government

Governing the American Colonies (1620)

I recently posted about an astronomy book from 1777 that I discovered while helping a friend clean out his dad’s house. That same day I found another old book. Like the astronomy book, it was in bad shape so I had it rebound.

The title is Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, In 1620 and 1621, Vol. I. It was published in 1766 in England. One of its previous owners, Samuel Hunter, signed his name on the title page in 1827. Like the Bode astronomy book, the paper has tanned with age, but at least it’s not printed in German with Fraktur Gothic script. It’s in English, and the hardest (!) part about reading it is mentally replacing an “s” for an “f,” as in this line on the title page: “In which fome Paffages are illuftrated from other Manufcripts.”

For reference, 1620 was the year the Puritans landed in New England. Jamestown, in Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and in 1619, the first Africans were brought to America on a captured Portuguese slave ship.

The British Parliament includes the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Proceedings and Debates is an interesting transcript of matters, both mundane and monumental, taken up by the House of Commons. Flipping through the book, one particular item caught my eye. On April 25, 1621, the House of Commons took up the regulation of fishing in Virginia. At first blush, this would seem about as interesting as a dead mackerel. But the Secretary of the House of Commons had this to say on the subject:

“… Virginia, New England, Newfoundland, and those other foreign Parts of America, are not yet annexed to the Crown of England, but are the King’s as gotten by Conquest; and therefore he [the Secretary] thinketh it worth the Consideration of the House, whether we shall here make Laws for the Government of those Parts; for he taketh it, that in such new Plantations the King [James I] is to govern it only [by] his Prerogative, and as his Majesty shall think fit …”

This may be the earliest mention of British law as it pertained to governing the American colonies. Governance of the colonies would progress through many stages and permutations over the next 150 years before the colonists would revolt and achieve their independence in the American Revolutionary War.

"Blundering Toward War," and the Willing Suspension of Belief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required by someone who reads a story they would ordinarily (in real life) discredit for being unbelievable - for example, tales involving fantasy. But in recent times we as a people have too often willingly suspended belief (not disbelief) in true stories we don’t want to believe are true. And believed things we shouldn’t.

In “Blundering Toward War,” an article in the June 3-10, 2019 issue of TIME Magazine, David French warns that the U.S. may be stumbling into “its worst war in more than a generation — without the congressional authorization required by the Constitution.” The threat of war with Iran is exacerbated by “a Chief Executive so erratic even his closest advisers feel the need to ignore his orders.”

If this is not enough to keep you lying awake at night, consider that North Korea is still on the radar screen and still poses a major threat to national security.

In his “speculative novel” titled The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, foreign policy scholar and arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis presents a nightmare scenario in which decisions by unpredictable leaders playing Russian roulette with nuclear weapons lead to the deaths of 1.4 million American citizens. The novel takes the form of a report by a commission charged with investigating what led to the 2020 war, posing questions including, “Did President Trump and his advisers appreciate the dangers of provoking Kim Jon Un with social media posts and military exercises? Was conflict inevitable, or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert it?”

I don’t believe either French’s article or Lewis’ book constitute fear-mongering. This administration has not earned our trust, and the consequences of erratic decisions (not to mention “mercurial” communications) could be catastrophic.

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Killer robots? Not a joke, and I'm not laughing.

Breaking from my trend of reviewing a book I've just read, I have to get on my soapbox and ask, "Are these people crazy?" A "fully autonomous weapon" is one that can be used to kill a human being without human input.  The May 26, 2014 issue of TIME Magazine, page 9, informs us that over the past few years, "the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea have developed drones with technology that could be repurposed to create machines with the ability to open fire without human input."

Are you kidding me?  Has no one seen the Terminator movies?  Ever heard of Skynet?  This is insane.

The TIME article goes on to say that opposition groups have been pushing for "a ban on further developing or deploying the technology ..."  Proponents have pushed back, saying a ban would be premature, and in time the technology could be advanced enough to reduce collateral damage.

Collateral damage?  Is that the only thing we should worry about?  Of course not.  How about the fact that by distancing ourselves from actually pulling the trigger -- or pushing the button -- we make it even easier to kill without compunction.  "I didn't kill those people," an officer might say.  "The drone did it."  Or what if we make drones more and more intelligent, so they can autonomously do our dirty work, only to lose control over them?

Opponents of this technology are hoping the U.N. will issue a ban, but that could take years to materialize.  When a ban on blinding lasers was proposed to the U.N. in 1987, it took eight more years before the ban was issued and three more years before it went into effect.

I worry that the pace of technology development for military purposes may far exceed the pace at which governments can come together to agree on how to use or not use new technology.

Losing Our Grip

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military PowerDrift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I confess that it was not that long ago that I did not know who Rachel Maddow was. I do now. Perhaps it's because I have a tendency to avoid extremes and prefer my news to be centrist in character. But I have a healthy respect for Maddow now. Her analysis of the growing disconnect between the American military and American citizens and what that means for our democracy and our country's place in the world should be read by everyone. War is a terrible thing, and in this day and age it has become easier to wage without appropriate management and oversight. The title of this book is suggestive of a rowboat floating away from the dock. "Drift" is an apt term, because it suggests something that slips up on you, little bit by little bit. But the consequences of that drift are much more than just losing a boat to the breeze.

This is not the kind of book you can finish and forget. I'm sure previous reviewers have debated various points of Maddow's critique, so I won't jump into that fray. Whether you agree or disagree with Maddow, you can't help coming away feeling the need to react to her arguments. But the question is, react how?

In my case, I better understand now why certain aspects of how our government is run disturb me. Yes, I'm aware of the phenomenon known as "confirmation bias." I'm also aware that members of my generally-conservative extended family have depended for their livelihood on military contracts. And I am curious how an opposing viewpoint would counter Maddow's arguments.

But for now, I plan to continue reading. I need to return to, and finish reading, Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries by Naomi Wolf.

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