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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Privileged Information

I try to avoid posting on the same subjects, especially on the same day, as the other blogs that I read. However, over on John Scalzi’s Whatever I wrote a comment in response to one of his posts. I realized I wanted to expand on that comment here, and since my personal rules are more like guidelines than actual law, that is exactly what I’m going to do.

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A few thoughts on the nature of Privilege and Responsibility in America


The founders of America were men who risked their lives to give the finger to King George with the Declaration of Independence, they were men who risked their lives and livelihoods and loved ones in the Revolutionary War, and they were the ones who forged a new country based on a Constitution they had written with a radical revolutionary idea in mind – that all men were created equal, and had equal rights, even if they didn’t enjoy equality in rank, station, or birth.

Of course, even in those first days of the new country, some were more equal than others (and despite the lofty ideals, some were decidedly unequal, more like property actually or inconveniently in the way). But the ideals of the Constitution were so powerful, that eventually, over time, the average citizen did become more or less equal. Strangely though, at the same time that such issues as slavery, woman’s suffrage, the rights of non-property owners, color, religion, and etc were being resolved, something directly contrary, and very subtle, was happing unnoticed in the background. In the early days of the country, the privileged were the ones who led the revolution. Don’t get me wrong, I doubt they were all that altruistic. Despite the often stated principles of freedom, democracy, equal representation, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I doubt that there would have been an American Revolution if George III hadn’t been over-taxing the crap out of the Colonial landowners. Whatever their motivation, there can be no denying that the first leaders of this country were the type of men who fought, and bled, alongside their fellow countrymen. They didn't send others to achieve what they themselves wanted, they went themselves.

A hundred years down the line, and we still had leaders of vision and with a sense of service to high ideals. Men like Teddy Roosevelt. Who advocated a highly unpopular war with Spain, and then joined the US Volunteer Cavalry to put his money where his considerably large mouth was. He served alongside men from all walks of life, from highwaymen and cattle rustlers of the western frontier, to former slaves, to the highest society boys of New York’s 5th Avenue. His service in the USV and alongside the US Army 10th Cavalry (the African American Buffalo Soldiers) made such an impression on old Teddy that it fundamentally changed his thinking regarding rank, status, color, and privilege. Roosevelt imbued his children with his ideals, and as a result his son Quentin died in uniform chasing down German fighters in WWI, and his son Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who also served in WWI, won the Medal of Honor while leading the assault at bloody Utah Beach in WWII – and died a month later in France, of an ignoble heart attack.

Military service, even service in combat, does not automatically imbue a person with some kind of special insight, or magical leadership ability. There have been plenty of lousy Representatives, Senators, Judges, and yes, even Presidents with military experience. However, military service, especially combat experience does change you in ways that tend to be often indefinable. What those things are, I can’t say with any certainty other than that it has to do with service, obligation, and responsibility. There’s an old saying in the military: “Rank has its privilege.” This is true, but what is often left unsaid is the rest of that statement, which is “but the privilege of rank is often far outweighed by its responsibility.” And responsibility is something that many in power these days seem to forget. Responsibility to those that elected them, responsibility to those that did NOT vote for them but they represent anyway, responsibility to the nation as a whole, and most especially responsibility to those who defend this nation. I have to wonder: on a daily basis, how many sons, daughters, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, and friends in uniform do the leaders of this country actually know, personally, or even peripherally. It's not just a matter of if they have served themselves (since most of them emphatically have not) it’s also that their social circles no longer include the kind of people who do. Their kids go to private schools, and it’s unlikely that those kids have schoolmates whose parents are deployed in uniform, since most military folks don't make enough money to send their kids to such institutions. And they generally don't let working-class military types into the upper-class restaurants, private sports boxes, gated-communities, private planes, or the country clubs that the Government and Industry leaders frequent. Not too many military folks attend those $10,000 a plate fund raising dinners either. Shaking hands with a captive military audience while the cameras snap away within the protected confines of the Green Zone does not constitute knowing somebody in uniform.

How many of our leaders have the moral courage, the strength of conviction, the sense of service and duty that their predecessors did? How many have the courage to risk their privileged positions, as George Washington did, or John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, or the countless others of the American Revolution? How many leaders today would have the courage to do what Roosevelt did? Somehow I have a hard time visualizing these people giving up their positions of power, the way Roosevelt resigned from his position Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join the USV, and leading a patrol in Anbar Province or along a mountain trail in Afghanistan.

Rank indeed has its privileges, but when those privileges far outweigh the responsibility and obligations of that rank - when privilege, but not responsibility, becomes hereditary - well then you’re no longer living in the democracy our ancestors fought so dammed hard for. When you go to the poles a year from now, bear that in mind.

17 comments:

  1. That’s it, next year when I go to the voting booth I am voting for the “Ultimate Ruler of the Universe” Just-kidding brother, I couldn’t agree with you more. The only problem is that most of today’s voters don’t have a clue what our forefathers went threw, nor do they care. I bet that most of our governing body couldn’t pass a twenty-question history test if their life depended on it, unfortunately their life’s don’t depend on it, that’s what they have the solders for. I only wish that they could see just once what I have to see on a weekly basis.

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  2. "For he today that sheds his blood with me
    shall be my brother; be he never so vile,
    this day shall gentle his condition"

    There is something to that.

    Most people don't believe me when I tell them what I make for government service. A whole wopping $200 a month (about $150 after taxes, etc). Those of us there don't do it for the money (although we do deposit those checks, they go right to my mortgage as extra against principle), we do it for the service. Local government is like that, which makes us more honest in the main, I think.

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  3. I think so too, Steve. Local government is a hell of a lot closer to the people you represent. You do something self-serving and your constituents tend to show up on your door step with torches and pitchforks.

    State and Federal Government has become increasing divorced from the people that they are supposed to be representing, also many of these folks forget that their job is represent everybody in their district, not just those that voted for them. Our government is becoming increasingly autocratic by the day, especially under this administration. These people need to have "Of the people, by the people, and for the people" pounded into their heads.

    Here in Alaska, where politics is very much of the frontier good-ole boy mentality, there has been a recent trend towards taking back our government. The new Governor, Sarah Palin, is a perfect example. Senator Ted Stevens, is finding that out the hard way, right now.

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  4. Chinese history is 5000 years of dynasties that each lasted around 200-300 years. Each dynasty more or less followed the trend you've described - you start with a revolutionary who personally leads the people in taking over the government, then he passes on his reign to his kids, who pass it on to their grandkids, and so on down the line until eventually the rulers are chock full of privilege and so far removed from the responsibilities of actual rule, that the people get mad and start another revolution. The Mandate of Heaven passes on down.

    It looks to me like we're seeing the same thing here in the U.S. It's been just over 200 years. I've always heard that the superior civilized nature of our system of government will forestall any actual violent unrest, because we have a voice that other systems of government don't give to the people. Now we're living in times where (for a lot of people) that voice is only a technicality.

    Think we'll find our way to 2076 okay? Hmmmmm.

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  5. MWT, it is my hope that the United States is a self-correcting system, and that eventually we will swing back to center.

    On the other hand, if we keep mucking with the source code, well then the system is going to crash sooner or later. This is why things like the Patriot Act scare the crap out of me. I can only hope that when the crash comes, it is later, rather than sooner, so I don't have to witness all the things I fought so dammed hard for go down the crapper.

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  6. I'm kind of a Heinlein fan on this issue - I don't think people who haven't served should be allowed to vote or run for office.

    Disclaimer: By service, I don't exclusively mean military service. I mean sacrificing something meaningful in the service of others. Americorps, Peace Corps, military, etc.

    I realize that's messing with the source code (as Jim puts it), but I think when people get out of touch with their rights, responsibilities and priviliges, then a little shaking up is in order.

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  7. Hmmm. Well, I'm doing my small part in helping the world understand global climate change. :p

    Maybe the altered source code should also only allow scientists to have a say on science-related decisions.

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  8. Maybe the altered source code should also only allow scientists to have a say on science-related decisions.

    Not a bad idea, except you'd have to include the economists in the decision making process.

    I never met a scientist who didn't think his or her pet project was just the most important thing on the planet, and had to be addressed right this minute or the world was going to end.

    Now in some cases, they may very well be correct, but in most cases, they're (correctly) championing the issue that has become their life's work. Of course they have an emotional investment in it. They don't care about the opportunity costs associated with their project, or whether or not their solution will reach the point of diminishing returns.

    I think the pork should be eliminated, certainly, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made in the interest of the public good. The issue (as always) is who gets to decide, and on what grounds?

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  9. Maybe the altered source code should also only allow scientists to have a say on science-related decisions.

    My experience is that scientists are just as big of self-centered jerks as the rest of us. Bigger sometimes.

    We need some kind of control that mandates specific responsibilities in our elected leaders. We also need an educated and motivated public. Most high school boys could tell you the last ten Heisman Trophy winners or the current NFL starting line-up but couldn't tell you who represent their views in Congress.

    One of the greatest weaknesses of democracy is that people are by and large lazy, they are just as happy to let somebody else take of business. Taken to extremes and you end up with communism, which is a fancy term for dictatorship by a select group instead just a single select guy. More and more, the elected leadership of the United States is disconnected from the average citizen, and it is becoming less and less likely that the average citizen can get elected to government above the School Board/Town Council level. It is impossible for the average Joe to compete with the rich and privileged, especially those with unfettered access to mass media. This needs to stop. Personally I think one of the principle goals of campaign finance reform should be to eliminate private monies from election campaigns. Period, make it illegal. Each candidate, with enough initial signatures to get on the primary ballot, is given a specific amount of assets, money, tv access, etc. Everybody on an equal footing. To stand out, you'd actually have to have a plan, and connect with voters, not just a slick well funded campaign. Not that simple by a long shot, but you get the basic idea.

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  10. One of the greatest weaknesses of democracy is that people are by and large lazy, they are just as happy to let somebody else take of business.

    Well, that's kind of the point of having a representative form of government - so that people can be "lazy" and just go about their daily lives without having to think about running the country. The representatives are elected to do all that on their behalf. Unfortunately, our representatives have forgotten that as candidates, they are interviewing with us for a job, and once elected they work for us as our employees.

    My point in bringing up scientists is because I am one, and although I may not have contributed to the good of the country by putting my life on the line, I also don't agree that that means my contributions are in the realm of "nothing." I object to the idea that everyone must serve in certain specific ways before being allowed to vote. In my particular case, I'm not physically capable of doing anything remotely like Janiece's list. But I can (and think I do) contribute in other non-physical ways.

    I think "sacrifice something meaningful for others" can have a much broader interpretation than you make it sound. There are a lot of people who sacrifice every single day for their families in the food service business. I see a lot of everyday heroes there. My father was one of them (although he also did serve in a (non-U.S.) military in his younger days). Is what they do so meaningless that they should be barred from voting? What about people who want to contribute meaningful sacrifice but for whatever reason aren't able to? Should they be disallowed?

    Why should only military/peace corps/etc. be allowed to vote? What makes them any less biased than any other given profession-based group?

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  11. MWT, I never said only military/peace corps/etc. be allowed to vote, though I see you're mostly responding to Janiece's comment here. And my crack about scientists being big jerks wasn't meant to insult you, I'm sure you're a perfectly reasonable guy, as are most Marine Scientists, it's those dammed physicists I'm on about!

    Heh, now I'll have the applied math guys down on me, crap I can't win.

    Seriously though, I agree with what you said about Representative government, part of the problem is that people really don't put much thought into who is representing them. My folks would vote for the Devil himself - if he was a Republican. GWB can do no wrong in their eyes, because he is a Republican and therefore infallible. Too many folks in this country vote the same way, they vote for party and not for people. Or worse, that vote for the guy that is most photogenic and has the best campaign slogan. This makes me insane.

    By the way, switching subjects here: you're doing global climate change research? Awesome, just what I was looking for, an expert. I'd like your opinion on this?

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  12. Hehe yep, now we're waiting for Dr. Phil to show up to defend his honor. ;)

    I'd love to be a more informed voter than I usually am, but the soundbyte method of "debates" and etc. just make my brain glaze over. Youtube has started doing some things that look interesting, however - having regular people submit questions on video, and then having the candidates answer - but it's still too TV-formulaic-like. I don't want candidates to have a time limit to answer the questions. I want them to answer at great length, so I can see what they really think and make some kind of informed decision. :p Hopefully as time goes on, more of them will catch on that they can do that via Youtube videos, and respond directly to people's questions for as long as they like (at least one of the Republican candidates has; I forget his name offhand). I do like that GoogleTalks has hour-long chats with several of the candidates.

    I'm nowhere near an expert at global climate change. I just help with a bunch of the gruntwork of number crunching things related to an offshore monitoring project that has been collecting data for almost ten years now. I make pretty pictures out of satellite imagery and research cruise data for my boss to look at. I can pass him the link and see if he wants to say a few words.

    A lot of the problem is that scientists don't necessarily agree on the details among themselves, and most of the ones collecting the actual data (like my boss) are working on small portions rather than looking much at the overall big picture. Acquiring the data is neither simple nor cheap, and much of what my boss seems to do is logistical and bureaucratic stuff, acquiring grant funds, scheduling maintenance cruises, etc; thus far we've not actually had the funds to do much actual analyzing of the data we're collecting. It doesn't help that the U.S. Navy is apparently planning to scrap the offshore towers we've got all our instruments on, either... Then, it's usually different scientists than the ones running the instruments who will collect up everybody's data sets and compare them to each other to look for larger patterns.

    All of which makes things problematic when politicians demand definitive answers Right Now.

    First question that comes to mind, though: is the Heartland Institute reputable? Or is it sort of like the Intelligent Design Institute?

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  13. I think "sacrifice something meaningful for others" can have a much broader interpretation than you make it sound...Is what they do so meaningless that they should be barred from voting? What about people who want to contribute meaningful sacrifice but for whatever reason aren't able to? Should they be disallowed?

    I understand the confusion here, because I made a literary allusion to a book you may not have read, and then I didn't comment fully on the "service" requirements.

    My comments regarding being required to serve were taken from Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. As in that story, in my hypothetical world no one would be barred from "public service" for reasons beyond their control. Their service would be assigned based on their physical and mental abilities, so that anyone who wanted to earn the right to vote would be allowed to do so.

    So in your own case, MWT, you would be assigned some meaningful scientific endeavor that benefits others. And of course, you would be paid shit, just like the everyone else in the service, and go where you were told to perform those tasks, and the tasks may well be dangerous. That certainly constitutes "sacrificing something meaningful for others."

    The idea of earning the right to vote and serve in public office is not meant to be exclusionary based on someone's physical capabilities, but inclusionary based on someone's moral capabilities - i.e., the ability to look beyond yourself and see a goal that's bigger than you. And to put your money where your mough is and sacrifice something for the common good. Everyone, regardless of their capabilities, should be allowed the opportunity.

    In that sense, it really is a democracy - just one you actually have to work to get into. The difference is that anyone has the opportunity to get into the club, regardless of their socio-economic position, their physical or mental abilities, their religion, etc. Turning 18 and not drooling on yourself really isn't a very good criteria.

    Also, to be clear, I don't consider people's daily lives to be contributing "nothing" to the fabric of our society. Unless you deal crack for a living and evade taxes like Al Capone, everyone who is a contributing member of society helps to support our way of life. My issue is the politically apathetic or (worse) the pork barrel/special interest folks. The former because they take no responsibility for the direction of our country, and the latter because they distort the common good for their small (usually rich) group of constituents. Within the context of this discussion, I don't either of those labels apply to you or the individuals you spoke about.

    Unless, of course, your scientfic endeavors really involve a bathtub and some cold medicine. Fess up, MWT - you're not really a fish scientist - are you?

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  14. Sadly, I'm doing very little these days that have to do with fish. (Pay no attention to the salmon sperm in that bathtub. o.O)

    I understood the reference, actually. Within the setting described in Starship Troopers, I think it works well and I had no problem with the concept when I was reading the book. But applying it to the real world in its present state? Not so much... it would have to be heavily revised to fit, and then of course all the pork barrel people would get in on it and make it have the opposite of its intended effects.

    On a completely unrelated note, Jim: I was poking around in the blogspot settings last night, and noticed that under Settings --> Permissions, it allows you to choose whether your blog is public or private. Combined with the fact that you can have multiple blogs on the same name, that should let you do what you're going for with your fiction without leaving blogspot for it.

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  15. MWT, you know, that never occurred to me. Thank you, I'll fool around with it and see if it'll work for me. Thanks, and I'll never badmouth the Marine Science people again. Promise.

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  16. ...then of course all the pork barrel people would get in on it and make it have the opposite of its intended effects.

    Grr. Makes me want to push all those pork barrel people into a salmon spoo barrel and plug the bunghole.

    I understand what you're saying, MWT - I'm not sure the "service for voting" idea would work without a complete constitutional rehaul. I'm kind of fond of the Constituation, myself, so mostly consider it an intellectual exercise.

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  17. Yeah, eventually I expect we'll have to have the obligatory Starship Troopers conversation.

    In a nutshell though, while I love the book, I suspect that the service for franchise idea described by RAH probably would work, but not as he described the resulting society. I suspect those with the franchise would come to lord it over those without. However, I don't think Heinlein ever intended that it be a real system, it was only window dressing and set up for the YA military book he wanted to write. The framework gave him a way to say the things he wanted to say, i.e. the classroom scenes in History and Moral Philosophy.

    Like I said eventually I'm going to work up the courage to post on SST, which is one of my favorites, I just don't want to post the same old shit that everybody else has.

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