Thinking about our flag

June 14, 2009

I realized at bedtime last night that today would be Flag Day. Too late, I realized, to go out and buy a flagpole. We have a flag, one I purchased several years ago when we lived in Michigan, but the flagpole I purchased with it stayed behind on the house when we sold it. (It was a two-piece pole and the upper piece didn’t line up quite right with the lower piece, producing an effect of the flag sagging on its pole.) Sometime between now and July 4 I need to find a good flagpole (preferably one that doesn’t require drilling holes in our aluminum siding).

My father always displayed our flag on holidays. It was an old flag, from before the entry of Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. I always felt vaguely uncomfortable about our house flying a flag with only 48 stars, and wondered if that was proper. It finally occurred to me today to look that up, and I found this answer at The Betsy Ross Homepage:

Is it appropriate to fly a flag that has fewer than 50 stars?

Yes. Official United States flags are always considered living, active flags. From the Betsy Ross flag to the present 50-star flag, any flag that at some time was the currently active flag is still considered a living flag to be accorded all due respect.

We children had our own handheld flags (not the tiny ones with about a six-inch pole but a pole well over a foot long and the flag larger than letter-size paper though I don’t remember the size exactly), and we planted them in the ground in the front yard on days such as July 4. Other than that, however, I don’t remember any particular teaching about holding the flag in special respect. It was a symbol, and as such it was not the symbol that mattered so much as what it was a symbol for.

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Books: Shadow of the Giant

December 11, 2008

While this book is certainly science fiction, science plays a relatively small role. There are light-speed colony ships heading out to establish the human race on new worlds. Unspecified new technology has ended the strategic importance of petroleum. And one of the main characters is the product of genetic manipulation, removing the normal signal to the body to stop growing and vastly increasing his intelligence – but dooming him to death in early adulthood as his heart cannot continue to support his gigantic body.

Yet that is all largely peripheral to the geopolitical currents that move through the chapters of this novel. On the futuristic Earth, the U.S. has retired from active involvement in world politics, and is content to sit quietly apart, its power in its strong economy (that is secretly financing planetary colonization in the hopes of future wealth from new trade routes). The new world powers are China and the Muslim League, with India and Russia also scheming for greater power. And then there is Peter Wiggin, the Hegemon, trying to leverage his largely ceremonial office to establish a worldwide democracy.

If there is any overarching theme in the novel, it is that humans need to stop wasting their resources (human and otherwise) fighting among themselves. The nations of the world briefly united (in Ender’s Game, the first novel of the series) against a common enemy (the space-faring “Buggers”). But now they are back to jockeying for power, using the young graduates of Battle School (the elite training program in that first book, that trained children rather than young adults in the ways of war, hoping that their very youth would make them flexible and imaginative enough to counter the alien forces arrayed against them) to plan their military operations.

Peter has a different vision for humanity. He is ruthless in his use of the tools at his disposal to accomplish his ends, but he also knows that he cannot achieve lasting peace through violent conquest. Force is used only to respond to attacks – but then it is used to overwhelm so quickly that relatively few lives will be lost, and so that enemies will recognize the futility of opposing his forces.

He knows that a government based on a particular leader cannot last, so he must establish one based on the strength of the democratic process. Starting with just a handful of fairly minor countries, he establishes the Free People of Earth, bound only by commitment to a Constitution, and the will of the people (who must choose through a plebiscite to join the FPE). If successful, it will be a one-world government, replacing the old division into warring nations. But the rule will not be dictatorial – it will resemble more the union of states that formed as the U.S.A.

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An excellent quote

October 16, 2008

Today’s wikiquote is one I will have to add to my Favorite Quotations page.

The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth.

It was said by William O. Douglas, a name I did not recognize at all, though a quick check at wikipedia showed me that he is someone I should learn something about, as he has so far been the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. No doubt my ignorance of him is partly due to the time when he served, from 1939 to 1975. He was too recent to be covered in our history classes (the farthest we ever got was to WWII, and that was primarily dealing with events in Europe), but retired before I was old enough to really take an interest in current events.

I find it interesting that he said that a judge’s role was not neutral, that even “the Constitution is not neutral.” Not knowing the context, my first thought was of judicial activism, a charge the conservatives today bring frequently against the liberals. Yet the next sentence sounds very much in tune with conservative thought: “[The Constitution] was designed to take the government off the backs of the people….”

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Wisdom from a futurist

October 6, 2008

I nodded with appreciation for the wikiquote for today:

It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.

Another suggested quote, by the same person, elicited a similar reaction:

The worst mistake of first contact, made throughout history by individuals on both sides of every new encounter, has been the unfortunate habit of making assumptions. It often proved fatal.

But the name of the person to whom the quotes were attributed surprised me. David Brin? I thought he was a science fiction writer, not a historian or political theorist. But then, I might be mistaken – I couldn’t think of anything I had read by him.

So I looked him up. Yes, he’s a science fiction writer, though I’m still pretty sure I haven’t read anything by him. And I suppose there’s no reason to be surprised that a science fiction writer would have wise things to say about society – the best novels, in my opinion, are those that say something true and possibly even profound about human experience, regardless of the setting or genre.

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Constitutionally sound

September 17, 2008

A paper sent home in my son’s homework folder this week let me know that today was Constitution Day, and asked that students wear red, white, and blue to school today. I didn’t recognize the holiday; it turns out it was only created four years ago. This evening I asked my son what he learned about the Constitution, and was disappointed to hear that they didn’t talk about it at all. Too bad – I was curious what would be taught at a third grade level.

I didn’t learn much of anything about the Constitution until 11th grade, in a required U.S. History class. It was both simpler to understand than I had expected – once its clauses had been summarized in modern English, and more detailed in some respects than I would have thought (for example, the requirements as to age and years residence in the United States for election to various offices). The Bill of Rights was rather more interesting than the original Constitution, as we learned what it meant to take the Fifth, the history behind the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and where people find justification for their differing views on private ownership of firearms, or religion in the public square.

In recent years I’ve read about how dismally poor Americans’ knowledge is of the history and government of their country. I usually do better than average on the quizzes now commonly found on the internet on such topics, but certain questions do stump me. I never saw a point in memorizing which amendment was which (after the first ten in the Bill of Rights), nor did I try to retain details of dates and names which could be easily enough looked up in a reference book. I was pleased, therefore, to do very well on’s two Citizenship quizzes today, and reasonably well on their other Constitution quizzes (about 90% overall).

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Reading: Shoot Him If He Runs

September 16, 2008

I had read two books by Stuart Woods prior to this one. Dead Eyes and Dead in the Water were moderately interesting, but they had no characters I really liked, and after listening (both were audiobooks picked up on clearance at an audiobook rental store) they went into my pile of “to be sold at garage sale.” I had apparently forgotten this, and mixed up Woods with another writer when I picked out Shoot Him If He Runs from the library three weeks ago.

As a book to entertain me during my commute, or while I’m riding the exercise bike, it’s fine. I don’t expect much of those books except to keep my attention reasonably well. This novel wasn’t exactly fast-paced, but it moved along well enough that I was able to think of the times I was waiting to find out what happened next as “suspense” instead of “boring.” Not that I cared a whole lot about what happened to the characters – and I certainly could have done without the gratuitous sex scene and several evenings of cocktails. Also, the ending was somewhat predictable, although shortly before the end there was a somewhat unexpected twist.

What it did get me thinking about was the whole idea of government cover-ups – since the entire plot is about protecting the CIA (which happens to be headed by the First Lady) and the President of the U.S. from a public revelation that would almost certainly derail his chances of reelection. I don’t know to what extent Woods was trying to make a comment about the current Administration (although in the novel the sitting president is a Democrat), but it has certainly been a common enough theme in political commentary for the past seven years.

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The pen is mightier than the sword

September 13, 2008

He’s not in TIME’s list of the world’s most influential people, and he’s relatively unknown in his own country, but Gene Sharp is influencing movements for democracy around the world. I just learned of him today from the Wall Street Journal‘s article about this 80-year-old academic who is “despised by many authoritarian regimes and respected by opposition activists around the globe.”

I remember learning about nonviolent resistance in school, with the primary examples being Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also remember realizing, as a student, how much a teacher’s ability to control the class depended on the students’ willingness to cooperate. (And as an unsuccessful young teacher I saw, from the other side of the equation, just how little I could accomplish without it.)

Gene Sharp’s contribution is research and dissemination of information on how nonviolent resistance has been used, and with what results, so that others suffering under oppressive regimes can make the most effective leverage of people’s unwillingness to cooperate any longer in their own oppression. His books provide specific recommendations, and opposition groups in various countries have proved their worth.

It’s no surprise, then, that the leaders of countries like Iran and Venezuela consider Sharp a threat to them. But the internet is making his writings more easily accessible to more people than ever before. His books have been burned in Moscow bookstores, but his 90-page From Dictatorship to Democracy can be downloaded for free from his website – in 22 languages.

Even some activists aren’t pleased with his message, preferring the take more direct – and violent – action. And Sharp warns that even those who follow the roadmap he provides may be targets of violence. But he’s not preaching a pacifist religious message, he’s telling people what has been shown to work. As the WSJ article notes, “though he warns readers that resistance may provoke violent crackdowns and will take careful planning to succeed, Mr. Sharp writes that any dictatorship will eventually collapse if its subjects refuse to obey.”

All eyes on China

August 8, 2008

For at least two decades I’ve read conflicting arguments over the best approach to foreign relations with China. Will increased trade help bring about increased freedom for Chinese people, as they are exposed to Western ideas more and experience a taste of free choice at least in the area of buying and selling? Or is that just rewarding the authoritarian regime, allowing them improved status and power without their having to improve their record much if at all?

These questions have come up for a lot of discussion as the preparations for the Beijing Olympics have progressed. And they’re not any easier to answer. I know some people think it was a terrible mistake for the IOC to award the 2008 Summer games to Beijing. They think President Bush should boycott the games. Some of them will practice their own private boycott by not watching the games on TV.

I have little interest in watching the games themselves, but I’ve many times thought about whether or not it’s good to buy products made in China. Some products are made by slave labor, and others by people working in such awful conditions that it might as well be slave labor. Yet other companies in China provide decent working conditions, and offer new opportunities for prosperity, personal advancement, and contact with Western people and ideas, which bring many benefits to their workers and their families. Reducing trade with China would reduce both.

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The wisdom of Karl Popper

July 28, 2008

If I heard of Karl Popper before today, it wasn’t in a context that left any memory of the name. But when I came across several quotes by him in the wikiquote page for today, I decided this was someone to learn more about. And by the time I had read a bit more about him, including more quotes, I decided I need to look for a good biography of Popper.

He is best known as a philosopher of science, but also wrote on political philosophy. Some of the quotes that particularly struck me were these:

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.

True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.

You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government. I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence “democracy”, and the other “tyranny”.

It is wrong to think that belief in freedom always leads to victory; we must always be prepared for it to lead to defeat. If we choose freedom, then we must be prepared to perish along with it.

Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you.  

One I will have to give some more thought to is his discussion of the paradox of tolerance:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Quatorze juillet

July 14, 2008

July 14 (commonly known as Bastille Day) is one of the few foreign holidays I remember easily. Perhaps because it is exactly ten days after our own July 4 celebration (and I associate the number ten with the French Revolution because that was when they implemented the metric system – and also tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to replace the traditional seven-day week with a ten-day week). Perhaps because it is exactly six months after (and before) my own birthday.

Or perhaps just because I studied French for five years and taught it for one year. I know (part of) the French national anthem (“La Marseillaise,” which came out of the French Revolution), and I have at least a sketchy idea of French history. One year for French class I had to write a paper on French history, and I remember finding it very odd that they had gone through five constitutions while the U.S. has managed to get along with only one that whole time.

Their celebration of independence, however, goes back to events that led to the first republic, as that was the great step forward from “absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy.” Still, with the images of the French Revolution that I learned in 12th grade Western Civ class (Marat stabbed to death in his bathtub, the reign of terror under Robespierre), I still find it strange to think of joyfully celebrating the beginning of that bloody revolution.

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