Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Substituting for Substance - Is being Great all that good? pt2

Into the void
In my last post, 'Is being Great all that good?', I pointed to the dangers inherent in promoting or electing candidates for their great qualities alone, rather than for what makes them fit for office, which I think has to begin with demonstrating an understanding of the nature and purpose of the office they're seeking to be elected to. In this post I'll take a high level view, through one local example, at the sort of arguments that follow when a candidacy does not begin from the beginning, leaving its supporters to substitute the personal inspiration they feel for their candidate's 'great qualities', for the relevant substance which the candidates have not provided themselves. Over the next couple posts we'll look in more detail at the patterns which the inspired defender will often fall into, in order to defend what isn't there - an absence of substance which itself inspires a particular pattern of defense.

And this quote captures the sort of 'inspired substitute substance' that I'm talking about:
"I want a transformational leader who inspires common people like me to become better versions of ourselves. And the only candidate in the race who can inspire greatness in the people he touches is Eric Grietens."[BTW Bill, the candidate's name is misspelled]
That was not some MSNBC host frothing on about the thrill running up his leg, this statement came from Bill Hennessy, one of the original founders and instigators of the St. Louis Tea Party, the grassroots organization which formed around the popular demand that congress "Read the Bill!" rather than mindlessly peddle absurdities such as "You have to pass it to find out what's in it". The St. Louis Tea Party Coalition was one of the most effective Tea Party's in the nation at raising issues of limited government and individual rights to the national attention, which I had the honor to play a small part in, and whose theme, at that time anyway, could easily have been expressed as constitutionally limited govt over swallowing sight unseen the solutions being peddled by transformational leaders of the left or the right.

That Bill Hennessy was someone I never expected to see saying such things. This post is one I'm not enjoying writing, but that quote above is representative of the tenor of what he's been posting since Eric Greitens announced his interest in running for the Governor of Missouri, and Bill, as we'll see in a moment, has taken the rhetoric beyond what I can simply ignore.

The Inspiration
When you hear about Eric Greitens, you can't help but be impressed, he's a former Navy SEAL, a Rhodes Scholar, he has a deep interest in, and familiarity with, classics of history and philosophy (you know that pegged my interest meter), a self made man, philanthropist, successful author (I just finished reading his "Heart and Fist" - I recommend it), college professor, motivational speaker, and the list goes on. The first time I heard about Eric Greitens was as he was announcing his intention to consider running for governor earlier this year. I read Bill's post on it, and the articles it linked to, and I too was much impressed, but unfortunately before that inspiration could take root, my next thoughts were:
"I wonder what his thoughts and positions on Individual Rights, Law & Govt policy are?"
, and the inspiration faltered in me as I tried hunting around on the web for specifics about his ideas on such things, and it withered away as I found nothing of the sort, only more and more instances of 'Happy Talk' about how really impressive a guy he is. He is impressive, that much is a given, no argument there at all, but that doesn't make the argument for electing him to office. Despite how impressive he is as a person, as a candidate, if your political positions, and your demonstrated understanding and commitment to the principles behind them, aren't impressive in themselves, then neither will you be, as a candidate for high office.

If you care about what's true, about first principles, that's the way it has to work. And what's even harder, and I've really experienced just how much harder in working on these posts, is how hard it is not to fall into the same patterns in your responses to the faults you've found in others. And it's also difficult, particularly in personal and political issues, to not see that person you've found fault in as having base and dishonest motives for the wrong things you've found them saying. As you'll see in a moment, one of Bill's posts set me off, pegged my fury meter, and my responses to it have got me watching myself more closely. My first response I deleted. The second one too. This post I've revised several times, trying to take that non-objective edge out of it and focus more on what is universal in the danger of being led by 'greatness', than the particulars of the faults I see here (how successfully remains to be seen... your mileage may vary).

I haven't been 'toning it down' out of some silly 'must be nice' mockery of manners, but because I think you really do miss out on the more significant points, when you assume the worst (and that 'assuming' is part of the pattern). Far tougher, and frankly far scarier, is what you see when you presume that those who've drawn your ire, have done so with the very best of intentions. And your response to them, IMH (and heavily revised)O, is improved and clarified by approaching it from that perspective.

Not that that perspective will make me pull my punches, it's just that I see the value in throwing them at my own points too, before they get a chance to make it to print.

The lack of political substance which Eric Greitens has made available regarding the political office he's seeking, is concerning to me. Why? Because as media savvy as this fellow is, as experienced a leader as he is, as seemingly centered around empowering people as he is, he has somehow lacked the foresight to assemble and make available even an overview of the policies he intends to implement, or of the political principles that will guide his use of power once in office, etc. Nothing. Nada.

Why? I don't know, and that's the problem, for the fact that he chose not to do the obvious, I find concerning.

There were rumors from the start about his democrat leanings, which at that time were still only rumors (though he later confirmed them), and there were still other troubling issues left to be discovered by those, like me, who should have been his base, such as his endorsement of President Obama's "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" (which fits in with conservative ideas... how?), as well as other issues and unknowns about information that was known to the candidate. Information which he had to know would cause confusion and dissension amongst those whose support he'd want and need, and yet he chose to do nothing to proactively manage it. Is that an example of the exemplary political leadership that I should be inspired by? Or evidence of a blind spot the candidate doesn't realize he has?

There were (and still are) lots of questions unanswered, but

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Is being Great all that good?

Is being Great all that good?
With all the 'Great' candidates we have running for high office around the nation today, we seem to be forgetting an important rule for a self governing people:
'Greatness' doesn't make you fit for office; demonstrating an understanding of the nature and purpose of the office you're seeking to be elected to, does.
To advance someone for high office because of their great qualities alone, and in spite of knowing little or nothing about how well, if at all, they understand the purpose of, and the restraints upon the power of, that office which they are campaigning for, and without knowing how they intend to use its power, is dangerous to everyone that that elected office has power over.

We are naturally drawn to those who demonstrate great qualities such as courage, honesty, integrity and intelligence, and one of the common responses which those who live in a republic often have to people who show that 'right stuff', is "You should run for office!". Nothing wrong with that at all. But once that person has made their decision to run for high office, no matter who they are, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Eric Greitens, then they should do what would be expected of anyone else to do, that person should be actively demonstrating their understanding of the nature, purpose, laws, powers and principles of that office, which the proper and just execution of that office depend upon.

These great men brought great change - was it all good?
But there is an additional responsibility which those with such unique and outstanding qualities have, as it is doubly important for them, particularly when they have no history or track record demonstrating their convictions and political intentions, they then have the responsibility to proactively make their own understanding of the nature and purpose of that office clear to the electorate, laying out the key policies they intend to advance while in office, along with some indication of how they intend to do so.

For such 'great' candidates to not do everything they can to make their positions and convictions known, or even to actively avoid doing so, means that they've chosen to rely upon their own personal qualities to win them support, rather than risk their popularity with the public on information about how they actually intend to use their power over them while in office. Such a scenario is suspicious at best, but if We The People do not insist that they explain themselves, or worse, join in on promoting them for office because of their great qualities alone, that's a recipe for disaster.

The Great Why ask why?
Most people realize that good intentions alone can cause disastrous results, correct? Those disasters occur not because the well intentioned person meant to cause harm, but because they didn't understand what was important to understand, didn't understand what actions should or shouldn't be taken, and so they take actions without being aware of the pitfalls and unintended consequences that are sure to follow from such actions, and so disaster follows, right?

Well what do you suppose happens when you couple well intentioned ignorance with the great and dynamic qualities of 'the Great Man', fueled with the power of high office? Far and away the greatest restraint we have upon the abuses of power by those in power, is their own understanding of the proper purposes and limits of their powers, and their knowledge that those who elected them know it as well. Without that understanding on both sides, the subsequent errors and abuses are going to multiply, intensify and magnify the disasters that are sure to follow.

Mistaking Greatness of character with Fitness for office can be the greatest of dangers to a nation and its people; History is rife with examples as to why that should scare the hell out of you, and we don't need to reach very far back in time or place for examples of this, one of our own national monuments, Mt. Rushmore, being far enough. Those four Presidents that are carved upon its face, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, were all great men who left their mark upon our nation by bringing about revolutionary changes.

But were those great changes all for the good? Did they lead us to make Progress in regards to realizing America's founding principles? If you understand and revere those principles, I don't think you can say that they all were. For instance:

George Washington, with his outstanding qualities of courage and integrity played a pivotal, indispensable role in our founding; as the father of our nation he led the battle in our revolutionary break from England, he helped to create and implement our Constitution and was elected to be the first president under it, and in so doing he helped bring about a revolution like none other in history - I'd call that progress for the good.
Thomas Jefferson, with his powerful intellect and passion for liberty, not only put America's ideals into the words of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, but he also later led one of the most remarkable of revolutions, the "Revolution of 1800", the first peaceable overthrow of one political power in favor of another, by ballots, not bullets - I'd absolutely call that progress for the good.
Abraham Lincoln, who had the depth of character and wisdom to hold our nation together through the darkest times of civil war, helped to give this nation "...a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" - I'd definitely call that progress for the good.
Teddy Roosevelt utilized his undeniably great qualities of energy and intellect to turn us away from what his fellows on Mt. Rushmore strove for, and he called that progress. Personally, I call that Pro-Regress, not progress, and I most definitely don't call it good; do you?

What did he do differently? It might be useful to first ask what he did differently than the mostly unremarkable presidents who came between Lincoln and TR - how many of those president's names do you recall? Probably not many, and for good reason - facing no great crises they didn't try to bring about any great changes to our nation, they only tried to do the job of President of the United States, as defined by the Constitution, while operating within the powers it defined for their office. Some did it better than others, but for the most part they all entered office under those terms, and were willingly bound by them.

Teddy Roosevelt was a very different president than his predecessors.

TR was full of energy, intelligence, courage and valor; he was remarkably widely read, a man who felt sure that he knew what was best for the nation and was devastatingly capable of putting his ideas into action. But to those great qualities he added a markedly shallow understanding of, and disdain for, the constitutional restrictions that the Founders, through our Constitution, put upon the office of President and by which they limited the powers of the government of the United States. It was his fellow Mt. Rushmorean, Thomas Jefferson, who said:
"In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution"
But TR would have none of that.

When he found himself in office upon the assassination of President McKinley, unlike his predecessors, TR explicitly refused to allow his powers to be bound by the office of President, and possessing those qualities of greatness that won him admiration and popularity around the world, he used them to resist and burst free of those restrictions, and in so doing he most definitely brought revolutionary change to the office of the President, and to the nature of the government he held such great power over, and those powers of office which he was instrumental is loosing upon the land, have been a plague upon us ever since.

It was Teddy Roosevelt, a republican by the way, who:
  • first proposed a national income tax to 'do good' with,
  • first proposed imposing American might upon the world stage,
  • first proposed a national health care system,
  • was the first president to consistently exercise his executive powers outside the defined powers of the office of the President of The United States,
  • first proposed, and began to implement, the administrative state, and all the alphabet agencies we contend with today, followed from his innovations with what became the FDA.
He didn't accomplish all of those tasks himself, but by setting them in motion, together with what he did accomplish,Teddy Roosevelt proved that you don't have to be a bad man to do great damage; a great man with little understanding of his true purpose and place in office, can do enormous damage to even the greatest of nations, and Teddy Roosevelt did just that. Barack Obama, LBJ, FDR, Woodrow Wilson were only able to succeed in putting into practice what they have, because Teddy Roosevelt first introduced, legitimized and got the ProRegressive ball rolling for them - without him, they might have remained frustrated, small minded nobodies, harming no one's lives but their own.

TR's unbound greatness and lack of understanding and even disregard for the nature of the office he held, made his time in office, IMHO, the most truly disastrous presidency in all of American history. Not because he was a bad man, or a corrupt one, but because he was a truly Great man, invested with the great power of high office, who used his greatness to turn us away from our Founding ideals.

But of course Teddy Roosevelt didn't 'accomplish' what he did alone, he had the uninformed enthusiasm of the nation, won over by his greatness, who let him do and get away with what should never have been permitted.

Those who don't learn from history....
Am I saying that any of those today, such as Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Eric Greitens, who are being touted for their great qualities, are, or will be, as bad for this nation as I believe Teddy Roosevelt was? No. I'm saying that seeking after great men to 'fix' our problems on the basis of their greatness alone, when we've been given little or no substantive reasons for having confidence that they even understand the nature and intended limitations of their office, is a reckless and foolish thing for us to do.

I'm saying that when we don't know know anything substantial about a candidate's convictions or plans, because of what they have so far been content to not say, then we cannot have any idea what they will do with the power of their office, once it has been combined with their own great abilities, to exert those powers over us.

I'm not saying that I suspect our latest crop of great candidates of intending to do harm, I'm saying that I suspect them of not knowing what will, and what won't, cause us harm.
I'm saying that it's not their great qualities that concern me, but the little knowledge, understanding and conviction they've yet to demonstrate having about the fundamentals of our laws and their underlying principles.
I'm saying that without that understanding, which are the qualities that make any person, great or not, fit for office, and the lack of which makes anyone, great or not, unfit for office, then unrestrained by those convictions, they are liable, with the very best of intentions, to bring great harm to this nation and/or to our state. and at this point I'm not sure how much more of that we can take.

I'm going to take the next few posts to examine some of the arguments of those who knowingly promote such great candidates, without even themselves knowing or understanding what they will do with those qualities of greatness that they have. I'll also take a look at what some of those candidates have told us about what they believe, in their own words. And at that point, given that that is all we can know about them and their plans, you can decide how great an idea electing them might actually be.