Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 28, 2014

Musings on Memory on Memorial Day

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:13 am

“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.

May 25, 2014

# Hashtag diplomacy

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:58 am

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?

May 16, 2014

My plan to set the world to rights, part 2

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:43 am

“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?

May 10, 2014

My plan to set the world to rights

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:50 am

“For every hundred men who can design a utopia on paper there are about three or four who could run a chicken farm.”
– Anon

It is said there are two ways to change the Constitution, by amendment and by interpretation. After a career spent doing the latter, retired Associate Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (served 1975-2010) has some suggestions for the former. The 94-year-old solon has written them up in a book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

Sorry that was a bit snarky. I find much to disagree with Justice Stevens – vehemently disagree in fact, but the fact is he’s an interesting man and some of his ideas are thought-provoking.

The first thing I disagree with is Stevens’ opinion expressed in an interview with USA Today.

“It’s certainly not easy to get the Constitution amended, and perhaps that’s one flaw in the Constitution that I don’t mention in the book,” Stevens said.


It’s supposed to be difficult to amend the Constitution! The Constitution is the basic law of the land that, in Jefferson’s words, “cannot be changed by ordinary processes of legislation.”

No that doesn’t mean “never change.” It means not changed without a great deal of reflection, a long cooling off period and a very, very broad consensus.

Justice Stevens also wants to change the Second Amendment to make it clear the right to bear arms means the right to join the Army, police or National Guard. If they let you.

Nope, not going to go for that one either. Me, the Founding Fathers and old-line liberals like Hubert Humphrey regard an armed citizenry as an insurance policy against tyrannical government. I think it’s a bit disturbing that this once commonplace idea is now considered “extremist.”

Stevens’ other ideas include abolishing the death penalty, campaign finance limits, and requiring that congressional districts be “compact and composed of contiguous territory” i.e. making gerrymandering difficult.

That last one has a lot of merit but I think I’ve got a better idea. In fact I think I’ve got a lot of them. So I’m going to throw out my own suggestions.

First, abolish congressional districts entirely.

Let every member of the House of Representatives be elected at large, by petition. Establish some minimum number of signatures per seat. Show up with X signatures, you get a seat in the House and one vote. Show up with 2X signatures you get a seat and two votes, etc.

Note this would make the House far more democratic by making it possible for everybody to have a representative. Nowadays if you didn’t vote for the winning candidate, you’re out of luck.

Representatives could be elected by any group of people regardless of how far apart they lived. Any substantial minority could be sure of representation.

(Hat tip to SF author Robert Heinlein for this startlingly original idea.)

This may be more democracy than some people are comfortable with. So let’s make the Senate less democratic.

Prior to the ratification of the 17th Amendment (1913) senators were chosen by the state legislators. There are those who think the direct election of senators was a bad idea, for various reasons that deserve a whole column, or book, unto themselves.

So why not meet them half-way? Say the states can select senators any way they want to: appointed by the governor or legislator, direct election, hereditary or chosen by lot. Up to you.

States are supposed to be “laboratories of democracy,” who says a one-size-fits-all approach is best?

If Stevens wants to “clarify” the Second Amendment, I want to clarify the 13th.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

It seems plain to me, but evidently almost nobody else including the Supreme Court, that this forever outlaws conscription of any kind. I have no idea how one could possibly make it mean anything else.

So let’s clear that up. No more involuntary conscription. Ever.

But, if you want to vote you have to register for the draft – for anything: military service, jury duty, any recognized public obligation from a published list that defines terms of service, at any age. No excuses, no exceptions. You have other things to do with your life, take your name off the voter rolls.

Hmmm, I like this utopia building. Stay tuned for more.

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