Myth and the Founding of America

Flag - Betsy Ross Picture 1776 002C.S. Lewis once wrote “Reason is the natural organ of truth but imagination is the organ of understanding.” Although I have no proof of this, I like to think that Lewis was building from something that one of his heroes, G.K. Chesterton had written in his book, Twelve Types. In one of the miniature biographies, Chesterton retold the biblical story of Nehemiah, the king of Judea who rebuilt Jerusalem. The Bible said that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls with a sword in one hand a trowel in the other. Chesterton used this imagery to talk about truth and the imagination. To Chesterton, truth was the sword; it was very useful in cutting down an opponent but it was not the best tool for building anything. The trowel, on the other hand, was the tool needed for building and it was the trowel that represented the imagination.

 
What Lewis and Chesterton were both saying was that imagination is necessary for someone to understand a truth. How many times have you remembered a story or a movie longer and in greater detail than a rather dry book? That is one reason why some of the greatest historians were story-tellers; they not only knew history, not only analyzed history but were able to see the story that the people and their actions wove. That was why Rudyard Kipling said that if history was taught as stories, there would be no need for historians since everyone would learn it and remember it.
This is not to say that truth is unimportant. The imagination, in fact, must be kept in check by the truth and its natural organ, reason, or else it will run wild, dragging us behind with it with less than stellar results. Reason and Imagination, instead, have to work together. Reason is like the miner who digs and finds the nuggets of the Truth. Reason, then, gives those nuggets of Truths to the Imagination who is like a craftsman. Like any good craftsman, Imagination takes the raw material and does not change its substance—what it is—but only changes its outward appearance, like a goldsmith takes raw gold and makes a ring or a jeweler takes a diamond and turns it into a girl’s best friend.

 
The problem today is that while Reason and the Imagination are both given short shrift today, of the two of them, Imagination is the more neglected. How many times have we heard that we need to reintroduce reason back into our public discourses, that we need to use our reason to follow the facts, regardless of where they lead us and how we personally feel about the destination? I’ve said the same thing—or a variation of it—myself. But without the Imagination the Truth is cold and impersonal. People, usually, will not treasure or cherish a mathematical equation, regardless of how true it is.

 
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why our understanding and love of America and the Revolution and American history in general have decreased. Granted, American history has other problems as well. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2015, revealed in their annual report card that only 12% of American high school students, could be considered “proficient” in American history. Part of the reason is that schools no longer teach the basics of American history. Karol Markowicz, a writer at the New York Post, in 2017, told her readers that her daughter—who, at the time was a first grader, in one of New York City’s best public schools, had never heard of George Washington outside of the lyrics to Hamilton. Part of the reason for this ignorance, Markowicz said, was that state tests emphasize English and Math. School districts are granted money based on how well students do one these tests. If a certain topic is not covered in the tests that decide the amount of money a particular district will receive, the school will not spend time in teaching it. Another reason Markowicz mentioned is that teachers feel that they are treading on thin ice when teaching history, particularly in a society where certain segments demand the removal of statues of Jefferson and Washington because they are no longer “appropriate.” When Huckleberry Finn requires trigger warnings before students read it, it’s perfectly logical for teachers to be nervous.
But another reason, I believe, is that history has become too analytical. Michael Conway, in The Atlantic, argued in 2015 that history taught in school should be analytical above all else, partially because it should be taught through historiography so that not one single version of history would be made the dominant one (history being, in part, a never ending argument). And he is right, to a point. But if the analytical—reason—is emphasized too much, then the Imagination will be left to die and some truths may be left out of the telling.

 
Take the example of the George Washington and the cherry tree. It is fairly certain that there was never a cherry tree that George Washington cut down as a boy; it does not make much sense that a boy Washington would even be given an ax as a president seeing as his family owned a plantation. The story first appeared in Mason Locke “Parson” Weems’s biography of Washington, the first biography of Washington which was written immediately after the latter’s death. Tellingly, the story about the cherry tree was not in the book until the fifth edition, published in 1806. From there, it spread as a children’s story when Presbyterian minister and professor, William McGuffy, included it in his McGuffy Reader, a reading textbook for children in 1836.
Obviously, the story about the cherry tree is what we would today call a myth; it never happened and what was learned by school children in the 19th century is now entirely ignored by teachers and students of the 21st century—unless it is to talk about Weems and his hagiography. And, in a sense, it makes sense to do that; history is about facts, after all. But the story was never meant to be a fact. Instead, Weems and McGuffy meant the story to illustrate Washington’s private virtue. That Washington was a man of honesty, integrity, and strength is an historical fact; the story of the cherry tree was meant to illustrate that fact, to take those virtues and to incarnate them so that people would be able to imitate an action, rather than memorize a recollection written in a diary or a letter.

 
Other myths of the Founding are the same: the midnight ride of Raul Revere, Molly Pitcher, Betsy Ross, the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. None of these things actually happened, at least, not as they do in the popular imagination; these people didn’t exist, at least, not in the way they are usually portrayed. But they served a purpose. They gave us, as Americans, a story, a narrative that allowed us to see our past, to understand from whom we came. And, like Weems and McGuffy understood, they also served as examples of personal imitation. As I wrote in my last post, the Founders understood that a republican society could only exist if the people themselves were virtuous. The question became then: How could the people become and remain virtuous? One answer was by holding up men and women as role models, just as we do today. Washington’s honesty and Molly Pitcher’s courage and patriotism were then held up as lights to children, the next generation, to whom it fell to continue and preserve the American experiment.
Rather than banishing the stories and the Imagination, history should embrace it. Ironically, it might be that only by allowing the imaginative to exist side by side with the analytical, that history will become alive again. And if it becomes alive again, people will take notice again of it and will fall in love with it again.

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The True Romans

 

Cicero indicts Cataline
Roman senator, philosopher, and patriot, Cicero, indicts Cataline before the Roman Senate. 

 

America’s 242nd birthday has come and gone. As part of the celebrations yesterday, I thumbed through David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, John Adams. I have read the book at least four times from cover to cover since I first received it seventeen years ago and it has never gotten old. Although the musical, 1776, started my admiration of Adams, one of our least remembered and appreciated Founders (sandwiched as he is between the two titans of Virginia, General Washington and Thomas Jefferson) it was McCullough’s book which really brought the man and his times to life.

As I was looking through the book again, I came across several quotes from Adams and from others concerning Adams, McCullough, thankfully, being a firm believer in primary documents. Two of the quotes from Adams which I found were his toast for Independence Day of 1826; though too ill to attend the celebrations in Boston or Braintree, Adams gave a delegation to his home, Montizillo, a toast at their request, “Independence forever!” When asked if he wished to add anything else, Adams replied, “Not a word.” On the Fourth itself, Adams, on his deathbed, said that it was a great day, “a good day” (emphasis his).

The other quote which caught my eye was made several years earlier than the other two, when he was a delegate from the Congress to France. There, one of the noblewoman described Adams as a “true Roman.”

For some reason, these three quotes connected themselves in my mind, even though chronologically, intentionally and logically there was no connection intended, either by McCullough nor by Adams himself.

When that noblewoman—whose name I have forgotten yet again—called Adams an true Roman, she was saying something significant about Adams and his character. The Eighteenth Century, like the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, loved Rome and the Roman Republic, not only because it was recognized as being the wellspring of civilization and the society that had given birth, as it were, to Europe, but also because of the example which Rome offered as well. The Roman Republic was literally the first republic which the world had seen and the ancient Romans recognized that a republican government, which depended upon the people, ultimately, for its power and survival, needed its people to be to rule themselves. If they could not rule themselves and control their emotions, their desires, and their vices, then they would not be able to rule themselves in the government. And if the Romans could not rule themselves, it brought up the unpleasant question: Who would rule them? The only other answer was a ruler, a king of some sort, as was the norm in the rest of the world. And since the Romans hated kings with a fury, due to the tyranny of the last Roman king, Tarquinius, having another king or ruler who was king in all but name, was abhorrent to them. As such, a system whereby they, the Roman people would rule themselves was created and maintained.

To maintain this unique system, however, the Romans understood that virtue was needed in spades. As such, it was heavily emphasized in Roman society. Men were to be frugal, honest, industrious, just, and they were to place their duty, whether it was to their family or country, above their own private needs. The great Roman writers such as Cicero, Virgil, Seneca and Tacitus, all agreed on this and it is no coincidence that all these men lived either during the Republic’s collapse or during the time of the Empire when virtue was generally seen as being spent in the large percentage of the population. Even the last “good emperor,” Marcus Aurelius, who was a Stoic philosopher, understood this and tried to restore the idea of virtuous living to Rome.

The Founders were all steeped in the history of the Roman Republic and Empire as well as in the specific writings of the great Romans; Tacitus, Virgil and Cicero (whom John Adams called the greatest man who ever lived) were household names in Eighteenth Century America, thanks, in part, to the emphasis placed on the classics in education, from the grade schools to the universities. Not only that, but they also understood that history, being philosophy acted on the world’s stage, was there to act as a teacher for those who were willing to study and pay attention. They wanted to learn from the past, to avoid the mistakes that other civilizations had made. This is why, when one reads the papers of the Founders, the emphasis on virtue is made time and time again, regardless of who the author is: John Adams, again, declared that the American Constitution, which formed a republican government, was suitable only for a moral and religious people; George Washington declared that:

There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.

Thomas Jefferson said in a letter written to George Logan, “Peace, prosperity, liberty and morals have an intimate connection;” Charles Carroll argued, “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people.”

Adams declared the Fourth of July to be a “great day” and he expressed his hope, in his toast of 1826, that independence would last forever in the United States. However, he understood that independence could only, potentially, last forever if the people remained virtuous. This is why many of the Founders sought to mold America into another Rome while at the same time expressing a belief that America was the new Israel. These sentiments came together perfectly in Adams’s cousin, Samuel, who wrote that he hoped that America, and Boston in particular, would become a Christian Sparta; Christian in that the people would possess the Christian virtues such as faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance as well as the natural virtues exemplified in ancient Sparta, frugality, industry, duty, patriotism.

Today, we often complain that the government (by which many usually mean the federal government in Washington DC) is not taking enough action on a particular issue or that if the government would only do X, then life would be so much better. The Founders would have considered this to be backwards and would have counseled that we look to the people instead. A government which was looked to for every solution would have been the sign of a society weak in virtue. Not only that, it would have been a sign, paradoxically, of a weak government since a republican government can only be as genuinely strong (one might say morally strong) as its people. They would have advised us to become true Romans again.

An Abuse of History

 

auschwitz07
Auschwitz 

 

The 20th century, American philosopher, George Santayana said in his book, The Life of Reason: Reason and Common Sense, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It has become a famous quote, one of those pithy sayings that people will pass on from one to another and to which everyone will nod their heads in agreement because it is so commonsensical. If the past is forgotten then, of course, we will repeat, since we will not know nor recognize the ideas, the patterns and the forces that led to great historical events—good and bad.

This is one of the reasons why people of the 18th century had such a deep respect for history and considered history to be one of the fundamental pillars of education. History was not something that was only supposed to be known by the stuffy university professor, or even just his students; instead, it was, ideally, supposed to be read and known by everyone. History, as the understanding went, was philosophy played out on the stage of life and knowing it not only made you well rounded and educated; it also acted as a check against tyranny. This was especially important to the people of England and to the American colonies in the 18th century where the people’s vigilance was understood as being essential to the preservation of liberty from the forces that always stood amassed on the periphery, ready to douse its light and which had succeeded in doing just that for much of the world’s history in the majority of places in the world.

This past week has emphasized again that we, as a culture, have such a tenuous grasp of history that it might as well be almost non-existent.

As I mentioned in my last post, former CIA director, Michael Hayden, compared the separation of children from adults who illegally cross the Mexican-American border to the Holocaust. After the Masterpiece Cake ruling from the Supreme Court, there were people who compared it to justified segregation. Added to those, now that the Supreme Court has upheld the Trump Administration’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries, are comparisons to this decision with the interment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Mark Takano, a Congressman from California, compared lawmakers who agreed and backed the president’s travel ban with lawmakers who did nothing to stop the interment of American citizens; and Nimra Azmi at Slate explicitly said that the Roberts Court would not have overturned the decision to intern Japanese-Americans.

These comparisons are not only hyperbolic but un-serious, in the sense that they cannot be said to be historical comparisons at all. To take these in order:

  1. As I explained in my last post, the children being separated from their adults ( a distinction that has to be made because not all the adults who accompany children illegally over the border are their parents) only occurs under three conditions: if the adults are discovered not to be the parents of the children; if the children are perceived to be in danger from the adults; if the adults have committed a crime (which includes entering the country illegally). And now, due to an executive order from President Trump, the policy of separating these children (which comes from a 1997 9th Circuit Court decision) is no longer practiced. No where are children being gassed, shot, used as slave labor, or experimented on by deranged men like Josef Mengele.
  2. The old Jim Crow laws and segregation were based on race; black American citizens were told that they had to drink at certain fountains, eat in certain diners, stay in certain hotels, sit in certain parts of the bus, simply because of their skin. The equivalent of that is not happening now: Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop, did not refuse any customers that came through his doors because of their sexual preferences; he simply declined to make a specific product (a wedding cake) for a particular event (a same-sex wedding) because of his religious beliefs.
  3. The so called “Muslim ban” is no such thing. The travel ban includes six countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Seeing as how there are between 49 and 51 Muslim countries across the world, banning travel from only six of them does not make it seem like it can be adequately termed a Muslim ban. On top of that, all of these countries are promoters and exporters of terrorism. And, on top of that, the forbidding of people from six specific countries that have a history of exporting terror to the West from entering the United States cannot be logically compared to the interment of Japanese-Americans because the people in those six Muslim countries today are not American citizens. In the case of the interments in the 1940s, American citizens were interned because of their ethnicity; Muslims today are not being blocked from entering the United States because of their race or their ethnicity. People from countries that sponsor terrorism are barred from entering.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society where only 12% of high school students are deemed proficient in American history that such un-historical and hyperbolic comparisons would be made. But that doesn’t make it anymore dangerous. Perhaps, however, some might be asking how this can qualify as a forgetting of history and how this can lead to a repeat of the past?

It’s true that this is not a forgetting in the usual sense of the word. It is not as though people have forgotten that the Holocaust or Japanese-American internments happened; if these events had been forgotten, genuinely forgotten, then the comparisons could not even be made. What is happening might be more accurately described as a fogging of the past since we remember that things happened but we no longer have a clue what they were. Take the Holocaust example: We all know that there was a thing called the Holocaust and that it was a terrible thing because a lot of people were slaughtered. But we have forgotten the details of the events to such an extent that we feel comfortable and justified in comparing it to things that have no resemblance to it at all, simply to try and make our arguments heavier through historical reference and the weight of notoriety.  This is wrong for two reasons.

In the first place, it is insulting to the dead who suffered in these genuine atrocities. By comparing these actual historical horrors to modern events that are not horrors, trivializes the events that were actually horrific. It would be the same thing as if a person compared the loss of his dog to the loss of another’s child. The former no doubt loved his pet and the pet was no doubt a good one; but placing the loss of a pet on the same level of pain and importance as the loss of a child, automatically lessens the tragedy of the child’s death because a pet is of less worth than a child, no matter what it is or how good it is.

This leads us to the second reason: If history is forgotten in this way—through trivialization—and comparisons of modern occurrences are made to the Holocaust, to the interment of Japanese-Americans, to the gulags, even when no similarity is present, we will forget the details, the ideas, the reasons why these genuine atrocities occurred. If everything is a Holocaust, then the Holocaust was not an atrocity that stands, black and foreboding in the past, a black obelisk, from which important and terrible lessons can be learned; it is simply a code-word for something that we don’t like, either because of personal preference or because the “other side” is enacting it as policy. And when that happens, the lessons that might have been learned from that black obelisk, disappear into the subjectivity of our own preferences, likes and dislikes.

History is far too precious and needed to be treated in such a trivial manner.

Children and the Border

Border 2012: U.S. - Mexico Environmental Program, State of the B
State of the Border Region Border 2012: U.S.-Mexico Environmental Program Indicators 2010 Indicators Report on Border 2012, dated July 2011, English version

Everyone, barring the occasional and genuine psychopath, loves children. Parents, naturally, love their children because of the bonds of motherhood and fatherhood that unite them with their babies; that is why stories of a mother dumping her baby in a dumpster or of a father killing his child fill us with such revulsion because we feel the lack of familial bonds. Strangers too, for the most part, also like children that are not their own; babies are just cute, especially when they are still under a year old and cuteness is a viable defense mechanism when you cannot defend yourself. Whenever bad things happen to children then, we naturally want to help.

Advertisement uses this to their advantage. Just as it has been proved that a beautiful woman on a billboard will cause men and women to look at the board for more seconds than if there was no woman on the board, putting images of suffering children up is almost guaranteed to achieve your result. This is why whenever money is being raised for disaster relief, or when one side of a conflict is being made to be the villain, the picture of children are utilized to great effect. And this is what has been happening for the past week at the southern border.

Specifically, a hue and cry has been raised over the fact that migrant children, brought illegally into the United States by adults, have sometimes been separated from their accompanying adults. Everyone has expressed their outrage: politicians, like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have, naturally, attacked the current administration for what they have called Trump’s policy of separating families; news personalities like Rachel Maddow have publicly broken down in tears over the issue; celebrities like George Clooney and Jamie Lee Curtis have expressed their outrage with actor Peter Fonda going so far as to call for Trump’s son, Baron, to be taken from the First Family and thrown into a cage with pedophiles. Even all the former first ladies still living have made a united stand against this occurrence, with former First Lady Laura Bush writing an op-ed in Washington Post where she said that the practice of separating families broker her heart. Perhaps one of the most bizarre and insulting reactions came from former CIA director, Michael Hayden, compared the policy at the southern border with the Holocaust.

The picture is not nearly as lurid and is more complex than that. The law, as it currently stands, states that a child arriving in the United States will be removed from their accompanying adult if: immigration officials discover that the adult is not the child’s parent; immigration officials find that the child is in danger from the adult he is with; or, if the adult is placed into criminal proceedings. It is the last case that is the most important, in this scenario because attempting to enter the country illegally is a misdemeanor the first time and a felony for every repeated offense. If an adult is prosecuted for illegal entry, he is taken into the custody of the US Marshalls and the children—who are never the responsibility of the Marshalls—are taken to temporary shelters under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. The court proceedings usually do not take much time and after, if the adult wishes to return to his native country, he is reunited with his child or children.

So far, so good. Where it becomes tricky is when a person arrested and prosecuted for illegal entry pleads asylum, potentially turning his status from illegal alien to refugee.  A refugee is defined as a person who, “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” This means that every application of asylum must be taken on a case by case basis which in turn means that the legal proceedings will take longer. Thanks to a 1997 decision by the 9th Circuit Court called the Flores Consent Decree, the government is not allowed to hold migrant children for more than twenty days and, since asylum applications usually take longer than that process, this means one of two results can take place: either the government releases the children and the adults while the asylum application is still being processed; or, the Department of Health and Human Services releases the children to a responsible party here in the U.S., a relative if at all possible.

In the past, when the majority of illegal aliens coming into the United States were single men, this provision of immigration law did matter all that much, but now that a growing number of immigrants entering the country illegally are women and children from Central America, this provision is much more noticeable.

It should be noted, first and foremost, that this is not some new policy created by the current administration. The Flores decision, as mentioned, has been immigration law since 1997 and children were separated from family units at the border under the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration. What is new is the “zero tolerance” policy for illegal aliens which effectively ends the last administration’s policy of “catch and release” where illegal aliens were released before their cases had completely gone through the court system, making it virtually impossible to find them if their asylum request was denied or if it was discovered that they were criminals.

Everyone wants a solution and one that does not separate children from their families. The best way to do that would be to secure the border as it would act as a deterrent from using children as get-out-of-jail cards. The New York Times Reported that some migrants have admitted that they took children with them on the dangerous journey to the U.S. border, not only to get them out of these failing countries but also because they knew that having children with them would expediate their processing time; others have admitted to posing with children who are not theirs for the same reason. Securing the border could help put an end to it.

Rich Lowry, at National Review, also says that this is a situation that could be fixed by Congress; revising the law so that the Flores decision would no longer be in force and appropriating more money for family centers at the border. Unfortunately, on Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order, ordering that families remain together. I say unfortunate not because I want to see children separated from their parents but because it is not the executive’s job to fix the law when a weakness is found. Instead, it is the job of the legislative. And, in fact, the problem will only be solved once new legislation is passed to correct the hole that is there now.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to fix the border and be humane. There is a way to fix the deficiency in the law and remain true to our Constitutional system. We just need the conviction to do it.

 

 

 

For Red, White and Blue

Flag - Betsy Ross Picture 1776 002Thursday, June 14, was Flag Day, a day ostensibly set aside for honoring the American flag. You might have seen more flags than usual on poles and on the walls of buildings yesterday, in celebration of the day but nothing aside from that. No speeches were made; no parades were held; aside from some posts on social media, and the extra flags, it was just another day in June. Perhaps because seeing the American flag flying against the blue sky or along old downtown main streets has become a sight so common that it’s often not given a second thought and maybe that is the reason why Flag Day passes with less fan fare than other holidays. It is naturally harder to become excited about something that you see every day than something that only makes an appearance once a year.
The flag has subtly been in the headlines recently with the renewed controversy of individuals publicly protesting by kneeling before the flag at the recitation of the national anthem. It could very well be a sign of the craziness of the modern world that something as common as the flag, something that is supposed to be as innocent and innocuous as the flag, should be the cause of such vehemence. But, on a second thought, perhaps it is not so surprising. Before the NFL protests, the Supreme Court ruled on June 11, 1990 that flag burning was legally protected speech under the First Amendment and something that can be burned like an old shirt or rotten furniture cannot be as highly regarded. One’s appreciation and respect is diminished if something can be treated like any other loose odd and end.
Specifically, the ruling and the cries that flag burning are free speech have always puzzled me. Burning the flag in protest might be free speech and it might not; but even if it were unquestionably free speech it still might not be right to burn the flag since, as Chesterton said, having a right to do something is not the same thing as being right in doing it. To my mind, burning the flag, even if it were proven beyond doubt that it was a legitimate exercise in free speech, would never be right because of what she represents.
Unlike the flags of other countries, the history of the American flag is solid and known. On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress submitted the Flag Resolution which declared,

That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

It is interesting to note that while some people today attribute meaning to the colors of the flag, no specific meanings were attached to them in 1777 but specific meanings were attached to the colors of the Great Seal; the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thompson, reported to Congress that the colors used in the Great Seal (which were the same as used on the flag) represented purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red) and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue). It probably would not be too far of a stretch to give the same colors the same meaning for the flag. The idea of a constellation in the blue field created by the then thirteen stars, while not given a specific meaning either in the Flag resolution, possessed a subtle meaning nonetheless. Constellations were guides, means by which travelers and sailors especially kept to their courses. A new constellation reinforced the message on the Great Seal, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM—a New Order for the Age. The United States was the new nation that was to act as the announcement of the new order as well as the constellation which was to lead the rest of the world to the principles of virtue and ordered liberty in and through its republican form of government, a form of government which, at that time, was seen as a joke, a remnant of the past, clung to by a few small and hardly important countries.
Of course, today, the flag has taken on more meanings. It now stands as an emblem of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, ideas and sentiments which, of themselves were not revolutionary, (Jefferson himself denied this) but which brought about one of the most important revolutions of the world. And, as many politicians and statesmen have made it known, the red stripes of the flag, while perhaps originally representing hardiness and valor, has taken a more concrete meaning, or perhaps, a more concrete example of valor, in that now the red stripes represent the lakes of blood spilled in defense not just of the ideas expressed in the Declaration, but of the farms and little villages, the great cities and plains, the mountains and the rivers—in other words, the homes of millions of Americans who have taken up arms from the Revolution to the present to battle against any and everyone who threatened them. Real men who spilled real blood, many of whom have been forgotten.
Those are the two reasons why the flag not only should be respected but must be respected. It must and should be respected because it is the emblem of all the ideas which fueled the Revolution. Discrediting the flag and thus the country, means discrediting the ideas themselves upon which the country was founded. Can we really have free speech when the foundation of the protection of free speech—the country and her ideas—has been eroded? Can any of the rights protected by the Constitution be enjoyed as well if the country and her ideas are eroded? I would say no. Abraham Lincoln pointed out that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was speaking of the division of the country at the time between free and slave states but his observation is just as valid here. If the country and her ideas are separated, neither part of the house will be able to continue.
The second reason is the one we have heard so many times before: Because so many have given up their lives for her, we must respect the flag out of respect for those who have died and for those who have been willing to die for it which, in many cases, means not just strangers but members of our own families as well. The multiple times we have heard this reason does not in any way diminish its truth but I think that there is another reason to be built upon this one.
It is a two-fold reason. The first part is that we should aspire to be imitate the men and women who came before us and who honored the flag and for what it stands. The idea that every generation stands alone, completely independent of everything, is wrong. We are where we are today and we are what we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. They believed in innocence, valor, perseverance and justice; they understood the American cause and purpose as a new constellation for a new age and they realized their part in preserving and moving the cause forward in their lives. To continue the good that they started, we must imitate their virtues.
The second part builds from this and it, once again, is captured perfectly by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton said that people who love their countries because they are great have it backwards; countries only become great because people love them. He gave the example of Rome, a miserable backwater of a town that grew to rule the known world because men loved her. The pax Romana only came about because there were men and women willing to live and die for the glory of Rome. Regardless of what we think about the state of politics, culture, entertainment, principles, and goodness in America today, one fact that none of us who are Americans can change is that this is our home and, just as a man cannot change the fact that he comes from a particular family, he cannot change the fact that he is a particular nationality and is thus called to love his country just as he is called to love his family. It may be hard; it probably is. Nothing this side of the grave is perfect and regardless of who you are, what your political persuasion or tastes are, there will be aspects and facets which we do not like. But the challenge of love is not loving someone or something when it is easy but when it is hard.
Flag Day has come and gone this year but the flag will fly every day, somewhere, reminding us of who we are and what we should aspire to be.

 

Ireland’s Choice

 

Diogenes and the Chicken
Diogenes befuddles the philosophers with his chicken. 

 

Two weeks ago, the Irish people voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to their Constitution which protected the lives of unborn babies and recognized their right to life. Or, as someone put it much more pithily and much more accurately, the Irish voted for their own genocide.

Even more depressing than the decision itself, was the lopsided result of the vote. The No Campaign (which fought for the preservation of the Amendment) was defeated by a margin of 2-1, with the No Campaign receiving approximately 33% of the vote and the Yes Campaign receiving 66% of the vote. For a country which had amended their constitution in 1983 to prevent the judicial coup that occurred in America in 1973, it was a bitter defeat.

Naturally, there were many people who celebrated the result of the referendum. The New York Times wrote a story which described the vote as a repeal of “one of the world’s more restrictive abortion bans” and that the vote was a slap in the face to “conservative patriarchy” and “Catholic conservatism.” Orla O’Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group, said that, “This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally.” Irish PM, Leo Varadkar, said, “The people have spoken. They have said we need a modern constitution for a modern country.” Buzzfeed wrote a glowing article on Aible Smythe, the woman who has fought for abortion in Ireland since the 1970s. According to the Buzzfeed story, the story of Savita Halappanava, the 31 year old dentist who died in 2012 due to complications from a miscarriage, also influenced the Yes vote.

The common theme running through these crows of triumph is that none of these obstacles to which the cheers were directed were true. The 8th Amendment said,

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

No mention of religion is made in the amendment and it does not rely upon religion in any way for its support. It is also hard to see how religious tyranny was overthrown—as it was implied it was—which is code for Christianity in general and Catholic Christianity in particular, when Muslims in Ireland voted in overwhelming numbers to retain the 8th Amendment; if history is any judge, Muslims do not care or choose to live under Christian tyrannies and Christians do not choose to live under Muslim tyrannies. But more to the point, such language places abortion exclusively in the realm of religion when such restriction is entirely unjust and illogical. It is also a biological and anthropological issue.

The old saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, moves like a duck, sounds like a duck and acts like a duck, it is probably a duck.” The same holds true for the unborn. The fetus (a word which is Latin for “offspring”) comes from a human male and human female and from the second that it is conceived, has unique, human DNA, human DNA which has never been seen before and will never be seen again. The fetus is as unique as a snowflake, never to be repeated. The fetus is a developing human, yes; children from conception until the time they reach the use of reason, can be said to be developing which is why department stores—to bring in one example—divide clothes between “newborns” “toddlers” “two-year-olds” and the like. It is something which we instinctively understand. The baby developing in his mother’s womb is doing the same thing.

There is also a philosophical issue. In recent years, it has become fashionable in some circles to say that of course the unborn baby is a human being but that it is not a person; all persons are human beings but not all human beings are persons. But as Peter Kreeft argues, many of the arguments that make this claim hinge on the fact that the fetus, or the unborn or the new-born is incapable of X—of reasoning, of appreciating Beethoven, of speaking, of loving, etc. Kreeft says that all these arguments have, as their root, Functionalism, the idea that something is only that thing because of what they do. There is a story that the philosophers of Athens were arguing what it was that made a man and, after much wrangling, the decided on a definition: Man is a featherless biped. At which point Diogenes the Skeptic plucked a chicken and threw it in the midst of the philosophers, telling them that there before them was a man. What the Athenian philosophers had done was mistake the accidentals of Man—his featherlessness, his two-leggedness—and made them essentials, the aspect or quality that makes that thing what it is. The followers of Functionalism do the same thing, saying that the accidentals of persons—like the ability to reason or speak or learn—are the essentials and that without those qualities the person is not really a person at all. But as Kreeft points out, you already have to be a thing that can potentially talk in order to talk because if you weren’t you would never be able to talk in the first place. A new-born only is able to talk later in life because he is already that thing which can talk, namely, a person.

As for Savita Halappanava, it was not a case of a woman being sentenced to death because the doctors refused to give her an abortion. Early in the process of the miscarriage, Halappanava requested an abortion but, because the medical team did not see a threat to her life at the time, declined the request. The team did eventually discover that Halappanava was suffering from a sepsis blood infection and when they realized that her life was in danger, planned to administer misoprostol to induce delivery but the miscarriage was complete before they could execute their plan. The sepsis spread and Halappanava died of cardiac arrest as a result of the infection. It was a tragic case but not one where a woman was sentenced to die because of the 8th Amendment which gave “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother,” but because of a misjudgment of the medical team.

There is another issue that was raised with the referendum, though it did not receive as much attention and that issue was the evolution of laws and morals in a culture. Tim Miller, here at WordPress, reblogged an interesting piece from 2015 in which he argued that laws and norms are in a constant state of flux which strips the mask off the idea of universal norms, at one point saying,

The desperate question from those who believe in some unchangeable universal morality inevitably comes: How do we then know what is right and what is wrong? This, again, is a matter of collective choice. As I say below, it is irrelevant whether there is a “universal morality” which says rape is wrong; the decision of human communities which says it is wrong, is enough. If other communities decide rape or violence are okay, they will eventually be confronted by those who think otherwise, and they might succeed—or for a time they might not. This hazardous situation, in which what is generally held to be good and right is always close to destruction, is just what life in the world is; as custom fills the gap that reason cannot fill, custom at all times is precarious, and must be checked.

The difficulty here is three fold though. First, there are universal morals based not on convention or agreements but on reality. We know instinctively that killing another person just for the hell of it is wrong which is why soldiers must be trained to kill because in war that is their job; we know that lying to save our own hides from our own mistakes is wrong; we know that stealing out of jealousy or envy is wrong. These feelings are rooted deep within us which does not mean that people do not violate these norms and can even train themselves to feel no qualms over killing or stealing or lying—killing their consciences as it were. C.S. Lewis pointed out in his Abolition of Man that societies across history and geography actually had very similar moral principles, even though many of these societies were separated by thousands upon thousands of miles and/or hundreds or thousands of years. We find it fascinating that the Mezo-Americans and the Egyptians both built pyramids (which has given rise to countless bizarre theories) but for some reason, we do not have the same wonder that the same basic universal principals, such as against murder and stealing, are found across human history.

Secondly, these universal norms or morals or truths cannot change because if they did they would not be universal. Miller gives the example of rape, saying that, “it is irrelevant whether there is a ‘universal morality’ which says rape is wrong; the decision of human communities which says it is wrong, is enough. If other communities decide rape or violence are okay, they will eventually be confronted by those who think otherwise, and they might succeed…” but this cannot be the case because this violates the principle of non-contradiction. The principle states that something cannot both be and not be at the same time: a chair cannot be a chair and not a chair at the same time; stealing X cannot both be a good action and a bad action at the same time. Things can only be one or the other. Now, if a culture that held that rape was evil lived alongside a culture that said that rape was not evil, who would be right? The problem gets deeper than that, however. If there are no universal norms but just societal views that can change and evolve, then things like racism and slavery could, legitimately, make a come back since these things are not bad in and of themselves but are only bad because society decided that they were bad. But that means that society could change its mind again and decide that slavery and racism aren’t so bad after all and bring them back. This leads to another dilemma: Ideas can enter or re-enter society only from people. The idea that racism and slavery are all right can only come back through individual people which means that individuals who propose those ideas cannot be faulted for going against societal norms because, again, that is the only way that societal norms can change.

This leads to the third difficulty. The idea that abortion was wrong in the past but is not wrong now can be seen as an example of chronological snobbery which holds that the passing of time changes the morality of certain things. But, if universal norms exist—as I’ve argued above—than the passing of time does not have anything to do with the goodness or badness of certain actions.

Contrary to what some said after the referendum, Ireland did not move forward or into the 21st century two weeks ago. The hope is that Ireland will realize, as C.S. Lewis did that after making a mistake, the most progressive thing to do is to go backwards.

The Furnace of Memorial Day

Memorial Day Parade

There is no perfect system and every system, therefore, can be perverted, corrupted or shallowed. St. Augustine put it very well when he said that the greater a thing is, the more it is likely to be corrupted, after which, the greater its capacity for harm.

Holidays are one of those great and good things that can be corrupted, after which their capacity for harm can be great: Christmas can become just about commercialism; Thanksgiving can become just about food, particularly the turkey; Hallowe’en can become just about gore and sex. In this same vein, Memorial Day has become a second rate Independence Day, a second rate black Friday and the “official” start of the summer season (regardless of the fact that the solstice doesn’t arrive for another couple of weeks).

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a holiday that was created specifically because of the Civil War. Because the War took the lives of so many men, local towns and communities, almost immediately after the War ended, began setting aside a specific day in the year, where the entire community would gather to decorate the graves of the dead soldiers, listen to speeches and pray. The first official Decoration Day was set aside on May 30, 1868 (because that day was not the anniversary of any particular battle of the War); the brainchild of General John A. Logan, a Union veteran and the second elected national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ group made up of former Union soldiers. On March 3, 1868, Logan issued General Order #1 which called for an official day of recognition for the Civil War’s dead. On that first Decoration Day, the man festivities were carried out at the newly created Arlington National Cemetery; General James Garfield spoke and 5,000 people decorated 20,000 graves, Union and Confederate. Though Decoration Day started almost immediately after the War’s end, it wasn’t till a hundred years later, in 1971, that the federal government recognized it as a holiday; it also became Memorial Day where the net of remembrance was expanded to include not just the men killed in the Civil War but all the dead from all the wars which had involved the United States, from the Revolution to, at that time, the Vietnam War. Today, of course, the line of remembrance and the dead extends from the Revolution to the wars of the Middle East.

Rather than being about summer, or sales, or a preview of Independence Day, Memorial Day is supposed to be a somber day since it is a day that is supposed to commemorate the dead who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to our country and to us. It was with this thought that I remembered a line from G.K. Chesterton: The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. Perhaps Chesterton took as the basis of this observation the idea that the greatest thing that a man can do is to lay down his life for a friend. Who were the soldiers of the Continental Army, the Union Army, the Confederate Army, the American Armies of WWI and WWII, of their navies and now air forces? It is impossible to know each one perfectly; when we often do not even know ourselves perfectly, how could we expect to know the hearts of the dead? But, if I had to guess, I would say that many of them were men who were not looking for a fight for the fight’s sake. Until the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of the American population lived on farms (this was true even of the North at the time of the Civil War.) They were simple but educated and knowledgeable; many might have joined for glory, at a chance to see the world, but many also joined for the love of the things behind them. The man who joined General Washington may not have fought for the Declaration of Independence; he probably did not even fight for something that was to be christened in 1777 the United States of America. He probably fought for a small piece of land that he tilled himself, still sustaining his wife and children; if he did not own the land himself, he fought for the house that stood on the land that he rented and the family that still resided there. As the colonists were wont of saying even up to 1776, they were just transplanted Englishmen and it was a principle of the English Common Law that every Englishman’s home was his castle.

The same is true of the Civil War; the men of the North as well as those of the South fought for their homes and for their own communities. Each side saw the other as a threat, needing to be defeated. Many, in our politically correct times, forget that the South genuinely thought that the election of Abraham Lincoln marked the end, not just of the Southern way of life—which did include slavery—but of the American Republic for which Southerners, such as Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, had sacrificed for. The Northerners, for their part, saw the South as trying to tear apart the fabric of their national home, of which their local communities made the pattern. They heard the echoes of Daniel Webster’s cry in the Senate, “Liberty and Union—one and inseparable!”

The men who crossed the Atlantic to fight in Europe in WWI—which included my great-grandfather—fought to make the world safe for democracy. It’s true that the slogan was dreamed up by President Wilson, and there is a legitimate debate still ongoing just how much of a threat Imperial Germany was to the United States, even after the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram. They crossed the ocean to keep their homes safe, believing that if the Germans won the war, democracy might die in darkness.

WWII—which my grandfather was a part—was more cut and dried. The Nazis and the Imperial Japanese were legitimate threats to the world. If the Axis had won the war, history would have been very much altered and not for the better. Those men fought definitely for their homes and families.

When one comes down to it, Memorial Day is about love, the love that paradoxically makes one willing to die in order to protect that which is loved. Really, it should not come as any surprise that it boils down to this, not a least common denominator but an ember, white and hot. The word “patriotism” after all comes from the Greek patrios which means “of one’s fathers” implying a familial line stretching back through history; or from history to us today. Anything of our family should, properly, be loved and one of these is our country. Memorial Day is a call to love, not just the patriots who died for us, but for us to take inspiration from them to love the things behind us.