Monday, July 5, 2010

The Declaration of Independence - An Enlightenment Manifesto

Permit me to say a few words about our national birthday and the document it celebrates.

The Fourth of July is a day for picnics, fireworks, parades, and all kinds of activities celebrating our Nation’s birth. It should also be a time for reflection on the founding principles. The source of those principles is most immediately found in the Enlightenment. This was a cultural, intellectual, and, later, political movement of the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that historians regard as the culmination of a sea-change of thought about the relations of human beings with the universe that began with the Reformation and its precursors. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the use of reason as the basis of knowledge and understanding and the primary method of discovering moral and physical truths. Their use of reason led to the idea of the essential sovereignty of the individual person, and the rights of man (in the generic sense) to life, liberty, and estate, or property. The Enlightenment is associated with such thinkers as Isaac Newton, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and others in Europe, and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine in America. The United States of America is the only nation founded on the basis of common ideas, rather than accidents of geography, of kinship or tribe, or conquest. Some historians have described our primary founding document as an Enlightenment Manifesto. Leonard Peikoff in his book The Ominous Parallels described America as the “Nation of the Enlightenment.” I have spent some time parsing the Declaration of Independence to show why this is so. Please read on.

When in the Course of Human Events...

The first seven words of the Declaration of Independence are themselves revolutionary. Before Thomas Jefferson (with help from Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and others) penned this document, all important legal documents began with the paean to God, or the monarch. The Magna Carta, the Mayflower compact (which some call the first American Constitution) are some examples. There are countless others. This Declaration recognized human, not supernatural, not authoritarian, events which drive this change. This is not to say that it rejects a deity, or even Christianity. It emphasizes that this is the act of human beings, and it is done in the name of a group of people freely associating.

... it becomes necessary...

The word “necessary” in the Enlightenment sense means naturally caused; that is, inevitable because it is of nature. It is akin to a natural law like Isaac Newton described in his treatises on motion and gravity. The law of gravity requires – makes necessary – that an object falls to the ground. As the Declaration goes on to say, events have made American independence necessary.

... for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another...

Political connections are a human construct, not the divine right of kings. The King is not the state – L’etat ne c’est le Roi pas.

... and to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station...

The people of the colonies are “assuming by their own act a status that is independent sovereignty is equal to all the other nations on earth. This assumption is not a grant; it is not a sufferance of the colonial master. It is inherent by right, by the law of nature.

... to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,...

This is the core of Enlightenment thinking. God is revealed through nature, and the laws of nature are the laws of God. Jefferson may have been treading lightly here. He probably was a Deist, which many Enlightenment figures were, including Benjamin Franklin, and most notoriously Thomas Paine. He had to recognize the Judeo-Christian tradition because most of the colonial leaders, not to mention the ordinary colonists were at least nominally Christian. Deism as such, was not hostile to Christianity, or other forms of religion, but those faiths did not tolerate Deists.

... a decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind requires that they declare the causes which impelled them to the Separation.

The people seeking independence are telling the world why. They are justifying their actions to the rest of the world, not just their former British overlords. Reason is what gives actions legitimacy, according to Enlightenment principles. Reason is given to men by God, or nature, and they are expected to justify their actions by it. In order for the world to grant its approval and sanction, human actions must be reasonable.

The next paragraph of the Declaration is a treatise on government and gives the underlying philosophical basis and general justification for independence.

We hold these Truths to be self evident...

The introductory phrase is an epistemological statement that breaks from the long-standing Aristotelian Scholasticism’s presumed authority of the past. The Enlightenment held that the empirical observation, and reasoning from those verifiable observations, is the basis of knowledge. The intellectual tradition of the Western world – indeed, the entire world – had been that the received wisdom from the past should not be deviated from and should form all premises on which knowledge was based. The primary Western authorities, of course were the Scriptures and the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Beginning with Francis Bacon, the early modern thinkers gradually broke with this method, at least insofar as it attempted to explain the workings of the physical universe. The Enlightenment scholars, and other humanists, did not necessarily reject religious Christianity to provide moral guidance and inform men as to the relation with God in eternity, but believed that God manifested truths about the physical universe in nature.

... that all Men are created equal...

The notion of equality of human beings in the Enlightenment did not mean that everyone was the same; that is, equal in physical, intellectual, and moral character. Neither did it mean that they should be leveled to the same economic status. The operative word here is “created.” Its use in this context means that no one is given any special status in relation to others merely by the accident of birth. The Aristotelian description of the universe included the Great Chain of Being. This construct held that there is a order from God in heaven down to the inanimate rocks in which every species of being has a place. In the human order, the King and his nobles have their places at the top, and the peasants and serfs have theirs at the bottom, with different levels of status or importance in between. The Chain of Being was not a ladder, and one’s place was immutable. It was a crime or a sin to attempt to rise above or sink below the status to which one was born to. The Seventeenth Century doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was a logical deduction from the concept of a Chain of Being. The King was God’s lieutenant on earth. The Enlightenment broke with that concept, and declared that there was no inherent aristocracy based merely on the accident of birth. The turmoil of the English Civil War, the Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution broke the chain in England by the end of the Seventeenth Century. It would persist in France until that country’s Revolution, a hundred years later. That was not long after the American colonies won their independence, with a little help from their friend – France, ironically, while still under the ancien regime.

... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,...

The quality of being human means that there are rights which are given by God, the Creator of nature and the universe, which cannot be abrogated by the whim of human authority. Those rights may be forfeited, but only by conduct of the individual as rationally determined in the due process and course of valid law.

... that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness –...

This enumeration of rights is declared to be, by the use of the word “among,” not exclusive, but these are the basis of, and imply, others. It comes directly from John Locke’s formulation that when human beings are in a state of nature, these are their individual rights. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government termed these rights as protection of “life, liberty, and estate” – estate being interchangeable with the concept of property. Jefferson changed “estate” or “property” to the “pursuit of happiness,” which included the right to possess and enjoy property, but was broader in scope. The proposition that the pursuit of happiness was a fundamental right was revolutionary in itself. From almost time immemorial, and certainly in the Christian tradition at least until the Reformation, life on earth was not supposed to be happy. Life was an arduous journey through a vale of tears on the way to an afterlife of happiness, or punishment, depending on how one conducted oneself in this world. Rather than pursuing happiness here on earth, it was self-denial and mortification that were virtues, not enjoyment or seeking betterment of living standards and conditions. This, of course, was a doctrine which kept the Great Chain of Being intact, as well as the hoi polloi in line. Individual liberty was nonexistent, because the individual person was subject to the collective, that is, the King or state. One’s life as well belonged to the same sovereign.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...

Legitimate governments are created by the consent of the people, not imposed from the top down. The people, who in a state of nature are unable to adequately protect their lives, their liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, including the protection of their private property, form a government for this purpose. In order to accomplish these ends, certain aspects of the fundamental rights are limited, and ceded to a constituted authority by consent, whose primary – and only legitimate – function is to secure the essence of those rights.

... That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

A government can become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the use of the word “whenever” seems to imply that it is inevitable that at some point the government will become destructive of such. It is part and parcel of these unalienable rights for the people to alter or abolish it, and create a new government. A new government, however, must be instituted on the core principles stated.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.

When government has existed for a long time, some deference must be given to it for that quality alone. Stability and just expectations are aspects of the unalienable rights, which themselves must be respected. This passage recognizes that the governments will not be perfect, and there may be better ways of accomplishing the protection of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness at various times, and under different conditions. Just because a government may act in an imperfect manner temporarily is no reason to take the drastic step of abolishing it. The phrase that “mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable” echoes William Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that we “rather bear the ills we have than fly to those we know not of.”

But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

This sentence states the conditions necessary to overcome the presumption that governments long established should not be changed. When they are fulfilled, revolution becomes a right – and duty.

Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

Thus begins the justification for Revolution and nature of the grievances against British rule. It is followed by a bill of particulars containing twenty-seven specific grievances committed by the Crown, personified by King George III. If one studies the Constitution later drafted and ratified, it is possible to find a provision there which addresses nearly every one of the complaints found in this bill of particulars.

In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

After the bill of particulars, the Declaration provides additional justification for independence by asserting that the people of the American colonies have brought their grievances to the attention of the King, and his ministers, to no avail, and only to receive further injury.

Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

This penultimate paragraph reminds the people of Great Britain that the American colonists have notified them of the grievances, and they have nevertheless done nothing to prevail upon Parliament and the King’s ministers to change policies and redress the grievances. It concludes by defining the relations going forward that the Americans will have with the British: that is, a separate and equal station, along with all other nations of the Earth, and not as sworn enemies.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of Our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce and do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor.

The use of the lower case “united” indicates that each of the new entities are separate States, though united in purpose. Unification will come later, and remain tenuous, in many ways, even unto this day. The Declarations appeals to God as a witness, but is done in the name of the “good People of the Colonies” who are to be the sovereign. Divine Providence will protect them. The signers pledged their “sacred honor,” the most precious possession to an Enlightenment man. As for their lives and fortunes, they were aware they were committing treason against the British Crown, which was subject to the severest of penalties.

It was over seven long years of war and privation before the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Treaty of Paris in which Great Britain gave up all claim to sovereignty over its former colonies, but these words written and approved by the patriots in Philadelphia two hundred and twenty four years ago finally became a reality. It remains so to this day, perhaps imperfect, but there is nothing better. Indeed, there is nothing like it in the world.

The writings of Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the editor of Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, gave me the idea for this essay. He teaches 17th & 18th Century intellectual history. Professor Kors is one of the founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog for freedom of expression on American college campuses. I am a member of their legal network.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

General Presidents or Presidential Generals

Last week’s semi-sensational news concerning General Stanley McChrystal’s firing as U.S. commander in Afghanistan spurred quite a bit of comment in the traditional media as well as the blogosphere. One of most salient, and totally inapposite, is the comparison of President Obama action with Harry Truman’s relief of General Douglas MacArthur for publically criticizing U. S. policy on the conduct of the Korean War. The two events are not at all similar beyond both concerning high ranking officers showing disrespect for the traditional civilian control of the United State military establishment.

I say “traditional” because that is what civilian control is. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the President from being a member of the military establishment. The President, Constitutionally commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a fact known by most Americans, is inherently the military. In fact, two serving Presidents have actually put on the uniform and led troops in the field: George Washington in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion, and James Madison briefly in the War of 1812. All Presidents, however, have emphasized the civilian character of the office. An active duty officer would have to resign or retire nowadays to campaign for office. Two generals ran for President while actually on active duty: Winfield Scott, with his victorious leadership in the Mexican-American War still fresh in the public mind in 1852; and George McClellan opposing Lincoln in 1864, at the height of the Civil War, no less.

A number of comments across the Internet asked whether one of the political (as opposed to Constitutional) qualifications for President should be military experience. Some went so far to say that a President should have experience as a general officer. That sentiment is not new. It is a truism that one should have experience in any activity before endeavoring to become the boss. The Roman Empire, the most successful in history, was essentially a military dictatorship, after the Ides of March in 44, anyway. The contrary opinion is not unknown. Having cut my academic teeth in the mid-1960s, I remember the anti-military sentiment on campuses, brought about primarily by student anxiety over the prospect of being drafted. I recall a fellow student, a history and political science major whom I respected for his intellectual and leadership abilities, proclaim that “we haven’t had a good general President yet.” That sentiment struck me as odd at the time, because the first such President who came to mind was Washington, considered by most academics to be the best President of all. Washington led troops in two wars, and was the general who finally defeated the British to win independence.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look at all Presidents and see if there is a correlation between an effective Presidency and military experience – particularly at the general officer level – or lack thereof.

Although I have a rudimentary knowledge of statistics and statistical method, I in no way consider myself a statistician. Thus, I leave for others to decide the validity of my conclusions and invite them to make their own. I present some historical facts, and opinions of those who have studied them extensively for consideration. For the prior military experience of Presidents, I rely on my general knowledge of American History, which I teach as a member of the adjunct faculty for the Dallas County Community College District. Where in doubt, I have consulted published biographies of the Presidents, or excerpts of those works. My research is not exhaustive.

Rating the Presidents is a trickier endeavor. It is almost necessarily colored by the rater’s ideological or partisan bias. In a effort to eliminate such bias as much as humanly possible, I chose a composite of ratings by scholars reported in a 2000 study sponsored by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy and the Wall Street Journal. This survey queried 78 academics in history, policy, and law who cut across ideological lines. The ensuing Report was authored by James Lindgreen, Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and contained a ranking based on the ratings of 30 historians, 25 political scientists, and 23 law professors.

I created tables for three categories of Presidents: (1) those who had prior military experience as general officers, (2) those who had prior military experience. below the rank of general, and (3) those with no military experience. I also made note of actual combat experience, branch, and character of the service. For those who had no military experience, I noted their prior public office(s) each held in Congress, the Cabinet, federal judiciary, and state governorships.
Each category was separately listed with the members in chronological order in which they held office. The ratings were numerical ranking by mean score and by groupings of great, near great, above average, average, below average, and failure. These tables are set out as appendices.

In examining the extremes, one finds that there has been one “great” President in each category: Washington the general, Lincoln the Illinois militia captain who served in the Black Hawk War, and F. D. Roosevelt, who had no experience. Two failures are found among the prior generals. Andrew Johnson was a political appointment to military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War and saw no combat. Franklin Pierce, on the other had, saw significant combat and acquitted himself well in the Mexican American War as a brigadier general of volunteers. Among other rated failures James Buchanan served in the militia during the War of 1812. Warren Harding had no military experience.

Among the “near greats” are generals Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom had significant accomplishments as combat commanders and leaders. As junior officers, near great Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman distinguished themselves in combat during the Spanish-American War and World War I respectively. Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan never participated in combat theaters.

No generals ranked in the Presidential above average category, but five junior officers did, as well as two with no military background. Two generals were average and three below average. One junior officer was average; five were below average. Among those Presidents with no military experience, four were average, and one was below average.

All this seems to show that there does not seem to be any correlation between prior military experience, of lack thereof, that is necessarily determinative of success as President. There are numerous other variables that have not been considered, such as the times and foreign and domestic conditions. Former generals may also be over represented in the Presidential pantheon, in that each President between Lincoln and McKinley, save one, was a Union Army general in the Civil War. The first of these, Andrew Johnson, so weakened the Presidency by his inept performance (which led to impeachment, but not conviction) so weakened the office that another war, and a hero of that war, Teddy Roosevelt was necessary to restore its prestige.

Prior military experience is perhaps a plus for a President, but not a necessity. Each man (don’t fret, there will be a woman some day) elected to that office inherits a well trained and experienced military establishment. His main job is to appoint those who can effectively lead, manage, and provide competent advice to the top positions, be they civilian officials or generals When I was in the locksmith and alarm business, a competitor once told me that he didn’t have to be real smart to succeed in business (he pronounced it “bidness” – a real homeboy); he only needed to be smart enough to hire other smart people. This competitor seemed successful at the time, and I understand he remained so. That quality may be what really determines Presidential success.

As far as the three great Presidents, it is doubtful they would have attained that status had they each not had a crisis to keep from going to waste. But greatness seems to exact a price; none of those three men long survived their Presidency and the success that made them great.

Table I

Presidents Who Were General Officers Prior to Term of Office
President Rating Combat Experience/ Branch of Service and Notes
George Washington 1 (Great) Significant Virginia Militia, Continental Army, US Army; French and Indian War & commander in chief Revolutionary War
Ulysses S. Grant 32 (Below Average) Significant US Army; Mexican War & Civil War commander of Union forces
Andrew Jackson 6 (Near Great) Revolution Creek War, War of 1812, 1st Seminole War Tennessee Militia, United States Army
William H. Harrison NR Notorious, if not significant US Army
Zachary Taylor 31 (Below Average) Significant US Army; War of 1812, Black Hawk War, 2nd Seminole War, Mexican War.
Franklin Pierce 37 (Failure) Some New Hampshire Militia; Mexican War
Andrew Johnson 36 (Failure) None US Army
Rutherford B. Hayes 22 (Average) Not significant US Army Volunteers; Civil War
James A. Garfield NR Minimal US Army Volunteers; Civil War
Chester A. Arthur 26 (Average) None New York Militia, US Army; non combatant in Civil War
Benjamin Harrison 27 (Below Average) Minimal Indiana Militia, US Army
Dwight Eisenhower 9 (Near Great) Significant US Army; WWII supreme commander allied forces in Europe

Table II

Presidents with Military Service below General Officer Rank
President Rating Combat Experience/ Branch of Service and Notes
Thomas Jefferson 4 (Near Great) None Colonel, Virginia Militia
James Madison 15 (Above Average) None Colonel, Virginia Militia
James Monroe 16 (Above Average) Some Major, Continental Army; Revolutionary War
John Tyler 34 (Below Average) Some Captain, US Army; War of 1812
James K. Polk 10 (Near Great) None Colonel, Tennessee Militia
Millard Fillmore 35 (Below Average) None Major, New York State Militia.
James Buchanan 39 (Failure) None Pennsylvania Militia; War of 1812
Abraham Lincoln 2 (Great) Some Captain, Illinois Militia; Black Hawk War
William McKinley 14 (Above Average Some Brevet Major, US Army; Civil War
Theodore Roosevelt 5 (Near Great) Significant Colonel; US Army (Volunteers); Spanish American War
Harry S Truman 7 (Near Great) Significant Captain, US Army; WW I
John F. Kennedy 18 (Above Average) Significant Lieutenant, US Navy; WW II
Lyndon B. Johnson 17 (Above Average) Some (maybe) Commander, US Navy; WW II
Richard M. Nixon 33 (Below Average) None LtCommander, US Navy, WW II
Gerald Ford 28 (Below Average) Significant LtCommander, US Navy, WW II
Jimmy Carter 30 (Below Average) None Lieutenant, US Navy, Korean War
Ronald Reagan 8 (Near Great) None Captain, US Army; WW II
George H. W. Bush 21 (Average) Significant Lieutenant, US Army; WW II
George W. Bush NR None Lieutenant, Texas Air NG

Table III

Presidents Who Had No Prior Military Service
President Rating Prior Public Office Notes
John Adams 13 (Above Average) Vice-President Participated in naval battle when a passenger on a warship
John Quincy Adams 20 (Average) Ambassador; Secretary of State
Martin Van Buren 23 (Average) Vice-President, Secretary of State, Governor
Grover Cleveland 12 (Above Average) Governor Paid a substitute to avoid draft during Civil War
William H. Taft 19 (Average) Secretary of War; Federal Judge
Woodrow Wilson 11 (Near Great) Governor
Warren G. Harding 37 (Failure) Senator
Calvin Coolidge 25 (Average) Governor/ Vice-President
Herbert Hoover 29 (Below Average) Secretary of Commerce
F. D. Roosevelt 3 (Great) Governor
Bill Clinton NR Governor
Barack Obama NR Senator

Table IV


General/Presidents: 12
Great 1
Near Great 2
Above Average 0
Average 2
Below Average 3
Failure 2
NR 2
Presidents with military experience: 18
Great 1
Near Great 4
Above Average 5
Average 1
Below Average 5
Failure 1
NR 1

Presidents w/o military experience: 12
Great 1
Near Great 1
Above Average 2
Average 4
Below Average 1
Failure 1
NR 2


Monday, May 17, 2010

I was reminded of this exchange in one of my favorite TV series:

MORSE: You should really persevere with Wagner, Lewis. It’s about important
things – life and death – regret.
LEWIS: Cheer up, sir. It’s a lovely
evening. Look at that sunset.
Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day

Anyone who is interested in cross-cultural experiences really should try the opera. I mean, where else can you experience a Romanian woman, dressed up as a Japanese geisha, singing in Italian about her unfaithful American sailor lover. That of course is the gist of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, a perennial favorite among opera goers, and thus, one of the most performed. It was the final production of the Dallas Opera’s first season in its brand new Winspear Opera House. An apt choice.

Admittedly, the length of Richard Wagner’s compositions require perseverance, or at least adequately cushioned seats, but Wagner he could paint a scene with music as vividly as any painter with paint. Puccini, on the other hand, had the rare ability to compose an aria that could bring tears to the eye of a marble statue. Not being able to understand the Italian words does not detract in the slightest from understanding the theme. It still is a beautiful day, as it goes. And Puccini’s compositions tend to be opera boiled down to its essence – love and death, and as Morse observed, life and regret.

I credit my wife Martha, for stimulating my interest in the opera genre. I’ve always had a love for all kinds of music, especially classical, but traditional opera, except for some of the orchestral overtures and a few arias, never really flipped my switch. Until fairly recently, that is. I appreciate contemporary popular music, though a lot of it leaves me cold. The adaptation of popular pieces to the symphonic style has always interested me. The Symphonic Rolling Stones is a CD worth listening to, and, of course, there is the Moody Blues and their semi-orchestral rock music. I confess considerable disappointment that the “rock opera” genre of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s never really took off. The Who’s, Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and precious few others of that time seemed to be harbingers of some great things to come. Alas, this has not yet occurred. I guess there is still some pretension among so-called serious musicians. Too bad, because the great musicians of the past worked out of what was popular, or “folk” in the days of yore.

That is not to say new operas in traditional – “serious” – form have been lacking. There have been some contemporary compositions such as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and now, his newest work, Moby Dick is really, really good. Moby Dick’s world premiere was at the Winspear only two weeks ago, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants who wants to see a stunning audio and visual performance, traditional opera fan or not. This is where high tech set design and visuals meet traditional opera.

Last Saturday, in between attendance at the performances of Moby Dick and Madame Butterfly, we had an opportunity to attend a lecture by the Dallas Opera’s music director, British born Graeme Jenkins. One of the things that Jenkins emphasized was the necessity of an opera conductor to understand the background history of the opera stories in order to play the music as expressively as possible. He is quite correct of course, but he got a little carried away when he was describing the juxtaposition of and conflict between early 20th Century American and Japanese cultures in Madame Butterfly. He seemed to see some sort of connection between Pinkerton’s abandonment of Cio Cio San and the attack on Pearl Harbor 35 or so years after the story time. I appreciate attempts to show historical parallels, but this was rather a stretch. Nevertheless, there is a value in looking at cultural juxtapositions, and for that opera is particularly useful.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Butterfly storyline, a United States Navy lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is stationed with the U. S. Consulate in Nagasaki in 1904. For the duration of his tour of duty there he sets up housekeeping by renting a house which comes complete with a geisha, Cio Cio San, known as Madame Butterfly. She is a member of an impoverished noble family, whose pride, if not their wealth, is in abundance. Butterfly falls in love with the American and forsakes her family and religion to marry him. Pinkerton, however, regards the marriage ceremony a mere formality to humor the local culture, and regards her only as his squeeze in this particular port. After he leaves to go on another tour, Butterfly pines for him, longing for the day that he will return, as she expresses in the famous and stunningly beautiful Un bel di, vedremo. Pinkerton does return after about three years, but this time he is accompanied by his American wife. During his absence however Cio Cio San has given birth to Pinkerton’s son. Faced with losing both her child and her lover, and because she cannot live with honor, Butterfly falls on a ceremonial dagger and dies.

There nothing new about this storyline. Unrequited love and jilted lovers are themes of art and literature from the Greek tragedies up to daytime television. That is so because most of us can identify with the experience of having been a jiltor and jiltee at one time or another. The sailor having a girl in every port has been an adolescent male fantasy for at least two millennia, and a family disgraced by a daughter enamored with a non-PLU once launched a thousand ships. What Puccini brought to the story was his fantastically expressive music. I am neither expert nor pretentious enough to be a music critic, but in my lay commoner’s view, this year’s Dallas Opera production of Butterfly was one of the best. The set, the visuals, the vocalists and the orchestra under Jenkins’ leadership did a competent job.

As for the cross-cultural enlightenment, it was minimal, except possibly that had Cio-Cio San been a present-day American woman, it would’ve been Pinkerton who bit the dagger. Would that prospect enlighten a few Pinkertons? Perhaps not, there will always be those who allow organs other than their brain think for them. But here we will have only until October to wait for a philanderer’s comeuppance. Don Giovanni opens here then. Actually, it is not necessary to wait that long. The Fort Worth Opera is staging Mozart’s popular playboy later this month, if you like. Either way, take it from me, the Don will turn all but the most confirmed operaphobes into fans.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Majority Rule? Not So Fast

Much is being made in certain circles of the failure to obtain bipartisan support for a health care bill that would dramatically affect over one-sixth of the U.S. economy (17.4 percent, according to a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Report released February 4, 2010). Republicans are behaving more like Texas high school football fans than statesmen, it is being said, fanatically adhering to party-line talking points in the face of a President earnestly seeking common ground. The Republican minority in Congress is being “obstructionist,” it is said.

Well, folks, Congress is supposed to be obstructionist.

Most of the citizens of the world would agree that the U.S. Founding Fathers pretty much got it right. For more than two centuries we have been the envy of the world and preferred destination of emigrants. Many of the qualities that invite such admiration and covetousness were established in our founding documents and the institutions they created. The primary job of those institutions is to not screw up what was right to begin with.

Each branch of the federal government—Executive, Judicial, Legislative—was designed to be fairly conservative and yes, when it matters, obstructionist. Flaring tempers and public passion, from Tea Party or Me Party, are not supposed to rule the day. That’s why, when the stakes are high, fifty-one percent is not enough.

I teach American history at El Centro College in Dallas County. In one of my recent classes we were discussing the framing of the United States Constitution. I thought it would be instructive for my students to debate how much support a particular bill should have in order to become law, so I set up an example in which I asked each student to imagine that he or she was one of 100 homeowners along an unpaved street, each a member of a homeowners association with the responsibility for maintaining and improving the neighborhood.

In my scenario several homeowners had proposed that the street be paved, with expenses to be borne equally by each homeowner. My question to them was: how many of the 100 homeowners must be in favor of and vote for the project before all 100 should be obligated to pay for it?

At first, a few students believed 51% majority should prevail.

Then some pointed out that meant one person, the fifty-first, might decide that 49 would have to pay for something they neither wanted nor could afford. Others pointed out that in any event all of the owners would benefit and there were many good reasons for doing it.

Ultimately the class formed a consensus that there should be a vote of somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters in favor.
Another consensus developed that the scope and cost of the project should have a bearing on the required size of the vote in favor: the more impact or cost, the greater percentage required. Fifty-one percent could decide to trim tree branches, for example, but three-quarters would be needed to cut down the trees and haul them away.

So it is with enacting laws at the national level. The framers of the Constitution debated a number of options to prevent a tyranny of the majority, which they believed was just as bad as a tyranny of a monarchy or oligarchy. They didn’t settle on a requirement of super majority, but instead set up a system where there were a sufficient number of “veto points” that would prevent the enactment of a momentarily popular or trendy measure that would be too expensive or too disruptive. They realized that such measures required considerable reflection before implementing, and should not be done hurriedly.

The Founders created a separation of powers scheme in which a central government would have a limited role, state and local governments would be diffuse, and the legislative process itself would be cumbersome: a measure would have to pass through two legislative houses and be approved by the executive, then, possibly, tested by the judiciary.

The Senate in particular was designed to be conservative and deliberative, from the staggered six-year term of Senators to the procedural rules of debate and voting. That meant some very good reasons and reflective consideration would be necessary before enacting measures that would be as far-reaching as, say a systematic reform of a national healthcare system. The United States Senate is a hoop to jump through, a hurdle, a minefield, or whatever metaphor you wish to employ. It is supposed to be so; it was designed to be so.

There are estimates that 14% of Americans are at one time or another without medical insurance. That means that 86% have it. But lack of insurance does not mean lack of medical care, at least in the United States.

In most metropolitan areas there are public hospitals that provide care for indigent persons and those that lack the means to pay full cost. True, they often must seek that care through emergency rooms, but they nevertheless are able to obtain it. Is emergency room care in really more expensive? Maybe, maybe not. I have it on good authority that hospitals often inappropriately charge costs to emergency room accounts as a ploy to obtain funding that ordinarily would be difficult to obtain. Such adaptive accounting exaggerates the true cost of the ER.

And one can always pay cash for medical services, sometimes receiving deep discounts from physicians grateful for not having to deal with inaurance companies.

It is also true patients often spend long times waiting in public clinics that provide free or reduced-rate services. That’s part of the price of “free” medical care.

In a debate which has lasted almost a year it has become obvious that, while perhaps fifty-one percent of Congress wants the current bill, many, many Americans do not, primarily those who will pay more for it and receive less under it. The lack of a super majority in the Senate seems to be a major roadblock, and that is good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Change We REALLY Can Believe In

Dear Friends and Free Market Agnostics:

Metaphorically speaking, there is no more painful stick in the eye than your opponent legitimately using your own mantra against you. Yes, we can!

Been too busy to write thoughtfully about Senator Scott Brown and what his election means, except that perhaps that Commonwealth is not the Soviet Socialist Republic of Massachusetts after all.

My Republican, conservative, libertarian, blue-dog friends (and those terms are not all mutually exclusive) — I caution all to beware of hubris. And, to use another metaphor apropos to what our current Congressional comrades and President seem to have done, don’t overplay your hand.

Scott Brown appears to be change we can believe in.

There are numerous professional pundits commenting on this today, and doubtless there will be tomorrow. I will leave further comment to them for now.

See also:

Monday, January 11, 2010

New Year Musings

Back from the Christmas and New Year holidays. Other than Martha’s and my annual New Year ritual of watching the dawn break and sun rise over White Rock Lake and then having breakfast at John’s CafĂ© on Greenville Avenue, they were not much for me, as I had an appellate brief due on 12/31 and a jury trial beginning on 1/5 which lasted through 1/8. The jury had to answer several fact questions, which they did in a manner favorable to my client, I think. Still some close legal questions, and it could go either way. Main question was whether a series of e-mails could comply with the rule that a real estate commission contract must be in writing signed by the person to be charged. E-mail is the work of yet another infernal serpent, but I believe it does comply. In view of the jury findings, I hope the judge agrees with me.

It appears that a majority of Americans do not want the meddling Congress is on the verge of passing. I have to confess some mixed feelings about that, considering the current versions of the bill all but guarantee full employment for lawyers. “O ye lawyers who live on litigants fees, and need a great many to live at your ease. . . “ (From Lord Neaves’ poem about the Jolly Testator Who Writes his Own Will). Anyway, a tidbit from the NCPA observes a number of facts about U. S. medical care that might be driving the polls:

● U.S. is No. 1 of 191 countries for “responsiveness to the needs and choices of the individual patient” (my emphasis) on the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) comparative ranking system.

● Eight of the 10 top selling drugs in the world were developed by U.S. companies (“Big Pharma” to the pecksniffs).

● The U. S. has the shortest waiting time for non-emergency surgery in the world. Britain’s NHS has one of the longest, except, of course, for the Queen, the City Mughals, the likes of the Duke of Earl, and the Earl of Duke, and Sir Mick Jagger (hey, I don’t begrudge him; I’ve been a Stones fan from the beginning).

There’s more. See Mark B. Constantian at