Left, Right, and Center

Left, right, and center; progressive, liberal, and conservative; all terms that I’ve been more or less familiar with throughout most of my adult life time of nearly 60 years.

My earliest memories of liberal and progressive date from the presidential elections of 1940 and 1944 when my father was actively promoting President Roosevelt’s conservative opponents Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey. In my father’s eyes, and in the eyes of his first 8 and then 12 year old second son Roosevelt’s New Deal was a wrong left turn in the history of our country.

It seems to me now that presidential elections, at least the ones that I have experienced, have nearly always been won by democrats or republicans who most effectively positioned themselves in the center, in the mainstream of the electorate.

In most every instance the winners hadn’t allowed themselves to be captured by the single designation liberal or conservative. I think of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H Bush, and Bill Clinton.

The conservatives Tom Dewey and Barry Goldwater, and the liberals, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis all lost badly.

There was only one exception to this rule, the election of 1980, when the conservative Ronald Reagan handily beat the centrist Jimmy Carter. Perhaps this was because Carter’s politics were not well understood by the electorate.

Now we’re over one month into the presidential election of 2008, and the candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, are both trying to take the center, to position themselves in regard to the issues in ways that don’t permit liberal or conservative pigeon holing. Neither one wants to be a failed liberal or conservative candidate.

Their moving aggressively to the center ought to have been expected. It shouldn’t have surprised. But that is not what happened. On the one hand Obama has, to say the least, riled his supporters on the left, the ones who were most with him at the start of his campaign.

On the other hand, McCain has not gained by his moves the support of the conservatives in his party on the right, the very ones who were loudly against his candidacy to begin with and who have not yet in large numbers come out in his support.

But that’s alright. The battle between them is right where it should be, right there in the center. McCain has wisely pushed the hotest button conservative issues, abortion, same sex marriage, and I’m sure if he could, gun control and immigration, back onto the states.

McCain has even made a not unreasonable claim for his candidacy as being closest to that of the 26th. president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was both a progressive and a conservative, and McCain would be the same. Progressive in his views on immigration and government help for those who need help, and conservative on defense and economic issues.

Only in regard to his age will it be hard for him to push the Roosevelt comparison. Teddy Roosevelt at age 42 was the youngest president to assume the office. McCain at 72 would be the oldest. In regard to life experiences they are an entire generation apart.

Obama is most often compared to John Kennedy and Abe Lincoln.  The three of them were or would be among the youngest presidents, but even more than their respective ages they are close in the way they seemed to burst upon the political scene, the way they took the country by their strength of character and by their eloquence.

They were not ordinary politicians. Liberal and conservative were not sufficient or appropriate designations. In each case something else was needed in order to understand their exceptional qualities.

We don’t yet know whether Obama will, if elected, be compared favorably to Lincoln and Kennedy. But he definitely holds out that possibility.

Ultimately this election is interesting because it cannot be reduced to the left vs the right, the liberal vs. the conservative. McCain and Obama, for very different reasons, both seem to understand that. Whoever occupies the most ground in the country’s political center will win. At the moment it seems to be a toss-up.

No Letup in the Veto power of China and Russia

A headline in today’s NYTimes reads “Russia, China Veto UN Sanctions on Zimbabwe.” One’s first reaction is wonder how can that be given what we know of President Mugabe’s treatment of his own people, and in particular and most recently the Mugabe-sanctioned violence and intimidation against his opponents during the recent presidential election.

A moment’s reflection, however, is enough to remind us that Hu Jintao’s hold on power in China, as well as Dmitry Medvedev’s in Russia is of the same kind. In all three countries the political opposition is stifled. Actually we heard more from this opposition in Zimbabwe than we ever do in either Russia or China.

For the Russian ambassador to the UN whatever was going on inside Zimbabwe was not a threat to international peace and security. Therefore, the UN had no business becoming involved. For the Chinese ambassador Zimbabwe should be left free to resolve its own internal problems without outside interference such as the proposed sanctions would represent. Furthermore, China does happen to be a major trading partner of Zimbabwe.

Finally our enemies are where we want them. Why aren’t we happy?

Articles in the NYTimes and on CNN’s web site tell us that our mortal enemies, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, are concentrating in the wild, tribal areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. We learn that foreign fighters, mostly Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are traveling to these remote parts of our world to join up with Al Qaeda and Taliban militants already there.

This a major threat to our way of life? That’s how the media seems to be taking it. But shouldn’t this be a cause for celebration? Our enemies are more and more becoming restricted to isolated pockets in impoverished, undeveloped, and unreachable mountain regions along the border of Pakistan.Yipee!

Wouldn’t you think that this would mean that we no longer needed to be using our precious resources to prepare for a major war with a real enemy, such as Russia or China, that we could stop manufacturing nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, and the like, and that instead we could comfortably rely on a mercenary force, similar to the French Foreign Legion, for own protection?

Obama and McCain on the Role of Government in a Troubled Economy

The economy is on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s talking about the job losses and the high gas prices. As are the candidates. What are they saying?

Well here’s Obama:

“I’m calling on Congress and the president to enact real, immediate relief with energy rebates for working families this summer, a fund to help families avoid foreclosure, extended benefits for the long-term jobless, and assistance to states that have been hard-hit by the economic downturn.”

And here’s McCain, from the same NYTimes piece:

“At a time when our small businesses need support from Washington, we cannot raise taxes, increase regulation and isolate ourselves from foreign markets,” McCain called for “tax relief, job creation, and investment in innovation.”

Based on what you’ve just heard whom would you vote for? Well if you’re most of all looking for help from the government with your problems Obama has your vote. He’s promising you relief, relief, and more relief. No question but that it’s the government’s role to help you in your trouble.

Do more and more people feel this way? If they do McCain’s chances of winning the presidency are not good. For McCain says little about what government should do for the people (tax relief, help by creating more jobs, and that’s about it) and he’s not very convincing when he says it.

He is probably more convincing when he talks about what the government should not do (drawing on his conservative roots?). For he definitely implies that things would only get worse if the government were to raise taxes, write new regulations, and set protective tariffs to stem the manufacturing job losses.

But neither McCain nor Obama seems willing to confront head on the principal motor that is driving this economy down. Granted you can’t stare down the oil price rise, nearly $150 a barrel today. And you probably can’t in the short term increase the supply of oil by the discovery and tapping of new fields off shore and in Alaska.

But on the demand end there’s a lot we can do. McCain got it all wrong when he said he would lower the taxes on the price at the pump. For this would only increase the demand. Obama got this right when he refused to take that route.

But neither has had the courage to take the unpopular stand and tell us, if we want relief, to use less oil. Any number of small sacrifices on our part in regard to our oil and gas consumption would do more for the health and strength of the economy than all the government relief programs that all the candidates could ever devise.

For example, how many times when driving to work have you seen cars with any more occupants than a single driver at the wheel. Our efforts to change this situation have up until now not made a significant difference. The “fast” lanes created in and out of our congested cities as a reward to drivers who pool often have few takers and the congestion with the loss of a traffic lane is even greater than before.

Government’s role should be to encourage and actively promote “mass” transit, whether this be two or more occupants in the car, new trolley and train lines, fast trains between our major cities, or any number of other means. This policy if carried out seriously could most of all lower our demand for oil, and even if it did nothing to lower the price at the pump, it would lower the transportation budget of each one of us.

So why in difficult economic times do we talk about what the government can do for us? That was all the talk during Roosevelt’s New Deal and a new deal for the economy never resulted. That only came with the Second World War. Why not talk about what we can do for the country (and the world) by our own efforts? Why don’t the candidates talk about that?

Pat Buchanan and the New Wars of Religion

Will there be no coming together over gay marriage and abortion? According to Pat Buchanan there won’t be. In a recent article from Human Events, The Wars of Religion Return, he asks, perhaps not without reason:

“Can Americans ever come together if we are divided in our deepest beliefs about morality and truth, where one side believes gay marriage is moral progress, the other holds it a moral outrage; where one side views abortion to be a mighty advance for women’s freedom, the other sees it as legalization of mass slaughter of unborn babies?”

A rhetorical question and Buchanan’s answer is “No.” He faults Obama for not recognizing the intractable underlying reality, and the importance, of the differences among us. According to Buchanan Obama is guilty of the the “heresy of indifferentism, which holds that one religion is just as good as another and that all religions can be a path to salvation.”

There are situations, of course, where all paths are not equally valid, all leading to salvation. Slave owners and abolitionists followed different paths and went to war over their differences. Why? Because the path of slave ownership was clearly in error, and because of that eventually lost its adherents and defenders. It was a wrong path.

Buchanan would convince us that a similar rightness and wrongness holds in regard to paths, or positions on gay marriage and abortion. And if this is indeed the case, perhaps he is right and we will eventually go to war over these differences, renewing in America’s present the horribly destructive wars of religion of Europe’s past.

But are the proponents of gay marriage and abortion no less wrong than those who fed the institution of slavery? The question about rightness and wrongness in these disputes still hasn’t been answered to everyone’s satisfaction, and is not even close to being so.

Given this situation isn’t Obama correct to be eucumenical in his approach, allowing different paths to salvation? Furthermore, and as he makes clear, the text of the Bible is no help to us in these matters, for while the Book of Leviticus does call homosexuality an abomination, it also says the eating of shellfish is an abomination and it condones slavery.

For Buchanan gay marriage and abortion are manifest evils and cannot be tolerated. For Obama, and for me, a renewal of the wars of religion is a much greater manifest evil, and differences among us over the nature of marriage, and, even more troubling, over the point at which newly conceived life is to be fully protected, have to be tolerated. Anything else would be much worse.

….

Well we do have freedom of speech, and freedom of the press,
freedom, especially now on the internet, to print what we want. Pat
Buchanan illustrates these freedoms. Otherwise how could he possibly be
allowed to write about the “Return of the Wars of Religion?” The return
of cave life, tribal infighting and indiscriminate killing, not to
mention 20th. century genocidal wars? Haven’t we progressed since these
cruel and intolerant times?

Could he really accept renewed wars
of religion as the means of bringing one side or the other, for him the
side of gay marriage and abortion, to complete submission? In any case
it doesn’t work. Legitimate differences can never be resolved in this
manner.

When differences are resolved by war, which does happen
although not in the case of the Wars of Religion of the 16th. century,
it’s only because one side is closer to the right, as in the case of
the American Civil War, and later the war against Hitler. And then the
losing side does come over to the rightness of the winners, although it
may take a hundred years or more, as in the case of our own South.

Unfortunately
it’s not always the case that the losers are in the wrong in their
beliefs, nor are the winners any more often in the right. In the
instance of the two dilemmas before us, gay marriage and abortion,
there are at least two legitimate positions and as long as that
condition holds toleration of the differences is the only realistic and
reasonable solution.

As much as I find it hard to believe
Buchanan does seem to be defending the extreme position of the
Christian evangelical leader, James Dobson. For Buchanan is clearly
putting down Obama’s tolerant attitude, his willingness to live with,
and struggle with differences. Buchanan makes an analogy to the
abolitionist (Dobson) whom he admires on the one hand, and to the
politician (Obama now, and perhaps others, like Henry Clay the great
compromiser in the times leading up to the Civil War) whom he doesn’t.

Buchanan
cites this statement from Dobson: “Am I required in a democracy to
conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what
is right with regard to the life of tiny babies?” To quote that
statement is more than enough for us, for me to lose respect for the
writer.

Arianna Huffington on Moving to the Center

Have just read Arianna’s Huffington Post Blog, “Moving to the Middle is for Losers.” Arianna never seems to think about the fact that she herself has a personal history, traveling, swinging from far right to far left, to be now, as she says, happily ensconced in the progressive wing of her party. Right there with Move On.

Doesn’t it occur to Arianna that the center is where reasonable people should be? That the center is where things get done, and yes, where change does have a chance. Or does she really believe that it’s at the furthermost points of the pendulum’s swings that change is to be had, and truth is to be found?

According to Arianna Huffington moving to the middle is for losers. Yet we have as evidence to the contrary the history of the progressive, liberal democratic candidates of the past 50 years or more. Not one of them has won a presidential election. See my Blog entry of April 22, 2008, Obama and the Liberal Designation.

Why does Arianna think that the times are different now? The democrats who did win were all of the center, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton. Obama knows this. Arianna doesn’t?

Realkommentary is one thing. Realstupidkommentary is quite another.

Terrorists in the Maghreb

One important consideration, probably among many, that the editors of the NYTimes overlook when they decide to publish stories/timelines etc. about say Al Qaeda and terrorism in the Maghreb, such as in this article taken from today’s edition, is the following: By doing so they are giving huge (because the Times is huge) media attention to a terrorist movement that perhaps in the total North African picture, let alone the total scheme of things, doesn’t merit that spotlight.

Readers learn little or nothing about North Africa, and the life for the millions who live there and whose lives are not touched by the few hundred terrorists, but instead they see the entire Maghreb as fertile breeding ground for Al Qaeda suicide bombers whose reach now extends to France and to all of Europe.

But then, isn’t that the nature of our media? We know little about our own country, and our own country’s strengths, in spite of what will be this week’s 4th of July celebrations, and we know much than we want to know about Britney Spears.

Now all this is not to say that terrible things are not happening in the Maghreb, and in particular in Algeria. We may probably expect to see more of the following:
Oie_deadbodies

Bodies lined up for identification in the village of Rais on August 29, 1997, after at least 98 people were killed in a predawn raid by hooded men.

What the candidates don’t talk about

Governments, all governments are enabled by power and wealth, and in that order, because from the very first the powerful individual by means of his excepional moral or physical strength took for himself whatever collective wealth there was and declared himself leader of his people.

The power of any government has always stemmed from the wealth it has acquired from its people, freely given or forcefully taken, by taxation or other means. Furthermore, governments without wealthy citizens whose wealth thy can tax or steal will struggle and eventually collapse.

Listening to the presidential candidates one wonders if they have not forgotten that the wealth they would spend in support of educational, health, job, housing and other programs can only come from an increase in tax revenues. And that increasing tax revenues can only come from an increase in the country’s gross national product, that is, from an increase in the production of goods and services.

Shouldn’t then the presidential candidates be most of all talking about how they will increase the country’s output of goods and services, because only by additional taxes on additional goods and services, bringing in additional tax revenues, will there be additional monies for the educational, health, job, housing and other programs that the people, large numbers of them, perhaps that one half of the population that doesn’t pay income taxes, want and need.

But they don’t, and we hear little or nothing from them about the nature of wealth promotion and creation. Our country’s wealth has since its beginnings come from two sources, its great natural resources and its creative, inventive, and entrepreneurial people. We are reaching the end of the first, whether it’s farmland, oil underground, mountains of minerals, or other such, and as a result we are more and more dependent on the second, on our people.

Wouldn’t you think that the government, and even more the presidential candidates, would all the time be talking about how best to create a climate in which smart, inventive, and energetic people, people of all ages, would be more apt to take that risk, carry out that idea, make the prototype of the next big thing?

Montaigne, On the Education of Children

We’re now in the fifth century since the time of Montaigne. Nearly 500 years separate us. But when we read him on the education of children we see that his insights are no less relevant and important today than when they were written.

Indeed, the truth of what he says stares us in the face. Yet there are those school people who go on acting as if Montaigne’s truths had never been said, or as if they had not read them.

What Montaigne said in his essay on the Education of Children ought to have been, and go on being, incorporated into everyone’s thinking about education. But this has not happened and we go on making the same, for too many children, fatal mistakes.

What are some of these truths, as fresh and important today as when they were written? Perhaps now they are even more fresh and important because of all we have learned in their support since Montaigne’s time.

Here are just four:

This first one directly addresses the public school classroom, still ubiquitous in our country, and still the subject of endless, and mostly failed reform efforts.

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.”

Montaigne clearly says that teaching for understanding is the only kind of teaching we should be doing. Now, some 500 years later, although the professed goal of our elite schools of education, there are very few schools where this kind of teaching takes place. Instead, test preparation is still what mostly goes on in our schools.

“Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later… So with the pieces borrowed from others the student will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment and understanding.”

(That is, he will if his education has been successful.)

Montaigne knew that interest and motivation, what he calls appetite and affection, are essential, that without them nothing important will happen to and with the student.

“There is nothing like arousing appetite and affection; otherwise all you make of your students are asses loaded with books.”

This last citation is not from Montaigne, but from Montaigne quoting Horace (Ars Poetica, 311), who says:

“Master the stuff, and words will freely follow.” Montaigne further explains, “When things have taken possession of the mind, words come thick and fast,” or “the things themselves carry the words along.”

Here we’re reminded that if our students are not equipped with substance, that is with ideas of their own that have sprung from their own efforts and experiences, they will have nothing to say, and if they do write they will write nothing of value. But when they are well equipped the writing will flow of its own.

It’s not enough to teach kids to write, whatever that means. Montaigne reminds us that they first of all need things to write about. And we don’t help them nearly enough with that.

New Wealth and the Candidates

Governments, from totalitarian to democratic, would be, should be in the business of solving some of the more obvious problems that all peoples face in their lives, such as threats from internal or foreign enemies, natural disasters, lack of educational and job opportunities, and inadequate transportation and energy systems and supplies.

Governments and government programs are expensive and governments create none of the huge amounts of wealth that their costly endeavors inevitably require. In fact governments have only three sources of wealth on which to draw. They may, and do more and more, tax their peoples, or at least those of their peoples who are wealthy enough to pay taxes, a diminishing number in the U.S. and Europe. They may sell their assets, such as a ore laden mountain or a postal service. And they may borrow money from the wealthy, from other nations as well as from individuals.

Now I've always found it strange that during an electoral campaign, such as the presidential campaign going on right now, the candidates talk incessantly about all they are going to do for the people, meaning new government expenditures. And they say little or nothing as to how their ideas and programs will be paid for. For example, I take the following from the candidates' own "issues" pages on the Web:

Barack Obama "will implement a 21st century economic agenda to help ensure that America can compete in a global economy, and ensure the middle class is thriving and growing. He will increase investments in infrastructure, energy independence, education, and research and development; modernize and simplify our tax code so it provides greater opportunity and relief to more Americans; and implement trade policies that benefit American workers and increase the export of American goods."

Hillary Clinton "will strengthen the Middle Class, provide affordable and accessible health care, begin an Apollo Project-like program dedicated to achieving energy independence, will be a passionate advocate for providing greater educational opportunities to all children, will ensure that all those who sacrifice on behalf of our country receive the help and care they need, will restore America's standing in the world to promote our interests, ensure our security, and advance our values."

John McCain "will promote excellence, choice, and competition in American education, support the Government of Iraq to become capable of governing itself and safeguarding its people, protect private health benefits for retirees, and allow our companies to effectively compete around the world, support a pro-growth, pro-jobs strategy to get our economy back on track, establish a market-based system to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mobilize innovative technologies, and strengthen the economy."
 
New programs need new money. Isn't this obvious? And isn't it just as obvious that governments are not a source of new money, or new wealth? (Well, that's not quite true. They can always print it.) Wouldn't you think that the very first responsibility of government would be to foster those activities and those individuals in the country that are most apt to create wealth?

In our country where does the new wealth come from? Not so much as in the past from newly discovered natural resources, nor from the growth of factory assembly lines. Both are by and large things of the past.

Now new wealth comes from such fields as architecture, advertising, art, crafts, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, research and development, software, toys and games, TV and video games. The people who work in these fields are adding to the country's wealth, and nowhere on the candidates' "issues" pages do we hear what the candidates are doing in their support.

Not that there is anything that the government should be doing. Rather, the candidates ought to be pledging not to interfere with wealth creation where it does occur, since they can't themselves do anything in respect to its creation. At the very least their "issues" pages ought to directly refer to their own dependence, for the enactment of their programs and the realizations of their promises, on the entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors and other such among us.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité