Skip to content

Independence Day Reflections, 2015 Edition

Independence Day is America’s time to remember why a ‘body politic’ came into being on our shores.  Patriotism is unfashionable these days, and there is a long-running ideological hostility to the notion that anything is special about America, her history or institutions.  Too often, the obvious and acknowledged flaws in the American story become the central narrative of the story, excluding or denying the undoubted good that grew, and continues to grow, out of the American experience.

The minority of the original colonists who decided that the ‘rights of Englishmen’ were worth fighting for were not the first to do so.  The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 had ended all arguments on British soil about ‘the divine right of kings,’ and the franchise was more widely held in its’ aftermath than virtually anywhere on Earth at that time.  Before that, earlier generations had, after much struggle, preserved and passed on to their posterity the ancient freedom of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes who emerged from the forests of Germania to settle in the ruins of Roman power in England.  We recently celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Charta, the earliest written guarantee of those ‘ancient rights of Englishmen’ on record.  Others, such as William Wallace, fought English tyranny to win freedom, and many of their descendants were found in the ranks of the Continental Army.

The march toward ‘a more perfect Union’ has been long and painful, marked by reverses, defeats and intense struggle, but it has inspired peoples around the world to emulate us, and to flee tyranny for our shores. That process continues today; unlike the Berlin Wall, which was designed to keep people from leaving the Communist Bloc, we have debates about how to deal with the flood of people who want to come here.

Our best Independence day tribute to America’s past and promise is to be active participants in public life, shunning apathy and negativity for strenuous efforts on behalf of the commonweal.

 

Bringing Our Downtowns Back

 

The Charlotte, Michigan ‘M-50 Committee’ met for the first time earlier this year to talk about ways to make M-50, also known as Cochran Avenue, more business- and pedestrian-friendly, as part of an effort, shared with several other citizens’ committees, to help revitalize Charlotte’s downtown.  In beginning this effort, this writer stopped to reflect on, in the larger scheme of things, Charlotte, and so many other cities and towns in America, found their ‘Main Streets,’ once the center of urban life, neglected and in need of help to restore some of their former vitality.

You can still see what downtown – ‘Man Street, USA’ – used to be like at Disney World.  Sadly, this is only a trip down Memory Lane in many locales, due to the unintended consequences of several developments since the heyday of the kind of thriving entrepreneurial environment that existed into the 1960s.  If you have seen ‘Cars,’ you have seen a story built around the decline and rise of the main street of Radiator Springs.  When Route 66, ‘Main Street’ in many of the cities and towns it passed through on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, was supplanted by the interstate highway system, automobile traffic that used to flow through town now bypassed it, taking the customers who rode in those cars with it.  The unintended consequences of a highway system that President Eisenhower championed, in part, because of his many troubles in moving men and equipment by road in preparation for the ‘Louisiana Maneuvers’ in 1940 and then seeing the Autobahn in Germany at the end of World War II, as a ‘national defense’ initiative, was that many Main Streets cost their vitality, sapping the downtowns they bisected in the process.

A darker chapter in the decline of Main Street stems from the urban planning craze that swept America after World War II.  Pioneered by New York’s Robert Moses, a master builder and genius of political infighting who parlayed an unpaid position as state parks commissioner into a de facto infrastructure czar whose powers extended statewide, ‘urban renewal’ projects poured grandiose visions of how cities should look into concrete on a massive scale.  Moses’ efforts led to the erection of such landmarks as Jones Beach and the Triborough Bridge, as well as numerous ‘parkways’ – freeways ostensibly built to connect the New York park system.  The erection of so much infrastructure came at a price:  Many poor neighborhoods (and the occasional wealthy one) were seized through the power of eminent domain and their residents were displaced to make way for the new roads.  The result was that viable neighborhoods, filled with human networks of families, businesses and social institutions gave way before the bulldozer, with what remained on the periphery losing its vitality.  Despite keen criticism from thinkers like Jane Jacobs, the urban renewal trend lasted for decades and spread from New York across America, remaking the fabric of every community it touched, often at the expense of the old, unplanned jumble of human habitations that supported Main Streets in favor of newer arrangements that could be reached by car:  Suburbs and shopping malls.  (An allusion to how this played out in California found its way into ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ where the villain schemes to take over Toontown and then sell it to Cloverleaf Industries, who plan to dismantle the trolley car system of ca. 1947 to make way for freeways and the ‘exit’ enterprises – gas stations, tire stores, repair shops and the like – that support car culture.)

 

New Urbanism brings us full-circle: Restoring M-50 as a vital commercial and residential mixed-use corridor through the heart of Charlotte is precisely the kind of initiative that can help revitalize an entire community by redirecting energy and activity back to where it used to flow before freeways, shopping malls and ‘big box’ stores drained it away:  Downtown.

As this and the other committees move forward from planning to action, public participation is both welcome and needed to ensure that all who want to have a voice as we work to rebuild our hometown.  Please take the opportunity to attend a meeting, join a committee or to contact them with your hopes and ideas.  They’ll be happy to hear from you. And if you’re not from Charlotte, why not see if you can find other people in your town who want to restore your Main Street and offer them a hand?

-Lloyd A. Conway

 

(For an in-depth look at the rise and fall of Robert Moses, see Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker.’  The classic work of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ became the bible of the ‘New Urbanist’ movement, which seeks, among other things, to bring back Main Street as the locus of mixed-use urban life.)

Taking the Next Steps – Print and Radio

Over the past few years this blog has been dedicated to a teaching mission aimed at connecting classroom learning to the real world.  Social Studies are not just a group of ‘subjects’ to be examined separately and without connection to each other or our daily lives.  In the course of both teaching and taking an active part in state and local government, the next step for this writer is to take the message of why it is important to take an active part in how we are governed to new media.  The Charlotte Country Journal has graciously agreed to accept an occasional column from me on topics of local interest, and WLCM ‘Victory’ 1390 AM will also be airing five-minute public service announcements from me on politics and policy at the state and local level.  As I tell my students, the President may make the headlines every day, but he isn’t the one picking up your trash, filling in potholes or setting local speed limits on your streets.  Those and a myriad other decisions that affect our daily lives are made at a level of government within our reach, and that is why I want to reach out to more of our neighbors here in Mid-Michigan to encourage them to take part in how those decisions are made.

From time to time, as columns are published and radio broadcasts are made, links the content or postings of the transcripts will be re-published here. As always, your readership is appreciated, as is your active participation in making our world a better place to live.

From STRATFOR: The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform

Dr. Friedman is insightful in showing how the urge to reform a system of politics dominated by that old-timers used to call ‘honest graft’ with one supposedly more democratic has, in fact, produced one that is more money-driven, ideological and less democratic, in the larger meaning of the term.  Is it time to reform the reforms of the 1968-1972 era?

 

The electoral process has strayed from the founders’ vision of the United States as a country with a dispassionate electorate.

via The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 920 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 15 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

ISIS, Threats to America’s Service-Members and a ‘King Christian X Solution’

Long-time Washington Times columnist Rowan Scarborough recently revealed that the terrorist group known by the acronym ‘ISIS’ (or ‘ISIL’) is asking its supporters in the United States to target military service-members and their families.  In response, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency’s ‘Security Advisory 14-01’ dated October 24, 2014 recommends a number of countermeasures (see excerpt below) aimed at making uniformed personnel assigned to the Pentagon less visible.  The strategy is sensible from the aspect of reducing one’s chances of being identified by a terrorist as a target for a surprise attack.  However, hoping not to be noticed is hardly morale-inspiring, and while the United States undertakes offensive action abroad and conducts counter-terrorism operations at home, being told to be less visible in the meantime leaves something to be desired.  In a situation where the conflict may last for many years, asking people to volunteer and them to hide their service isn’t particularly likely to send the right message, either to the troops, their families, the American public or our enemies at home and abroad.

During World War II, when the Nazi overlords of occupied Denmark ordered Jews living there to affix the Star of David to their clothing, King Christian X is reported to have worn one himself and to have asked his countrymen to do likewise.  Whether strictly true or not, very few of his Jewish subjects lost their lives in Nazi death camps.  If Americans chose to display military-themed bumper stickers, clothing, et cetera, they would be undertaking some measure of risk of being targeted in what have been, to date, isolated ‘lone wolf’ attacks.  However, would such an action, if carried out en masse, not offer our service-members the protection of blending into a crowd of visible supporters?  At the least, it would be visible evidence of our solidarity.

Each of us must weigh the risks and decide what to do (or not do).  For myself, I don’t believe in running scared and learned a long time ago that it is better to stand up to a bully than it is to try to hide had hope.  I will continue to display military-themed items, such as the blue star in my car window in honor of my son (SSG, USAF).  We can learn from history, and we should ponder how we in America will face the prospect of anonymous and often ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in our communities, workplaces and public spaces.  How we choose to respond will say much about our character, individually and as a people.

-SFC (ret) Lloyd A. Conway

 

Excerpt from Security Advisory 14-01:

“Recommended Individual Protective Measures:
• DoD personnel are reminded to use OPSEC at work and at home
• Secure DoD affiliated credentials (CAC/Building passes) when in public
• Remove any DoD/military/law enforcement decals or identifiers from clothing and vehicles
• Vary your travel routes to and from work
• If You See Something, Say Something.
• Maintain situational awareness or avoid public venues where large gatherings of people congregate
• Educate your family members on basic security practices
• Be careful of information shared on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
• Lock down your social media and change your passwords regularly
• Do not post anything on social media that affiliates you with DoD/the military or law enforcement
• Do not post anything on social media opposing terrorist groups or organizations”

‘Civil Forfiture’ and the Abuse of Power

The Saginaw County, Michigan Sheriff was in the news again with a seized vehicle that he has converted to departmental use.  While the Honda Element he now drives, like the Lincoln Town Car and Ford Mustang that preceded it was taken from people arrested and convicted of crimes, the vehicle itself was seized without a judge or jury sentencing the defendant(s) to loss of their property after a fair trial as part of the ‘due process’ that the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence mandates.  The loss of a car not taken as part of a just sentence imposed on a guilty defendant raises questions – or it should.

The good Sheriff  is not alone in generating controversy; the Washington Post reports that a number of police departments  – city, county and state – across the country are targeting drivers for stops, searches and seizures of cash – all without there necessarily being an arrest, trial or conviction.  The money is seldom returned; a clear violation of the Constitution’s ‘due process‘ clause.  While it may be argued that there is statistical evidence that drivers carrying large amounts of cash on certain roads who also share other characteristics (race, sex, age, and little things like having air fresheners in their cars, possibly to hide unlawful drug use) are likely engaged in criminal activity, our system protects the innocent by demanding that the accused get their day in court, that we be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (the substance of the story told in ’12 Angry Men,’ which some readers may recall from their school days as a staple of civics classes for generations), and that another branch of government than the one doing the arresting – the courts (‘Judicial Branch’) preside over the administration of justice.  Combining the power to arrest and to de facto punish (via forfeiture) in one agency is a grave temptation to abuse of power.  Indeed, it would be remarkable if letting such combined powers reside in the same individual or agency did not produce abuse.  That there is a monetary incentive to do so, and that the private contractor named in the Post story gets a cut of the money seized is enough to establish a strong probability that regular abuse is taking place.  (However, those upon whom suspicion of such abuse is cast ought to get their ‘day in court,’ too, and they are guilty of nothing until proven otherwise.)

There will always be the temptation to seize power to do good, in this case, combat suspected drug trafficking.  But like Gandalf explains to Frodo in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring,’ taking the Ring of Power might be done with the best of intentions, but the end results will be evil.  Sometimes the lessons of the stories of our childhood are forgotten and ought to be revisited when we are older.  Such is the case here, whether the lessons in question come from a story or from what we learned in civics class:  Power, in the American system, is checked and balanced for a reason, and the efficiency of the government’s exercise of power, for whatever reason, is never an excuse for violating someone’s rights.  We forget these lessons at the peril of that liberty our system of government is supposed to safeguard and which is supposed to be the hallmark of our way of life.

A ‘Star of David’ Moment Seven Decades Later

A well-known story about the Nazi occupation of Denmark relates how, when the order went out that all Danish Jews would have to attach a yellow Star of David to their clothing, that King Christian chose to wear one in solidarity with his Jewish countrymen, and that the Danish people followed city.  While the truth is that they did not, both the King and his subjects vocally opposed Nazi efforts, resisted plans to deport Jews, and organized a resistance movement that saved all but 65 of their neighbors from death.  While the truth is less dramatic than the legend that sprung from it, the Danish example is still clear and worthy of remembrance and emulation.

The Star of David’s use as a way for a genocidal regime to identify those whom it targets for abuse and destruction comes to mind as one watches events unfolding in Iraq, where the self-proclaimed state known by the acronym ‘ISIS’ (Tr: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’) is persecuting religious minorities, in this case Christians and Yazidis, is labeling the homes of the former with the Arabic letter ‘N‘ (‘pronounced ‘Noon’) to signify that the occupants are ‘Nazarenes’ – Christians.  Their identification precedes their execution, sometimes after forced conversion.  The focused campaign targeting particular groups for destruction meets the definition of ‘genocide,’ at least in the eyes of some observers.

While history does not exactly repeat itself, there is often a rhyme and rhythm to events.  This may be true in this case, as a Lebanese television station, in a country where there may be serious danger in doing so, is joining a worldwide movement of concerned people who are displaying ‘Noon’ on social media in solidarity with Iraqi Christians.  While it is impossible to know if a  revue such as the Danes mounted seven decades ago (they used boats to ferry nearly all of their Jewish countrymen to Sweden), perhaps this effort will focus international attention in such a way as to deliver these people from their oppressors.

 

 

Practical Uses For The Social Studies

Why Moldova Urgently Matters is a prime example of why Dr. Friedman and his colleagues at STRATFOR are for the social studies what Indiana Jones is for archaeology: An example of how a seemingly ‘dry’ subject can be made relevant and exciting to a wide audience.  They go Dr. Jones one better, as well, in that they inhabit the real world and not the realm of fiction.

The actual content of this report – on Moldavia’s geographic, economic and cultural ambiguity, as a country with no natural defenses against a larger neighbor that historically has tried to dominate it – is typical of their analysis of other events.  It involves using a ‘long view’ of history combined with the kind of geographic understanding that only ‘shoes on the ground,’ or what the military community refers to as ‘human intelligence,’ can produce.  Understanding how geography influences history, politics and culture and what recurring themes, such as how the Turks, Hapsburgs or Russians have all dominated Moldavia’s neighborhood at various times as the tides of history have risen and receded, is essential to crafting the kind of analysis that Dr. Friedman and his colleagues regularly produce.

The foregoing is not meant to be an advertisement for STRATFOR but an example of who the social studies are relevant.  Too often, what Dorothy Sayers complained of in her ‘The Lost Tools of Learning‘ still takes place in school:  compartmentalized ‘subjects’ are taught without sufficiently relating them to each other and to the world around us.

STRATFOR’s analyses synthesize geography, history, politics, culture and economics to interpret and explain events taking place around the world.  Knowing the constants – geography and culture chief among them – allows all of these seemingly disparate ‘subjects’ to be woven into a coherent whole that helps us make sense of what we see happening around us.  They also are tools for understanding the future implications of actions past and present.  The social sciences should never be seen as ‘required’ subjects to be learned, regurgitated at exam time and then forgotten.  They equip educated minds for leadership roles that require situational analysis skills, whether in international business, finance, diplomatic or military service.  STRATFOR may be one of the more newsworthy examples of the practical application  of the social studies, but they are far from alone.  For those who wish to be engaged and informed citizens, as well as individuals who aspire to effective leadership in the upper echelons of business and government, the social studies are not only useful, but practically indispensable to sustained success.  Not only that, but when well-taught or written with a lively pen, the lessons they impart can fascinate even as they inform.

Is there a ‘Structural Design’ that leads to Federal gridlock?

The President recently complained that the Founding Fathers created a flawed system – one where California and Wyoming have the same number of Senators – that prevents him from enacting his agenda.  While  he certainly is right that states have equal representation in the Senate, he misreads the intent in creating the system the way it is as a design defect. Our system is designed to kill bad ideas, to be slow enough that, while the majority does indeed rule, the minority in any debate gets its say and has its rights respected.   The idea of treating states as equals is rooted in the concept of ‘dual sovereignty,’ the idea that the Federal government is supreme in the spheres of action that the Constitution – ratified by the states – leaves to it (war, printing money, trade, diplomacy, et cetera) while the states exercise sovereign power in their areas of responsibility (education and law enforcement, for example; in the latter instance, the Constitution names only three Federal crimes – piracy, treason and counterfeiting – with about 90% court action to this day being on matters of state or local jurisdiction).

(The Founders’ desire to create a system aimed at stopping bad ideas from becoming law is also the reason behind the filibuster – one Senator can stop  the machinery of the Senate for as long as he can hold the floor and speak.)

Finally, the Senate’s ability to roadblock legislation – collectively or individually – is part of our system of checks and balances, again, a product of the  Founders’ desire to prevent tyranny by stopping bad laws from being enacted.  Each branch of the Federal government is co-equal and can check the others.  This is an idea fitting for an elementary civics lesson and one, no doubt, learned, but perhaps forgotten in the heat of battle, by those who complain about the process derailing their legislative timetables.  This is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed – Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated with the Supreme Court ruling parts of his ‘New Deal’ unconstitutional, wanted to pack the Court with six additional justices who would be friendly to his agenda.  Even though his party was dominant in Congress at the time (1937) he proposed this, they balked at an idea that would have undermined the balance of institutional power in Washington, D.C.

Finally, one may see in the following a succinct explanation of how our system works, and works best, by stopping bad ideas from becoming law: No bill is truly law until it passes the House, the Senate, gets signed by the President, withstands court challenges and is enforced by a jury.  Our system is certainly not perfect, and each of the checks and balances in it may be misused for evil or illicit purposes, but our system has given the United States a quarter-millennium of generally stable government, rising living standards and greater freedom – no mean accomplishment, and, insofar as it touches upon our Constitution – no accident (or ‘design flaw’), either.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers