Saturday, July 3, 2010

Who Did We Gain Our Independence From?

Jay Leno asks some people (including a college instructor!) some basic questions about American history, and the results are as depressing as they are funny. I know you can't draw sweeping conclusions from a small data set, but still ....

It's scary to think that these people probably vote. Gosh, come to think of it, I wonder who they voted for in the last presidential election.

Exit question: Is there some sociological significance in the fact that the only one on the film who knew the answers was the grandpa?

Thanks to Hot Air for calling our attention to the video.


Fourth of July Meditation

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, at the age of only 33, was tasked with composing the Declaration of Independence, but we probably don't know much about how his selection came about. The following is a letter John Adams wrote to his secretary of State Thomas Pickering summarizing the selection process (and also giving a few hints as to Adam's personality, a personality captured very well, by the way, by Paul Giamatti in the excellent HBO miniseries titled John Adams).

Adams writes:

"You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence? I answer: It was the Frankfort advice, to place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard Henry Lee might be gone to Virginia, to his sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time, one for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of confederation, and another for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France.

Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederation, and it was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation - not even Samuel Adams was more so - that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft, I suppose because we were the two first on the list.

The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'

A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal, for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity, only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.

We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published. I suppose the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.

As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams."

Rich Lowery has a brief but informative piece on the Declaration at NRO in which he says this:

Jefferson's words were more than rhetorical theatrics; they laid the philosophical bedrock of the American republic. In the space of three magnificent sentences in its preamble, the Declaration packs enough content to fill volumes of treatises on political theory.

In declaring that "all men are created equal," it insists that there's no such thing as a natural ruling class. Put another way, it tells us, as Jefferson wrote near the end of his life, "that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God."

Lowery also discusses several other of Jefferson's phrases and notes that they were borrowed from the writings of John Locke, particularly his Second Treatise on Government, in whose thought the Founding Fathers had been steeped. Lowery omits mention, though, of what may be Locke's most important idea: the notion that our rights are rooted in, and given to us, by God. This is important because if the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson replaced Locke's "property" with "pursuit of happiness") are grounded in anything else then they are not "unalienable." We can only have enduring, unalienable rights if they are endowed by our Creator. Nature certainly confers no rights upon us, and the rights bestowed by men are ephemeral and arbitrary.

Philosopher Todd May, in a rather peculiar essay on the Declaration at the NYT's Opinionator, declares that:

Most philosophers now agree that the rights we have are not rooted in nature or in a divine being but in our social practices, our ways of living together.

May might be correct that this is the view of most philosophers today, but if so we should be deeply troubled. Rights that are grounded in nothing more than our social practices are mere words on paper that can change with the social conventions of the time. Philosophers, and Supreme Court Justices, who think that the rights we have in the Constitution are rooted in 18th century social practices are not going to be zealous in defending and perpetuating those rights. Indeed, this is what Elena Kagan seems to believe, and it's one of the deepest concerns with her nomination. Such a view of the nature of rights, a view that grounds them in the shifting mores of social custom and fashion, is a path that leads straight to the might-makes-right philosophy of tyrants.

In any event, I urge you to take a few minutes this Fourth of July weekend to reflect upon the meaning, the grounds, and the contemporary threats to those freedoms and rights bequeathed to us by the founders of our nation.


How to Achieve Full Employment

In the course of explaining the benefits of unemployment compensation Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi teaches us something I'll bet few really knew or appreciated: Unemployment benefits are a job creator:

Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? All we need do to achieve full employment is to lay everyone off and send them an unemployment check. What could be easier? When next the Nobel Prizes are awarded for economics I hope the committee gives Ms Pelosi due consideration.


Honey Bee Declines

Honey bee populations around the world are in decline, which is a serious agricultural problem since bees are one of the main pollinators of flowers of all kinds, including food crops. A parasitic mite had been believed to be the culprit, but now there's another suspect: Cell phones. Bees use earth's magnetic field to navigate and cell phones and towers generate electromagnetic radiation that may interfere with the pigment in bees which is involved in sensing the magnetic field. In some studies this has caused the bees to be unable to find their way back to their hives.

If this indeed turns out to be the problem it's possible that changing the frequencies at which cell phones operate will solve the problem, but no one knows for sure.

Go here to read a fuller account of the research that has led to cell phones being implicated in the crash of bee populations.