Sunday, December 28, 2014

A review of PBS's “Woodrow Wilson” movie

Disclaimer: I'm not a big fan of Wilson's presidency

Before I begin this review, I should give a disclaimer that I am not a big fan of Woodrow Wilson's presidency. His domestic policy is something of a prototype for modern big-government liberalism, and I would argue that his amateurish foreign policy in handling World War One virtually guaranteed that there would be another war later. But even bumbling incompetents can be interesting, and Woodrow Wilson has one of the more interesting lives in American history. Thus, I greatly enjoyed watching this documentary, and wanted to write a review of it here.

Yes, Woodrow Wilson predicted World War II – but so did J. M. Keynes

Woodrow Wilson accurately predicted a Second World War ...

In the years after the First World War, American president Woodrow Wilson predicted that if America refused to join the League of Nations, there would be a Second World War.

Woodrow Wilson

... but does that mean it happened for the reasons he said it would happen?

America did indeed refuse to join the League of Nations; and there was later a Second World War. Thus, it might seem at first glance that he was a prophet, or that World War II really was the result of not joining the League.

John Maynard Keynes predicted a Second World War, too, but for somewhat different reasons

But this is a problematic claim for several reasons - others, too, predicted World War II; and their causality claims were somewhat different. John Maynard Keynes, for example, predicted that World War II would happen if the Allies pursued reparations from the Germans; and he had much criticism of the League of Nations advocated by Woodrow Wilson. Even if accurately predicting the war comes from a genuine prophecy (rather than a lucky guess), that doesn't mean that the predictor's reason for why it happened is the true reason - causality is a little more complicated than that.

He never said that it would be because of the American refusal to join the League of Nations

I'll leave the discussion of causality to another post; and instead focus here on John Maynard Keynes' predictions - because if accurately predicting an event means that someone is right about why it happened, then John Maynard Keynes' predictions would prove Woodrow Wilson is wrong; and I will give the quotes to prove it now.

John Maynard Keynes

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bill of Rights: historical context and strict construction

"The enumeration [or "listing"] in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

- Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified 1791), a sometimes-forgotten amendment in the Bill of Rights

It's the most familiar part of the Constitution - the one that the most people can quote. It's the most disputed part of the Constitution - the one whose meaning is most debated. And it's the most tangible part of the Constitution - the one that writes into stone the rights we use every day, and which is thus easiest to apply to everyday life.

The Constitutional Convention

The original Constitution didn't have a Bill of Rights

The portion is, of course, the Bill of Rights; but it was not a part of the original Constitution at all. The United States Bill of Rights was the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and for those who don't know, an amendment is just another word for a change. The Constitution has been amended (or changed) 27 times since its adoption; and the first ten amendments written into it were the ones we today call our "Bill of Rights." They can today be seen in the context of the ratification debates; or the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land". The Constitution did not become law until it was approved by nine of the original thirteen states, and it was fiercely debated whether or not we should have this Constitution.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Winston Churchill: A comparison of two movies

On both sides of the Atlantic (particularly in the English-speaking world), there is still a great deal of interest in Winston Churchill. He is considered an inspirational figure by many (including myself), who is often compared to Lincoln in both his wartime leadership and - to a large degree - his extraordinary way with words. Both had the ability to win public support for their war with powerful rhetorical language and persuasive speaking, and Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his memoirs.

His gift with words is undoubtedly a big part of his memoirs' popularity, but there is also the fact that his life story itself is unusually interesting; especially the most visible accomplishment of his being the British prime minister during World War II. But there's more to his story than the high-profile portion of his life; and if you're interested in hearing some other important parts, there are some movies available from which to get some info. I should give a disclaimer that I'm only aware of two movies - I have not read Mr. Churchill's memoirs, and I do not claim to be anything approaching an expert about his life. But I have some important information to offer about these two movies, and hope that this will help anyone interested in Mr. Churchill.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A review of Kenneth Clark's “Civilisation”

"Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last."

John Ruskin, a 19th-century art critic

So I recently finished watching Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" (spelled the British way), a documentary series about the history of Western art. Before I begin my review of it, I should give a disclaimer that I know virtually nothing about visual art - I have never taken an art class, nor a photography class, nor an art history class. I play a little piano and do a little writing, so I have some experience with non-visual arts after a fashion; but I know next to nothing about the more visual arts. I don't even particularly like looking at most art, lacking an appreciation for it; and in my adulthood, I found out the reason why: I have, quite simply, very little visual intelligence. When taking tests of my intelligence, I scored in the medium range for math and in somewhat higher ranges for language - scores which corresponded to my later scores on the GRE's - but I tested in the bottom 1 percent of the population for visual-spatial intelligence. This would explain why I've never been that interested in scenery, or why I didn't like my geometry class in high school - I am just not a visual person.

I am, however, a history buff; which is what attracted me to this series. I thought I'd shore up this intellectual weakness of mine by learning about art history, which is an excellent prism for talking about the history of mankind generally. Kenneth Clark opens this series with an interesting quote from John Ruskin, the 19th-century art critic, who said: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last." This may be overstating the case a little bit - I often find words a trustworthy way of understanding people, and deeds even moreso. (In the admittedly cliché words of an old saying: "Actions speak louder than words.") But nonetheless, you can find out a lot about a people by studying their art. It tells you a lot about their values, their ideas, and their culture; and art history is thus an excellent way to gain insight into a people.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

John Adams movies

What's the best movie about John Adams?

Young John Adams

My answer would be that it depends on what you're looking for - all the ones I've seen have things that they do better than the other ones. So I'll compare and contrast the ones I've seen, to show where each one is strongest. The ones I've seen are a two-hour PBS documentary (which also talks about Abigail), an eight-hour HBO miniseries (with Paul Giamatti), and an old thirteen-hour miniseries called "The Adams Chronicles."

Why John Adams is fascinating

"Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it."

- John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail Adams (26 April 1777)

He was a powerful leader, who stood only five feet six inches tall. He was popular enough to be elected president, but considered himself an obnoxious man, with a brashness that could alienate even his friends. And he was one of our greatest presidents, but was only elected to one term, passed over in favor of an old friend.

Young John Adams

His name was John Adams, and he was one of this country's Founding Fathers. He had many significant accomplishments in his life, but the greatest of them was his central role in the Declaration of Independence. Even his presidency was not as important as this. He was on the Committee of Five assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, but did not want to write the document, preferring that it instead be written by Thomas Jefferson. Why, then, is he remembered as such a central figure in the document's history? Mainly, it is two things: One is that he was the one who convinced Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration, and the other is that he was the principal force behind getting it passed. Jefferson was the one who wrote it, but Adams was the one who convinced the Continental Congress to sign it; thus risking their own lives in an act of revolution punishable by death. We could easily have lost that war, and every signer of that document could have been hanged as a traitor. But despite their knowing the risks, they all took the risk (save John Dickinson), largely due to the powerful leadership of John Adams.

John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Eisenhower movies: A comparison of some films

There's something about war heroes and statesmen that holds the fascination of many; and so there have been a number of movies about the life of Dwight Eisenhower. He fits both categories, being both a victorious Allied general in World War II; and a President of the United States during the 1950's. Thus, there have been a number of films about him since his time.

The Cuban Missile Crisis: A comparison of two movies

"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

- John F. Kennedy, in his Address on the Cuban Missile Crisis (22 October 1962)

I have watched two movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, in addition to the episode about it in CNN's Cold War series. I've also seen it treated in some documentaries about the Kennedys, so I feel like I have some basic knowledge about it. I'm thus in a position to compare the different media about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and say what the advantages and disadvantages of each one are.

U-2 reconnaissance plane (during refueling)

How the crisis began

But before I do this, I should probably explain what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, for those who don't know. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the time in world history when the world came closest to nuclear war. The Soviets began to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, which were discovered by an American U-2 reconnaissance flight. The plane brought photographic evidence of them back to the United States, which alarmed the few authorized to see them. President Kennedy and his advisers knew that these missiles were well within range of a significant portion of the United States, and would have allowed the Soviets to nuke much of the country with little or no warning. This would have given them a first-strike capability.

Actual U-2 reconnaissance photograph of Soviet missiles in Cuba (visible when magnified)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Some thoughts about economics education

When I was in high school, I learned that my class would be among the first at Prescott High School to be required to take an economics class in senior year. I remember resenting the requirement, and even expressing this resentment to one of the older students who had been involved in making the decision to require it. (He took my outburst well, and we have remained friends to this day.)

My introduction to economics in high school

But when I took the economics class in senior year, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The subject had a lot of things about it I liked: politics, practical business applications, and a penchant for analytical thinking. I could see the practical arguments for having this be a subject required for seniors, because many of them would need basic economics knowledge when entering the workforce after their upcoming graduation. The class taught in high school almost seemed more like a consumer ed class - a useful one, to be sure, but more focused on business applications than political ones - and although it had some political content in it, I had not really gotten a taste for the political side of economics classes; or for the civic reasons for requiring some basic knowledge about it of high school graduates.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Some thoughts about civics education

"This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."

- Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution

It's a document that was written 200 years ago, but has remained the law of the land for over two centuries. It's a document that created the most successful government in history, but is increasingly under attack today. It's a document that is more inspiring than most high schoolers would think possible, but which most high schoolers could tell you only a little about.

Abraham Lincoln

Quote from Lincoln about Constitution

The document is, of course, our Constitution; and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Let reverence for the [Constitution], be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap - let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; - let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; - let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars ... While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom." (Source: 1838 Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois)

The Constitution

A More Perfect Union: America Becomes A Nation

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

- Preamble to the United States Constitution, written in 1787

It created the oldest Constitution that is still being used today, but which was a radical departure from virtually everything that came before it. It created a new form of government, but it was only authorized to modify the one that already existed - not replace it. And it has been celebrated as the best form of government ever devised by man, but was not seen as anything close to ideal by any of the men who were there.

The Constitutional Convention

Why a Constitutional Convention was necessary

The event was the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1787 to improve upon the existing system of government. The government of that time was more like the United Nations than the modern United States; because all of the states remained sovereign, acting more like independent nations than portions of a whole. The federal government had no power to regulate trade, no executive branch to enforce laws, and no power to tax - with the latter flaw being the most crippling one. I'm not saying taxes can't be too high (or aren't too high now), but a government must have the power to tax to be able to perform its needful functions; and the government of that time simply was not able to. Thus, it was not able to pay the massive debts accumulated during the Revolution; and the massive war debts of the federal government were in risk of default. Thus, a stronger central government was required than the completely toothless one of that time; and a Constitutional Convention was sorely needed.

Interior of Independence Hall

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why equalizing income conflicts with rewarding good behavior

posted earlier that one of the most sacred tenets of liberalism is the goal of equality of condition: the idea that there should be no rich or poor, but that all should have the same amount of income and wealth, and that no one should possess any more than any other.

Bill Gates

Liberals are blind to arguments based on wealth being earned ...

In this previous post, I offered several arguments against equality of condition; but refrained from using the critical argument based on rewards. This is because too many liberals have prejudice against it to lead off with it, in a post about this subject. In liberals' minds, rewarding anyone for being productive is tasteless and vulgar; because it would mean that they would have more money than someone else. It's "vulgar" to reward Bill Gates for providing me with a nice computer, because it would mean that he would become even richer than he is now, and would thus have more money than the lazy bum on the street who refuses to work. Arguments based on people's earning the money fall on deaf ears, because liberals believe no one earns money without exploiting others, and they are thus blind to arguments based on wealth being earned.

Should we treat criminals differently?

Yet even they can see the flaws in their argument when it is applied to criminal punishment. They are perfectly okay with discriminating against criminals, for example, when they commit a violent crime like murder. The equality-of-condition argument, when taken to this extreme, would say that the criminal cannot be put in prison; because then we would be treating him worse than someone else. His treatment would be unequal to the freedom that we respect in the law-abiding members of society. Yet even liberals abandon this argument here, because even they can see clearly that the law-abiding citizens have done nothing to merit losing their freedom, while the criminal has. Equality of condition is cast aside in favor of a theory of justice based on rewards, and good citizenship is made a requirement for the otherwise-inalienable right to freedom.

Microsoft Windows

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why equalizing income is a bad goal

One of the most sacred tenets of liberalism is the goal of equality of condition: the idea that there should be no rich or poor, but that all should have the same amount of income and wealth, and that no one should possess any more than any other.

There are both practical and philosophical problems with this ...

There are several problems with this goal, and the problems include both the practical and the philosophical. I will address one example of each kind of problem, to show that this is a goal that is not only impossible to attain, but whose pursuit actually harms society; ultimately backfiring on its advocates, and making society worse off. (In doing so, I should make clear that I do not oppose equality of opportunity, as I am a fiery advocate of this kind of equality. It is equality of condition that I oppose, and it is equality of condition that I will argue against now.)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why we should not follow Europe's socialist example

I was recently reading the Old Testament with my family, and we read 1st Samuel Chapter 8. I found an application to today which is somewhat frightening - and when I give this application and thus make an interpretation of scripture, I am not speaking for my faith (which is almost always neutral in politics), but for myself, and my own political views.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

LBJ: The most complicated man ever elected president

" ♪ Lyndon Johnson told the nation,
Have no fear of escalation.
I am trying everyone to please. ♪

Though it isn't really war,
We're sending fifty thousand more,
To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese. ♪ "

- Chorus to Tom Paxton's song "Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation" (1965)

This film stays with you to a degree others don't

I had seen all the other presidential biographies by this filmmaker when I watched this one about LBJ, and so I had high expectations going into it. David Grubin's biographies of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Truman are all really good; and so I was thinking this one would be good as well. It turned out to be as good as I expected, but it's also one of those films that stays with you - not because of an inspirational lead character, but because of a complex lead character who can't be reduced to simple descriptions. As my dad once said, he's like the Shakespeare character who is neither totally good nor totally bad, but somewhere in between. Thus, for me, he is someone that I like to have a love-hate relationship with. I remember what I like about him, and I remember what I hate about him; and I can't put either one aside. They're both too powerful and both too real; and in both ways, he is a constant source of fascination for me. He was a terrible president; but unlike Jimmy Carter, he was an interesting man, and one that I find myself thinking about more often than you might expect.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson always manages to surprise you

I was not always this way - I had my opinions about LBJ, which were mostly confirmed by this film; but I didn't find him a very interesting man. Yet after this film, he became quite fascinating, like a character you get to know from literature and still don't know what to make of him. No matter how many times you familiarize yourself with him, he always manages to surprise you - sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, but always unexpected. That's the way I feel about LBJ.

LBJ taking oath of office aboard Air Force One (just hours after Kennedy assassination), 1963

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The philosophers that influenced our Founding Fathers

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of War, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

- Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" (1651), Part I, Chapter XIII, section entitled "The incommodites of such a war" (with spelling modernized)

The Founding Fathers never tried to "reinvent the wheel"

The Constitution was not created in a vacuum - it did not "appear out of nowhere" in 1787 as if there had never been anything before it that was worthwhile. We may sometimes think that we have to credit them with every good idea that ever arose in politics, as if it would be an insult to them not to do so. But the fact is that there were other smart people before they arrived on the scene; and the Founding Fathers had the "intellectual humility," if you will, to recognize the wisdom of these prior ages. Indeed, it is a testament to their genius that they listened to these prior philosophers carefully and with an open mind. Our heartfelt respect for our Founding Fathers does not mean that we have to discount everything else that has ever happened. If the Founding Fathers, after all, did not dismiss or ignore these prior philosophers, it would seem that there is no reason for us to do so (if I may be so bold); since even the greatest minds of our country's founding felt the need to listen to other opinions from other ages, and avoid wasting time in a fruitless effort to "reinvent the wheel."

Alexander Hamilton

They used the good ideas of those that came before, and then added their own improvements

Indeed, the Founding Fathers of the United States were - almost without exception - a smart bunch. Many were quite brilliant, and some were very original thinkers. But like any group of smart men, they used the good ideas of those that came before them; often improving on them, the way an inventor improves on previous technology. The list of philosophers that influenced the Founding Fathers is a long one; as they were influenced even by the ones they disagreed with, and many were quite familiar with the "wisdom of the ages." But besides the French philosopher Montesquieu, and the English jurist William Blackstone, the two philosophers that influenced them the most may have been Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: the two that I will focus on here. (For more about Montesquieu's ideas, click here - I'll focus this post instead on Hobbes and Locke, and cover Blackstone later.) There was much about Thomas Hobbes that our Founding Fathers disagreed with; but there were some important ideas original to him that they agreed with, and that influenced their thinking in the most profound of ways.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A review of PBS Empires “Napoleon”

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever."

- Napoleon Bonaparte

He was the ruler of France, but learned French as a second language, and spoke it with an accent. He praised the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, but always considered himself a little more equal than everyone else (much like a Marxist that way). And he was a military genius whose victories brought him glory and power, but who lost it all through the tragic flaw of always wanting more, and never knowing where to stop.

How Napoleon is perceived in America

The man was Napoleon Bonaparte, and his name is well known to young and old; but few in America know much about him, or care. It's not only that he lived far away from the world we live in - Americans have a never-ending interest in (and horror of) Adolf Hitler, even though he too was across the Atlantic - but Napoleon is perceived not to have had much effect on American history. Part of it may be that he was so long ago, but part of it also may be the perception that he was beneficial to our country - that his fighting our mutual enemy of that time (Great Britain) kept us from losing our War of 1812. There may be some truth in this; but regardless of one's feelings about this, he was a major foreign policy issue for the presidencies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; and was the central fact of domestic life for the vast majority of the continent of Europe. He hit very close to home for them, and inspired a never-ending fascination with his life that lives on in Europe today.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My perspective on “The Communist Manifesto”

Ronald Reagan

"How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin." - Ronald Reagan

Vladimir Lenin

I don't think Mr. Reagan really meant that anyone who reads Marx and Lenin is a communist (I've read Marx, and I'm no communist), as the second part of the joke gives some important context for the first. Understanding Marx and Lenin usually requires reading them (as I have done), so we can take the first part of the quote to mean someone who reads Marx and Lenin without understanding them. But the second part can be taken literally, even precisely; which is why I find the joke funny. Those who understand Marx and Lenin are anti-communists.

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels

Friday, July 18, 2014

My experience with French

Many of my Facebook friends have seen my posts about Spanish, and the various ways in which I have tried to learn the language. My experience with French is not as well-known to my friends, because I have tended not to share it as publicly. But I actually became fluent in French before I became fluent in Spanish. One of my other posts details my high school and college class experience in learning the language, so suffice it to say here that I took the equivalent of two years of college French. Those who want to know more about my experience with French classes are advised to read this blog post. I will focus this blog post on my efforts since that time.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A review of "Crucible of Empire: the Spanish-American War"

I just finished watching "Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War," PBS's two-hour documentary about this time. I was generally impressed by this documentary. One of the pleasant surprises for me was that they did not just cover the American side, but also the Cuban and Filipino sides as well. They interview some Filipino historians in addition to American ones, although there are no interviews with Cubans or Spaniards. The Cuban part is more understandable, since people in this communist country cannot speak their mind freely without fear of government reprisal; but the general omission of the Spanish perspective is something of a mystery, given the pains they took to depict other perspectives.

Map of the Americas, with Cuba highlighted in red

This war was a two-front war, fought in both Cuba and the Philippines ...

This war of 1898 was really a two-front war, with fighting in both the Caribbean and the Pacific; and so the geography of the war is somewhat complicated. On the one hand, Cuba is a Caribbean island close to American Florida; but on the other hand, the Philippines are way across the Pacific Ocean, with distances comparable to those traversed during the Pacific theater of World War II. Thus, the fighting in this war was somewhat spread out.

Far side of the globe, with Philippines highlighted in green

Friday, June 27, 2014

Mormonism and America

"And for this purpose have I [the Lord] established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood."

- Doctrine & Covenants, Section 101, Verse 80 (written 1833)

The Book of Mormon has some scriptures about America, which have special meaning to Latter-Day Saints in the United States.

Ezra Taft Benson

It is fitting to acknowledge here that we are a worldwide church, with members in many different countries; and that in the words of President Benson, we "cherish patriotism and love of country in all lands." (see April 1976 General Conference talk) But today, I would like to talk about these scriptures which have special meaning to American Mormons.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Greece

"The history of the ancient Greeks is one of the most improbable success stories in world history. A small people inhabiting a country poor in resources and divided into hundreds of squabbling mini-states created one of the world's most remarkable cultures."

- Preface to "A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture" (2nd edition, 2009), page xv

So I recently finished reading a textbook about the history of Ancient Greece. (I've still got a long way to go in my book about the Ancient Greek language, but I've just finished my book about their history.) Fascinating stuff - I'm glad I invested the time in learning it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Do checks and balances conflict with separation of powers?

"The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."

- James Madison, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 51)

Some accused the Constitution itself of violating the "separation of powers" doctrine

It might seem strange to hear it today; but during the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land," it was said by the Constitution's opponents that it violated the doctrine of separation of powers - or the idea that power should be separated among multiple branches of government. (For more on the basics of what this is, see this other blog post of mine. This post will focus more on the idea that the Constitution violates it, and how the Father of the Constitution responded to this charge.)

United States Capitol

Why did they think this?

How could this be, you might be asking? We have three branches of government - a legislature, executive, and judiciary - which are separate from each other. The power in our nation is divided between three branches of government, thus maintaining a proper separation of powers between them. Yet there is one aspect in which the Constitution's opponents were correct, which was that there was a system of checks and balances between the branches. This might not seem to conflict at all with separation of powers, but consider an example to illustrate: The president has the power of nominating judges to the Supreme Court, but he cannot actually appoint them unless the legislature approves his choices. Thus, both the executive and legislative branches share in the judicial power by deciding together who gets to wield it. Thus, it cannot truly be said that the powers are totally separate. A similar analogy could be made for every check and balance the Framers gave us; showing that in practice, the legislative, executive, and judicial powers are shared amongst the three branches.

James Madison

Response from the Father of the Constitution

So is it true that the Constitution violates the separation of powers doctrine? Well, perhaps not - James Madison said that some deviations from the letter of the doctrine are necessary to preserve the spirit of it. He doesn't use those words exactly; but he does address it in some important writings about the Constitution, which are the Federalist Papers - describing it in some detail how checks and balances are necessary to have a separation of powers. His arguments are instructive to those of us who've ever wondered whether checks and balances conflict with a separation of powers. Thus, I will now turn to his words to explain how they are not only consistent with separation of powers, but necessary to preserve a separation of powers in practice.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A review of Ken Burns' “The War” (World War Two series)

"The German Government, consequently, discontinues diplomatic relations with the United States of America and declares that under these circumstances brought about by President Roosevelt Germany too, as from today, considers herself as being in a state of war with the United States of America."

German Declaration of War with the United States, 11 December 1941

With a great subject and the superb direction of Ken Burns, you'd think PBS's "The War" would be one of my favorite documentaries. I'm a big fan of several Ken Burns films (especially "The Civil War"), and I have loved many documentaries about World War II (especially "The World at War"). And it is true that I like this documentary; but it isn't one of my favorites. The focus it chooses is both a strength and a weakness; and for someone like me, it's mainly a weakness.

Limiting the story to Americans has its weaknesses at times ...

What is the focus I talk about? Mainly, it's the fact that World War II is told through the eyes of four American towns. It's a brilliant depiction of life in these four places; and in a broader sense, life in wartime America generally. Yet it is also the weakness of this documentary - limited in its geographic area, they have fewer interviewees to choose from; and not all of them are equally interesting. More importantly, the documentary focuses entirely on America; and shies away from depicting anything outside of it - whether that be from our allies (mainly the British and the Soviets), or from our enemies (mainly the Germans and the Japanese). It would be as if he did "The Civil War" from only the point of view of the North. Yes, that point of view is important (and ultimately the right one); but the war is not understood from an exclusive focus on either side. You have to depict both sides to get a true understanding of the war.

Japanese army enters Nanking, 1938

A review of “The World at War” (World War Two series)

"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin Nevile Henderson handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, that a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country [Great Britain] is at war with Germany."

- British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, in a speech given from the Cabinet room at 10, Downing Street on 3 September 1939

World War II is a subject that continues to fascinate millions throughout the world. From people in the losing countries to people in the winning ones, everyone seems to be fascinated by World War II. Because of this, there continue to be media of all kinds about the subject, and a viewer interested in it has many options to choose from. Indeed, there almost seems to be a choice overload (a nice problem to have), and it's hard to know which ones are the best.

D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach - Normandy, 1944

This documentary depicts stories from all over the world, on both sides of the conflict

"Best" is a subjective term, and what is best in the eyes of one may not be best for another. But if asked my opinion on which documentary is the best, my vote would go to "The World at War," the classic British documentary from the 1970's. From the British and Americans to their reluctant Soviet allies, to the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, stories from all over the world are told, and woven together into a fascinating narrative about the sweeping events of World War II.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A review of “Jefferson Davis: An American President”

"The executive power [of the Confederacy] shall be vested in a President of the Confederate States of America. He and the Vice President shall hold their offices for a term of six years; but the President shall not be reeligible."

- Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution of the Confederate States

Other documentaries cover other major figures of the Civil War

So I recently watched a 3 ½ hour documentary about the life of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederacy. I first ran into this after having watched documentaries about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and wondering if there was anything decent out there about the lead Confederates. So I Googled Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, to see if there were any good documentaries about their lives. There were two documentaries about Robert E. Lee which were an hour and an hour-and-a-half respectively; but after watching both of them, neither of them turned out to be very good. The A&E one suffered from many of the same flaws as the network's other biographies, as it was poorly made and painfully brief; and the PBS one had a liberal bias bad enough to interfere with its quality. I've enjoyed many of PBS's other biographies, but their one about Robert E. Lee was disappointing, particularly in that it was also brief; and it was not so much offensive as just unsatisfying - I didn't feel like I learned anything new.

Even the title of the documentary is controversial

Jefferson Davis was a different story, as I soon found two movies about his life. One of them was only two hours long, and the reviews of it did not make it seem that good; but the other one was this one, which is a 3 ½ hour documentary entitled "Jefferson Davis: An American President." The title in and of itself is somewhat controversial, but that was part of what made it intriguing. The length of it seemed appropriate, and the controversies about it among the reviewers further augmented my interest; and so I decided to get a copy for Christmas. This one is much better, as I learned a lot; and it helps you to better understand the Southern side of the war.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why philosophy is relevant to fellow conservatives

Philosophy today has a reputation for being a very liberal subject. And it's quite true that the discipline is today dominated by liberals, even by the standards of academic subjects. For this reason, the subject may have something of a bad name among conservatives - and to some extent, this reputation is deserved. (Some philosophers really are quite out there.)

But there are a number of historical philosophers covered in these classes whose ideas fit neatly into modern conservatism. A number of our Founding Fathers were political philosophers (many of whom had some very original contributions to the subject), and I need not remind my fellow conservatives how beloved they are to our tradition.

James Madison

Besides them, there are others that it would behoove conservatives to know a bit about, and I would like to discuss a few of these philosophers now. Before doing so, let me make clear that I am not trying to convince anyone to major or minor in philosophy, or even take a class in it. But I hope this will help my fellow conservatives to understand that not all philosophers are liberal wackos.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A review of PBS's “Truman” movie

"The Buck Stops Here."

- A sign on Truman's desk in the Oval Office

It might seem strange to hear a Republican like me say it, but I am actually a big fan of Harry Truman. He was undoubtedly a Democrat, but the Democratic Party of that time was very different from the Democratic Party of today. I have a lot of admiration and respect for him personally, as well as a lot of respect for his presidency. I once watched PBS's documentary about him (which is four hours long), and so I thought I'd like to offer my review of it here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Why I'm glad I learned French

I have posted much on Facebook about my attempts to learn Spanish, so my Facebook friends know a lot about my interest in the language. But I have not posted as much about French, perhaps because I learned it long before I ever joined Facebook. I'm not often asked why I learned Spanish, because the local usefulness of the language is well known here; but people sometimes wonder why I learned French. Thus, I decided to write this post to explain.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The most fascinating man in American history

"My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

- Opening lines of Grant's memoirs, in the very first chapter

If you asked your average person what historical individual they find most interesting, you might hear an answer like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or another Founding Father. These would be excellent choices. But the person I find most interesting would not make most people's list. Although he was voted President of the United States, he is not remembered as a statesman, but as a soldier. He may have been the finest general in American history, but he is mostly forgotten today.

A review of “Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior President”

"[T]he war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end ... "

- From the conclusion of Grant's memoirs (1885)

I had heard the name "Ulysses S. Grant" as a child, and knew he was important; but did not know much about him. I had heard much criticism of Grant's generalship, with the old claim that he was a butcher - an unfavorable characterization voiced by then-First-Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. I also heard some good things about Grant's generalship, and my father was a great admirer of Grant; but everyone seemed to consider Robert E. Lee's generalship superior to his. The general, it seemed, was incompetent; and a drunk to boot. I knew also of the apocryphal story about someone complaining to President Lincoln about Grant's drinking, and then hearing the response to "Find out what he drinks, and I'll send a barrel of it to all my other generals" (or something to that effect).

Abraham Lincoln

Ken Burns' famous depiction of Grant in "The Civil War"

It was in watching Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries that I got to know Grant a little better; to hear Jason Robards read quotes from him, and to hear a brief version of Grant's postwar life. Ken Burns is a little hard on Grant's presidency in the postwar episode, I think, mentioning only its failures in the brief sentence about it. He does do justice to the story of Grant's writing his memoirs, and setting it up with the business failures that prompted his writing them; but he also ignores some important context when mentioning that Grant had someone tied to a tree for several hours for mistreating a horse - the man was ordered to stop doing it, and persisted quite openly in doing so. Mentioning this insubordination would have seemed appropriate to give context; but given the other virtues of the series, I'll let this omission slide.

The definitive film on Grant is this biography by PBS

This American Experience documentary about him is the definitive film on Grant. The Western director John Ford, I am told, wanted to do a biopic about Grant; but never got to do so. A Hollywood movie would have been something, but this documentary is quite impressive as well; making good use of the many photographs of Grant, the people he worked with, and the events he was involved in. They make good use of quotes from Grant's memoirs, and benefit from having one of the most interesting stories in American history to dramatize. I think Grant may be the most fascinating man in American history, and this documentary does him justice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ben-Hur: My favorite Hollywood movie of all time

It's well-known to my friends that I post a lot about documentaries, particularly about history. Thus, someone reading my blog posts might conclude that I don't like Hollywood movies as much, because I don't write about them very often. (I've only written a blog review of two so far, which are Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.") Actually, I'm a great fan of many Hollywood movies, and the main reason I spend more time reviewing documentaries is because there's more history documentaries than history movies. (I may start reviewing some classic history movies, from Hollywood as well as the documentary world. More on that later.)

Fictional story with a historical setting ...

But my favorite Hollywood movie is actually not a history movie; because although it depicts real events, most of the characters are fictional; as this is based on a work of literature. Besides that, it depicts Bible events like Jesus's miracles, which lend themselves less to verifiable fact than other kinds of history - like certain areas of military history, where we can have verifiable data like numbers of troops, their positions during any given battle, and the tactical results of the engagement. I wish to make it clear that I believe in the reality of Jesus's miracles, but any media depicting them is not, in the strictest sense, a history. Rather, this is a work of cinematic literature, based on a literary work from the world of books. The movie is the 1959 classic "Ben-Hur," which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. For me, this is the movie that most brings the New Testament to life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does communism cause poverty? (The two experiments that prove it does)

Karl Marx, the chief founder of communism

Does communism cause poverty? And how can this be tested?

Karl Marx

What counts as "testing"?

The short answer is "yes": it does cause poverty. But as far as testing goes, it depends on how you define "test." When hearing the word "experiment," most people have the mental image of a laboratory; but I should acknowledge in advance that experiments are hard to do in economics and politics. Even the possible ones usually require major government actions which may be unpopular, and people generally don't like to be guinea pigs. This is true of any experiment about whether communism has negative effects on prosperity.

Karl Marx

The experiments that no one wanted ...

So is there such an experiment? It turns out that there are two on a large scale, but not ones initiated by any government or university. They are natural experiments, or ones in which "the experimental and control conditions are determined by nature, or by other factors outside the control of the investigators." (source citation) While they were set in motion by human beings rather than nature, their purpose was not experimental at all; but the result of complicated political negotiations following a major war. Both sides in these negotiations - who had been allies during this war - would have preferred that their own system of government be established in the territories of their former enemies; but neither had the military power to do so for all those territories. The result was a compromise, which began two of the most epic natural experiments in the history of economics - two experiments neither side wanted, but which both sides got; and which clearly show a causal relationship between communism and poverty.

Yalta Conference, 1945

Potsdam Conference, 1945

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