Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dereliction of Duty

“Duty, then, is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.” --General Robert E. Lee

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.” --General Colin L. Powell

Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich has a deeper understanding of the concept of duty. Yesterday he agreed to plead guilty to negligent dereliction of duty in the 2005 killing of unarmed Iraqi civilians at Haditha.

Three Marines from Camp Lejeune have also been receiving a belated education in duty. Their case will be unfolding on the world stage.

It appears we might be hearing more about duty in the coming weeks. But why is it important (as General Lee is purported to have said) to “do your duty” in all things?

The short answer is that it speaks to character. If you do what you are supposed to do, regardless of whether someone is watching, you are responsible. You are dependable. You have integrity.

These are good traits. They create trust.

When people are derelict in their duty, they create suspicion. Rather than being “American Ambassadors,” our three Marines defiled the Corps. They have become our most recent example of “Ugly Americans.”

While dereliction of duty is a personal failing, our culture sometimes heralds it as a virtue. That is particularly true when “the cause is just.”

Colin Powell withheld information on the Valerie Plame disclosure from his Commander in Chief. His actions were criticized, but not seen as dereliction of duty.

A Senate aide is charged with leaking classified information. The aide (a former CIA officer) released the information to discredit the Bush administration. The New York Times published the story, setting aside any journalistic concern for duty.

A sense of moral virtue appears to absolve people from doing their duty.

It makes you wonder what General Lee would think.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Food for Thought

Barbara Oakley recommends Iain McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and his Emissary” (© 2009, Yale University Press). When Dr. Oakley makes a recommendation, you follow up, even when it’s a story about the human brain.

I know. You’re thinking, “What’s the big deal with the brain?”

It turns out that the things we’ve been taught about the brain may not be true. It also turns out that Iain McGilchrist is just the iconoclast to bend our perceptions.

His book is lengthy (534 pages in paperback), but here is a TED Talk summary. It gives a good introduction to the subject and should pique your interest.

McGilchrist took over twenty years to collect data and write this book. His thesis is that describing the brain as having a right-side creative component and a left-side analytic component is simplistic, if not totally inaccurate.

He characterizes the brain as being two functionally separate organs, with the right brain taking a dominant role (The Master) and the left brain deferring (The Emissary). The job of the right brain, in many instances, is simply to inhibit the left brain in such a way that a desired behavior is achieved.

Why is this important? It’s because “bad things happen” when the left brain becomes too dominant. There needs to be a balance, both for the safety of the individual and for society as a whole.

McGilchrist imbues a personality to each side of the brain, with the left being dogmatic in cataloging and referencing its knowledge, while the right side is more adventurous, seeking encounters with things that are new and unrecognized.

The left brain wants to generate outcomes based on its understanding; what it believes is true. The right brain is still trying to figure things out. It wants to know what is possible in a world that has not already been experienced and catalogued by the left brain.

The left brain is authoritarian; the right brain is exploratory.

With that background, here is a right-brain exercise: What if we place American politics into this model?

Without too much of a stretch, we can visualize how things align: The Constitution would be associated with the right brain.

Our founding fathers had to cope with the existential threats of the American Frontier and also wanted to shield us from authoritarianism. They created a system of representative government that vested power in the people and gave its citizens the flexibility to manage the unknown.

Most people would agree this was exploratory thinking. The concepts were untried. The Founding Fathers were “right brain people.”

Aligned with the left side of the brain are those who want to extract power from that which is known. There is the recurring inclination of left-brain authoritarianism to take what is available, and work it for maximum advantage. We get a sense of that when one branch of government tries to diminish the Constitutional authority of another. We see a kind of “creative authoritarianism.”

Which works best for “the host?” Does the human body fare better if the left brain is dominant? Does our country fare better if authoritarianism wins?

McGilchrist’s book plants a seed of curiosity. Left brain authoritarianism might seem to protect us, but it can fail when we encounter unknown or unexpected events. Right brain exploration expands our understanding, but it might get us killed in the process!

“The Master and his Emissary” gives an appreciation for the human experience and how our brains adapt to the risks that confront us. What is the best way to solve our problems? It comes down to whether we think authoritarianism or “people-power” is best.

In America, we get to decide that balance with elections.

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Monday, January 9, 2012


On January 4, 2012, The Denver Post published a story by Lynn Bartels that celebrates the creation of a Colorado Black Caucus:

More than 225 people are expected to attend a reception Thursday night to celebrate the launch of an organization of black elected officials.

The Colorado Black Caucus includes Denver's mayor, city council members, school board members, lawmakers and others from around the state.

The group was founded by state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, who serves as its chair.

"All people should have an equal voice at the table," she said. "Our issues are not separate from mainstream Colorado. To the contrary, they are the same."

The event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Guests who have said they will attend include Trey Rogers, legal counsel for former Gov. Bill Ritter, and House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

The most high-profile member of the caucus is Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, the city's second black mayor although African-Americans comprise only 10 percent of its population.

"This caucus presents a great opportunity for African-American leaders throughout the city and state to come together to bolster collaboration," said Hancock, who took office in July.

"I applaud this new group as well for its commitment to increasing civic engagement from within the African-American community…"

The group’s founder, Colorado State Representative Angela Williams, emphasized that “All people should have an equal voice at the table.” The implication is that members of the Caucus do not have an equal voice. To solve this problem, Representative Williams believes Colorado needs a Democratic Party political group based on race.


The Denver Post seems to celebrate the decision, but there is a cynical artificiality to the story. Do the editors actually believe there is nothing divisive in a Democratic Party political group being formed to accentuate the perception that Colorado Republicans are racists? Is the formation of such a group a reason to celebrate?

Here’s some perspective:

Colorado wasn’t even a state when the American Civil War was being fought. The Democratic Party had an active KKK organization in Colorado in the 1920s, but it was focused on anti-Catholic initiatives. Colorado has had no trappings of the 1960’s segregationist movement promoted by George Wallace, Orval Faubus and other Democratic Party leaders. In 2008, Colorado voters endorsed Barack Obama by 54% to 45% over Republican John McCain. Colorado’s largest city has an African-American mayor.

But still it is imperative that the Democratic Party accentuate its theme: Republicans are racists.

If you ask members of the Colorado Black Caucus if they believe Colorado Republicans are racists, most will demur. You see, it’s not that they believe a particular Republican is a racist; it’s just that Democrats happen to be attracted to organizations that consider Republicans racists. It is their touchstone.

Do we need more of that in Colorado? It is certainly upsetting and alienating to Republicans, yet we’ve got politicians like Mark Udall, drawn to one of the most objectionable tenets of the Democratic Party, still promoting intermingled seating in the U.S. Senate. He believes simple propinquity will bring Republicans around to his world view. He can sit with them, but he still knows they are racists. What a guy!

We will have to watch the members of the Colorado Black Caucus as they celebrate Martin Luther King Day next week. The MLK holiday is sometimes used by Democratic Party activists to insinuate that Republicans incite racial killing. Will the members of the Caucus show restraint? What did they take away from the exploitation of Gabby Giffords?

Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican on the Supreme Court of the United States, is famously quoted in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education as saying, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

That makes sense, but the point is apparently lost on the Colorado Black Caucus.

UPDATE 1/10/2012:
The first anniverary of the shooting attack by Jared Loughner brings to mind this WSJ article by Glenn Reynolds. The accusation of racism might be losing some of its sting, but characterizing Republicans as "accomplices to murder" still packs a wallop.

UPDATE 1/14/2012:
This morning, The Denver Post quotes Senator Mark Udall at a Tucson service honoring the lives of those killed in the 2011 shooting. The idea is to use the event to reinforce the perception that Republicans are violent extremists, in their thoughts and in their words.

Senator Udall conveys a quiet sense of moral authority:

Although Gabby now struggles with her words at times, we know what she's trying to say. It's a simple concept. Words matter, and these days you don't hear our elected officials using words to bring us together. Too often words are used as weapons.

Senator Udall has a pious sense of triumphalism as he delivers his remarks, but there is no doubt who wears "the black hats." Republicans feel ambushed, with nobody riding to their defense. Non-Republicans relish a righteous sense of affirmation.

In the meantime, our culture says, "Mission accomplished!"

UPDATE 1/16/2012 (MLK Holiday):
The Blaze notes the use of the pulpit where Martin Luther King preached to attack Republicans. As Glenn Reynolds says, "Separation of church and state is for the little people."

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Prime Directive

Captain Jean-Luc Picard assimilated as Locutus of Borg

The Denver Post ran a story in its New Year’s Day edition (1/1/2012) about a book slated to be released by New York University Press. “The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden,” is written by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naquib Pellow, professors of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

The two academics document the hardship of being an immigrant in the United States of America. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story is not about the arduous process of becoming a naturalized citizen, learning English, passing an exam, and declaring an oath of citizenship. Instead, it is the story of immigrants near Aspen, Colorado, living in squalor and disrespect.

I’m reproducing the text of the story here, and have added emphasis in the form of hotlinks and bold text.

The exclusive resort town of Aspen has an international reputation for high-end service and a stunning landscape of pristine mountains, all configured to welcome wealthy tourists.

And, like many communities in the U.S., Aspen depends upon low-wage immigrant labor to fuel its service economy. And, again, like many such communities, the Aspen City Council passed a resolution calling on the federal government to restrict immigration in order to preserve the economic and cultural integrity of the nation.

But in Aspen, environmental concerns played a central role in providing a cover for demonizing low-income immigrants from Latin America as the primary source of our national and local ills, and also for making invisible the growing inequality that grips our nation.

In December 1999, the Aspen City Council unanimously passed a resolution petitioning the U.S. Congress and the president to increase restrictions against both documented and undocumented immigration in order to save the environment. Shortly afterwards, City Council member Terry Paulson — a longtime immigration critic and self-avowed environmentalist — announced his intention to engage a statewide campaign to "promote overpopulation awareness" and declared, "If we address population and do something about it everything else will fall in line."

Aspen, located in Pitkin County, then successfully persuaded the county to follow the city's lead, and in March of 2000, the County Commission approved its own "population stabilization" resolution.

When we traveled to the area to investigate these anti-immigration measures, we found two very different Aspens. The dominant, commercial Aspen was an idyllic, post-industrial refuge with stretch Range Rover limousines, toy poodles with diamond-encrusted collars, world-class ski slopes, and film celebrities who live part of the year in multimillion-dollar, single-family homes. The other Aspen is a place where foreign-born workers from Latin America drive 60 to 140 miles roundtrip daily to work in low-status, often dangerous jobs for low wages with few benefits. Many of these workers live in deplorable housing conditions, including campers and cars, and are now being blamed for the nation's environmental crisis.

In the glossy, commercial version of Aspen, these immigrants do not exist. However, if you look in the back of any restaurant, hotel, or residential home, you will find immigrants cooking and cleaning kitchens and bathrooms, mowing lawns, and pouring concrete to build heated driveways in front of palatial estates. As in so many other communities, immigrants in Aspen are made invisible in multiple ways. Immigrants and immigrant advocates whom we spoke with highlighted the lack of affordable housing that forces many to live "down valley" in trailer parks that are hidden along the highway in dangerous flood zones, and away from the commercial center. The targeted sweeps of workplaces in the area by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the building of an immigrant detention center in a neighboring town also forces immigrants into hiding. But perhaps the most persistent and commonplace acts of enforcing immigrant invisibility are the everyday indignities experienced at work, school and home that remind newcomers of their marginality despite their centrality within both the local and global economies.

Social scientists have documented how transnational labor migration is an integral part of the global movement of capital, goods, services and ideas. And despite continued efforts to limit the flow of migration, the establishment of global political, military and economic linkages by the U.S. contributes to large-scale emigration. In the case of Mexico, emigration is directly tied to foreign investment in export production. U.S. trade with Mexico grew by a factor of eight from 1986 to 2004. Despite this embedded connection between the movement of capital and the movement of people, our national immigration policy remains almost entirely fixated on border control. This is a pivotal flaw.

Moreover, scholars have noted repeatedly that U.S. wage levels fell and income inequality grew as a result of deindustrialization, capital flight, economic restructuring, and the dismantling of labor unions in the 1970s and '80s. However, the popular preoccupation with the U.S.-Mexico border scores political points for elected officials leading the nativist drumbeat while doing little to address these real economic concerns. Instead, we have witnessed the continuous disintegration of civil rights and the social safety net for both citizens and non-citizens in the name of border control and national security.

The goal for Aspen is to be a "City beautiful," a beacon of sustainability. Unfortunately, the path to that goal is paved with nativism and exclusion. In Councilman Paulson's opening remarks supporting the anti-immigrant measure, he stated that population control was the single most important problem and that anyone denying this would be committing a "hate crime against future generations ... ." Similarly, the countywide resolution contained the following statement: "Immigration is the leading cause of population growth in the Unites States. Population is the leading cause of environmental degradation." Following this logic, immigration becomes the major cause of our ecological crisis.

Both resolutions reflect the longstanding link between nativism and environmentalism in the United States.

As Aspen Council member Tom McCabe cautioned, "The planet's a finite resource. ... We can't indefinitely welcome people and expect to maintain our quality of life."

And this is precisely the point: Many Aspenites and others in similarly privileged communities across the U.S. want to protect their quality of life, which requires resources and wealth derived from ecosystems and labor from around the world. The fact that the same City Council can allow the construction of yet another rarely inhabited vacation home constructed with materials sourced from around the globe that requires year-round maintenance and energy usage should give us pause. Who is actually causing environmental harm?

For more than three decades, scholars have presented evidence that low-income and minority communities face greater threats from pollution and industrial hazards than other groups. While these studies reveal the hardships and crimes associated with environmental inequality, fewer studies consider the flip side of that reality: environmental privilege. Environmental privilege results from the exercise of economic, political, and cultural power that some groups enjoy, which enables them near exclusive access to coveted environmental amenities such as parks, mountains, and open lands.

In spite of the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County Commission resolutions, we also witnessed the power of community building and cooperation. We spoke with everyday citizen-activists and immigrant residents in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley who were committed to social and environmental advocacy and articulated their hopes and dreams for the community. In the end, we came away from that beautiful place with an alternate vision of environmentalism that embraces the equitable care of both ecosystems and humankind. Perhaps most importantly, the conflicts in Aspen provide important lessons for understanding sites of privilege as sources of poverty.

If you follow the link at the top of the story, it takes you to the online article where you will find comments that focus (mundanely) on whether or not the immigrant homes are in a flood plain and who needs to be blamed.

I think we should be looking at the cultural issue: Why did The Denver Post feel the need to publish this story? The events happened over a decade ago. What is the point of rehashing them now?

Notice the societal ideas presented. We have immigrants who are suffering, nativists who are making resolutions, and details of “important lessons for understanding sites of privilege as sources of poverty.”

What exactly does The Denver Post want from us? What is it trying to teach us?

My bias immediately questions the appropriateness of avoiding that hobgoblin of a term, “illegal immigrant.” What is to be gained in an article by avoiding a distinction between those immigrants who become naturalized citizens and those who don’t? Does it enlighten or obscure our understanding of the issue?

I think the conflation of the legal/illegal immigration status alerts the reader to an agenda-driven article that contains many unanswered questions. Are there any legal immigrants living in those trailer parks “hidden along the highway in dangerous flood zones?” If so, how did these American citizens with immigrant backgrounds come to be involved in this situation? What is their point of view?

What about those nativists? Aspen voters overwhelmingly align with the Democratic Party. Those who unanimously voted for the city council resolution over ten years ago might still be around. What convocations do they attend? What books do they read? What informs the Aspen nativist?

OK, that last rhetorical question was sarcastic.

The Denver Post is simply displaying an affirmation of our anti-Republican culture. It is publishing this story as a way of establishing credentials. It knows that nativism and racism are not descriptors of the Democratic Party base. They are code words used to characterize Republicans. By publishing the story, The Denver Post lets the Democratic Party know that it is in touch with The Base. It has their back.

If you analyze your personal impression of the article, you will find that you are either drawn to it or disagree with it based on your political party affiliation. The Denver Post is acutely aware of that aspect of its readership.

The Denver Post readership might also have some Star Trek fans who are wondering what this post has to do with “The Prime Directive.” I invite you to go back to some of the old Star Trek themes, and then reflect on the mindset of those institutions and individuals who promote our anti-Republican culture. They hold to a single, unifying credo:

We are the power and authority.

Don’t you think that has a bit of “The Other” in it? Maybe (Resistance is futile!) even Borg-like (Resistance is futile!) …

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