Natural Beauty and National Pride

Driving across the United States this summer with my family, we were offered countless vistas of natural beauty that went from the sublime to the majestic. From the carpet of trees that seemed to spread from our hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina to the deep red buttes of the New Mexico rockies, we were confronted by natural beauty at every turn that just took our Asia-jaded breaths away.

“I love America,” said my twelve year-old son, and often, after we drank our visual fill of one of these wonders.

Indeed. As do his mother and I.

But is it right for us to be proud of America, a political entity, for the natural wonders bestowed on the continent long before modern man set foot on her shores, much less sat down to write a constitution? Should we tell ourselves that we are a great nation because we are endowed with an inheritance for which we can only thank G-d?

I think not. The natural grace shed upon the land by the Almighty was not the result of some favorable judgement of our people or our deeds.

On the other hand, what we can take pride in is our response to that bounty. We have approached each of these blessings with varying degress of two noble urges: the urge to protect, and the urge to learn. Often driven by enlightened self interest (tourism, logging, the desire to preserve a favorite campsite), we have learned to make preservation a part of a national bi-partisan dialogue. Preservation is no longer the question: the question is how, and how much?

And study of nature has been a part of the national idiom since Thomas Jefferson, whose remove on his beloved hilltop on Monticello was taken up more with the study of the natural world than with politics. The names of explorers grace our history and name our streets, mountains, and lakes. And Theodore Roosevelt was more than any other individual (with the possible exception of John Muir) responsible for making the study of nature synonymous with what it is to be an American. So much is this the case that by the time the Baby Boomers began to take positions of responsibility in American society, most Americans took for granted our urges to preserve and study. In this, we can take justifiable pride.

In the processs, unfortunately, we have forgotten the stormy debates that have surrounded each governmental act of preservation throughout history. We have disregarded the arguments, however sincere and reasonable, made against each act of government acquisition for the purpose of preservation. This selective amnesia is a problem: If we are to understand the role and limit of government, we must remember the debates that sought to curb the influence of the state, even in such an obvious place like the conservation of nature. And if we are to truly appreciate our inheritance, we must acknowledge the sacrifices that individuals have made to bring them to us – even if they started out on the wrong side of history. The real credit for conservation goes to those who have given up the economic benefit of something that is rightfully theirs in deference to the interests of the nation, of mankind, and of the planet. In the acts of these Americans, we can also take pride.

Finally, we must recongize that our urge to study and preserve is not universal, and that for all of our faults, we can look around the world and be justifiably proud at what we have accomplished as a people.

These thoughts were with me as we drove down through the winding vistas of the Virgin River Canyon, a Grand Canyon in miniature at the extreme Northwest corner of Arizona that offers some of the most remarkable vistas in the Southwest. The Canyon and the river that formed it are a gift. We can take no pride in the gifts we receive, I told my son, only in what we do with them.


Research: White suspects get shot quicker than black suspects

A fascinating article in Reason. You may not want to accept the findings at face value, but it does suggest a counter-narrative that is worth further study.

The money quote in the article is this:

Participants in an innovative Washington State University study of deadly force were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving black people. But when it came time to shoot, participants were biased in favor of black suspects, taking longer to pull the trigger against them than against armed white or Hispanic suspects…

What is at work here? Reverse racism? Or is it the trigger puller giving the black perp the benefit of the doubt? Again, hard to tell, but a phenomenon that is worth understanding.


A Better Way to NATO

Professor James R. Holmes writes in The Diplomat (“A Clausewitzian Biew of NATO”) that it is time we put Europe on notice: if you are not going to pay to defend yourself, neither are we. We will match our spending levels to yours, but we will not fight your wars for you. Brilliant.

Let’s tell our “allies” in Asia the same thing. We will always stand by our friends, but friends don’t let frends become free-riders. Not when it comes to treasure, and never when it comes to blood.


In Defense of a Messy System

The folks at the Strategic Studies Quarterly offer a review of Louis Fischer’s new book defending both the US Congress and the Constitution. Read this review and you’ll be buying the book.

In writing Defending Congress and the Constitution, Fisher does not seek to be an apologist for the failings of Congress. On the contrary: he points us toward a reinterpretation of the various roles of government, and notes that it is Congressional passivity in the face of Executive or Judiciary excess flies in the face of the intent of the men who drafted the Constitution in the first place.

In defining Congress in a more activist context, Fischer admittedly opens a can of worms. But few would argue that an activist national legislature would be a fair improvement over the partisan infighting that has characterized the body over the past two decades.


Visiting the Puzzle Palace

We focus much here on the problem of government dysfunction and waste, so it is only fair to point out examples of smart administration when they arise.

The Pentagon, which holds a special place in the conservative heart for the importance of its mission (the national defense,) also belongs in the conservative mush-pot for its inability recruit, train, arm, and field the US armed forces either economically or effectively. Nonetheless, there are signs that some things have changed in the past decade – small ones, to be sure, but signs that suggest that changing the Pentagon is possible.

On my recent visit to the Five-Sided Squirrel Cage, I was pleased to find the Visitor Center set off from (yet still adjacent to) the main building. Once a few rows of seats in an area used to provide employees with commercial services, the Visitor Center takes visitors away from the main flow of traffic, not only improving security but ensuring that service people can do their banking or get a haircut without standing in line behind a family of tourists.

Guides for the Pentagon Tour are all E-4 and below, and they manage the process brilliantly. There is no need to waste the time of a dozen good non-commissioned officers just to squire a bunch of tourists around the public areas of the building. What is more, getting junior enlisted personnel to do the job accomplishes two important missions. First, it gives promising young soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen a chance to communicate to the public at large. In an era of what retired Marine Corps General Charles Krulak called “the strategic corporal,” building leadership abilities and people skills into our most junior leaders is essential.

Second, in trusting our youngest soldiers to squire two dozen outsiders around a building bursting with national secrets, we demonstrate to ourselves and to anyone paying attention that what sets the US military apart is the strength and abilities of its most junior people. Take that, China.

One other aspect of greater Pentagon efficiency is worth mentioning. Many offices and billets in the Pentagon have allowed their people to forego the dressier classes of uniform and come to work in the respective forms of battle dress. There may be somebody somewhere who thinks this is beneath the dignity of Headquarters America. Nonsense. The move gives the Pentagon the feel of a command post rather than an office building with uniforms, helps build a mental connection with those serving in the field, and saves our men and women in uniform the expense of daily dry-cleaning.

I know what you are thinking: these changes around the edges of the Department of Defense are window dressing and not renovation. That’s true. But great changes in inertia-laden organizations often begin with small steps, and I remain optimistic that the institutional dysfunction of the DoD can be remedied. In order to stare down the Pentagon’s Perfumed Princes on the one hand and Capitol Hill’s pork-minded politicians on the other, we need a president whose dedication to and understanding of the mission of national defense are beyond question, and a bloody-minded Secretary of Defense with similar disposition.

Let that be a goal in 2016.

A Time to Heal a Nation

Rabbi Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

As Americans we have been given great gifts, and in most cases gifts for which we ourselves did not have to work. It is only fitting that we reach out and seek to care for others around the world in need of food, of shelter, of safety.

But we must be mindful of a painful fact: if we fail to take care of America first, we will lose the means to better the lives of others. We will cease being a shelter for others in a storm. We will no longer be a light for the rest of the world. And we disintegrate into a selfish mob.

Our nation and its resources are exhausted after seven decades of spending our treasure in defense of the world. We must rest. We must pause and tend to our people, our wounds, and repair the damage, wear, and tear of this nation’s fiber, so that we can once again stand strong when the forces of evil and hatred threaten us.

I abhor the evil done by ISIS, the re-emergence of an imperial Russia, and the rise of a China no longer focused on the prosperity of its people, but on its sense of national entitlement. But we are tired, battle-weary, and broke, and we have a passel of problems to fix at home.

Let us no longer be the iron fist to crush evil, but a finger inside the mailed glove made up of the nations of the world. We can lead the charge, but we can no longer man the lines alone.