Of Accommodation and the Good Society

SmokinSociety

Photo Credit: Pierre Rougier

Sitting and waiting to pick my wife up from a meeting at a youth piano festival, I can see a marvelous thing.  I am witnessing a steady stream of people coming and going—and accommodating one another.  They are doing what it takes to spend time together, setting aside what they might wish to do on their own, bending their plans to involve the plans of others, each doing so to some extent, and all more or less satisfied with it.

Parents are taking time at whatever inconvenience to hear children play the piece that has been sounding from the living room for weeks.  They will crowd into a classroom converted for the day into a makeshift music hall where young performers will queue for their three-minute performances.  Nervous children will wait their turns, relieved children will be glad that their turns are over, and parents will politely listen to other parents’ children, perhaps playing the same piece that their child just attempted.

It cannot be called much of a musical experience—I have been there in those temporary conservatories—but it is an experience in accommodation in a good society.  Most of the people in the room have never met, little know one another, and do not expect to meet again, and they get along fine.  Those who run the festival have freely given hours to organize the event to accommodate the hundreds of participants.

As the participants leave, in quite orderly ways, they continue to accommodate one another with little thought.  It is the normal, customary thing to do.  They take turns through doors, they help carry books, some hold hands, and they smoothly arrange who will sit where in the car.  Some may chat about the performance, some may chat about other activities of the day, continuing to adapt schedules and plans.  This is how society and its people get along.

It can easily break down.  Some accommodation is easy and natural, some takes effort.  It all involves an element of sacrifice of some personal desire or plan or wish.

I contrast this with the horror of the current presidential campaign.  It comes in the climate change of a chief executive who for seven long years has offered an example of little to no accommodation, asserting his will forward by dividing society, pitching Americans against one other.  This very real climate change endangers the future of our Great Republic, our hard-won society, and our very real welfare.  It breeds imitators. President Obama’s executive narcissism has fomented fears and frustrations while making egocentrism in high places unsocially acceptable.

By long tradition we have come to call our Presidents public servants.  Would anyone apply that term to Barack Obama, or imagine those words describing would-be presidents Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Donald Trump in particular has built his candidacy on personal braggadocio about running roughshod over others.  He threatens retaliation against opponents, warning them Caesar-like of when it will be “their turn” for his attention.  He promises thunderbolts of lawsuits as tools of Olympian vengeance should anyone pin effective criticism on him.  In short, when given a podium he gives new meaning to the term bully pulpit.

Should any doubt his intentions, Trump points to a business career built on his model of punishing human interaction.  Now Trump seeks the full power of the Presidency of the United States to be placed in his hands—all of the federal government’s economic tools and the might of our military at his disposal to pursue his wishes and run over any and all who would stand in his way.  The discipline of the marketplace will no longer hold him back.  No wonder he expresses admiration for Russia’s would-be-czar Vladimir Putin, a kindred spirit.

Remember what the military—any military—does.  It kills people and destroys things.  In the hands of genuine public servants operating within constitutional limits, for 200 years that power has been controlled to defend and preserve the Republic and the liberties of its people, and liberated not an insignificant number of peoples around the world.  What would a Donald Trump do with such power?  How would he accommodate his personal ambition to the will of the people?  What happens when those powers are used to apply the ego-laced Trump model to the national and world arenas?

We have had too much of this abuse of power already with the Obama administration.  A republic like the United States thrives by accommodating the great variety that makes our nation.  The current President has sought to get his way by manipulating the differences among us.  His has been a cynical program to rule by dividing and conquering, when necessary running over constitutional constraints designed by the Founders to require government officials to accommodate the diverse elements of our union.  Too often, but fortunately not always, President Obama has gotten away with it.

Donald Trump promises to give it a go, with an audacity that surely makes Barack Obama envious. Of course, we see examples each day of unaccommodating and rude actions, but we do not usually applaud boorish behavior.  The usual pattern for ourselves and our neighbors has been to make way for each other, extend courtesies, and even help; we show patience and even kindness, that are akin to love.  The little and frequent and vital considerations to our neighbors are of the glue that holds our good society together, transcending our personal foibles.

What can we say, then, of opposing examples presented by would-be national leaders?  What are the consequences for society itself (beyond the potential calamities for national and global affairs)?  Given the degree to which people take their social cues from the chief executive—for good or ill—what do we get from a President who is a brash boor who threatens any and all to feed his ambition?  What kind of imitation, here and abroad, will that spawn?

For the good of our society we can aspire to something better.  I believe that most yet do.

Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.