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.

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