Wednesday, October 22, 2014

PRINCIPLES FIRST



My political philosophy is an eclectic mix of traditional conservatism (in the mold of Edmund Burke), neo-conservatism (like Irving Kristol, I was once a “liberal mugged by reality”), and the libertarian instincts of James Madison or Adam Smith.

My odyssey in life began in a political galaxy “far, far away” from conservatism. I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where conservatives are a rare breed.  It’s taken me years to get to where I am now. The journey has been very rewarding. I’m a conservative and I’m proud to say that I am.

The election is just a few weeks ago and I’m in the throes of deciding how to cast my ballot. I used the term “how to cast” rather than “who to vote for.” While I realize the ballot will have names fixed on it, I’ll be voting for conservative principles and deciding which candidates best embody those principles.

The first issue of importance to me in this election concerns the size, scope, and competence of government. Conservatives have always held that limited government is the best government. When government grows beyond its necessary limits, it becomes a bloated, bureaucratic giant. Then, the bigger it gets the more incompetent and inefficient it becomes. Worst of all, it becomes autocratic, corrupt, and despotic.

What does this mean for the average American or the average Kansan?

Almost everyone in this country has heard about the scourge of Ebola. About three weeks ago we all heard the assurances from government bureaucrats that it was almost impossible, given our systems and agencies, for Ebola to come to our shores. Then, when the cases did appear, the Centers for Disease Control assured us that “protocols” were in place to protect us. We now know that was a lie. We’re being told that more money would have solved the problem. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health recently complained, “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

How can this be? The truth is, it can’t. If there’s enough money in the coffers to pay for studies on why chimpanzees throw things, the impact of cocaine on the sex drive of Japanese quail, or the impact of televisions and gas generators on small Vietnamese villages, surely there’s enough money to develop vaccines and protocols in the fight against Ebola. We even have an “Ebola Czar.” Her name is Nicole Lurie. Her profile describes her as having “responsibility for getting the nation prepared for public health emergencies.”  She’s been almost invisible, but she’s been busy enough in the back rooms to shepherd a $443 million no-bid contract for an unnecessary smallpox drug to Siga, a company whose “controlling shareholder” was Ron Perelman, a major Democratic Party donor. While the wheeling and dealing was going on, Chimerix, a competing drug company, was left holding the bag by N.I.H. What made it all so tragic was that Chimerix was actually working on anti-viral treatments for Ebola.

That’s what almost always happens when government gets too big.


What does this have to do with Kansas? I’ve been looking at the size of Kansas government for years. It’s really bloated. The best way to gauge how bad it’s been is comparing the number of public sector employees per capita in Kansas with the rest of the states. Based on a 2012 census of the states taken by Governing Magazine, Kansas has the eighth highest number of public sector employees per 10,000 of population (273) in the non-education segment. When elementary, secondary, and higher education employees are added to the mix, Kansas has the dubious distinction of have the second highest per 10,000 (667). If it weren’t for Wyoming, we’d be wearing the brass ring.

Sam Brownback has been accused of doing everything under the sun to destroy jobs in Kansas. It’s a clever, deceptive half-truth. Private sector employment is on the rise. It’s government jobs that are being cut. And, they should be. This problem has festered far too long. In a 2011 interview with Watchdog.org, Malcom Harris a professor of finance at Friends University in Wichita was asked about our public sector employment problem. His response was quite telling: “It’s an indicator of a bigger problem. It tells me we’ve got a lot of resources going into government.” When asked why that was important, he replied, “Government spending squeezes resources that might be available for increasing productivity. It makes us less competitive.”

Like William Tecumseh Sherman marching through Georgia, Sam Brownback has the bureaucrats howling. It’s about time. The pendulum in Kansas is finally swinging in the right direction and we need to keep it swinging that way.

I could go on about the size and scope of government, but other issues beckon. Education is next. I can see the smoke rising from my laptop already.

Monday, October 20, 2014

PIGS WITH WINGS



I recently got involved in the tail end of a Facebook discussion about the gubernatorial race here in Kansas. Most posters were lamenting the possibility that Libertarian candidate Keen Umbehr’s campaign might be siphoning votes away from Paul Davis rather than Sam Brownback, who was supposed to be the intended target of Libertarian wrath. It appeared to be a pro-Democrat proxy war gone wrong.

I don’t know if the fears were justified. We’ll see in November when the king makers and pundits dissect the campaigns. If Davis loses the election by a “hair,” then I suppose it will be time to tar and feather every Libertarian in Kansas.

After reading the Facebook posts a few times, I suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the solution to the Davis supporters’ problem was to make voting for an independent or libertarian candidate illegal. Davis supporters would then be able to sleep better at night, believing they’ve been able to stack the deck in their man’s favor.

Then, what began with blind speculation about the negative impact of Keen Umbehr on the gubernatorial campaign became, in the mind of one commenter, “horrible news.” While the comment revealed a lack of understanding of the difference between speculation and news, I understand the poster’s predicament. The line between speculation and news in our media nowadays has been so blurred it’s almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Another pro-Davis poster suggested that it would be better if Independents and Libertarians “were stealing votes from the R’s.” I think I know what the poster was trying to achieve, but my way was much better. Why get Independents and Libertarians involved in criminal activity when disenfranchising them with a bit of legal skullduggery could achieve the desired result.

There was one final post about possible doomsday scenarios. Employing a string of “if” statements piled on top of one another, the poster built one of the biggest ‘hypothesis contrary to fact’ sandwiches I’ve ever seen. The only thing missing was the proverbial, “If pigs had wings, they could fly.”

There was also one clarifying Freudian slip about the similarities of the old Libertarian platform of the Koch brothers to the “ultra-conservative” platform of today.  The words “ultra-conservative” were the philosophical glue that held it all together. After giving the final post some thought, I dusted off an old essay by George Orwell titled “Politics and the English Language.” In the essay, Orwell commented on the way words are used in politics to project negative images of one’s political opponents. He put it this way:  “Words (Orwell used, totalitarian, progressive, reactionary, conservative, bourgeois, equality) of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

If Orwell were alive today I suspect he would add the words “ultra-conservative” to his list.

What does it mean to be labelled “ultra-conservative?” It means being considered an extremist or a reactionary and we all know that extremists and reactionaries are dangerous. They’re part of what folks in politics call the lunatic fringe. That was the real point of all the posts.

What is it that makes Libertarians and “ultra” Conservatives so dangerous?

I’m not a member of the Libertarian Party, but I do share some of their beliefs. For example, I believe the following, taken from their 2014 platform:
“We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

Is that reactionary language? Is it dangerous?

For over a year I’ve been writing about the dangers of our government’s warrantless surveillance programs. Am I the one who’s dangerous because I’m writing about the spying? Or is it our government that is becoming dangerous because they’re the ones doing the surveillance?

I’ve written about the increasingly dangerous abuse of police power in this country. Does making Gazette readers aware of the abuse make me a reactionary?

I’ve even attended a Tea Party meeting here in Emporia. Some folks around town wanted to burn me at the stake like Savonarola for doing it. Interestingly, I never heard a call for insurrection at the meeting, but I did leave with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I keep it in my office. I occasionally read it and I find it quite enlightening. Does reading it make me dangerous?

I’ve just completed editing this piece and something occurred to me. If I’m going to be labelled as dangerous I might as well act dangerously.

My laptop is smoking and I can smell the political op-eds brewing. As David Farragut said at Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

THERAPEUTIC TYRANNY









On the last day of our west coast vacation I read an interesting New York Times opinion piece titled “The Great Unraveling.” The op-ed’s author, columnist Roger Cohen, cited seven sign posts that, in his view, indicated the civilized world’s social order was unraveling. Each sign was preceded by the words, “It was a time of.” Each sign was powerfully evocative, like the notes of the Anvil Chorus. “It was a time of beheadings.”  “It was a time of aggression.” “It was a time of breakup.”  “It was a time of weakness.”  “A time of hatred.” “A time of fever.” Then, finally, “It was a time of disorientation.”

Cohen’s conclusion was ominous – “Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: ‘The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.’”

The poem Cohen referred to was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” In the poem, Kipling contrasted the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” (common sense/morality) with the “Gods of the Marketplace,” the man-made gods that throughout history have promised prosperity and fullness of life for everyone. In stanza after stanza we see that the “Gods of the Marketplace” always fail to deliver. Abundance comes to mean “robbing selected Peter to pay for the collective Paul.” Fullness of life starts “by loving our neighbor” and ends by “loving his wife.” When the “Gods of the Marketplace” tell us that “pigs have wings,” we believe the delusion and worship those who make such outlandish claims.

Kipling was writing about the social convulsions that followed World War I. If I hadn’t already known he’d penned the poem in 1919, I would have sworn he’d actually written it yesterday.

While I believe Cohen’s assessment was accurate and the signs cited are important, not all of them directly affect us. In fact, I believe there are signs that are even more ominous, particularly in the arena of our individual liberties.

For over a year I’ve been writing op-eds about the dangers of the surveillance state, the militarization of our police, and a federal government that is becoming increasingly despotic. The response I’ve gotten, particularly from friends, is either an amused yawn or a polite, but annoying lecture. “Phil, you just don’t understand they’re doing this for our safety and well-being.” 

In a 1788 letter to a man named Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What Jefferson meant by that was that when the people aren’t vigilant, government becomes more powerful and liberty yields to that power. He later expanded on that idea when he wrote, “This is so because those who gain positions of power tend always to extend the bounds of it. Power must always be constrained or limited.”

While the Obama administration has abused its power with its excessive use of the 1917 Espionage Act to squelch dissent, the deadly effects of unconstrained power can also be seen when any branch of government wields it. Take, for example, the actions of the judicial branch of government in the case of Dinesh D’Souza, who has been powerful and vocal critic of the Obama administration.

About a week ago, after D’Souza pleaded guilty to two violations of campaign finance law, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman sentenced him to eight months in a community confinement center. He also ordered D’Souza to pay a $30,000 fine and to undergo weekly “therapeutic counseling.”
Granted, D’Souza has been a lightning rod, but did the punishment fit the crime? Or, was it a progressive judge’s subtle way of telling D’Souza that if ever wanted to get out of the court’s clutches he would have to change his political opinions? 

What, exactly, would therapeutic counseling look like where the rubber meets the road? C.S. Lewis put it this way in his essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment:   It would mean being “taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I’ve grown wise enough to cheat them.”
It sounds to me like the kind of justice meted out in the Cambodian re-education camps of Pol Pot or the use of electric shock treatments and drugs like Thorazine to induce chemical lobotomies on political dissenters in the Soviet Union.

In the end, D’Souza accepted the sentence of “therapeutic counseling” meekly and thanked the judge. Had I been in his shoes I would have remained unrepentant and gone to jail. The judge might have been able to put my body behind bars, but my mind and conscience would have remained mine and mine alone.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

SOMETIMES THERE IS NO 'WHY'



Confession may or may not be good journalism, but it is good for the soul.

I recently read a short essay by Kathryn Jean Lopez, the founding director of Catholic Voices U.S.A. The essay was about the evil that’s afoot in the world today and our responses to it.  It was one of those vivid pieces of writing that Holy Writ describes as “dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

We often we respond to evil by regurgitating something we’ve read or heard and turn it into a clever catch phrase that allows us to feel better about doing little or nothing about the evil. “Never again!” “ISIS has no place in the 21st century.” We say it with conviction, as if the words themselves will make the evil go away. Generations come and go, the mantras persist, but evil keeps springing up all around the world, like tares among the wheat. Kim Il Sung purged a couple of million in North Korea. Pol Pot became the grand architect of evil with the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Hutus murdered Tutsis by the hundreds of thousands in Rwanda. Now we’re trying to convince ourselves that ISIS will stop beheading¸ shooting, and crucifying Shiites, Christians, Yazidis, apostate Sunnis, infidels, or anyone else who stands in their way if we tell them “there’s no place for that kind of behavior in the 21st century.”

When it comes to the failure to act against evil, we’ve become quite sophisticated. In July, for example, an Alabama teenager took a “selfie” in front of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She posted her smiling photo on Twitter with the caption,” I’m famous, y’all.”

Politics can sometimes provide a handy escape hatch. Why worry about evil on the other side of the world when we Kansans have Sam Brownback and Paul Davis to kick around?

Another avenue we’ve found to numb ourselves to evil is rage. This is where I need to make my confession.

After the death of James Foley, I found the state of the world very depressing. I’d been trying to add things up for days, without success. I could see the logistics of evil being played out on the world stage, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand the why of it all. “Why?’… “Why?”… “Why?’ My oldest son used to ask “Why?” all the time when he was a little boy. “Why do birds lay eggs and people have babies?” “Why do we need grabbidy?” I remember hearing Stephen Hawking once say he could calculate the exact time of the Big Bang within nanoseconds, but also confessed he was still puzzled by the “Why?” of the universe.

As I pondered the whys, I felt a powerful sense of rage well up within me. “Kill all the evil people,” I thought. Like Isaiah the prophet I pleaded to God, “Dash them to pieces.”  Like King David of old, I felt hate and revulsion. “Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”   

When morning broke the next day, ISIS was still taking territory faster than the Sooners did in the days of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Christians, Yazidis, apostates, and infidels were still being crucified, decapitated, or shot to death. Nothing much had changed and I still couldn’t figure out why ISIS was doing such evil things.  

Then, a few days after the rage subsided, I came across the words of Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who spent the last years of World War II as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In his memoir he wrote of an incident when he saw a large icicle outside the window of his cell. When he tried to break the icicle off to quench his thirst, Levi said one of the guards knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Here there is no why.”

I now realize that trying to dull the visible effects of evil in the world with rage won’t make it magically disappear. It’s a futile exercise, much like snapping a “selfie” at Auschwitz or getting caught up in Kansas politics. Like Levi, I’m forced to confess that sometimes there is no why.

But, there are questions that come on the heels of the “Why?” of ISIS. How do we stop the madness? What should we do? What can we do? Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council, Kathryn Jean Lopez said the answers to those kinds of questions lie deep within our consciences. If we search diligently, she wrote, we will “discover a law which man has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.”

She’s right.  Once we complete that search, I believe we will be prepared to act justly...and rightly.