Cowboy Talk

Cowboy Talk:

The Washington Post recently published a piece asking for a little Cowboy talk on North Korea. Here is some.

Iraqi Scouts

The Boy Scouts in Iraq:

Regular commenter Ron Fox added some information to the post on Spirit of America, below. I'd like to move it up to the front.

To make a donation to the Iraqi Scouting Initiative, featured in "Jihad Jamboree," by Patrick Graham, in Outside's October issue, send your check to:

The World Friendship Fund
Boy Scouts of America
1325 West Walnut Hill Lane
PO Box 152079
Irving, Texas 75015-2079

Make your check out to the "World Friendship Fund." On the notation line at the bottom of your check, please write "for the Iraqi Scouting Initiative." One hundred percent of all donations go to the Iraqi Scouting programs.
Thanks, Ron.

Duty to Country

The Limits of Duty to Country:

In the comments to an earlier post on stoning (as to which, by the way, at least one of the women mentioned has had a brief stay granted), commenter Sam asked to hear my thoughts on his argument. His basic argument on adultery I shall leave, since I've already made my position on the matter clear in the earlier comments. He did, though, raise a very interesting point about the power of the state:

And: we've all submitted to a level of "ownership" by the state. This country does a better job of minimizing that than most, but society exists to restrict the freedom to do "bad" things in the hope that "good" freedoms will be expanded. When we disagree about what good and bad are is where we bump up against that ownership issue. We have to do as we're told or end up dead/imprisoned. That's ownership, isn't it?
Is it proper to think of Americans as "owned" by the state? Is that the right relationship, more broadly, for a person to have with the state?

Part I: Classics

Plato appears to have thought so, for he has Socrates relate the point as explanation for why he will not attempt to flee his own execution. Here is the excerpt from the Crito:
Soc. "Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?" None, I should reply. "Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?" Right, I should reply. "Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country." What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

Cr. I think that they do.
Plato's position might be said to be further amplified by the following exchange on being a free man versus being a slave, from the Alcibidaes:

Or again, in a ship, if a man having the power to do what he likes, has no intelligence or skill in navigation, do you see what will happen to him and to his fellow-sailors?


Yes; I see that they will all perish.


And in like manner, in a state, and where there is any power and authority which is wanting in virtue, will not misfortune, in like manner, ensue?




Not tyrannical power, then, my good Alcibiades, should be the aim either of individuals or states, if they would be happy, but virtue.


That is true.


And before they have virtue, to be commanded by a superior is better for men as well as for children? (Compare Arist. Pol.)


That is evident.


And that which is better is also nobler?




And what is nobler is more becoming?




Then to the bad man slavery is more becoming, because better?




Then vice is only suited to a slave?




And virtue to a freeman?




And, O my friend, is not the condition of a slave to be avoided?


Certainly, Socrates.


And are you now conscious of your own state? And do you know whether you are a freeman or not?


I think that I am very conscious indeed of my own state.


And do you know how to escape out of a state which I do not even like to name to my beauty?


Yes, I do.




By your help, Socrates.


That is not well said, Alcibiades.


What ought I to have said?


By the help of God.
This is the classical view, then: that the state does indeed own a man, as even a "free man" is like a slave morally; and the state's ownership is to be directed at improving the greater virtue of the community. To truly become free requires the help of God. In the meanwhile, the state's ownership of men is right and proper.

Sam, in asserting the same position, is on very solid philosophical ground. He will find this traditional conception asserted time and again through history. Once Europe becomes Christian, he will find defenders in the Church as well as in the halls of the state.

Part II: Enlightenment Thinking

He will find it difficult, however, to justify the United States of America.

Because of its history, the United States requires a different explanation of the authority of the state. It arose in rebellion to civic authority, by serious thinkers who believed that what they were doing was not only neither a crime nor a sin, but an expression of their rights under the natural law written by their Creator. Catholic theory has a different view of what natural law has to say on the subject; search on "canker-worm" in the previous link to find it.

It is possible that Jefferson and Washington were wrong -- both criminals and, if you like, sinners. In overturning civic authority, they therefore created a great crime -- but we might still be justified in newfound obedience to the state they created. For better or worse, it is now the civic authority, and we should show it the obedience that they wrongly denied to the authorities of their day.

However, it is also possible they were right. If so, there is a right to rebel -- a natural law that holds that men are created equal, even if 'one man is [not] as good as another,' as the Catholic article holds. The American nation is founded on the idea that rebellion is a human right: " dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them[.]"

If that is so, though, how to get around the problems raised by Socrates, and Sam?

Part III: The Problem of Rebellion

Does it not do violence to the law and the communal good, as Socrates held, to believe that anyone is justified in putting aside the common law? The Alcibidaes quote suggests that "tyranny" might be an answer to the problem -- when the state is behaving tyrannically, it is proper to overthrow it. Not by accident nor by coincidence, "Tyranny" was a term frequent in the writings of the Founding Fathers.

Yet what is tyranny, finally? If the state is going to execute you, is that not the ultimate tyranny from your point of view? If it drafts you into its wars, when you do not agree, is that not tyranny? If not, why is it tyranny to impose a tax on tea or require the purchase of stamps?

We are treating with natural rights here: we need to be able to say that in the one case, to rebel is a wrong justly punishable by the state even unto death; but in the other case, to rebel is the exercise of a natural right that the state has no proper authority to resist. Yet there is no clear line: America holds that the Boston Tea Party was an exercise of natural rights, but that the secession of the Southern states -- by acts of assembly not different in form from those that created the United States -- were unjustified rebellion.

Part IV: Wagering Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor

Some of this can be excused by pointing out that the facts on the ground were decided by the wager of battle, not by philosophers. It should be no surprise that the wages of battle are chaotic. They always are.

If we look at likely future scenarios, too, there is a certainty that claims will be tested by the wager of battle. This may not be so full-throated as all out war: the Civil Rights movement entailed real fighting and military force, with marches in defiance of legal orders; regular deployments of the National Guard; attacks on police by rioters in Boston and elsewhere; and even lynchings by insurgent mobs.

That is to restate that rebellion is a natural right -- but it is also to add that it is a right with costs. You do not exercise the right to rebellion like you do the right to religious liberty.

The right to rebel has to be said to be a natural right, but one that must be justified in the midst of the field.

That is to say: We are free men, not slaves. If we obey, we choose to obey. If we do not, we are as right as we can make ourselves. We wager our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor -- and, if we are truly justified, we do so in bonds with other men who freely choose to stand with us and stake their own.

Oddly enough, this proves to be the resolution to the problem raised by the Catholics:
All [ultra-democratic doctrines] originate in a manifestly false supposition, that one man is as good as another.
Not so this one. It holds that this fundamental human right has to be justified according to the wager of battle. That implies a matching of tactics and strategies, the making of alliances and the forging of powerful arguments. Not just any man will be the equal of that task. Here is an ultra-democratic doctrine: it holds that any man may overthrow the state, and be right to do it. But it does not believe that any man is good enough to do it.

All of which reminds me of the climactic lines in the movie Shane. There, too, there were competitors for who was the proper authority -- the bold cowboys who had fared hard against the Cheyenne in settling the land, or the new farmers who wished to move in and build fences across the range. There, too, the existing authority had brought in force of arms, in the form of a gunfighter named Wilson, to enforce the existing order. In deciding to stake his life, fortune and honor on the challenge to that order, Shane faces the 'state's' righteous demand:
Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Jack Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Jack Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar.
Jack Wilson: Prove it.
John Hancock did. He proved that we are free men, not slaves. That shall I defend, with my life and fortune, and sacred honor.

SoA Mattis

Spirit of America Meets Gen. Mattis:

It's been a while since I mentioned the charity Spirit of America, which takes civilian donations and then buys things like school supplies or soccer balls for Marines to distribute among Iraqis. Jim Hake, a nice guy I once met in D.C., has had a chance to meet with General Mattis.

Sadly, he appears not to have asked the General to run for President, as I believe he needs to do. However, he did ask some other things. General Mattis had high praise for SoA's sewing centers, where donated sewing machines have allowed many Iraqi women to start small businesses of their own. Unfortunately, one such center in Ramadi was destroyed by insurgents who would prefer to keep women under more traditional conditions.

Read the rest. There's also an entry about Boy and Girl Scouts in Iraq, and many other things besides.

Insult Poetry

An Insult!

Cassidy says that "Poetry isn't what it used to be." She is referring to this:

If Ken Blackwell becomes Ohio's governor, don't look for Nikki Giovanni to be appointed the state's poet laureate.

Giovanni shocked the crowd Saturday as she read her dedicatory poem on Fountain Square by referring to Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, as a "son of a bitch" and a "political whore."
The lines in the poem are as follows:
I am not a son of a bitch like Kenny Blackwell
I will not use the color of my skin to cover the hatred in my heart
I am not a political whore jumping from bed to bed to see who will stroke my knee...
Actually, this is a grand old tradition in poetry. Since we're talking about honor and poems around the battle of Hastings today, here's a good chance to expand the discussion. Honor societies have very often expressed themselves poetically, as poetry is often thought to be one of the warrior arts. This is true both in Western societies and Eastern ones, Islamic and Christian and pagan. Turkish traditional "singers of tales" were the focus of Albert Lord's extraordinary work, The Singer of Tales. He traced -- convincingly, I believe -- the tradition in Turkey to Homer. Japanese samurai and monks alike wrote death poems. Chinese kings and nobles expressed praise and threats through poetics.

Honor societies both praise and damn, and the poetry follows the consciousness. You can write a poem praising a great king -- but you can also, as the bards of Ireland were said to do, write a satire so stinging that it can cause a bad king's downfall.

Viking poetry probably occupies the height (or depth, depending on your outlook) of this particular tradition. "Political whore" is rather tame by comparison to what the Vikings would say about a man in an insult poem -- so much so that there were laws specifically designed to deal with such poems, and these laws often permitted you to kill the insulter with impunity. Callimachus wrote on the subject a while ago, and Gunnora Hallakarva produced a classic piece that deals with the matter (scroll down to "insults alleging homosexuality").

Egil Skallagrimsson used poetry both to praise and curse. (You can hear some of his poetry read in the Old Norse here.) Even the gods were said to do so -- the famous Lokasena has the gods exchanging ribald insults around a feast hall.

Giovanni appears to be acting out of a similar African tradition, and we shouldn't be surprised to see one. Insult poetry is common in hip-hop, for example: people you feel have done right by you get praised to the sky, but people you feel have done wrong by you are described in terms that make them seem low sorts of animals.

Personally, I didn't think the poem she read was very good, but that is because I have little use for unstructured verse. The Viking insult poems were delivered in highly formal and artistic systems. Pretty much anyone can write poems like the one Giovanni delivered -- there is no skill. Egil Skallagrimsson would sneer, rightly, at someone who wrote so poor an insult verse.

Yet he very well might smile at some of the better hip-hop lyrics. I certainly do, on occasion.
I see this last Saturday was the 940th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. (link with picture goodness). I note it because this is one those actually remembered battles (as opposed to all those we don't remember) that had deep, significant consequences that reach down even today.

Nice try, King Harold. You almost pulled it off.

Style points to Ivo Taillefer: A Norman knight (and perhaps minstrel) who begged Duke William to lead the first charge, and did it singing Songs of Roland:

Taillefer, who sang right well,
Upon a swift horse
Sang before the Duke
Of Charlemagne and of Roland
And of Oliver and their vassals
That died at Roncesvalles.

He apparently was killed, but we'll remember him too. Which I suppose, is as it should be.


Two Endorsements:

I won't actually be voting in any closely-run race this year, having moved to what turns out to be a very safe district in Georgia. That said, there are two races in which I would like to take a moment to express my support for a given candidate.

I usually only issue endorsements to Democrats, as I am a Democrat -- President Bush in 2004 being the notable exception. However, I can only rarely endorse a Democrat these days, the national party being what it is.

I would like to urge voters in Virginia, where I lived most of the last several years, to vote for Jim Webb for Senate. I realize that Mr. Webb and I disagree on, well, most everything he cares to discuss at length. Mr. Allen and I are much more closely aligned in political opinions. Further, I do of course recognize that this is a very tight year for the Senate, and a party switch of even one seat could have far-reaching consequences.

Nevertheless, Mr. Webb is the better man. His life story is sufficient cause to prefer him as a Senator. He is a good man, a brave and honorable man, a Marine, and that is something the Senate needs. He has proven to be resistant to the lure of power, resigning his post as Secretary of the Navy rather than cut the force structure as Congress demanded. He believed they were wrong, and he put his shirt where his heart was.

That is the old way.

This is not the way things are meant to be in America -- our institutions were designed by the Founders with the recognition that we could only rarely expect politicians to be good men. The system should be indifferent to the quality of the Senators.

Given the sharp and structural flaws in the Senate, and the rest of the government, it cannot be said to be. For that cause, I think it is necessary to vote for men of proven character and honor. Though I disagree with Mr. Webb, I respect him for who he has been and what he has done. I would vote for him, and I urge you to do so if you can.

I'm also going to endorse Kinky Friedman for Governor of the great state of Texas. This is a much-less-strong endorsement. Nevertheless, he is a throwback to the age when Democrats elected great local characters -- Charlie Wilson, say. You Texas voters doubtless have your own ideas, and that's fine, but of the crop he's the one I think I'd most enjoy hearing from about the state's various problems for the next several years.

You must all vote your consciences on Election day, of course, and I won't hold that against anyone. In case you were wondering what I thought about things, though, there you are.