Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised


Every sailor who stands watch in the pilothouse learns the COLREGS.

Known more commonly as the Rules of the Road, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea are the maritime laws that govern all ships on the high seas, no matter how big or small, no matter what flag or nationality.

There are many regulations contained in the COLREGS, but the one that all bridge officers learn first is Rule 16: Take early and substantial action to avoid collision.

In a nutshell, what that means is this: look ahead, beware the dangers, take early decisive action to avoid danger and make it obvious so as to clearly signal your intentions to others.   There is little that will hazard a vessel more quickly than to be an indecisive pilot, even doing nothing is better than being timid or reacting out of fear.

And in fact, take early and substantial action is the guiding principle of all military officers, no matter their service.

If you think about that for a minute, you’ll realize that this cardinal rule of the sea is also a pretty good guide for governments too.

The last post, Rage Against The Dying of the Light, discussed in general terms how republics die. If you haven’t read the post, I basically said that the irrational fear of totalitarianism and decline often unintentionally lead to decline and totalitarianism in one form or another.  This isn’t the only possibility, decline, collapse, and chaos is another option.  There are other things that can happen, few good. 

When a nation, especially a republic, is young and dynamic, when its population in relation to the land it occupies is small and continuously expanding, then the problems are relatively easy to face.  Expansion outpaces decay.  Income outstrips expenditures. Energy and optimism outshine malaise and pessimism.  Leadership outshouts indecisive clamor. A young nation looks out towards the future.

A young nation embraces change, an old nation fears it.

People are often that way too, it’s not age per se that defines who is young and who is old, but outlook.

Compare the hopeful wondrous  attitudes of, say, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where despite the Great Depression the theme was “The Century of Progress” and the emphasis was on change and the brightly lit future, to … well, the United States hasn’t actually hosted a World’s Fair for more than three decades now. Consider that the dynamic young US once hosted those expos every few years.

Outlook, my friends, outlook defines both people and nations.

Hindsight is almost always 20/20.  History shows repeatedly that all nations sooner or later reach a point where their populations become timid, fearful of change, static instead of dynamic, backward facing instead of forward leaning – and it is at that point where they being to decline.  It’s that point, where historians place their finger on the timeline and say, here, right here was the beginning of the end. When that happens, the events described in Dying of the Light become far more likely. The population often becomes stratified into the haves and the have-nots and sooner or later it all falls apart.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Always there are turning points where, if a nation takes early and substantial action, disaster can be avoided.

Sadly, that rarely, rarely ever happens – like ships, societies have tremendous inertia and it takes a long and sustained effort to come about – but it can be done.

If you want to avoid the rocks, you need to be alert for the shoaling water.

You cannot mandate that alertness, that skill, that sailor’s weather eye. You cannot mandate that form of seasoned critical thinking, the type of reasoning that can see clearly into the future, that can understand the myriad details of navigation and effectively extrapolate the consequences of different actions.

No, you cannot mandate that kind of thinking.

But you can create an environment that fosters it.

Good captains aren’t born, they’re made.

It’s a common fallacy that great leaders are simply born that way. If that were true then military training would be very, very different.  No. The actual truth of the matter is that while some folks are indeed born with the innate characteristics that give them a certain advantage as leaders – just as certain folks are born with the traits that make them better basketball players, or more insightful writers, or more skillful pilots – effective leadership itself is a product of education, training, and experience.

Good leaders are not born, they are made.

The same is true of good citizenship.

A ship can get underway without her Captain… but she won’t move one inch without a well trained and effective crew.

How do we save the United States of America from the fate that has befallen all other republics before us? 

Americans have been sold a false bill of goods, i.e. that our country can only be saved by a great leader.  You hear it all the time, we need a Washington, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, a Reagan.  We need great leaders in Congress, we need a Henry Clay, a Thaddeus Stevens, a Charles Sumner – hell maybe even a Tip O’Neil.  We need a great leader to turn things around.


The strength of a republic is that its greatness does not depend on great leaders – only good ones. 

And good leaders can be made - we do it every single day in the military.

In America, our leaders come from our citizens. 

If you want good leaders, you’ll need to start with good citizens.

Because, see, the weakness of a republic is that its greatness does depend, greatly, on good citizens.

In the early days of Rome, young Legionnaires were admonished to come home from battle either with their shield or carried upon the same.  In other words, strength of character matters, courage matters, duty matters.  Return with your shield or come home carried upon it as the honored dead.  No more, no less. Put another way, ask not what your country can to for you, but what you can do for your country.

When this custom declined, so did Rome.

Today, the strength and courage of our own Legionaries is not in question, but there is far more to citizenship in America than serving the republic in war.

Because, see, unlike Rome, our republic is not a hereditary one, divided into citizen and property, Patrician and Plebian and and slave.  What makes us different is that we are all citizens equally and our republic is a reflection of its citizens.  To say that our nation is in decline is to say that we are in decline – not just those on the other side of the aisle, not just those who are different, not just our neighbors of whom we don’t approve, all of us. That is what you’re saying when you say that America is in decline.

If we want to make America better, then we must become better citizens.

However, you cannot mandate patriotism.

You cannot mandate duty.

You cannot mandate honor.

You cannot mandate courage.

You cannot mandate critical thinking.

But you can create an environment that fosters it, that encourages it to grow, that makes it.

If you want a better nation, then you need to be better citizens.

Being a good citizen isn’t about being the biggest patriot. It isn’t about waving the biggest flag or a copy of the Constitution. It isn’t about which political party you belong to or which one is best. It isn’t about who you hate. It isn’t about who is more ethical or more moral or more righteous. It isn’t about which religion you believe in or what your skin color is or who you’re sleeping with.  

You don’t have to be exceptional to be a good citizen, and being a good citizen shouldn’t make you exceptional. The same is true of nations.

Being a good citizen is knowing how your government works, how your nation works.

It’s knowing the history of your country, the good parts, the great parts, the mundane parts, and most especially the bad parts. Hiding the warts won’t make them go away. Rewriting history doesn’t make it so. Those that deliberately forget the terrible part of their past are damned to see their children repeat it.

It’s about educating yourself on the issues that affect you, your neighbors, and your nation – and by educating yourself, I don’t mean just listening to the uneducated pundits who say only what you want to hear.   If you listen only to what you already “know” you’re not educating yourself.  Education should sometimes hurt, it should change the way you think, the way you see the world – if it doesn’t, if it’s not painful, you’re not learning anything. Sometimes education is about letting go things you were sure you knew.

It’s about pushing your children to be more than you are.  If your children believe only what you do, if they see the world only as you do, if they hate the people you hate, if they grow only until they are even with you and no more – then the republic can only stagnate.  Young growing nations face change head on, they embrace it. Old dying nations fight change until the barbarians tear down the walls.

It’s about working together, all of us. It’s about looking out for each other, all of us.  It’s about the strong helping the weak, all of us, else what is civilization for?

It’s about taking early and substantial action.

It’s about courage.

It takes courage to stand the watch. 

It takes courage to face down the things you fear and hate. 

It takes courage to embrace change, to be young, to be fearless.

It takes courage to have hope, to be optimistic, to believe.

It takes courage to be a good citizen.

But in can be done.


  1. Hey! Good stuff (as usual). Reminds me of some of the debates we used to have in my "History and Moral Philosophy" class.

    In that same vein, I seem to recognize that bit about Rome's decline from somewhere ...

    (I'd post a more substantive comment but I think you nailed this one.)

  2. I nailed the maximum number of typos allowed in a blog post is what I did. Funny how they only show up when I push publish.

    As to the bit about Rome, I did shameless paraphrase a great citizen and a man who knew his COLREGS indeed. But he wasn't the first to mention it, just one of the most eloquent.

  3. Hey there...In my college Philosophy courses, I always try to convince my students that "it's not only about understanding Plato or Kant" (in fact, it's barely about that at all)...What education is REALLY about is becoming a better citizen...in fact, I made that argument to them today as I was demanding that they take their paper-writing seriously. Critical thinking DOES make better citizens.

    I hope we are correct, and it's not too late...some days I wonder, I seriously wonder...For example, my students today asked me if learning "theories" was worth it, since they would simply be proven false in a few years (they don't seem to understand the difference between theories and hypotheses)...They've also asked me if there is any reason to pay attention to what's going on around them since their "vote is meaningless" (other than on American Idol, that is)...as tho that were their only means of participating...sigh...

  4. If you, as a teacher, reach only one student in your entire life - you've still done something to be proud of - for that student may be the one who changes the very world.

    As I said, Anonymous, it takes courage to hope, to be optimistic, to believe.

  5. It is interesting that I make a similar point in the syllabus to all my Physics classes.

    Why We Do All This:
    science literacy
    n. An exposure to science in a historical context that serves to allow a person to observe the world around them with understanding, deal with technological applications at home and work, appreciate the distinction between fact and speculation in the media and politics, have a working knowledge of numbers and the scale of the universe, and be able to pursue more information if desired, as a function of everyday life.

    Philip Edward Kaldon, Fall 1995

  6. The prudent citizen will not rely solely on any single aid to good citizenship particularly on floating pundits.

    Great post Jim.

  7. waiting impatientlyApril 27, 2011 at 8:31 AM

    Excellent observation!

    For example: I gave a ride to a teabagger the other day (the husband of a friend). Over the course of a lengthy conversation about a grassroots fight going on in my county, I said to him, "I can understand and sympathize with the underlying anger that's led to people joining the Tea Party. In many ways, I'm just as angry.

    "But I'm also angry with them. Because they want the easy way out. They're willing to show up and shout at their elected representatives - that's easy.

    "What's hard is doing the research on WHY something is a bad idea, or research on what would be better. It's hard to organize - holding community organizing meetings and having three people show up. It's hard to spend 20 or 30 hours a week, sometimes more, on grassroots work when you've got a job, a family, a home to be responsible for."

    Democracy is a muscle. The only way to exercise it is by standing up. No excuses.

  8. Steve, concur. The phrase "come back with your shield or upon it" or some variation there of supposedly originated with the Spartans, supposedly a stock phrase of Spartan mothers sending their sons off to war.

    However, from what I've read, it was also a guiding principle of early Rome as well, supposedly inherited from the Greeks.

    Of course, I'm not a historian and as I recall you are. So best I shut up now.

  9. Technically, it was the Spartans, not the Romans, who were admonished to be carrying their shield or carried upon their shield...

    HOWEVER, the ideas behind this blog-post should be held up in social studies classes everywhere at an early age. 1st or 2nd grade seems about right.

  10. even doing nothing is better than being timid or reacting out of fear.

    For instance, it was turning the Titanic so that multiple compartments were ripped open that led to the sinking. A head-on collision might have done less damage. (and led to one less over-wrought James Cameron movie!)

  11. Jim, whether the phrase made it to the Roman Legions or not, the parallel you draw between the late Republic and our own recent history is an apt one. Political inertia driven by mindless vitriol, power mongering and a slavish devotion to the past traditions of the Republic (the mos maiorum) eventually doomed the Republic to extinction. A lesson we should certainly heed.

  12. Sorry Jim can't teach that because it's not on the fcat!

  13. Ahh, I see where you've gotten confused, Jim.

    The GOP wants a real Roman-style Republic, where hereditary wealthy land (and business) owners gather to debate the course of the empire, and the lowly plebeijans do what they're told and gratefully accept what table scraps the patricians deign to toss their way.

  14. food for thought Jim. thank you.

  15. Well, so thanks for part 2,
    But I wager the folks who are reading this and commenting here are not the ones we need to reach, the folks who are not voting (think of the people from the book nickeled and dimed by was it Barbara Ehrenreich?) Hell I have been a Democratic activist since I was a sophomore in College ... volunteering for Ceasar Chavez and the farmworkers....but HOPE is always a forward looking thing, president Obama brought us HOPE, ok, so he's not the Liberal we hoped for but he is a good man and a good president, and his campaign of hope got our side 6 million more votes than the old mean guy and Sarah plaing and stupid...
    nuff said
    Proud Irish American Democrat

  16. Good stuff Jim, nice to see a positive piece.

  17. Jim, I agree with a lot of the substance of these last two posts. And while I'm not educated sufficiently to speak as an expert on a lot of these topics (in the spirit of the Spartan line, a wise man knows he doesn't know everything, right?), I do know that the only way out is together. Lincoln's line of hanging I think applies.

    I regularly violate the bar etiquette about not discussing politics. Here in northern VA, I tend to run into a lot of TEA party folks, regular conservatives, and quite a few moderates, but less so Democrats and liberals. But usually, come happy hour, there's one old fella from the left and a few from the right. Sometimes we get to talking. I try to play both ends against the middle, devil's advocate style. Sometimes, it surprises me what those guys can agree on once we get past the sound-bites.

    I agree that we need to get smarter, get more involved, hold ourselves to a higher standard. I share your concern about the amount of inertia and the short distance between the ship and the reef.

  18. I just wrote a long comment about the history of Japanese and German school curricula before and accompanying their military expansionism, and questioned the changes in American public education, but then lost it all when I tried to post it. Too tired to write it again.

    You rock, Jim.

  19. Recently it occurred to me that our country may just be too big. Once the seat of power of any organization or country is too centralized and far away from those it represents, things start falling apart. As much as Alexander Hamilton was right about our having a strong federal government so we could become an economic empire and could protect ourselves from invading nations, perhaps there are too many states and too many people now so it is impossible for us to have a sense of unity as citizens. Europeans can feel like countrymen (and women) despite their differences, and share some values among the majority of them, because they are much smaller countries. Maybe.


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