Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch . . .

In the past week, the Bundy ranch incident has quietly split the American conservative movement.  Was the arrival of armed Americans in defense of the Bundy ranch and its cattle a fundamentally American reaction to government overreach?  Or was it the wrong action at the wrong place at the wrong time?

The Bundys have very little legal footing.  They have grazed their cattle on public land since the 1870s.  Properly speaking it is federal land, although ranchers since before the Civil War have chafed at the overwhelming amount of land owned by the government.  Since the 1980s, ranchers grazing on federal land have agreed to pay grazing fees intended to maintain the land.  The Bundys contend that the fees have started funding policies that undermine their ability to compete and decided to stop paying.  Somewhere along the line a turtle got involved.

Government officials, after 21 years of litigation, sent a small army complete with automatic weapons to rustle the Bundy family's cattle.  In opposition, a small army of fellow ranchers and others brought weapons and horses, surrounded the federal agents who then relented.

Opponents within the conservative movement see the ranch militia as a different kind of Occupy movement.  They fear that it will put a radical face on conservatism that could make it less appealing.  Also, they point out that the federal government has the property rights in this case.  So they see the arrival of armed citizens as a hysterical overreaction, despite conceding that the federal agents themselves did the same.

A problem of understanding comes from regarding this as a single incident.  If anyone looked simply at the Boston Tea Party, they would wonder why Americans so irrationally opposed a small tax on tea.  Only looking back over the course of the preceding years would reveal the logic of the colonists' rage.

Same here.  Americans just do not decide to go down the road to put themselves in the way of armed federal agents.  Not even in Nevada do Americans in large numbers go out spoiling for a gunfight.

The Bundys are likely in the wrong.  But dismissing the anger that led to the reaction is a huge mistake.  Also, the men and women who showed up in Nevada included property owners, veterans, former elected officials.  Not the floatsam and jetsom of society, but its foundation.

Why?  Why so much anger?  Decades of a government that refuses to leave the people in peace have done this.  Farmers in California with fields dried up, irrigation cut off due to a salamander.  Power plants in West Virginia about to shut down because of the EPA.  Farmers facing fines because the government says they have too much dirt.  Federal agents spend $1 million, mobilize a SWAT team, and trump up drug accusations to stop a farm from selling raw milk.

The anger is real.  Agree or disagree with the reaction, but there is logic and there are years of reasons why this happened.   You can't build a country's foundation on rebellion against tyranny and not expect resistance to the federal government pushing the people too hard.

Lest anyone forget, this was a peaceful protest.  No one fired a shot.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Sacredness transcends boundaries of religion and faith.  National shrines can bring about the same shared sense of spiritual reverence and sacrifice. Arlington National Cemetery is one such place.

Last Friday, I attended a funeral service for a man who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam, then went on to become a soft spoken leader among foreign correspondents.

Solemn dignity pervades the grounds, despite its encasement in one of the world's most powerful metropolitan areas.  We drove from the understated modern Administration Building in a line to the gravesite.  There the chaplain briefly delivered a warm remembrance bracketed by appropriate New and Old testament readings. Soldiers held a flag over the grave, folded it, and presented it to his wife. The honor guard, standing about 50 yards away, fired three times, and then a Marine delivered a perfect rendition of Taps.

As they left, the soldiers marched away in perfect step, their boots softly clacking on the pavement in unison.

Everything in this sacred ritual reinforced that the veteran now joined an eternal brotherhood of Americans who served and sacrificed.

Before the service, I took about an hour to walk the grounds.  Washington rarely has Goldilocks days for walking; this was one.

In some areas, officers of high rank in all services got clustered together.  Generals and admirals on one hillside had their own bluff.  In other parts, however, one could see an admiral's final resting place positioned beside a non commissioned officer.

The dignity of the place even touched the large groups of middle school children touring the grounds in easily identifiable school tour shirts.  All of them looked ready to burst with childlike energy and enthusiasm, but the place and its air of respect kept them as quiet as possible.

What struck me the most about Arlington was perfection.  Washington DC does not always pay strict attention to aesthetics and detail.  For example, temporary fences and road barriers ring the White House, interrupting the sublime beauty of the place.  Many areas in the capital have little touches of shoddiness.  Not the Arlington National Cemetery.  Almost everything reflects and effort to honor the fallen in the most immaculate way possible.

Except . . .

the centerpiece of the grounds.

Arlington National Cemetery surrounds the former house and grounds of Robert E. Lee.  Lee spent a lifetime literally and figuratively paying for the misdeeds and shenanigans of generations of Virginia's least favorite black sheep family.  His father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee, served courageously in the Revolution.  He also embraced a number of get rich quick schemes, blasted the popular Thomas Jefferson in one of his books, and had to flee to the Caribbean to escape creditors.

Robert E. Lee led a spartan and disciplined life as he sought to pay family debts and establish his own independent reputation.  He impressed many while serving in the Mexican War, but grew frustrated trying to raise a family on an army salary.  Eventually his thrift and fortitude enabled him to buy the mansion which still sits atop the hill in the center of Arlington.

He could only enjoy it a few short years before the onset of the Civil War.  His front porch offers a commanding view of the national capital and the grounds surrounding his home would likely have been productive.  The Greek Revival portico gives the illusion of grandiosity to a house with an otherwise unassuming size.

Lee looked forward to spending his middle age watching over his home, enjoying the company of his family and his cat Tom.  War intervened.  Lee turned down the offer of field command of all Union forces to serve in the military of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Despite mixed feelings about secession and opposition to slavery, Lee enlisted to fight what he saw as the federal invasion of his state.

Federal forces soon occupied the house; the only Lee remaining home was Tom.  Government officials deemed that their enemy's home deserved to lie at the center of the human toll tallied by the cause Lee served. Indeed the graves of fallen soldiers and officers come within 10 yards of the house itself.

The house today, officially known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, contrasts sharply with the rest of the grounds.  It has the appearance of genteel poverty compared to the meticulously maintained surroundings.  Lee would be surprised to see his home with peeling paint and ramshackle wooden stairs and walkways surrounding his front door.  The gardens remain beautiful, but maintenance of the house itself appears to be an afterthought.

Lee still touches a nerve in American history while evading understanding.  He fought to defend secession, yet opposed it.  His country vowed to continue slavery, yet he criticized the institution.  Other leading Virginia military luminaries, like "Stonewall" Jackson and Jubal Early, shared Lee's concerns, yet fought anyway.  Historians and their students still have difficulty sifting through the complexity of it. Perhaps that is why Lee's home and memorial have fallen into such rough shape.

Yet even this forms part of the story of America that Arlington tells, a story still unfolding.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Famous American Mustached Attorneys General

Belgians: Leading the World Toward Soylent Green?

Belgian doctors want the power to decide when their patients should die for the common good.

Rod Dreher of American Conservative reported that Dr. Jean-Marie Vincent, head of a national society of intensive care doctors, wants a license to kill, so to speak.  Doctors need the power, Vincent says, to kill off a patient whose "life quality has become too poor."

Vincent goes on to say that the first priority of doctors lies in restoring health, not prolonging life at all costs.  Even if the patient and the family does not consent, doctors must have the right to flip the switch of life and end it.

Dreher describes the doctor as "ghoulish," but an English writer of a century ago may have described him better.

Joseph Conrad described in his book The Secret Agent a character called "The Professor."  This man dreamt of a world "where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination . . . Exterminate! Exterminate!  That is the only way of progress . . . First the blind, then the deaf and dumb, then the halt and the lame - and so on."

Conrad's "Professor," an ardent terrorist, is an archetype not only for countless dystopian productions, such as "Soylent Green," but also speaks the underlying philosophy of some of the most horrible plans of science.  We remember the horror of the Nazis, not so much the eugenics movement of the pre World War II era.

Humanity has no capacity to rationally decide when another person has "quality of life" or not.  What term could be more subjective? Yet the term gets thrown out there almost casually no matter what the stakes.  Almost every person has the instinct and drive to continue life, even in a state that others may consider wretched.  When comfortable middle class doctors get the power to make such decisions, tragedy will result.