Monday, August 30, 2010

Individual Rights & 'Right Things To Do' Aren't The Same.

As a nation, we are historically big on individual 'rights' because our Constitution specifies their importance.
In fact, the first ten Amendments are actually called the 'Bill of Rights'.
Of course, each subsequent, duly adopted Amendment either impacts and/or modifies our 'rights' as well.

Our Founders excelled at identifying and broadly describing those basic principles that we value most.
But, sometimes the devil is in the details, which means specific, fair and consistent interpretations must be made -and vetted- from time to time by appropriate Federal officials, whether Judicial, Legislative or Executive.

Sometimes, these 'rights' may seem to conflict with each other, which requires other legal judgements be made.
Too, there are bound to be differences of opinion, some of which never seem to be completely settled to everyone's satisfaction.
That is the nature of what we term unalienable 'rights', even though much good faith effort has gone into their adoption over time.

What we do when disputes and disagreements arise is usually handled through our system of laws, which may also be susceptible to change and interpretation.
However, the one principle that is essential is to have the rule of law, as determined by a representative democratic process.
Without that, we are toast as the nation we profess and aspire to be.

So far, we can count on at least two levels of interpretation that are inherently built into our basic government system.
If these are conscientiously adhered to, or enforced as necessary, our system can work pretty well, despite the complications of timely decisions and increasing complexity.
The key is voluntary understanding, trust and compliance by citizens, which is difficult to obtain and easy to lose.

Then, there is a third level of interpretation for which every citizen has the responsibility; the choice and inclination to 'do the right thing'.
Now, that's a pretty nebulous concept, isn't it? And, essentially unenforcible, too.
Not a big surprise for the standard of freedom our Constitution sets, either.

Moral values and codes of conduct are matters of individual choice and judgement, as long as they comply with our laws.
That can be both a blessing and a curse, as we can readily observe every day in countless ways.
Motives for actions that are mean-spirited, dishonest or self-serving may not be strictly illegal, but they certainly do not support the lofty principles our Constitution promises.

Too often, we seem to allow this variable third level of interpretation to color our appreciation for the first two essential levels.
The 'media', as we now experience it, is certainly complicit in spreading -at light speed- opinions that are often questionable at best.
And, we know the media is in a constant, frenzied competition for 'market share' or ratings.

It's pretty well known that passions are more easily aroused and influenced than the intellect, which likely is attributable to our earliest survival instincts.
That is why a large part of the 'media' frequently uses emotional issues and techniques to attract its audience.
Have you noticed?

I'm really glad every citizen -including me- has the right to determine what issues are important and what to do about them.
But, sometimes, our knee-jerk reactions are definitely not the product of fair-minded, rational thought.
Here are a few examples for readers to consider from their own perspectives:

The proposed development near the WTC in New York

Does an owner -any owner- have the right to finance and develop private property?

Does the impacted neighborhood, city, state or nation have the right to object to an owner developing its property, to the extent this is not the right thing to do?

Glenn Beck's Rally in Washington, DC

Did Beck have the rightto do this?

Was this the right thing to do?

Sarah Palin's resignation as Governor of Alaska

Did she have the right to do it?

Was this the right thing to do?

The myriad politically motivated organizations, campaigns, clever slogans, books, articles, statements and blogs that are meant to disseminate misinformation, half-truths, smears and outright lies

Do people have the right to create, finance and perpetuate such things?

Are these the right things to do?

Each of the three levels of interpretation identified here can add a layer of mature certainty, but if we are not careful they can also add confusion and unhelpful division.
I sincerely hope our Constitutional principles endure and serve to enhance America, and that we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.
But that outcome is not certain, particularly if we do not honestly and consistently demand the best choices and decisions for ourselves and our nation as a whole.

Freedom and individual rights are not free and never have been.
If we truly treasure these concepts we must practice them ourselves.
An environment that nurtures civil rights requires constant renewal if it is to be sustained.

Friday, August 20, 2010

History: A Zero Sum Game?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
-George Santayana

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
-William Faulkner -Requiem for a Nun


What do we really learn from history?
How is knowledge preserved and transferred to later generations?
I'm confident we can and do learn something from the past, but is it sufficient to focus us away from repeating mistakes?

Examining remains from past civilizations -think Incas, Egyptians, Romans, Mesopotamians, China, etc- reveals evidence of truly remarkable knowledge, some of which we are only beginning to comprehend ourselves - centuries later.

What happened in the intervals between that necessitates us having to re-learn what was already known?
Was it as simple as the dearth of records, extinction of languages, warfare, famine, disease or decay over time?

Or was it something else?
Like maybe the apparent need for every generation or age to independently discover basic truths -and myths- for themselves?

Then, there is the continuing struggle between diverse beliefs and what is generally known as rational science and reasoning.
But, hey, it's a free country!

Sometimes it seems our Founding Fathers were much smarter than we are today.
Heck, those folks had to fight an extended war against long odds to gain the freedom to draft a Constitution that is based on the concept of freedom!

Nowadays, we have trouble even reading the plain words of what the Founders agreed to, much less understand some of the sound principles they strongly recommended.

Of course, our Founders weren't perfect, but they were motivated to not only learn from history but to endeavor for our country not to repeat some -not all- of its mistakes.
You know, like the Bill of Rights [Amendments 1-10], avoiding foreign wars, civilian control of the military, the rule of law, open government, the ability to reasonably modify our constitution as time & circumstances may require, periodic elections by the majority of voting citizens, etc.

Just a few little things like that.

So, how did we get involved with deadly and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Actually, the latter may be easier to explain because that where Osama bin Laden was physically based at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Of course that was 9 years ago, in 2001, at which we had good chances to actually capture OBL.
But, somehow, we got distracted.

Instead, we attacked oil-rich Iraq based on faulty 'information'.
Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, as despicable as Saddam Hussein may have been.
Now, its great we're withdrawing our 'combat troops', after suffering thousands of casualties at enormous cost - which was not even accounted for!

I sincerely hope Iraq will be worth its cost, but only time will tell.

Do you think we followed our Founders' advice in either case?
Did we take any advantage of their wisdom, or did we substitute our own seat-of-the-pants expediency?

While reflecting on comparisons between our avowed principles and the practice thereof, what about the fuss about an Islamic group's proposal to build near the former World Trade Center destroyed on 9/11 with the tragic loss of many lives?

Do we get to blame an entire religion for the actions of a small group of misguided extremists?
And, if we do, aren't we the victims of similar flawed, blame-game thinking?

That the legal 'right' to build anything at -or near- that site does exist for almost any qualified entity which meets the land use and financial requirements, should not be a matter of debate, notwithstanding the understandable emotional sensitivities involved.

Citizens do have the right to their own opinion, particularly in the case of nationally symbolic places, even if they don't happen to live nearby.
And, there certainly aren't that many instances in which everyone is supportive of an idea, so it is always prudent to weigh such decisions carefully.

Despite the fact that after due process, official New York City planning agencies believe the actual building proposal in question is a potentially good idea, there has been a chorus of loud and emotional appeals against it.
Nothing new or unusual about that is there?

We often experience such debates, and thank goodness we do.
Many times that debate does result in a better result.
But there times in which emotional arguments are deliberately used to drown out rational ideas.
Just look at several local NIMBY issues as examples.

The point is, if we are going to be true to our Constitution and its clear principles, we need to put that first and not allow ourselves to be unduly swayed by anger and fear tactics, like we have at times in the past.
Just think about what has happened with the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII for example.
Or, our continuing over reaction to issues involving discrimination based on race, politics, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age and the like.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could take a time-out for reflection on what principles our Founders intended for us, and hoped we would follow as a unified nation, instead of buying into the static offered by our so-called media?
We know we are capable of thinking for ourselves, don't we?
I hope so. If not, may God help us.

One last thought:
What one act can you think of that might do more to prevent future terrorist attacks on New York City?

Could it be allowing the proposed building to be constructed and used as a symbol of national unity and a testament to our resolve to reaffirm our Founders' principles?

Think about it.

Please, let's don't waste the lessons from our own history!

A lie may take care of the present, but it has no future. ~Author Unknown