Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Jul/14

20

Remembering the Eagle

“Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind.” – Plaque on the Apollo 11 landing module left on the moon.

On this day in 1969, the late Neil Armstrong made history by taking “one small step” onto the surface of the moon.

The first words Armstrong spoke upon landing were actually the terse, “Tranquility Base here. the Eagle has landed.”

When the time came to utter the words Armstrong knew would resonate through history forever, he muffed his line, leaving out one crucial word.

“It’s one small step for Man, a giant leap for mankind,” should have been, “one small step for a man.”

Or perhaps the line was garbled in the spotty transmission. Armstrong himself said cryptically, “We’ll never know.”

And though it is claimed Armstrong decided on his line in the six-and-a-half hours between touchdown and exiting the craft, the suspicion naturally arose that the line was scripted when an Air Force choir came up with a hymn using the line with suspicious rapidity.

Point being, very seldom do men know with absolute certainty they are making history at any given moment. Often the history-maker’s famous lines are scripted for them after the fact by helpful biographers with the advantage of hindsight.

Armstrong knew the step he took represented the first step in an endless journey the human race was only beginning. He knew he carried the hopes and fears of an army of scientists, technicians, and engineers who built the craft they would never embark on.

And the hopes and dreams of a nation as well.

I watched the moon landing with two of my closest friends. We had just graduated from high school and were about to go our separate ways. I think our conversation was puerile and more than a little stupid. Because we were touched by awe, and like adolescent boys covered it up with idiot bravado.

But we knew what Armstrong was doing, because we were like him in one crucial way. We three boys with no accomplishments yet to our name, and the former Navy pilot, Korean War veteran, engineer, and astronaut who had already made less dramatic history by performing the first spacecraft docking maneuver, were alike in one way. We read science fiction. We knew what Armstrong was doing changed the history of the human race forever. We knew what he was doing might ensure there would be a human race into the far future, perhaps forever.

Robert A. Heinlein science fiction author and guest commentator for Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 landing, once said, “Earth is too fragile a basket for the human race to hold all its eggs in.”

His colleague and friend Sir Arthur C. Clarke observed, “If man survives for as long as the least successful of the dinosaurs—those creatures whom we often deride as nature’s failures—then we may be certain of this: for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word ‘ship’ will mean— ‘spaceship.’”

Armstrong took that first step for mankind, and generations yet unborn will follow him, and remember.

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Jul/14

20

On the Border

We appear to have a problem on our southern border.

Huge numbers of children are showing up unescorted, and rather than seeking to evade Las Migras (Border Patrol) they are seeking them out and surrendering. They are then taken to holding facilities where though crowded, they’re at least getting three hots and a cot.

Among those “children” are an unknown though certainly significant number of teens who appear to have gang tattoos.

It’s hard to tell how many because the press has been denied access to the detention centers. This is the kind of thing the press likes to rise up in righteous wrath against but so far the silence has been deafening.

In a town called Murrietta, California, attempts to relocate some of these detainees in Border Patrol facilities were met by demonstrators who have forced buses to turn back. For now.

The actions of the citizens of Murrietta have been decried by all generous and right–thinking people who live near the border.

The Canadian border that is.

What seems to have happened is that word has reached the southern parts of our hemisphere that the U.S. is no longer enforcing border controls.

Furthermore the hordes of hopefuls seem to have gotten the impression from somewhere that the U.S. has a very generous social welfare system they are perfectly welcome to partake of.

I wonder where they got that idea?

The results are about what you’d expect when your rich uncle invites all his poor relatives to move in, stay as long as they like and help themselves to whatever is in the fridge.

It’s not like they’re entirely unwanted. Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi thinks they’re so adorable she wants to take them all home. Where they can work in her Napa Valley vineyard and look forward to becoming citizens and registered Democrats.

But there are plenty of Republicans ready with offers of low-wage labor and a piece of the American dream.

What to do? What to do?

I have a question. I have lost count of how many times I have asked this question.

Does anybody else see how seriously weird it is we’re even having this debate?

Every country in the world, with us as the only exception, regards their right to control their border as a given. Not even up for discussion!

It’s pretty much what defines a country. A line, your laws on your side, our laws on our side.

And yet there is serious opposition to the idea that we have a right to control our territory, to admit or exclude who we chose.

In the past the criteria we declared and enforced were often mean-spirited and racist. But the general idea was, were you willing to become an American, to assimilate, learn the national language, the history, the laws?

I have friends from Europe and Asia who are of the first American-born generation of their families, who quite unself-consciously speak of “our Revolution” and “our Civil War.”

And of course they are quite right. Being American, almost unique among the nations of the world, is not a matter of birth but a relationship with a philosophy of liberty and self-government.

I have helped defecting Chinese find their way to a new life in America. I’ve helped Iranian refugees get legalized. I worked with Mexican kids who came out of the shadows during the Reagan amnesty.

I’ve also lived in a country, former Yugoslavia, which tore itself apart over ethnic and linguistic divisions I couldn’t even see. I lived in the Baltic States where the citizens were terrified by the presence of large Russian minorities settled there when they were under the Soviet occupation.

My children’s mother is an immigrant.

So you could say I’ve seen the best and the worst of immigration. Will you then take my word that everything I’ve seen of this crisis looks bad, and in the long run possibly fatal for our country and all we’ve achieved?

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Jun/14

24

The went and did it

Well, they went and did it.

The Red Mesa High School on the Navajo Reservation in Red Mesa, Arizona, a public school with a student body nearly 100 percent Navajo Indian was forced to change their team’s name.

Their name is “The Redskins.”

Nah, just kidding.

What really happened was the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, acting on orders from On High cancelled six trademarks owned by the Washington Redskins after deeming them offensive.

Note this likely doesn’t affect the football team in any meaningful way. It’s their trademark registration that got cancelled. Trademark registration makes life easier in some ways but there is still a recognized association in common law with the team and their name and logo. The owner can still sue anyone who infringes them with every expectation of winning.

The issue of Indian sports team names has been building for some time now. The only problem is, nobody really took it very seriously before.

I think most people, like myself, just said, “OK, I don’t think it was meant to be offensive but if I’m wrong and you find it so, then let’s change it. It’s just a football team.”

And how do we know if most Indian people find it offensive?

Well that could be a problem. You see, saying “Indian” is like saying “European.” It covers a lot of languages and cultures as different from each other as Scotsmen are from Albanians.

We could ask the various tribal governments to conduct opinion polls. In my youth in Oklahoma that was done over the issue of “Little Red” the traditional Indian dancer who performed at Oklahoma University football games way back when.

The polls appeared to show the majority of Indian people in the state were rather proud of the association, but enough people made a fuss about it that it was deemed not worth the trouble and the institution was abolished.

Incidentally it broke the heart of the young man chosen to be Little Red that year who’d dreamed of it all his life, but he was doubtless suffering from “false consciousness.”

I don’t know what polling Indian people would show these days, if opinions have changed or if they differ from tribe to tribe.

My attitude has been it’s not worth the trouble. Change the names if it bothers you, and if other Indian people disagree, sort it out amongst yourselves.

Maybe it’s one of those things like the N-word, OK for the in-group, not OK for the out-group.

Then the government had to get involved. And make no mistake, it won’t stop at the Patent and Trademark Office. What certain opportunistic white folks on the hard left are after is to cripple the First Amendment protections of free speech.

What this decision does is force free speech advocates to defend something that looks either silly or offensive. And yes it must be defended, assaults on liberty almost always start with issues most people find trivial, or downright distasteful.

I’m old enough to remember when assaults on free speech came mostly from the right, and usually concerned pornography.

So defend this we must, but we’d better realize we’ve been backed into a corner on this particular free speech issue.

Well played lefties, well played.

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Jun/14

17

A world without America

As I write this Russian tanks have reportedly crossed into Ukraine, and an unlovely group called The Islamic Republic of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is advancing towards Baghdad shooting and decapitating prisoners and posting pictures of their handiwork on social media.

The American Embassy in Baghdad is preparing for their Vietnam 1975 moment.

In Afghanistan the Taliban are waiting on the announced withdrawal of all but a symbolic number of American forces next year.

I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but it seems to me the most likely outcome over the next year or two is: Russia seizes a big chunk of eastern Ukraine, Iraq breaks up in civil war, and the Taliban takes Afghanistan.

The good news is, a lot of people in America and abroad are getting what they want, an America that stays home and minds its own business.

An old saying about being careful what you wish for comes to mind.

Democrats are blaming George Bush. “If he hadn’t lied us into Iraq this wouldn’t be happening.”

No it wouldn’t, and Iraq would still be ruled by a murderous psychopath and his loathsome sons.

I’m not being sarcastic here (or maybe just a little), there are thoughtful arguments made by people like military strategist Edward Luttwak that in the long run it’s best to let local civil wars burn themselves out.

Republicans are blaming Barrack Obama for allowing another debacle like, well like Vietnam 1975.

Obama does seem eerily disconnected from what happens outside the U.S. but this is not entirely fair either.

The fact is, the whole country is sick of foreign semi-wars that seem to accomplish nothing.

And not just on the left either, there are substantial factions on the right that heartily wish the rest of the world would go hang.

In Europe any number of harsh critics of American foreign policy will damn us whichever way it breaks.

If we re-intervene in Iraq we will be condemned for American imperialism. If we don’t, we will be blamed for the chaos and casualties.

When Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, countries which have contributed troops will wonder why they ever backed us to begin with.

As for Ukraine, there is pretty much nothing we can do but we’ll be blamed anyway.

But there is something that should be noted about this. Years of living in Europe convinced me that the Europeans don’t want America to totally renounce military interventions, they want us to intervene in ways they approve of.

A good friend of mine in Lithuania for example, thinks America’s invasion of Iraq was Stalinism pure and simple. And if you know how Stalin treated Lithuania, that’s not an idle criticism.

I don’t think he’ll mind an American intervention when Russia tries to reabsorb the Baltic coast though.

What do I think?

I think that in hindsight there are two viable strategies when it comes to invading other countries which have given us legitimate reasons to retaliate – such as harboring and supporting terrorists who have attacked us.

One is to invade, remove the regime and get out. Perhaps as John Bolton suggested, leaving them a copy of The Federalist and wishing them the very best of luck.

The other is the imperial strategy of staying, repairing the infrastructure, and building all the institutions of civil society: bureaucracy, police, army etc.

The disadvantage of the first is it might leave them in a position to rebuild and re-attack, as Germany did after World War I.

The disadvantage of the second is that it realistically takes at least a generation of continuous occupation, with all the expense and casualties that entails. We evidently haven’t got the patience for that, which is rather a pity because the experience of occupying the Philippines, Germany and Japan seems to show we’re rather good at that kind of imperialism.

Imperialism is one of those things that, if it can’t be done right, shouldn’t be done at all. And perhaps the world will breathe a sigh of relief when America withdraws from those messy foreign interventions.

And then again, when the two biggest countries who have no such scruples about intervening in other peoples affairs are Russia and China, perhaps not.

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Jun/14

11

Thank you Hillary!

Diane Sawyer: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”

Hillary Clinton: “You have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

Many years ago in Oklahoma a bud of mine and I were watching an episode of the mini-series “Jennie,” about the life of Jennie Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother.

So we’re watching this scene where Jennie and her second husband George are sitting in the dining room of this mansion pouring brandy from cut-crystal decanters and George is wallowing in how he realizes what a failure he is.

“My sisters are eating off of gold plate, and I can’t even keep up the payments on my ancestral estate,” he moans.

Of course we laughed fit to die.

Thank you Hillary I thought I’d never laugh like that again.

Hillary has made as much as $200,000 for a speech. As in, One. Speech.

For $200,000 I could buy a piece of property near here between the mountains and a river, put up a log home on it, and live in it for quite some time before I had to go back to work.

The really side-splittingly hilarious thing about this is – Hillary most likely believes this!

Many years ago (in Oklahoma again) I heard Tom Wolfe give a talk at our university. Apropos of something-or-other Wolfe talked about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis and how shocked and disappointed people were that America’s princess could marry that decrepit old Greek.

Wolfe’s take on it was that Jackie probably thought Onassis was a fascinating man, at least at first. He said there are levels of rich. The generic rich we see, and the rich other rich look up to with an awe we cannot understand.

That is, there’s the rich who can afford several houses and servants to staff one of them. Then there’s the rich who can afford several houses, each with its own full-time staff of servants.

Wolfe said we peons can’t understand the agony the merely rich feel when they have to tell the servants to pack because we’re moving to the Swiss chalet for the skiing season. And how much they look up to the super-rich who can just pop in to the villa in Cannes for a few weeks a year, knowing it’s fully staffed and waiting for them all the time.

Of course what popped into my mind was, how do I get a job in one of those villas?

We live in a democratic age. Meaning that we are still ruled by aristocrats, but to rule they have to pretend they are “one of us” even though it’s painfully obvious they are nothing of the sort.

They are out of touch and clueless about how out of touch they are. They may yet destroy our civilization.

But in the meantime they provide us with some great laughs from time to time.

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Jun/14

10

Clueless, meet clueless

Well Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in the arms of his loving family, al-hamdu lillah! (“Praise Allah”)

Or at least he will be when he’s released from a military hospital in German. That is if he hasn’t been arrested by then.

But that’s not likely after his parents were guests of President Obama in an eerie Rose Garden ceremony which saw his father Bob sporting a Taliban-like beard and spouting phrases in Arabic and Pashto.

This of course was red meat to those who think Bergdahl is a deserter at best, a traitor at worst.

The fact is, we don’t know. There are a lot of different stories floating around about how Bergdahl became a captive of the Taliban five years ago, and how he was treated while in captivity.

We know the Taliban got back five of their toughest, smartest leaders and we got… somebody who was never meant to be a soldier and a legacy of trouble that is going to haunt us for a long time to come.

The story that seems to be outlasting the others is that Bergdahl simply walked off his post, without his arms or his gear.

That looks like desertion but not defection. A defector would take his arms and as many more as he could carry as a gesture of good faith.

Specialist Jason Fry, a friend or friendly acquaintance of Bergdahl’s, said Bergdahl told him prior to deployment in Afghanistan, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

So many images are going through my head.

Right now it’s that scene from “Private Benjamin” (1980) in which Goldie Hawn tells an officer, “I think I’m in the wrong Army, I joined the one with the condominiums.”

But back to the Rose Garden.

President Obama announced the swap, Bergdahl for the Gitmo Five. This was apparently against a law which requires notifying congress before any such swap.

You’d think this would be cause for great glee among people who like to pounce on every instance of Obama ignoring the law, and it has. But there are also conservatives pointing out the law is a possibly unconstitutional restraint of presidential power.

Obama has said a couple of things about it, some contradictory, but we’ll settle for Bergdahl’s deteriorating health and his stout defense that whatever the circumstances we get our boys back and deal with whatever they may or may not have done later.

Admirable, except it gets really weird. As little as we know for sure about Bergdahl, his capture and captivity, the administration seems even more clueless.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Bergdahl was captured while on patrol and “served with distinction and honor.”

No and no.

One thing for sure is that pretty much everyone who served with Bergdahl flat despises him. Many were made to sign non-disclosure agreements which some are now ignoring. And when was the last time you heard of soldiers who did not have high-level security clearances having to sign non-disclosure agreements?

Yet Obama’s Housing and Urban Development flack Brandon Friedman said they’re the psychopaths!

Some sources have it that as many as eight men died hunting for him. Some even say attacks on American soldiers were suspiciously well-prepared after Bergdahl walked off.

Well, maybe so maybe not. Afghanistan is a dangerous place and soldiers get killed there more often than we’d like. And perhaps Taliban leaders were smart enough to figure Bergdahl’s comrades would come looking for him and laid plans accordingly.

And maybe a flakey hippie-soldier who regards enlistment as conditional on his approval of the Army is an easy target for interrogation.

But what’s really weird is why the heck did Obama stage that group-hug in the Rose Garden?

Did nobody think to vet father Bob about what he was going to say? Did nobody anticipate this was going to blow up in Obama’s face?

And does anybody think it hasn’t occurred to the Taliban that all they need to do to get more of their guys back is snatch some more Americans?

Clueless, meet Clueless.

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IMG_8998

A few days ago I interviewed a lady, Eva Nakamura Kuwata. Now 80-years-old she was a former internee at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. She was invited back to be advisor-in-residence at the camp for 2014.

When she was eight years old she was sent with her parents to the camp because they were Japanese, and America was at war with the Empire of Japan. She was one of 14,000 issei (first-generation) and nisei (second generation) who passed through the camp.

Oddly, she has no bad memories about the experience. She was too young and not Japanese enough to feel the shame many older inmates felt. She remembers the beginning of lifelong friendships and memories of people being nice to her when she got a day pass to nearby Cody or Powell.Though she does remember some “No Japs allowed” signs in business windows.

One day she went to Powell to buy some butter as a present for her mother, and didn’t realize she needed ration tickets. A “very nice man” in line behind her, whose name she never learned, gave the clerk one of his.

That’s one lesson I got from meeting her. Even in the midst of war, few people were rotten enough to treat a little girl badly.

Mrs. Kuwata was too young to be aware of the choices faced by the older boys in the camp and I think only became aware of it later. Some requested repatriation to Japan. She seemed to think a lot of them changed their minds before they actually disembarked, but wasn’t sure.

When the draft was extended to the camps, some chose to refuse induction, the “Nomo boys.” She said they weren’t afraid, they were demanding their rights as American citizens to be treated as such.

And what is most remarkable, and humbling was about 800 internees chose to trust America. Chose to believe America could become the nation it promised to be but wasn’t yet, and joined the Army.

They were incorporated into the 442 Regimental Combat Team serving with other nisei under white officers. I count 15 killed in action on the camp Honor Roll, and two Medals of Honor awarded, one posthumously.

And there was one other on the Honor Roll from another era. Shojiro Yamashita, born at Heart Mountain Relocation Center to internee parents. Killed in Action, Vietnam.

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May/14

28

Musings on Memory on Memorial Day

“A country like ours, possessed of immense territory and wealth, whose defenses have been neglected, cannot avoid war by dilating upon its horrors, or even by a continuous display of pacific qualities, or by ignoring the fate of the victims of aggression elsewhere.” – Winston Churchill

This Monday was Memorial Day, and as in every year there were observances, parades and various postings on social media commemorating the war dead.

I also saw some posts decrying the inhumanity of war. Some with the caveat that “We support the soldiers we just don’t like war.”

One quoted Herbert Spencer on Britain’s second Afghan war, “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”

There were also posts decrying “American imperialism.”

This is not new of course, I’ve heard it all for many years. And yet lately I have a sense of foreboding about such sentiments.

I think we are forgetting.

I think we are forgetting that outside our borders much of the world is still ruled by the principle of “Might makes right.”

I think we are forgetting that not all differences can be resolved by sweet reason, or even a cynical appeal to self-interest.

I think we are forgetting that there are people in this world who see nothing wrong about getting what they want by force of arms, and that some of them are the masters of great states.

Many desperately want to believe that these things are not true, to the point of hysterically attacking anyone who dares to state them out loud. These are the kind who self-righteously proclaim they are “against war.”

Congratulations. Nobody but a lunatic is “for” war.

There are those who decry nationalism and patriotism, proclaiming themselves free of the herd mentality and hold their principles above any group identity.

I have some sympathy with this attitude. I’m an American and individualism is bred into my bones. I consider myself a patriot, but not a mindless “My country right or wrong” patriot.

But I have to ask, how do you think you will fare against an army of men who do hold their group identity to be greater than the individual? An army of fervent patriots eager for martial glory?

And I wonder, are we like the generation between the World Wars? Consumed with our own problems at home, unaware that the world beyond our borders was ready to explode?

Within my lifetime I saw the mighty Soviet Union collapse and the tide of freedom extend to its borders. We even hoped that freedom would at long last come to Russia. And I played a small part in the rebuilding of the former occupied lands of Eastern Europe.

Now Russia is again under strong-man rule and flexing imperial muscles again. Poland is rearming in anticipation of having to fight alone again. Will I live to see the hopes I shared with them destroyed?

China is growing richer, and showing signs of renewed imperial ambitions. Members of the People’s Liberation Army general staff have openly talked of war with America as a “when” not an “if.”

Iran’s nuclear program proceeds apace, also a “when” not an “if.”

Pakistan has nukes, and is unstable. If their fragile state collapsed, what would happen to those nukes?

North Korea has nukes and is a bandit state that will sell to anyone for hard cash, or just from a nihilistic desire to foment chaos.

And what do we do to prepare for the worst case scenarios?

We scold. We “condemn in the strongest terms.” And we remind ourselves that war is horrible, as if we had forgotten that.

What should we do?

I don’t know. But I’m afraid for my children.

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May/14

25

# Hashtag diplomacy

I signed an online petition the other day for a good and worthy cause. Protesting the upcoming execution of a pregnant woman condemned to death for converting to Christianity and marrying a Christian.

Meriam Yhya Ibrahim Ishag, 27, was condemned by a Sudanese court for apostasy, a capital crime under Sharia law. In addition her marriage to a Christian was deemed invalid, which makes doing that thing married people do adultery, a twofer. She’s currently being held in prison with her 20-month-old son awaiting the birth of her second child.

When she has delivered her baby she’ll receive 100 lashes, and if that doesn’t kill her she’ll be hanged.

Signing that petition was easy. All I had to do was push a button and the website did the rest. They’re almost up to 90,000 on that site.

That’ll show ‘em!

Elsewhere Michelle Obama was photographed holding up a hashtag sign, # Bring our girls home.”

I had to look up hashtag.

According to the Twitter Help Center, “People use the hashtag symbol # before a relevant keyword or phrase (no spaces) in their Tweet to categorize those Tweets and help them show more easily in Twitter Search. Hashtagged words that become very popular are often Trending Topics.”

That particular Trending Topic is the kidnapping of 300 Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria by an unlovable Islamist group called Boko Haram.

Boko Haram announced they intend to sell the girls into slavery. They evidently didn’t get the message back in the 19th century that slavery was passé.

And speaking of the 19th century, on March 2, as Russia marched into Crimea Secretary of State John Kerry declared, ‘You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

And if that wasn’t clear enough Obama said Putin’s actions violate “the Ukrainian constitution and international law.”

I’ll bet Putin never saw it that way. Now that it’s been pointed out to him he’s got some serious thinking to do.

I’m sorry, reading the news these days tends to make me feel bitter and cynical, which I express with sarcasm. Which is not likely to do any good either.

Let me be clear, I’m glad people are taking notice of the things that go on in appalling countries like Nigeria and Sudan. Not too long ago this wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar.

And I’m glad the administration is saying at least something disapproving about Putin’s naked and unashamed aggression.

But does anybody seriously think Sudan, Boko Haram or Vladimir Putin cares one whit for the disapproval of anybody in the West anymore?

In that 19th century Obama and Kerry so disapprove of the British Empire used to practice something called, “Gunboat Diplomacy.” Meaning if you ignored Britain’s polite request to stop doing something uncivilized you could expect a visit from the Royal Navy.

It’s called gunboat and not “Battleship Diplomacy” because a gunboat could steam rather far inland on navigable rivers, and the Brits had a realistic notion of how far they could project power back then.

That’s considered reprehensible these days. The British Empire forced their ideas of civilized behavior on other people, often chose native rulers without consulting their subjects and redrew maps as they pleased.

What they didn’t do was make idle threats.

And though we all know imperialism is always and forever a Bad Thing, the empire did succeed in outlawing traditional Indian customs such as burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyre, and severely limiting slavery in Africa.

What I’m getting at is not a defense of imperialism.

It’s this.

Is Putin going to react to a public scolding with anything more than a good belly laugh? Is Boko Haram going to bring those girls home with a groveling apology? Is Sudan going to release that lovely young woman because the civilized world disapproves of that kind of thing?

As I formulate those questions it’s becoming clear what’s bothering me. We’ve always known the world was divided into relatively civilized and pretty uncivilized places.

We’ve always assumed civilization spreads because it offers things like security under law, infrastructure that makes life easier, modern medicine, etc.

We’ve always assumed civilization would continue to spread until it covered the whole world.

We’ve always assumed civilization always advances, never retreats.

Were we wrong?

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May/14

16

My plan to set the world to rights, part 2

“One of the peculiarities of the American Revolution was that its leaders pinned their hopes on the organization of decision-making units, the structuring of their incentives, and the counterbalancing of the units against one another, rather than on the more usual (and more exciting) principle of substituting ‘the good guys’ for ‘the bad guys.’”
-Thomas Sowell

Last week I indulged myself in a bit of utopia planning. As we say in Oklahoma, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m weak.”

Well not exactly wrong. Who among us has not had the, “If I were king” fantasy and imagined what they’d do to fix the world if only someone would give us absolute power? Which you can trust me with, really. I wouldn’t lie to you.

So take these suggestions as just that, suggestions. I’m not wedded to any of them.

I think we inherited a pretty good system from the Founding Fathers, all things considered. If it’s beginning to show some wear and tear, that’s to be expected after two and a half centuries of use.

Consider that within that time we’ve never cancelled an election, not even during a terrible Civil War. But during that time France has had five republics, two kingdoms and an empire.

Obviously we’ve inherited a system that suits us well enough to make our society reasonably stable while being responsive to change when necessary.

What I would suggest is that we might build on the insight of the Founders that you have to work with human nature, not against it. That is, do not expect to find angels to govern but consider modifying our institutions to provide greater accountability by our governors.

Last week I mentioned a truly original idea by Robert Heinlein to greatly expand representation of citizens in our legislature. The nice thing about that idea is it could be applied locally on a small scale first.

Now I’d like to pass on an idea I saw years ago, by a libertarian named Sandy Cohen.

Almost all political battles are about spending government money. Whether it should be spent on this, or that, or should be spent at all rather than left in the hands of the taxpayers.

Everyone acknowledges taxes are a fact of life, it’s what to be done with them we argue so viciously about.

Cohen’s idea was to extend democracy to the pocketbooks of the taxpayers. How about letting us decide where some of our money goes?

What if your tax return had a checkoff list? Say X percent of your tax payments could go to: a) military, b) healthcare, c) welfare, d) scientific research on cancer, physics, etc?

Maybe the government would want to control spending on half the tax receipts, or more. So what’s wrong with saying, “OK, you can send half your tax payments wherever you like in 10 percent increments.”?

We could argue about the percentages, how much they get to decide versus how much we get to decide. Point is, you could vote your convictions, put your money where your mouth is. And you could apply it first on a small scale to test-drive the idea. A criteria we’ve forgotten about now that every new idea has to be top-down, one-size-fits-all, my-way-or-the-highway.

Would those who spend our money feel more accountable to us if they knew we’d vote them less next time around if we thought they were wasting funds?

Would government bureaucracies have to become more efficient if they had to compete for funding from an informed electorate?

Who knows? I certainly don’t.

But I wonder if we ought to be thinking along those lines.

What’s your suggestion?

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