(See also this xkcd)
This. Every single word of this. It's perfect.
Wrong question. Wrong questions get wrong answers.
-- Master Gregory, Seventh Son (2014)
As veteran, what do you think of the Collin Kaepernick controversy?
That was the question As a veteran, what do you think …
Readers often ask me about current events.
Well, because that’s what I do nowadays. That’s my job. I’m a political essayist, I write about the world, about politics, about war, about America.
But I used to be in the military. I spent most of my adult life there. I’m a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. If you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in good company.
Regular readers know my background, or a bit of it anyway. As such, no one asks me “As a writer, what do you think?” As an artist. As a Michigander by way of Alaska trapped in the fetid swamps of the Florida Panhandle. Nobody asks me that. They want my opinion as a veteran.
And that condition changes things.
Let’s start with the National Anthem.
Guess what, Folks? The Star Spangled Banner doesn’t belong to veterans.
No, it doesn’t.
The national anthem is just that, the anthem of the nation.
This wasn’t some Memorial Day parade honoring the fallen. This wasn’t some Veteran’s Day ceremony upon the hallowed ground of Arlington. This was a sporting event and a preseason one at that. Look around that stadium, how many were talking on their phones? How many were texting? Or in line for hotdogs and beer? How many were watching Colin Kaepernick instead of the flag?
How many veterans were waiting for care in the lobby of some VA hospital while that anthem was playing?
How many veterans committed suicide in that same period, finally overcome by depression and despair and the weight of their service?
How many veterans were outside that stadium, sleeping in boxes on the street, digging in the trash for food, lost in the nightmares of PTSD and mental illness?
How many veterans were gunned down on the street while that anthem played?
How many veterans bills to address these issues passed the House and Senate while that song played?
And it’s a football player you’re angry about, because he didn’t stand for a song?
You want to make this about veterans? Then you’re starting in the wrong place.
This isn’t about veterans.
Veterans don’t own the song.
Veterans don’t own a song about a flag even if it is the Star Spangled Banner.
And that flag doesn’t belong to veterans either.
The song, the flag, those are symbols of a nation, the whole nation, not just one little subset of it.
At the moment, there are around 1.4 million people (not all of which are Americans) serving in the US armed forces. That’s less than half of 1% of the total US population. Now, there are a lot more former service members than there are those currently serving on active duty. Nobody is really sure exactly how many, but estimates put the number of veterans at about 22 million, based on VA data compiled from the Department of Defense, US Census Bureau, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration. Add up those numbers and you find only about 7.3% of the total US population have ever served in the military. About 13.4% of all American males have served. About 1.4% of American females are veterans. Some of those vets served only a few years. Some like me served nearly their entire adult life. Like me, some served honorably and retired, some served only a few years, and some were tossed out for various offenses or medical reasons or just for being shitty soldiers. Some like me loved the military, some hated every single goddamned terrible minute of it. Some like me volunteered, some were conscripted against their will. Like me, some served in war, and like me some served in peace. Some drove trucks, some pushed papers, some washed dishes, some pulled triggers. Some came home whole and some didn’t.
But no matter how you break it down, veterans are less than 8% of the total US population.
We don’t own the flag. We don’t own the song. Those symbols represent all Americans, vet and non-vet alike.
And this is by intent.
The people who designed this country made the military subordinate to the elected civilian leadership for a reason.
They put the military under control of a civilian president for a reason and made it answerable to the people.
And when the Framers wrote the Constitution, they purposely did not require military experience from those elected to office.
Because we are not Spartans.
We are not Romans. We are not Nazis. We are not some warrior culture bent to conquest that puts military service on a pedestal to be worshiped.
We’re supposed to be the good guys.
We’re supposed to fight only when we have to, out of dire necessity and because there are no other options and not for some goddamned glorious spectacle.
That’s who we’re supposed to be.
America isn’t just veterans. Veterans might have defended this country, but without the other 92% of the population there wouldn’t be an America to defend. America is veterans, but it’s also everybody else, bricklayers and dishwashers and road builders and firefighters and cops and engineers and scientists and doctors and teachers and students and librarians, rich and poor, young and old, hale and infirm, black, brown, white, yellow, red, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, short and tall, male and female, immigrant and natural-born, and whatever other variation you care to name.
That flag, that anthem, represents all of those people and all of their history.
And while a lot of that history is pretty spectacular, a lot of it isn’t. A lot of it is spattered in blood and begrimed with violence.
And while America itself is a pretty great place to be – despite what some politicians want you to believe – we’re far from perfect and there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it in endless cycle. The Founders knew this and they didn’t just crap out a finished product and sit back on their asses expecting it to work for everybody for all time. The idea was a more perfect nation, not a perfect one. They did the best they could with what they had. They knew it wasn’t finished so they installed mechanisms into the fabric of our country that would allow for update and refinement – see Amendments to the Constitution et al.
We’re still working on that.
America clunks along pretty well for a lot of us. But not for everybody. Not yet. And because of that history and because we are human and because we each have the freedom to see the world as we will, the process of making America work for all of us is messy and fraught with endless setbacks. And it will never be done, it’s an ongoing job so long as time passes and the nation endures.
And that means the flag, the anthem, represent different things to different Americans – and some of you are just going to have to get used to that idea.
Next, let’s talk about the oath.
The oath all military members swear.
Enlisted personnel swear the following oath:
"I, (state your full name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
Officers take a similar oath with some crucial differences:
“I, (state your full name), having been appointed an officer in the (service branch) of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of (rank) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God."
Enlisted personnel can be drafted against their will, which means they might take the oath with more than a bit of mental reservation. A lot of conscripted guys going off to Vietnam had serious reservations regarding their enlistment. Don’t take my word for it, ask them.
Officers on the other hand can’t be drafted.
An officer must take the oath freely and without reservation – under penalty of law. If it turns out you, as an officer, are unable to well and faithfully execute the duties of your office because you have mental reservations which you kept concealed at the time of your oath, then depending on the circumstances you’re likely to face resigning your commission or sitting in front of a court martial on your way to prison.
I took both of these oaths. First as an enlisted man and later as a commissioned officer. As the latter I administered the oath to others many, many times. The one thing both of those oaths have in common is this part: I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
We swear our oath, our lives, to the Constitution.
Not the flag.
Not the anthem.
Not to the president.
Not to congress.
Not to the citizens.
Not to a political party or ideology.
Not to a race.
Not to a religion.
We swear our oath to the Constitution.
But what does that mean? That we swear to give our lives for some raggedy old piece of paper? Is it the sacred paper itself that commands our allegiance? Some old piece of parchment, yellowed, handwritten in an archaic language, falling apart, stored away in a nitrogen-filled box somewhere in the National Archives. Is that it?
Ah, I see. It’s not the paper -- whether it be that hoary old original document or one of those mass produced little booklets supposed patriots and politicians like to toss around. The paper doesn’t matter, it’s the ideas written on it.
We swear our oath to an idea.
This idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We swear we will bear true faith and allegiance, and give our lives if necessary, for that idea.
That idea was the foundation of the United States of America.
That idea was the very first words spoken by the new nation.
A war for that idea, tens of thousands dead for that idea, a decade of argument and bitter debate and endless compromise later and that idea became the Constitution of the United States.
That’s what we swear our oath to.
That’s why the Founders and the Framers made us subordinate to the civilian leadership – so that we would never forget that our place, our duty, is to defend the life, liberty, and happiness of all Americans. The ones we agree with and identify with and call brother and the ones we don’t. This is why Americans should be appalled and alarmed by the recent tendency of presidents to wrap themselves in military custom. The president is the civilian Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, not the General in Chief. The president shouldn’t be wearing military garb or rendering a salute. His civilian status should forcefully remind every American of their military’s subordinate role in our society every single day, especially it should remind the president and generals.
We are not Rome, and if we wish to remain so then this reminder is vital.
Okay, stop right there, Jim, I hear you say in that tone you use when you’re pretty sure you’ve got me. Back up. What about “enemies, foreign and domestic?” What about that?
What about it? We just covered that.
We, we military, we don’t get to decide who is and who is not an enemy, or who is and who is not an American – check the Constitution if you don’t believe me.
The military’s job is to defend the country, not rule it.
That’s not our job. And for a damned good reason.
It’s your job.
We are a representative democracy, a constitutional republic, not a mob, not a military dictatorship. It is our elected civilian government’s job as constrained by the law and limited by the Constitution to decide who is and who is not an enemy.
If you don’t like how they’re doing it, then elect better leaders. You’re the check, you’re the safety stop.
Only about 50% of you vote. What kind of safety system only shows up 50% of the time?
If you want a better nation, you have to be better citizens.
You are who that flag, that anthem, represents.
And that takes us to your question:
AS A VETERAN, what do you think about Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit during the National Anthem?
That was your question. That’s how you phrased it. As a veteran.
If you’d asked me as a citizen, as a civilian, as a writer, as an artist, as a father, as a patriot, as a transplanted Michigander by way of Alaska living in the hellish fetid dinosaur infested swamps of the Florida Panhandle, I might have a different answer – then again I might not.
But that’s not what you asked.
You asked me to speak as a veteran, and as a veteran there is only one answer.
The very first thing I learned in the military is this: Respect is a two-way street.
If you want respect, true respect, sincere respect, then you have to give it.
If you want respect, you have to do the things necessary to earn it each and every single day. There are no short cuts and no exceptions. This is true of men and true of nations.
Respect cannot be compelled.
Respect cannot be bought.
Respect cannot be inherited.
Respect cannot be demanded at the muzzle of a gun or by beating it into somebody or by shaming them into it. Can not. You might get what you think is respect, but it's not. It's only the appearance of respect. It's fear, it's groveling, it's not respect. Far, far too many people both in and out of the military, people who should emphatically know better, do not understand this simple fact.
There is an enormous difference between fear and respect. One is slavery, the other is liberty.
Respect has to be earned.
Respect. Has. To. Be. Earned.
Respect has to be earned every day, by every word, by every action.
Respect has to be given freely.
It takes a lifetime of words and deeds to earn respect.
It takes only one careless word, one thoughtless action, to lose it.
You have to be worthy of respect. You have to live up to, or at least do your best to live up to, those high ideals – the ones America supposedly embodies, that shining city on the hill, that exceptional nation we talk about, yes, that self-evident truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To earn respect you have to be fair. You have to have courage. You must embrace reason. You have to know when to hold the line and when to compromise. You have to take responsibility and be accountable for it.
You have to keep your word.
You have to give respect, true respect, to get it back.
There are no short cuts. None.
And any veteran worth the label should know this. All of it. If they don't, then likely they weren't much of a soldier to begin with and you can tell them I said so.
If Colin Kaepernick doesn't feel his country respects him enough for him to respect it in return, you can not make him respect it.
You can not make him respect it.
It is impossible.
If you try to force a man to respect you, you'll only make him respect you less.
With threats, by violence, by shame, you can maybe compel Kaepernick to stand up and put his hand over his heart and force him to be quiet. You might.
But that's not respect.
It's only the illusion of respect.
And, yes, you might force this man into the illusion of respect. We’ve done such things in the past, beaten the illusion of respect into people of color. So you might. Would you be satisfied then? Would that make you happy? Would that make you respect your nation, the one which forced a man to his knees, into the illusion of respect, a nation of little clockwork patriots all touching their forelock to the tyranny of ideology and pretending satisfaction and respect?
Is that what you want?
If that’s what matters to you, that illusion of respect, then you're not talking about freedom or liberty. You're not talking about the United States of America. Instead you're talking about every dictatorship from the Nazis to North Korea where people are lined up and made to salute with the muzzle of a gun pressed to the back of their necks.
That, that illusion of respect, is not why I wore a uniform.
That's not why I held up my right hand and swore the oath and put my life on the line for my country.
That’s not why I administered the oath to others.
That, that illusion of respect, is not why I am a veteran.
Not so a man should be forced to show respect he doesn't feel.
That's called slavery and I have no respect for that at all.
If Americans want this man to respect America, then first they must respect him.
I didn’t say you had to agree with him.
I didn’t say you had to agree with his methods.
Just as I don’t have to agree with those who exercise their Constitutional right to stand on the corner in this little Southern town waving their bibles and loudly damning me to their hell.
Just as I don’t have to agree with those who exercise their Constitutional right to daily scream NRA talking points at me and carry their semi-automatic dick-extenders into the grocery store.
Just as I don’t have to agree with the pundits and the press who exercise their Constitutional right to create paranoia and hate and falsehoods whole cloth.
Just as I don’t have to agree with either the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, or the drooling idiot Sovereign Citizens who march on the White House periodically to demand the president be tried in a kangaroo court and hung from the nearest lamp-post, I don’t have to agree with any of them when they exercise their Constitutional rights to assemble.
As a citizen, I might disagree with one hell of a lot of the ways other Americans exercise their rights, I might have no respect for their actions or their words and I might even write about it here in less than respectful language.
But as a veteran, I do have to respect them – whether they are worthy of it in my opinion or not. Because I swore my oath to the ideal that they have every right to believe as they will. That, that right there, was the whole damned point of my service in the first place.
Here’s what that respect got me this week: 50,000 plus messages of respect in return.
See how that works?
The same is true of men and true of nations.
If America wants the world's respect, it must be worthy of respect.
America must be worthy of respect. Torture, rendition, indefinite detention, unarmed black men shot down in the street, poverty, inequality, voter suppression, racism, bigotry in every form, obstructionism, blind patriotism, none of those things are worthy of respect from anybody -- least of all an American.
That does not mean there aren’t many things to admire about America.
But those great things don’t give you a pass on the bad stuff.
Our Founders expected us to fix those things, to keep making America better. Not great again, better. If you can’t see that, then perhaps those men had a higher opinion of us than we deserve.
Now, doesn’t all this also mean if Kaepernick himself wants respect, he must give it first? Give it to America? Be worthy of respect himself? Stand up, shut up, and put his hand over his heart before Old Glory?
No. It doesn't.
Respect doesn't work that way.
Power flows from positive to negative. Electricity flows from greater potential to lesser.
The United States isn't a person. It's a vast imperfect construct. It is a framework of law and order and civilization designed to protect the weak from the ruthless and after more than two centuries of revision and refinement it exists to provide in equal measure for all of us the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s the exceptionalism we talk about, that right there.
If you want to be exceptional, then you have to be exceptional.
If being exceptional was easy, everybody would be exceptional.
Living up to the promise of the Declaration is hard. Living up to the ideals of the Constitution is hard. If it was easy, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.
All the power rests with America. Just as it does in the military chain of command. And like that chain of command, like the electrical circuit described above, respect must flow from greater to lesser first before it can return.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is a well paid pampered athlete.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is the worst quarterback who ever fumbled a play, or the finest baller to ever set foot on the gridiron.
It doesn’t matter if Colin Kaepernick is an arrogant jerk of a human being or the nicest guy you ever met.
It doesn’t matter if you think Colin Kaepernick doesn’t do enough for his cause or if he spends his money in a fashion you don’t approve of.
It doesn’t matter if you respect him.
What matters is that he is an American and he has every right to speak his piece, to use his voice and his position to make what difference he can if he so desires – and yes, to suffer the consequences of his actions if necessary. That’s his choice.
That’s his right. You don’t have to respect it, but as a veteran I must. Not to do so would make a mockery of the very things I swore my life to defend.
And that’s what you asked me, as a veteran. Remember?
To you the National Anthem means one thing, to Kaepernick it means something else. We are all shaped and defined by our experiences and we see the world through our own eyes. That's freedom. That's liberty. The right to believe differently. The right to protest as you will. The right to demand better. The right to believe your country can be better – just as the Founders themselves did – that it can live up to its sacred ideals, and the right to loudly note that it has not so far. The right to use your voice, your actions, to bring attention to the things you believe in. The right to want more for others, for the people who are important to you, freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and respect.
A true veteran might not agree with Colin Kaepernick and in fact might adamantly disagree, but a true veteran would fight to the death to protect any American’s right to say what he believes.
In the week since I wrote the original post on Facebook I’ve received literally tens of thousands of responses. The overwhelming majority are positive, notes of encouragement and understanding, enthusiastic and even reluctant agreement. It makes me proud to note many of those responses came from veterans, from cops, and from Americans who put their asses on line for their fellows every day without expectation of reward or thanks. They may not agree with Kaepernick, but they stand with him nonetheless as true Americans do. A number came from non-Americans, those on foreign shores who look to America with equal parts fear and fascination and wonder at that shining city on the hill and it makes me proud that they can still admire this nation for what it is supposed to represent.
But in that same week I’ve daily posted a roster of those who don’t get it. Those who wrote me, many who claim to be veterans, who called me traitor and called Kaepernick nigger and who have daily sent me death threats and seething hate simply because I spoke of honor and duty and respect. It is these people, these haters, these dimwitted goons, who prove with their own words the validity and necessity of Kaepernick’s protest and why I stand with him.
You asked me what I think as a veteran?
You have my answer and if you don't like what Kaepernick has to say, then prove him wrong.
Be the nation he can respect.
It's really just that simple.
If only the right people would see this
I'm a little late to share this, but it should be read. Slowly, carefully, reverently.
I’m a few days early this year, but I’m in the midst of moving cross country and have to write when I can. Portions of this text first appeared here on Stonekettle Station beginning on Memorial Day, 2011. Each year I update the text as my thoughts on the subject evolve. The wars change. The years pass. But the message remains the same. // Jim
The sky is the color of gunmetal.
Outside my window the mountains bulk like a fleet of ghostly warships on the horizon.
The world is silent here in the Matsu. The air is dead still. No dog gives warning. No planes buzz overhead. There are no glad cries of neighbor children. Even the whine of the mosquitos is missing this morning. It is cool and gray and silent as only Alaska can be, the kind damp dullness you feel in your bones – or I do anyway, the ache of more than two decades of service.
I’ll miss it.
I’ll be leaving Alaska soon, moving south to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the land of endless sunshine and unrelenting heat, alligators and rednecks and noise. I’ll miss the cool silent grayness of these Alaskan mornings. It often suits my mood, this grayness, the aching bones. Contemplation and memories, gray is a good canvas to paint on.
Somehow, today of all days, cool and gray seems fitting.
This is the day we Americans are supposed to pause for a moment and remember those many who have fallen in the service of our country.
You see, Memorial Day isn’t about honoring veterans, not the living ones anyway.
Memorial day is supposed to be about the dead.
This is the day some dutiful Americans visit the graveyards and the military cemeteries to place flowers and flags and to remember husbands and brothers and wives and mothers and sisters and sons and daughters who wore the uniform and came when called and gave the last full measure. My own father lies out there, under the cool white marble of a military cemetery, and today I dearly wish I could stop by for a visit – but it’s half a world away, too far, and my visit will have to wait another month for my drive south to Florida. It pains me that I cannot be there today, but Dad would understand.
Today is a day when we will lay the wreaths and sound the lonely trumpet and shed a tear and a salute for those comrades long gone.
Today is about the cool gray ghosts who still wander the countless battlefields of America, from Lexington to Antietam, from the Ardennes to the Chosin Reservoir, to Tet, to Basra, to Kamdesh, and all the terrible battles yet to come.
And come they will. For that is our nature.
Once this day was called Decoration Day in honor of those who died during the American Civil War.
Later the holiday became a day of remembrance for those killed in all conflicts.
Today, Memorial Day supposedly marks the passing of those who died in uniform, both in peace and in war.
Today is supposed to be about those who gave their lives for freedom and liberty, for justice and right, for the ideal of a more perfect union.
But in reality, it’s not the soldiers we remember. It’s the endless war.
It’s been more than a decade now since those terrible days in September of 2001.
Sixteen years of war and death and sacrifice.
For our children, this most recent generation, the ones just now reaching the age of reason and awareness, they have never known an America not at war.
They have never lived in a nation at peace.
Think on that. No, that’s not a rhetorical statement. Think on that. Think on how this conflict has shaped them, this generation, how it defines their worldview during the most formative years of their lives and how this world will shape the one they create a decade from now for their own children.
For them, this new generation, war has become so commonplace, so ubiquitous, that it’s simply business as usual.
For them, war simply is.
For them, war is just another aspect of American life, like plumbing and electricity and the flow of money, invisible and all around. The dead come home from conflict invisibly, hidden, silently, returned to their grieving families in quiet ceremonies away from the public eye, unlamented and unnoticed by a nation grown jaded and bored with slaughter. They don’t see the dead, not until days like this one, when the bodies are safely hidden away under slabs of white marble and fields of green manicured grass and words of patriotism and valor.
For them, this generation, war is normal.
And those of us born in the 1960’s? Well we certainly can’t tell them that this is wrong.
We certainly cannot tell this generation war is not the normal state, that normality is peace without conflict.
See, because we grew up in a nation at war too. By the time I was sixteen, America had been fighting in Southeast Asia for my entire life. The media was daily filled with images of blood and death, body counts, mangled and maimed soldiers, of burning helicopters and a terrifyingly incomprehensible enemy. We were told we would go next, that we had to, or the enemy would come here, to America, and slaughter us all.
Back home? Well, back home, the streets were filled with violence and unrest and it seemed that America was about to tear itself to pieces in a clash of violently opposed ideologies – because no matter how much the enemy might despise us, we hated ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Americans, even more. And how did that shape our worldview, the world we have given to our own children?
For us, war is the normal state of affairs too.
And our parents?
They remember a brief period of idyllic America, the perfect peaceful 1950’s, sock hops and ducktails and white picket fences, providing you lived on the right side of the tracks – while Korea raged unseen and ignored in the background and at home they waited for the bombs to fall and saw commies hiding in every shadow.
Their parents had World War Two, and before that … well, the list goes back a long, long way and perhaps war is a normal state of affairs for us Americans after all.
There are a lot of dead to remember on this Memorial Day.
And so it goes, this endless cycle.
Today there are those who instead of picnicking with their familiars, instead of working in their yards or enjoying the day, will be patrolling the dark and dangerous corners of this world. They’re out there, right now, walking the bitter broken mountains of central Asia. They’re out there right now standing the long watch on and below and above the seas. They’re out there in the fetid festering jungles of South America, in the dry dusty deserts of Africa, in the blistering heat of the Middle East, in lands so remote you’ve never even heard of them – and wouldn’t believe the descriptions of such places if you did. They are out there right now, as far away as a cold airless orbit high above the Earth and as close as local bases in their own states and the armories of their own home towns.
Some of these men and women will not live out today.
Some will most certainly come home to Dover Air Force Base in a cold steel box beneath the draped colors of the Stars and Stripes, their war over, their dreams ash, soon to be just another restless ghost in America’s legion of the dead.
Today, there are those who wear the uniform, but can no longer serve – their duty stations are the crowded and forgotten wards of military hospitals around the world. They won’t be working in the yard or grilling out today either. Some will spend the day with family, even if they are unaware of it.
Soon too their last battle will be over.
Today there are those who no longer serve, no longer wear the uniform, but they still fight. They fight the nightmares of Vietnam and Beirut and Mosul and Firebase Alpha and a thousand other battlefields you’ve never heard of. They are the walking dead, killed in action only they no longer have the wit to know it and so they haunt the streets of America, the forgotten unseen discarded cold gray ghosts of war and conflict, poisoned by nightmares, by pills and alcohol and poverty, slowly fading away.
And today, of course, there are those who no longer fight, no longer struggle, no longer remember. They lay entombed in the soil of foreign nations, at Normandy, at Tunis, at the Ardennes, at Brookwood and Cambridge, at Flanders and Lorraine, at Manila, Mexico City, in the Netherlands, the Somme, and many other places whose names most Americans no longer remember or never knew. One hundred and twenty four thousand, nine hundred and nine American servicemen lay interred forever in twenty-four cemeteries on foreign shores and there they will stay, never to return to America. They were the lucky ones, if you can call it luck, found and honored and laid to rest by their fellows. Others, well, their bones are myriad and they litter the sea floor beneath all the oceans of the world or are lost in the jungles and deserts on all the world’s continents, their resting places unknown and unremembered.
Today, here, within the boundaries of the United States, there are one hundred and forty-six national military cemeteries, and more than a million Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Guardsmen lie beneath the cold white granite, my own father among their brave company.
Their battles are long, long over, even if the war still rages on.
They, all of them, came when called, some of their own free will and some not, and did their duty and no one, no one, can ask any more of them.
For them, for all of them, for those who have fallen or will fall in this lousy war, and for all those who have fallen in all the conflicts we’ve fought lo these many years, for those who will fall tomorrow, today raise a glass and give a nod towards the flag.
Remember those cool gray ghosts.
If only for a moment.
I mean obviously none of the starving people in the world are thinking “I want food” with enough conviction.
And clearly nobody facing a fatal disease or a potential murderer is thinking “I don’t want to die!” firmly enough.
And it’s absolutely self-evident that those of us thinking “Would all you raving idiots please stop promoting such bullshit” aren’t doing so with our whole heart.
I mean, really. All it takes is to truly want things. Put them out there into the universe. Can’t you see that?
I’m giving an exam on Friday, so I’ve offered the students extended office hours today and Thursday, so that they can stop by and get any questions answered. Many hours of office hours. Hours in which I cannot leave. So I’m noodling about on the internet a bit, because of course none of my students have come by, and I run across this little article about Oprah Winfrey, and her new project, a show about Belief. “Oh god,” I thought, “please let a student come by to ask me lots of questions. Even to offer lots of excuses. Anything to prevent me from reading any of this.” But no students came by.
There is no god.
Free of any responsibility or obligation, my eyeballs involuntarily swiveled to the open page, and my brain slurped down the anecdote Winfrey offered. I couldn’t help myself. I read everything. I can’t not read something. I’m like a rat, who eats but has no emesis reflex, so the toxin just enters and simmers there, in my head, making my consciousness regret ever waking.
One day I was at my farm in Indiana. It was a rainy day and I was thinking, “Gee, I sure would like some tomato soup.” Soon after, the caretaker who lived across the street came in with a pot of tomato soup. I asked her: “What made you do that?” She said: “Well, honey, I had these tomatoes. So I thought maybe you’d like some tomato soup.” So I was like, Wow, if you can get tomato soup like that, what else is possible? What else can I manifest? So I started trying it with other things. I have seen it happen over and over and over again. You control a lot by your thoughts.
“I have just consumed poison,” my brain howled, “and I cannot vomit it out.” It writhed in my skull, chasing its tail and slavering frothy drool, desperate to end the agony eating away inside it. How can she believe this? How can someone so deluded be worth umpty-billion dollars?
My brain squirmed over this for a while. I could feel my neurons melting, dripping and pooling in a little puddle of sad lipids at the base of my cranium.
And then I had a thought.
I would like some tomato soup, I thought.
I had a banana for breakfast (wait, did I? I think I forgot to have breakfast) and skipped lunch and it’s late in the afternoon and I’m trapped here in my office and boy am I hungry and a nice bowl of hot tomato soup sure would taste great right now, with lots of little oyster crackers and maybe a glass of milk on the side.
Gee, that sure would be nice.
And then I thought, no, even better, I would like some French onion soup. I would chop up a big onion — no, two, I would share — and caramelize it and simmer it in a big pot with some spices, and then I would serve it with some cheese and a baguette and a nice wine, and it would be delicious. I need this. I deserve this. OK, the tomato soup would be fine, too. See, I’m a reasonable man. I’ve given the universe alternatives. My demands are so simple and inexpensive and easy, and I allow a whole hierarchy of choices that would all make me equally happy.
Right now, my brain wants nothing but soup. It can think of nothing but soup. I am a focused node of desire, and I want nothing but soup.
UNIVERSE, WHERE IS MY SOUP? I WANT MY SOUP NOW.
I WANT OPRAH WINFREY TO SHOW UP AT MY OFFICE WITH MY SOUP. And umpty-billion dollars.
You don’t have to bring the cash to my office, Oprah. You can just mail me the check, sometime in the next week or two.
See, I’m reasonable.
WHERE THE FUCK IS MY SOUP?
Now my office hours are over. I can go home.
Maybe I should make some soup.
I've gotten a lot of mail on Baltimore.
Why haven't you said anything? When are you going to weigh in on this? Do you not care?
Baltimore is burning and why haven’t I said anything?
You don't think there’s been enough self-serving gratuitous hand wringing, chest beating, and dick waggling on this subject?
Because every network, every pundit, every politician has managed to find a way to profit from this latest round of violence. Every single one.
Before that, though, not one of them ever mentioned Baltimore. Not even me. Nobody gives a shit about Baltimore – not even Martin O'Malley and he used to run the place. But suddenly every media outlet has a truck in Baltimore, live on the scene and streaming the pictures into every living room in glorious High Definition and there you are, on the bloody mean streets of Baltimore.
Every presidential hopeful has something to say about Baltimore.
Every Senator and every Representative knows who to blame for Baltimore.
Every pundit is an authority on Baltimore.
And every American has picked a side in Baltimore.
And so, what? I should make some hay in Baltimore too? Sure, why shouldn’t I pander for donations and page views and "likes" built on the pain and misery of others?
So, what is it exactly that you'd like me to say?
I mean, what is there left to say?
You're maybe expecting some pithy observation? Some special insight, right? Sorry, I'm fresh out.
We all, every single one of us whether we admit it or not, we all know what the deal is in Baltimore.
It's the same all over America.
It’s the same all over the world in fact.
When people have nothing left to lose, when rage and hopelessness are the norm, when violence and poverty have become birthrights, when systematic disenfranchisement is the order of the day, then riot and destruction are always only seconds away. Always.
What we forget is this: When people have nothing left to lose, then the only thing left to them is rage.
You've seen this how many times in your life? How many times throughout history? Here and abroad? Opportunists who inevitably turn peaceful protest to violence. Faceless police, machine-like in armor and shields. Riot and mayhem. Soldiers in the streets. Fire, shattered windows, blood, and the air dense with the fog of gas?
And you're surprised, shocked, how?
You look at the images on your screen and you see exactly what you want to see, confirmation of whatever terrors keep you up afraid in the night. The politicians and the media, left and right and lost in the middle, feed you whatever you want to hear.
We’ve seen this same, exact, scenario played out how many times? Frankly, I’m only surprised that it happens as infrequently as it does in America, that’s a luxury unknown for many outside our borders.
But the thing is this: You know how to solve this problem.
You know what the answers are, we all do, even those of us currently determined not to admit it.
Oh we certainly do: equality, justice, liberty, humanity, compassion, education, investment, opportunity, access, community, shared history, shared dreams, shared purpose, belonging, pride, acceptance, self worth, respect.
Those are what make up a stable civilization.
Those are the things that keep people from riot and rage.
Those are the things that hold civilization together and drive it forward.
But those things do not exist in a vacuum.
It’s not enough to tell others to pick themselves up.
It’s not enough to to yell, “get a job, have some pride, stop lighting shit on fire, you stupid lazy fuckers!”
You can not bootstrap from nothing to everything.
Civilization, society, they don't spring whole cloth from parched soil, they require effort. A healthy civilization, one that doesn’t go around lighting itself on fire, well, that requires we make good on the promise of our founders: life, liberty, and justice for all. Along with equality, humanity, compassion, tolerance, solid education, investment, opportunity, access, community, shared history and shared dreams and a shared purpose, a sense of belonging and ownership – only then will you see pride in self and respect for others replace rage.
But civilization is hard.
If it was easy, if those things listed above were easy, then they would be the human condition.
But it is injustice and intolerance and rage that are the norm instead.
Civilization has to be built from the ground up, nurtured, encouraged, protected, watched over, managed.
It's much easier to ignore the problem.
It’s far far easier to blame complex problems on simple things, race, drugs, ideology, religion, money. It makes for a better sound bite. It tells us that it’s not our fault nor our responsibility. It’s them, those stupid lazy fuckers, if they’d just get a job and stop lighting shit on fire, pull up their pants and take some pride in themselves…
Like New York and Berkeley, like Ferguson, like Brooklyn, like Anaheim, like Oakland, and like a thousand other moments of rage before, Baltimore will soon be forgotten.
And we’ll go on as before. Eyes averted, pretending there’s nothing wrong.
But down underneath? We all know, all of us, what needs to be done.
But we will not do it.
And tomorrow another city will burn.
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
― Winston Churchill
Obama doesn’t love America.
Not like you and me.
"I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe President Obama loves America. So says Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, failed presidential hopeful, and lover of America.
Rudy says that Barack Obama doesn’t love America. Obama doesn’t love you and he doesn’t love me. Obama, see, he’s not like us, not like real Americans. Obama wasn’t brought up the way we were brought up, imbued with mad love for our country.
Giuliani made those remarks at a conservative New York fund raising event for presidential hopeful Scott Walker.
And nobody, not one person in the audience, challenged that assertion.
Obama doesn’t love America the way we do.
When asked by the press to clarify his comments, Giuliani explained,
"He's a patriot, I'm sure. What I'm saying is that, in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear him say the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan say, the things I used to hear Bill Clinton say, about how much he loves America. I do hear him criticize America much more often than other American presidents."
Obama is a patriot, Giuliani admits, sure. But different. Not like Reagan. Not like Clinton. Not like us.
That’s what plantation owners used to say when they sold black children away from their parents, when they broke up families: they’re not like us, they don’t love their kids like we do.
That’s what we used to say when we sought our Manifest Destiny across the Great Plains. We’re special. Indians? They don’t love America like we do. They can’t love their kids or their wives or their god like we love ours. They can’t, they’re savages.
That’s what we used to say when we burned down villages in Korea and Vietnam, hey don’t feel sorry for them, they don’t feel emotions the way we do. That’s what we say about Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t feel pain or loss, they’re not the same as us, they can’t love their kids or their spouses or their country like we do.
That’s what we used to say when women wanted to vote. Hey, god love ‘em but they just don’t think like we do. They’re not like us, like real Americans.
That’s what we say now about gay people. Why do they want to get married? They can’t love each other like we do, not really.
And Obama? Well, he can’t love America the way Rudy Giuliani and his wealthy white Wall Street friends do.
And this idea, that “they” can’t love the way we do, is such an accepted idea Rudy Giuliani is comfortable saying so, out loud, in public, on the record.
They don’t love America. Not like us.
Giuliani was quick to point out that when he says Obama isn’t like, you know, us, he’s not being racist,
“Some people thought it was racist. I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people. This isn’t racism. This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.”
So, just to be clear, when Rudy says Obama isn’t like you and me, he’s talking about Obama’s white genes, not the other ones. That’s not racism, it’s socialism, or maybe anti-colonialism.
But since Rudy brought it up, what exactly is anti-colonialism anyway?
C’mon, in one hundred words or less, quick, what’s anti-colonialism?
I mean, you hear that a lot in the last five years, right?
Obama, his views were shaped by anti-colonialism. He’s an anti-colonialist. I’ve heard that statement or variations of it hundreds of times in discussions on Fox New and on blogs and from people I know. And they all say it with ponderous gravity and raised knowing eyebrows. Anti-colonialism. But when you ask, what is that, exactly, and what does it mean to you in particular? Well, what you get is vague hand-waving and the Giuliani answer: he’s not like us.
So, what is it?
Colonialism isn’t a common topic of conversation in America.
So where did this label come from?
In his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage and in the pseudo-documentary 2016: Obama’s America which was based on it and in endless articles here and there, conservative pundit and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza boldly states that Barack Obama isn’t like “us.” Which is interesting, given that D’Souza was born and raised in Mumbai, India and came to the US as an exchange student before eventually becoming a naturalized citizen – which somehow makes D’Souza more like “us” than Obama. Be that as it may, D’Souza’s entire position is based on the idea that Obama’s worldview doesn’t depend from the so-called American dream. Obama, says D’Souza, doesn’t see the world from the perspective of the founding fathers. Nor does Obama’s outlook come from Black America’s struggle for civil rights and equality. Rather, D’Souza asserts Obama was shaped by his own father, Barack Obama Sr. a staunch African anti-colonialist. Now, Obama Jr. only met Obama Sr. once but that was enough according to D’Souza to change how he viewed the world forever.
And D’Souza’s hypothesis resonates with a lot of people.
2016: Obama’s America is the largest grossing conservative documentary to date and was widely acclaimed in conservative media and its message is repeated over and over by prominent conservatives – mostly recently, by Rudy Giuliani. “This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.”
So, Obama isn’t like us.
Obama isn’t like you and me.
Obama isn’t even as American as an Indian immigrant – and Indian immigrant, I’ll remind you, who comes from India, which is a country still throwing off the remnants of the British Raj and is about as anti-colonialist as it gets. I mean, if anybody ought to sympathize with Obama’s supposed anti-colonialist views, it’s a guy from India.
Anti-colonialism. Again, what is that? What is it specifically? Obama’s father is from Africa (Kenya in case I actually have to spell it out after six years of birtherism). Kenya today is the Republic of Kenya, but from 1888 to 1962 it was a colony of the British Empire. President Obama was born in Hawaii and never lived in Kenya – or anywhere else in Africa. Now, how would that have shaped the President’s viewpoint and actions? Is anti-colonialism so powerful that it could reach across time and oceans to influence Barack Obama though a single meeting with his father when Obama was ten?
And perhaps it did.
Obama talked about how his father’s life shaped his worldview in the Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. His father had been more myth to him than man, Obama only met him once, and he was an adult before he learned much about the man’s life – and that’s how Obama learned about colonialism.
But, you, how do you know?
Really, what do you, you Americans, what do you know of colonialism?
Is it the same, this concept, everywhere? Is the African version the same as the American and Asian and Indian versions? Hell, is it the same across Africa? How many places are still colonies of other nations today?
You know, the United States of America began as British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Russian colonies.
So how come we, the “we” that makes up real Americans, how come we’re not all vehement anti-colonialists?
Or are we?
Our revered Founding Fathers sure as hell were “anti-colonialists.” Wouldn’t that mean all true Americans are anti-colonialists as well? Are we not anti-colonialist brothers in spirit to the Indians and the Kenyans?
If not, why not?
Be specific. If not, why not? Spell it out, line by line. Why was it patriotic for America to seek independence but not Kenya? I’ll wait while you think about it. Take your time.
Do you even know enough about this subject to have an intelligent opinion? Or do you just take a convicted felon like D’Souza at his word because he’s saying something you want to hear? The same goes for Obama, if you support him and believe that he loves America like you do, why?
On the face of things, it would appear to be a complicated issue, convoluted and intertwined in myriad ways, vast in scope, subject to interpretation. I mean, we’re talking about the complex evolution of civilization, shaped by wars and conflicts, by environmental pressures, by millennia of time, across the breadth of the world, restricted or advanced by the availability or scarcity of resources, by famine and plague, by religion, by economies many and varied, by love and hate and apathy, by adventure and discovery, by greed and fear and altruism and fad. We’re talking about the emergence of nations here, about the rise and fall of empires, about the migration of entire populations, voluntary and forced. We’re talking about the freedom and enslavement of endless billions over centuries, across oceans and continents, and the interaction of civilizations over time and how they shape the present.
When you say, “Obama’s views are shaped by anti-colonialism” that’s what you’re talking about. All of that. All of it and far, far more. Vastly more.
There’s a name for that.
There’s a name for how the past shapes our present.
It’s called history.
There’s an old saying, it comes in many variations and it goes like this: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
There’s another saying: the past repeats, always.
Both are true, so far as they go. The past does tend to repeat itself over and over in endless variation, which is hardly surprising given that no matter how far we rise or how deep we fall the one thing that remains constant throughout the ages is human nature.
Those who forget the past, who never learn it, who ignore and whitewash it, for them the future is always a surprise and they go ass-backward into the unknown repeating the same mistakes over and over. Those who forget history are not only doomed to repeat it along with the rest of us, they will always be victims of their own fate.
But those who remember history, who delve into its secrets, who learn from its endless examples, those people shape the future.
Those people are not victims of fate, but its master.
Those who understand history are the men and women who shape the fate of nations, of the world, of history itself.
They are the ones who become exceptional.
They are the ones history remembers.
And that, that right there, is why what happened in Oklahoma this week should disgust and horrify all free people.
This week, a Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly approved a measure that would cut all funding for Advanced Placement (AP) History courses for high school students. It’s not a law yet, but odds are good it will be – either in Oklahoma or elsewhere.
State Representative Dan Fisher (Republican, of course), who introduced the bill, denounced the new AP U.S. History framework because in the opinion of many conservatives it “emphasizes what is bad about America” and doesn’t teach “American exceptionalism."
This same complaint extends far beyond the dusty backwater of America’s Great Plains and has become a common item of debate in legislatures across the country where conservatives are even now considering bills that would ban all AP courses and not just history.
And the truly, truly disturbing part is that conservatives’ biggest complaint regarding the AP History curriculum isn’t that it’s wrong, instead they’re afraid it’s far too accurate.
Think about that for a minute.
Conservatives like Fisher believe public school should be less about learning and more about indoctrination.
They wish to hide the ugly and divisive parts of our past and remove from history those they deem “not like us.” And instead instill a sense of “exceptionalism” in the next generation by teaching only those things that make America look good.
"As I read through the document, I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters"
― Larry S. Krieger, retired school teacher, conservative activist, exceptional American
Krieger told Newsweek that the AP History framework portrays the Founding Fathers as "bigots" and he complained that American exceptionalism embodied in the idea of Manifest Destiny was described in the curriculum as "built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority," rather than "the belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technology across the continent."
Krieger leaves out that if you weren’t white maybe Manifest Destiny might have looked like, well, a lot like colonialism. Mostly because it was.
Manifest Destiny is a great idea … so long as it’s your destiny being imposed at the point of a sword and the muzzle of a gun.
Others, however, might take a different view.
Fortunately for people like Larry Krieger and Dan Fisher, those people aren’t real Americans, they don’t love their country like we do, so they get written out of our history because there’s no lesson to be learned there.
These conservatives completely miss the point of education.
Let me give you an example: you’ve got this kid, see? He’s your boy and you love him. He’s handsome and he’s clever, sure, and he’s the apple of your eye. So far as you’re concerned he can do no wrong. But the thing is most everybody else thinks he’s a spoiled little shit. He’s selfish and self-centered, he’s greedy and obnoxious and arrogant, and he doesn’t give a damn about anybody but himself. He goes around making a mess and beating up the other kids. He takes what he wants and you never know when he’s going to throw a violent tantrum. Now, there’s nothing wrong with him, it’s not genetic, it’s you. You’re a lousy parent. Whenever he does something wrong, you tell him it’s okay. He’s special, see, exceptional, blessed by God. He doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t have to apologize. You love him, you love him better than any parent has ever loved a child, better than other parents love their children, and if you force him to face his mistakes, to think of others, to learn, well then that makes him feel bad about himself and that makes you a bad parent. Right?
You know people like this, don’t you? You know kids, sure you do, just like this. Spoiled rotten little brats.
Now, what kind of adult do you think that kid will grow up to be?
And why would you think a country who behaves in the same manner would be any different?
When you go around telling kids, and nations, that they are exceptional and that others don’t matter, well, then you get a nation of spoiled rotten little brats.
It’s taken me a week to write this essay, because unlike many of those opining on the subject, I actually read the AP History Guideline from cover to cover. Twice. While taking notes.
I saw nothing that gave a negative view of the United States. I saw nothing that made a judgment one way or the other.
In point of fact, the framework gives no answers whatsoever, it only asks questions.
Throughout the entire document, all 142 pages of it, the authors repeatedly stress that it is not a curriculum but rather a framework for further development and is to be tailored by each teacher to meet the needs of the students. The framework provides for broad flexibility, it outlines “key concepts” and does not, repeat does not, specify groups, individuals, dates, details, political opinions, right or wrong, moral or immoral, or any particular interpretation of history and you can verify that for your self directly from the source.
If conservatives see America in a negative light, perhaps it’s their own guilty conscience speaking.
This isn’t the simplified elementary version of American history made up of construction paper turkeys, smiling Indians, and cherry trees chopped down by future presidents. This isn’t the Mel Gibson version of America where white people and black people fought as equals to be free of the King of England and then when it was all over black people cheerfully decided to be slaves because hey, Captain Braveheart thought it seemed more exceptional on the big screen like that. That’s how conservatives want to teach history, the same way Gibson directs movies.
Advanced placement courses aren’t about indoctrination, they have one function: to teach future citizens how to think.
Advanced Placement courses are college level classes designed for top performing high school students who are preparing for a university level environment. By definition these kids are going to end up running the country one day and either they can base their worldview on made up magic fairy dust or they can face the challenges of our future armed with a thorough understanding of how we got here. Warts and all.
You don’t teach future business people how to run a company by only showing them pictures of John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates. You don’t teach future doctors by only showing them happy cheerful healthy people. You don’t teach military officers how to fight by only showing them past victories.
If you want your kids to love this country, if you want them to successfully shape its future, then you have to show them everything. The good and the bad. The beautiful and the ugly.
You hear people say “kids nowadays don’t know how good they have it!”
Well, why would they? Why would any American appreciate how far we’ve come, how good we have it, if they don’t know how we got here? Why would girls appreciate the right to vote if they don’t know their grandmothers couldn’t? Why would black youth appreciate the opportunities they have now if they don’t know the history of the civil rights movement? How do you prevent another World War II or another 911 or another Holocaust if you don’t care and refuse to understand what caused the last one? How do you expect the next generation to shape the future when they are told they’re special and exceptional and they can do no wrong?
Courage is about facing the world, not hiding from it.
Wisdom comes not from denying your mistakes, but from not repeating them. And you can’t do that if you refuse to acknowledge that you ever made any in the first place.
History is how we understand the present.
History is how we shape the future and forge our own destiny instead of allowing it to be thrust upon us.
If you don’t know history, the good and the bad, you will always be its slave and never its master.
If you want your children to shape their own future and the future of this nation, indeed the world, instead of being simply dragged along with the sweep of time, then they must know how we got here to this present.
If you want your children to be exceptional, then they have to understand history in full detail, all of it and not simply parrot mindless patriotism.
If you don’t know bad, you cannot know good.
If you don’t know ugly, you can never understand beauty.
If you’ve never seen true oppression, you can never appreciate true liberty.
If you don’t know tyranny, you can never understand freedom.
If you truly believe the United States to be exceptional, then you show it all and let the chips fall where they may. If you love your child then you teach them everything and trust in them to become exceptional adults.
The past, the present, the future are all connected. History, my friend, is a circuit and without a negative, there can be no positive.
If you don’t learn from history, you will never be its exception.
“It's been my experience, Langford, that the past always has a way of returning. Those who don't learn, or can't remember it, are doomed to repeat it.”
― Steve Berry, The Charlemagne Pursuit
“We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten. Most kids can't afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard
Loving this new blog!
If you take a moment to look around you, it’s a gorgeous world. Every single thing you see that is solid has a shape, and the liquids and gases swirl and wave in ways that are wonderful to watch. The macroscopic world is not only beautiful but it is functional. The shapes, sizes and colors have function and meaning and in most cases, purpose.
But even the young school children know something like a tree is not one solid piece. There are at the very least, bark, leaves and branches. Right now if you look around wherever you are, you will probably easily notice that most things are made of pieces. As I write, I am at my desk and in front of me I see pens, my computer screens and a couple of speakers. The pens have caps and clips and I know inside I will find a thin pipe and inside that I will find ink. The screens have a variety of plastic pieces all with different purpose and I know there are circuit boards and wires inside. The speaker has a variety of buttons and knobs and the different kinds of materials are obvious. Without really thinking about it, we see a pen, a screen and a speaker – the whole – but upon closer inspection, most things can be decomposed into parts.
That continues down to the microscopic level. The problem with this idea comes when we can’t rely on our eyes or sense of touch to differentiate the parts. It’s an easy concept to handle when the different parts can be placed in front of you. We can be aided by tools such as lenses and microscopes to extend our vision to smaller dimensions. It becomes much harder when we are left only with our imagination but that is what we are forced to do when we break things down beyond a certain size – when we move into the realm of atoms and molecules, which are the building blocks of everything we can touch and see. No one has ever seen a single molecule, not even the best scientist. They are simply too small for the light we respond to with our eyes to interact with an atom properly and return that light to our eyes. It’s never going to happen.
So it seems we are required to use our imagination on order to “picture” an atom or molecule. This activity of imagining is common in science and we call it model building. We collect as much knowledge and information we can about an object, like an atom, and we create a picture in our head, or some other kind of representation, that includes those pieces of knowledge. If the model builder knows a lot, the model can be very detailed. If the builder knows little, the model will be less complex. Whether complex or simple, we rely on imagination to see the things our eyes cannot.
This idea of a basic building block of matter has been around for thousands of years. The simplest arguments still are valid. If one takes a very sharp blade and cuts any object in half, then again in half, then again, at some point the process must end. At some point, there will be an object that cannot be divided and this is where the idea of the atom came from. In those early days, there was little information about this basic building block other than it must exist, so the model, or the “imagining” of this building block was very simple. It’s enough to say that the building block is like a spherical marble (or much like a billiard ball if you prefer the larger scale) and the marbles that make up one material, say carbon, are different from the marbles that make up nitrogen. I may not know how they are different, but because a chunk of charcoal (carbon) is very different from the inert atmosphere I breath (nitrogen) they must be different because carbon is very different from nitrogen.
With passing time and more thought and investigation, the differences in these atoms became clearer and in future posts we will discuss those differences. But for the vast majority of the science problems you will probably encounter, thinking that atoms are these simple spherical marbles will take you far. This is our most simple but useful model of the physical universe. All things are made of atoms and those atoms are represented by tiny marbles so small they will never be seen. Whenever you consider an object, think about smashing it with a magic hammer with the result being the object is reduced to these very tiny marbles we call atoms. Every thing in the physical universe can be smashed into atoms.
Of course, this creates all kinds of questions. For example, if all things are made of these marbles, why does a brick feel so solid? Why can’t I push my finger through the middle like I do with a bag of baseballs? And in fact, I can do that with water, so why with water but not the brick? And what about those differences between carbon charcoal and nitrogen gas? Does this mean my model is wrong?
No, it does not mean the model is wrong but it does mean the model, when used at this level, does not describe everything. For me, this is the fun in science: To imagine a model, and then find the failures of that model. That’s really the work of science, to build better and better models. We’ll talk about this more in future posts.
Main Points: All things we can see and feel in the physical universe are made of parts or pieces. If we take one of those pieces and cut it in half, then again in half, and again and again, eventually we will find the basic building block of matter called the atom. We will never see an atom with our eyes, so we must imagine its structure. We call this imagining a model. A very simple and useful model of the atom is that of a spherical marble, or billiard ball. All things in the universe are made of these marbles. Any object, when struck with a very special and magical hammer will produce nothing but marbles which are the atoms.
Evidently rules are only valid if they protect us and people we like. Appplying those rules equally to "Them" as we do for "Us" is seen as wrong.
Me, I think it's a sign of basic civilized behavior. No matter how angry I might be at "Them".
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) has struggled recently when talking about the Boston Marathon bombing. For example, Dan Drezner, a pretty mild-mannered guy and a center-right voice, said last week in reference to the Indiana Republican, "Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?"
With this in mind, I was struck by Coats complaining in a radio interview this morning about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev having been read his rights. "There's more that needs to be learned," the senator said. "Unfortunately, the administration decided to let the guy lawyer up before we really had a good chance to get information from him, and now we're not getting any." Coats kept whining on the subject, condemning what "the administration decided."
John Yoo, the UC Berkeley law school professor known for having written the Bush/Cheney pro-torture memos, raised similar concerns, saying "the government" read Tsarnaev his rights "for reasons that are still unknown."
In reality, the process really isn't especially mysterious. Adam Serwer explained:
Tsarnaev's interrogators didn't read him his rights. Nor did the "Obama administration," as some, including Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), have claimed. A judge did it. The 48-hour rule exists to prevent the government from detaining people secretly and without a suspect knowing the charges against them. Needing to interrogate a suspect is not included in the exigent circumstances that can be used to justify delaying bringing the suspect before a judge.
And the government could not have legally placed Tsarnaev in military detention, either, because absent evidence of concrete operational connections between Tsarnaev and Al Qaeda or its affiliates it would not be legal to do so—and it might not be constitutional even if it were technically legal.
Coats, who has a law degree, must have some basic understanding of this. So why is he on the radio suggesting the Obama administration should have ignored the law? Or more to the point, why is the Republican senator recommending legal tactics that might jeopardize the case against a suspected terrorist?
Drezner's question continues to ring true: "Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?"
A confluence of events appears to have created a curious new talking point on the right. With former President George W. Bush's library set to open, and last week's Boston Marathon bombing still very much on the public's mind, Republican pundits see value in trying to tie the two together in the hopes of improving Bush's reputation.
The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, for example, published this gem yesterday:
"Unlike Obama's tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11."
A few hours later on Fox News, Eric Bolling echoed the sentiment.
"I will tell one thing, from you 9/12/01 until the time President Obama raised his right hand January of '09, the man kept us safe. And there -- you certainly can't say that since President Obama has taken the oath of office."
When it comes to Bolling, I should note that this is an improvement from his previous stance. Two years ago, he suggested on the air that he didn't recall 9/11 at all: "America was certainly safe between 2000 and 2008. I don't remember any terrorist attacks on American soil during that period of time."
I should also note that neither Rubin nor Bolling seemed to be kidding. Their comments weren't satirical or jokes intended to make Republicans appear silly.
As for the substance, there are three main angles to keep in mind. The first is the bizarre assertion that President Obama somehow deserves the blame for the bomb that killed three people in Boston last week, because he didn't "keep up safe." The argument reflects a child-like understanding of national security and is absurd on its face.
Second, though the right likes to pretend otherwise, there were terrorist attacks during Bush/Cheney's tenure -- after 9/11 -- that shouldn't be ignored. Indeed, it's a little tiresome to hear Republicans argue in effect, "Other than the deadly anthrax attacks, the attack against El Al ticket counter at LAX, the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's inability to capture those responsible for 9/11, waging an unnecessary war that inspired more terrorists, and the success terrorists had in exploiting Bush's international unpopularity, the former president's record on counter-terrorism was awesome."
And finally, I'm not sure Republican pundits have fully thought through the wisdom of the "other than 9/11" argument.
Bush received an intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, at which he was handed a memo with an important headline: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
Bush, however, was on a month-long vacation at the time. He heard the briefer out and replied, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." A month later, al Qaeda killed 3,000 people.
For Rubin and Bolling, the response is, in effect, "Yeah, but other than that, he kept us safe." The problem, of course, is that's roughly the equivalent of saying other than that iceberg, the Titanic had a pleasant voyage. Other than that one time, Pompeii didn't have to worry about the nearby volcano. Other than Booth, Lincoln enjoyed his evening at Ford's Theater.
It is, in other words, a little more difficult to airbrush catastrophic events from history.
I can appreciate the zeal with which Republican pundits want to rehabilitate Bush's poor standing, but they'll have to do better than this.
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: for whatever reason, someone is coming to your house. And you’re in a complete panic, frantically cleaning whatever you can get to as quickly as you can, just so the house will be “company ready” for your guests.
Here’s a serious question, though: why do your guests deserve to have your house look nice more than you do? They’re only there for a small fraction of time; you’re there every day. Why don’t you deserve to have the place looking nice and neat and clean?
Maybe you think, “Oh, I’m just a messy person, so I don’t care about the mess, but my visitor will.” If you truly didn’t care, you wouldn’t be scrambling to clean up before someone crosses the threshold. You’re speed-cleaning because you do care, just not enough to make it nice for yourself. You need to cut that out.
Focus on making your house “you ready.” Bring it, gradually, up to your standards of cleanliness. Make it so that you’re comfortable, and so that you enjoy looking around your home. When you reach that point, your house will always be company ready. You’re the most important person who will step through your door. Try to make your living space reflect that.