecies I misdirected my focus. For something to be a sign, it must be new or different. What was the Lord saying here that would be different, different enough so that we might notice? Perhaps it was not the wars and physical upheavals themselves, as those have been with us since man and woman left Eden. What is very much new and different about today is our ability to hear of the wars, rumors of wars, and the natural disasters. The evils of men and the destruction of nature may be increasing in frequency—and the case for intensity of human mayhem is not tough to make—but what really is new is our ability to hear of them.

Nothing in the entire history of the world can compare with the very recent ability of mankind, anywhere and everywhere, to hear of what is happening anywhere at any time on the planet. That is especially true of “rumors.” Internet communications, and the many evolving formats of social media, make the spreading of rumor—always known to travel on wings—electrifyingly quick and amazingly ubiquitous. Every day we do hear of wars and rumors of wars and the whole world in commotion. It is hard to avoid.

As the dashed expectations held by many at the time of the Savior’s mortal ministry blinded them to the reality of the fulfillment of prophecy, holding too tightly to one’s opinion of how prophecy might be fulfilled is a risky business. The Lord expects us, however, to think about it, else why would He make the prophecies and repeat them? I offer these thoughts for pondering, even while we observe the mighty work of God unfold in our own lifetime, as He told the prophets it would.

What have you heard today?

Of Panic and Complacency

I wrote the following a few days after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I was not in despair then, and I do not despair of finding some value even today in the thoughts expressed just before the dawn of the Obama Administration.

First of all, do not panic. Second, do not take it easy.

This is in line with another piece of advice I came across a few years ago (attributed to Austrian statesman, Clemens von Metternich): “Let us not consider ourselves victorious until the day after the battle, nor defeated until four days later.” Well, it has been more than four days since the November elections, and I believe that it is safe to say that the Republicans were defeated.

There are other things, however, that are not safe to say. It is not safe to say that the Democrats won an overwhelming victory. In fact, their margin of victory was fairly narrow, less than 7% separating the Republican and Democrat candidates for President, a number that only looks large when compared with closer recent Presidential races. Senator Obama’s percentage of victory was a little less than George Bush’s (the father) over Michael Dukakis, 6.7% versus 7.8%. The Democrats also picked up significant gains in their numbers in the Senate and House of Representatives, but in both cases they fell short of the overwhelming victories for which they had hoped. The results of the election were neither overwhelming nor underwhelming—just whelming.

It is also not safe to say that President-elect Obama and the Democrats do not mean to do what they said they wanted to do during the election. They plan to raise taxes. These higher taxes will be felt by everyone, but they will fall most heavily on businessmen and entrepreneurs, exactly the people whose efforts we need to restore economic growth. So as Obama and his team work to spread the wealth around, there will be less of it to spread, and less and less as time goes by. There are many other like-minded plans of the change team arriving in January.

Elected with the embarrassingly undisguised support of the mass media, the new leadership will continue to rely upon the media, this time to hype the “mandate” from the voters and to try to cower the remaining Republicans in town into timidity. The early effect of this can be seen in the hushed conversations of “people in the know” trying to convince themselves that Obama is really more moderate than he appears, that he will try to “govern from the center.” Maybe that will be true, but there is nothing either in Obama’s brief but clear far left voting record or his statements during the election to support the theory.

There remains powerful virtue in the Constitution (which the President-elect considers to be a flawed document), in which we can take comfort. The founding fathers wisely diffused power, because they were rightly afraid of what concentrated political power would do to individual liberty. While it is frustrating to new politicians in Washington, there is not a lot that one man can do—for good or ill—in our system of government, and that should be more of a source of solace than of worry.

We need not buy into the slogans that we should rise above partisan politics (which usually means that the other party should keep quiet and become politely ineffective) in order to wish the new President and the congressional leadership well so long as they propose to do good. Neither do we need be devotees of political parties in order to speak up when policies are proposed that will make things bad. In the land of “We the People,” it is our job not to be complacent. It is our job to remind the authorities in government who they work for. Otherwise, as we approach the holiday season in 2009, things will be much worse than they are already today.

(First published November 16, 2008)

Of Man and God’s Work

On the sacred mountain, made sacred by the personal presence of the Divine, Moses spoke face to face with God, without whom “was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) Moses beheld in vision the many creations of God and many worlds on which God had placed His children, much as with this creation. The Lord explained to Moses that, “as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.” (Moses 1:38)

That creative work is what God does and has been doing and will continue to do. Then God explained to Moses the “Why” behind it all:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

That is to say that what God does is entirely purposeful, the “what” of His work intrinsically tied to the “Why.” And why He does what He does, and what He does, is all related to man. We are His children, and the Father is literally our Father. On the morning of His resurrection, the Father’s firstborn son, Jesus Christ, declared to Mary Magdalene, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Son was speaking literally not figuratively.

Our Heavenly Father is more interested in our growth and progress than even the most loving earthly parents are in the growth and progress of their children. His happiness is connected with our happiness and progress, His “job satisfaction” derived from our moral improvement. That improvement, in turn, comes from the righteous exercise of our freedom to choose and do good.

The exercise of our choice is all that we can give to God that He does not have, and He will not deprive us of that power of choice. He will not take it, because by doing so our “choice” becomes worthless to Him. It is the fullest and therefore richest exercise of that freedom that He seeks and applies His own effort to empower and encourage and protect. To diminish our freedom is to diminish its worth to Him. Compelled virtue is no virtue at all and has no value to the Father or to His children. By choosing good in an environment where we may select evil we become good; by living virtuously among full opportunities to embrace vice we become virtuous. Through that process—with the free gift of the Savior to retrieve us, upon conditions of repentance, from evil choices—we expand our freedom, rejecting all that would enslave us. In so doing we qualify for God’s ultimate gift, eternal life.

That is the process and what life is all about. God devotes His attention to creating the necessary environment and conditions for our eternal progression. Then He stays involved to help each of us as much as we will allow. His love for us extended to the sacrificial offering of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who used His own free will to rescue us out of the depths of evil if we would apply what choice we may have left to turn with all our hearts away from darkness toward light.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

This being God’s work and His glory, He cares very much about what we do that affects that work and glory. That is also to say that nothing else we do matters to Him. It is only in the context of His work for our immortality and eternal life that anything we do really matters. God is probably not very interested in whether we buy the blue car or the white car, per se, as it has little bearing on immortality and eternal life. God could be interested, however, if we choose to buy the blue car after agreeing beforehand with our spouse to buy the white one, as unity in marriage matters a great deal to our eternal progress, as does keeping promises.

All of this begs the question, if something does not matter to God, should it matter much to us? In fact, paying excessive attention to the minutiae and distractions of life can become a big deal, if doing so draws our time and effort away from what truly drives virtue.

Customs and traditions can do this very thing. Consider the recent Christmas season. Were there little things, maybe many little things, that competed for your focus on Christ and the commemoration of His mission, and the many good works that the Christmas season offered? Customs and traditions can do that if we are not careful.

The Savior, during his mortal ministry in Galilee and Judea, frequently pointed the people to their traditions that interfered with what He called the “weightier matters”, such as “judgment, mercy, and faith”. He called that straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:23, 24). Do we not see a similar error in the political correctness of today that raises an uproar over a stray word—no matter how ugly—while embracing all varieties of immorality and family destruction?

God’s work is all related to us, because we are related to Him. Knowing God’s work, and making it our work, may be as important and valuable for us today as it was for Moses in his time. I suspect so.

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 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)

%d bloggers like this: