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Looking Back at a Semester of Teaching, Surviving, and Blogging.

This Adrienne Young cover of a world-weary Grateful Dead song does not directly relate to this post. But this song has been stuck in my head over the past few months more than any other.

Another semester is basically done: four classes down, one to go. It’s been an interesting few months. After teaching seven classes in both the spring and fall of last year – plus three in the summer – I was down to five this semester (and one this summer). With budget cuts impacting public education at every level here in California, adjuncts like me, who have no guarantee of being retained from semester to semester, have been feeling the pinch. And through the course of this semester, I heard lots of nasty rumors about how bad things would be in the fall. It was only a couple of days ago, in fact, that I finally found out what my full fall schedule will be: six classes (at three schools). So it looks like we will be financially solvent for another few months. Hopefully, the worst of the class cuts are behind us. But in California, you just never know.

After nine and a half years as an adjunct history professor, living from semester to semester is nothing new. Through most of my college teaching career, however, my schedule has been set months in advance, so I haven’t been constantly stressed out, wondering if I needed to explore alternative career options. More recently, of course, I’ve been a bit worried. It would be nice to have the job security that comes with a full-time position at one school, and I occasionally lapse into self-pity due to the “injustice” of it all. Of course, in a world where most people have far less security than I have, I try to count my many blessings. Security can often be an illusion anyway. In life, there are no guarantees.

The fragility of life has been on my mind a lot this semester. My wife spent much of the last few months driving to where her dad lived, trying to help care for him as he suffered (and eventually died) from cancer. She also spent many hours doing research and dealing with insurance company bureaucrats in an effort to get him the best care available. This left me with more of the parenting responsibilities than normal. Now I am tempted to say that I happily took this on and played the part of the perfect, supportive husband and father. All in all, as husbands go, I did a decent job. Still, I managed to lose it at times, and, I am sorry to say, found more than a few opportunities to feel sorry for myself. (Human nature can be a bitch.)

In the end, however, we both did what we had to do. And though I would never wish this experience on anyone, as time moves on, I see this as one more step in a gradual journey toward greater empathy and wisdom. As my wife has said several times since, it is impossible to understand what it is like to see a loved one dying from a terminal illness until you have been through the experience yourself. The people who were truly supportive over these past months, by and large, were friends and family who had been through similar experiences. People with little personal experience with death often seem uncomfortable talking to someone who is facing tragedy. They seem worried that they might somehow say the wrong thing, and they often run away as quickly as possible. (I should know because I have often been that uncomfortable person.) Those who have been through it know that there is no right or wrong thing to say. Simply being there is what really matters.

Through the course of teaching, worrying about the future, and trying to be a decent husband and father, I also started this blog experiment. Since I started this blog at the beginning of the year, I have managed to crank out sixty-two posts. Both my motives for writing and my range of topics have expanded over this short time. When I first started writing at the end of last summer, the idea was to put together a book based on my years of college teaching experience. After a few months of composing some possible chapters, I decided to start this blog in order to get feedback from a few Facebook friends. Then, as I learned a bit more about the blogosphere, and as I received a little positive feedback, I decided to start writing this blog for its own sake. I then started shamelessly promoting this blog, using the few methods that I knew, in order to let people know that I exist. And in order to make things more fun, and hopefully to appeal to a wider audience, I began writing about more than just education. Now, I alternate between posts about history, politics, education, religion, current events, and personal ramblings like the “masterpiece” that I am composing right now.

But what am I trying to achieve by writing these blog posts? To be completely honest, I am not quite sure. Several motives seem to be wrapped up together: writing stuff that will hopefully have a positive impact on people, generating a little extra income on the side, keeping my mind sharp, creating some sort of a personal journal for the future, catching the attention of that “right person” who can help me build a career as a writer, stroking my fragile ego by looking for positive feedback, trying to gain some sense of tangible achievement, releasing pent up thoughts and feelings, and the list could probably go on.

As I look back on what I have written so far, I am pleasantly surprised by what I have done. (When I periodically go back and read old posts, I usually think, “that’s pretty damn good.”) I also can’t get over this nagging feeling that I have the potential to be much better. After all, before I started this blog not so long ago, I had not tried to write anything of any length since grad school. I have also been cranking out these posts in the midst of a crazy semester, writing in little bursts whenever I can squeeze in some time. If I manage to keep plugging away, and if am able to find more time to invest, how much better might I be in a year (or two, or three)? It’s hard to say. I may become a famous blogger and/or published author; or I may be a guy still maintaining the delusion that he can write things that more than a few people would want to read; or I may quit writing and go back to devoting more time to other (more practical) pursuits. With a light schedule over the next few months, I might have a better idea of where this writing hobby is taking me by the end of the summer.

Some would say that writing has value whether it finds appreciative readers or not. On some level, I agree. Still, I would be fooling myself and lying to anyone reading this if I claimed that I was not looking for an appreciative audience. If I just wanted to write to myself, I would keep a diary. So thanks to anyone who has read (and commented) so far. And if anyone has helpful suggestions or some kind words to give me a reason to keep at this thing, feedback is always appreciated. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that someone is out there.

Was the American Civil War Worth the Cost?

This is the opening song for the Civil War film, "Gods and Generals."

620,000 Americans died in the United States’ only Civil War, and another 400,000 were wounded. These numbers in themselves are difficult for Americans to wrap their minds around. But when you consider the fact that there were approximately 32 million people living in the United States when the war began, the casualties become even more unimaginable. After all, just the population of California today is significantly higher than 32 million. Can you imagine a war in which there were one million casualties in California alone?

So whose fault was it? If you can still find Americans who are aware that there was a Civil War, I imagine that the majority of these respondents would view the south as the “bad guy.” After all, eleven southern states “started it” by committing treason against the United States and attempting to form a separate country. Also, typical explanations for the causes of the war focus on slavery, and the south in this narrative becomes the evil region defending slavery against northerners who were (supposedly) against it. Reality, however, is a bit more complicated. When I cover the Civil War with my history classes, the root cause I keep coming back to is southern paranoia. Mistakenly, they believed that the north was filled with people who wanted to abolish slavery, and if the north was ever able to gain complete control of the federal government, then they might force the south to change its way of life. The attempt of a crazed, white, northern abolitionist named John Brown to violently liberate slaves, and the election of a Republican named Abraham Lincoln who supported policies only advocated by the north, fed into these fears and pushed some southern states over the edge. The facts that Lincoln clearly stated that he, like most northerners, was not an abolitionist, and that the majority of northerners condemned the actions of John Brown, were not enough to extinguish these fears that had been building for some time. Then, like now, political beliefs often had little to do with evidence and reason.

One could just as easily, however, blame the north for the war. The south, after all, wanted to leave the union peacefully. In their minds, our country was first and foremost a collection of independent states, and these individual states had the right to withdraw from the union at the time of their choosing. Southern states were simply asserting the same right as the British colonies when they formed the United States in the first place. The north, of course, did not see things this way, so the decision was made to invade the south and put down this rebellion. At that point, the war truly started.

But what if the north had made a different decision? They could have told the southern states to just go ahead and leave. Think of all the benefits of this decision. Hundreds of thousands of people could have avoided death, maiming, and psychological damage. Families who lost loved ones could have kept their husbands, sons, and brothers. All of that money poured into military supplies could have been saved. (Mississippi and California would no longer have to share the same country.) President Lincoln must have spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if he and the Congress had made the correct decision. Given the fact that he was a man inclined toward intense mood swings, his job must have been agonizing.

Of course, if the north had made a different decision, it is hard to predict how American history would have played itself out over the past 145 years. Some would argue that conflict was going to happen eventually even if the southern states were allowed to secede. Much of the tension that led to the war was caused by decades of competition over the western territories. Both regions wanted expansion. The problem was that they had different visions for what the west would someday look like. The south had visions of plantations, cotton fields, and slave labor; the north saw a future of family farms, businesses, towns, and wage labor. So how would they divide the undeveloped lands in the southwest, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountains? Would the United States and Confederacy peacefully draw a line down the middle, or would they compete in a land grab that might ultimately lead to war?

Also, what would happen the next time that a state or group of states had a gripe about a federal policy? If southern states were allowed to separate peacefully from the union, then a legal precedent would be set. It is possible, therefore, that our currently large country with many regional differences would have ultimately been carved up into multiple smaller nations. A map of North America today might resemble that of Europe. I wonder if California would still be in the union. If any state seems like a candidate for secession, it would be my home state. Much of the rest of the country thinks that we are nuts anyway. Plus, we have Arnold, Disneyland, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, redwoods, wine country, central valley farms, a hell of a lot of beachfront property, and one of the largest economies in the world. As an independent nation, California could also solve its fiscal problems like the federal government: by cranking our more currency and borrowing until the end of time. I better stop this line of reasoning. People might think that I am some sort of a “Californiaist” revolutionary.

Last but not least, how long would slavery have continued if the south were allowed to secede? In order to win the war, save the union, and prevent future conflicts, the north eventually took the drastic step of freeing the slaves. If the south had never seceded and triggered the northern invasion, then slavery would have stayed intact indefinitely. And when you consider the fact that the post-Civil War system of segregation lasted until the early 1960’s, you must conclude that if the south were left to itself, then slavery would have lingered for some time. Today, almost fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, the lingering effects of our nation’s legacy of racism are all around us. Imagine the conditions faced by African-Americans today if slavery was a much more recent phenomenon.

It’s fun for historians to speculate about what might have been. But unless someone invents a time machine and goes back to mess with the past, we will never know how different decisions might have played out. So we are left with speculating about and ultimately shaping our future. And as I look to the future, I wonder what it would take for Americans to endure the kinds of sacrifices made by people of the Civil War era. What cause would we consider righteous enough to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans in a war?

Clearly, the United States government does that think that Americans are willing to make significant sacrifices in the “War on Terror.” Apparently, they are worried that we do not see the cause as adequately vital to our survival and/or just. Taxes have been kept historically low, especially relative to past times of war. Few politicians would even consider the possibility of reestablishing a draft. It has been politically easier to add another trillion to our national debt and to squeeze the volunteer soldiers (and their families) to the breaking point. Yet even as they try to shield most Americans from the cost, some of our citizens have long been fed up with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, about $120 billion per year (out of a budget of $3.55 trillion) and approximately 5,500 American deaths (out of a population of over 300 million) are too high of a cost. Many others seem apathetic and perfectly content with living their lives as if our nation was not at war. So those who want Americans to awaken from their apathetic slumber should make a simple demand: the government must ask Americans to share more fully in the costs of these wars. The Civil War generation sure the hell did, and we have been reaping the benefits, and paying the consequences, ever since.

You Can't Put a Price on Free Time

Here's an old Louis Armstrong song that captures the sentiment in this post:

For a person living in the United States, the word “summer” brings up many common images: sweat, barbeques, cold beer, baseball, surfing, bikinis. For a kid growing up in America, however, the dominant feeling associated with summer has to be “freedom.” Summer as a child is one of the few times in life when a person has an extended period of time when there is nothing that he or she is obligated to do. To a certain degree, I have spent my entire adult life trying to recapture that feeling as often as possible.

One of the blessings of being a teacher is that I get to experience that feeling of freedom, to a certain degree, every summer and winter break. It’s not quite the same as childhood. Even without work, there are always plenty of things that need to get done. But still, the moment when my final grades are turned in is similar to the last day of school as a kid or to the completion of that last final exam as a college student. A weight is lifted off of your chest, and the distant horizon seems filled with stress-free moments.

As a college teacher, I am particularly blessed with free time. Even during the school year, life is not a day-to-day grind of the same old routine. Part of the reason that I liked being a college student so much more than a high school prisoner was that the classes were scattered around, leaving much more room for flexibility in day-to-day life. So college teaching, for me, is a way to avoid growing up completely.

The downside, however, of my part-time, “freeway flying,” college professor life is the lack of a high, consistent income. We have gotten by OK for the last nine years, but we are nowhere near being rich, and I don’t anticipate a flood of cash coming our way any time soon. Truth be told, I have never been particularly motivated by a desire to get rich. It’s not that I am some kind of an ascetic or anti-materialistic hippy. If colleges decided to pay me more, I would happily take it. And if I won the lottery or hit the mega-jackpot in Vegas one day – both of which would be a challenge since I don’t gamble - then I would be dancing in the streets. My desire to have more money, however, is not rooted in dreams of accumulating all kinds of wasteful, luxurious crap. In my mind, the greatest thing about having lots of money would be the freedom from obligation that this wealth would provide. I could work almost entirely on my own terms, and I would have plenty of time to enjoy the many things that life has to offer.

I want to make enough money to provide my family with the basic necessities of life: nice house, good food, attractive enough clothing, quality education, high speed internet, DirecTV. Beyond the basics, however, the greatest thing that I can give my family is time. If you ask children whether they would rather have parents who had more money to buy them lots of stuff or parents who spent a lot of time with them, I could make a strong, educated guess about the answer that you will usually hear. I can also say with some confidence that few people are ever laying on their deathbed wishing that they had just worked a little more so that they could have more material possessions around them when they die.

For some, retirement will be the time in life when they get to recapture the feeling of summer vacation. Personally, I don’t want to wait that long. The truth is that I may never get a shot at retirement. After all, I have a pension with the state of California, a fact that hardly gives teachers like me considerable comfort. This is why I imagine myself teaching when I am 90, reminiscing about the good old days way back in the 2020’s. And to be honest, if my body and brain are still in decent shape at that time, I wouldn’t mind teaching a few classes to stay both productive and sharp. But even if I were someone sitting around dreaming of retirement, I would have the nagging sense that both my life and the lives of my children were flying by while I was working nine-to-five (or more). So even if we have to do without some “necessities” due to lack of funds, or if I have to work until I resemble a fossil, I will be blessed by living this fantasy life in which almost every day provides a little taste of summer vacation.

Why does Everything (and Everyone) Have to be Temporary?

Here is one of the best songs about growing old that I have ever heard.

A few days ago, I went to my parents’ house to water their lawn and plants because they were gone for a week on vacation. They live in the same house where I grew up, not ten minutes from where I live now. (I have come far!) On some level, this place will always be home. As I sat in this empty house, I found myself thinking of the day when my parents will no longer live in it. It’s hard for me to imagine this anchor no longer being there. It would be like the sun not coming up. After all, from my perspective, it has been my parents’ eternal home.

My dad turns seventy tomorrow. My mom hit that same milestone at the end of last year. Birthdays are the holidays more than any other that measure the passage of time. They are the only days, after all, that are defined somewhat by a number. (No one ever says that they are celebrating their forty-seventh Christmas or their twenty-eighth Arbor Day.) It wasn’t too long ago that seventy was an age that I only associated with grandparents. It was also roughly the age of three of my grandparents when they died.

My wife and I are at that age where we are sandwiched between caring for young children and worrying about aging parents. The mortality of our parents was driven home like a knife over this past year. My wife’s dad was diagnosed with cancer back in July, and he lost this battle at the end of March. Shortly after her father was diagnosed, my dad entered the hospital to get open-heart surgery. As often happens in life, my wife saw her dad’s health deteriorate while my father recovered very nicely. As we watched her dad take his last breaths a couple of months ago, I could not help but think of how I would react if one of my parents was lying there.

We all know that everything in life is temporary, and we deal with this reality in different ways. Some reassure themselves through faith in some sort of a positive afterlife to come for themselves and their loved ones. Some try not to think about death, and they fight it off by taking steps to appear or feel eternally young, or they distract themselves with the concerns of everyday life. I have fluctuated between all of these states of mind at different times in my life. At the moment, however, I am unaware of any conception of an afterlife that makes any sense, and I can’t keep myself distracted all of the time. And when tragedies occur, the temporary nature of all things cannot be avoided.

So why does everything have to be temporary? For nostalgic people like me who can see on a daily basis the places and people that are so closely associated with every event in my life, death and deterioration suck. I would prefer that certain people and things last forever. And for a person who spends his life teaching history, I am well aware of how forgotten both myself and my world will be in the not so distant future. An atheist would argue that there is no answer to this question. Life just is what it is. Many religious adherents would say that the temporary nature of life should drive you to focus on the ultimate spiritual reality that will guide you eventually to an eternal home.

Now I don’t know if there is any kind of a divine plan. If there is, the planner(s) has not made it particularly clear. So is there any reason why some sort of a creative force(s) would just leave us hanging, stuck pondering the great questions of life? Why did he (or she or it) create us to live with the possibility that we might ultimately be snuffed out? For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that there is a divine plan that the creative force(s) has chosen to keep somewhat secret. I am also going to assume that this force(s) has positive motives and is not just creating some playthings to use for entertainment. If we were guaranteed of eternal life, would we be able to appreciate life fully? Maybe something can only be truly precious if you know that it will someday be gone. So often, people convinced that they know the answers to life’s great questions have seemed somewhat smug and callous to me. The struggles of the rest of us unenlightened mere mortals, after all, must seem rather distant to them. By realizing the “truth,” they were freed from fully experiencing the pain caused by the temporary nature of all things. In my view, by immersing themselves in the “spiritual,” some people lose a certain amount of empathy for those struggling with their humanity. In a sense, “the enlightened” are no longer fully human.

Maybe real joy, sacrifice, ethics, and compassion can only exist in a temporary world filled with pain and uncertainty. After all, if we were given a guaranteed path toward eternal life, then our choice to take that path would be, to some degree, selfish. But if you choose a sacrificial, ethical path without any guarantee of a reward, then you have done something truly selfless. Pain, injustice, and death – and the possibility that this life may be all that we have - stink, but without the things that make life tough, can we ever be truly joyful, compassionate, ethical, and, ultimately, alive?

Oil Spills and Greece's Ills

Here's a classic environmentalist song by Joni Mitchell. (She wrote it, not the Counting Crows.)

At times like these, I am reminded of why I am neither a devoted liberal nor a staunch conservative. Two of the biggest stories of the last few weeks have been the oil spill off of the Gulf Coast and the debt crisis in Greece. And while I do not pretend to be a person who fully understands the causes of these crises, I do recognize that each political faction, if it plays its cards right, can use one of these events as ammunition for pushing its views.

Liberal environmentalists would seem to have things easy these days. In order to demonstrate just how dangerous offshore oil drilling, weak business regulations, and an economy dependent on fossil fuels can be, all that they have to do is point people to the TV screen. The sobering fact is that the worst may be yet to come. Oil is still gushing in from under the ocean, British Petroleum’s various strategies for containing the spill keep failing, and we don’t know exactly what the impact will be when, where, or if the oil slick reaches the shore. Personally, I do not have a lot of faith in BP’s ability to “fix” this problem. They have had a string of recent disasters that many attribute to their tendency to cut costs whenever possible. I also question their willingness to pay reparations to those who will ultimately be harmed by this catastrophe. A disaster like this cannot simply be measured in financial terms anyway, and the environmental damage in some cases may be irreversible.

President Obama has said in the past that our economy needs to wean itself off of fossil fuels. Conveniently enough, when the spill occurred, Congress was revisiting once again the energy reform bill that has been languishing in Washington. If he is the liberal that many claim him to be, then he should be jumping all over this opportunity. Unfortunately for him, this spill has mostly created problems. Shortly before the spill, he officially supported for the first time the expansion of offshore oil drilling. Needless to say, this was not the greatest timing in the world. It is also in his interest to minimize the extent of the disaster. He does not, after all, want this to be his version of Hurricane Katrina. The fact that this oil spill was the result of oil industry incompetence while the Katrina fiasco was a combination of natural disaster and government incompetence will not stop Obama’s opponents from trying to pin this thing on him. It’s an effective way for the “drill, baby, drill” people to divert attention away from their own culpability.

Finally, President Obama has some big political battles ahead in dealing with financial regulation, immigration reform, and the budget deficit. And as anyone not blinded by political ideology has realized, President Obama is first and foremost a pragmatist. He wants to get things done, and he is willing to make compromises with powerful interests to do so. (See his proposal for expanded oil drilling and the health care bill, among other things.) In this partisan political climate, does he want to take on the oil sector with all of its economic and political clout? Ultimately, it may be public opinion that is the most important factor. And if public reactions to past oil spills can be used as a guide, then we are unlikely to see major changes to prevent future environmental catastrophes and to lessen our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. We tend to have a short memory, and many Americans have accepted occasional environmental disasters as an inevitable part of producing and distributing a resource that makes our lifestyle possible.

Conservatives would be wise to divert public attention to Greece, a country that has become the poster child for inefficient, bloated, overstretched government. As Greece teetered toward bankruptcy, there was a fear that a financial panic could result that would be reminiscent of Lehman Brothers’ collapse a couple of years ago. Only in this case, the problem was public debt instead of stupid private banks. If Greece defaulted, investors would take a hit, and people might wonder which country would be the next to go: Portugal? Spain? Italy? Investors would then be afraid to loan money to these countries, which would drive interest rates up and might precipitate their collapse.

Greece, as part of the eurozone, could not attempt to solve its problems by cranking out more currency. Also, as part of the eurozone, Greece’s problem became Europe’s problem. If eurozone countries could no longer make good on debts valued in euros, what might the impact be on this multinational currency? Apparently, the European Union decided not to find out, so they put together a one trillion dollar package to bail out Greece and other debt-ridden nations. But will this be enough, and will countries with big deficits be able to implement painful budget cuts and tax increases without causing massive public unrest? Street protests in Greece indicate that citizens used to public sector jobs, benefits, and services might not take this lying down.

The lessons for the United States seem obvious. Our ratio of debt to GDP is not much better than that of Greece, and it is only going to get worse if we continue on the current track. Will the United States be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in a few years? Are Americans ready to make the painful sacrifices necessary to get the budget mess in order? In the United States, the Federal Reserve has dealt with our recent financial crisis by pumping currency into the economy, but at some point, this type of policy will lead to inflation and higher interest rates. In my home state of California, the parallels to Greece seem particularly clear. As a state without its own currency, California is obligated to pay its bills. But as everyone in this country knows, California is an annual budgetary basket case. Conservatives would point to this bastion of liberalism as the ultimate example of what happens when you have a bloated, inefficient government that scares businesses away with high taxes and excessive regulations. The public sector, particularly when it is filled with employees receiving excessive salaries and benefits, cannot indefinitely be propped up by the private sector. Real economic growth comes from the private sector, not government handouts.

Of course, in California, as in Greece, some will argue that the problem is not a system of government provided services. Instead, we are in trouble because of the corrupt, incompetent people who currently run the system. If we could just get better politicians, then things would improve. Of course, you could also make the same type of argument for the recent oil spill. The problem is not our fossil fuel based economy. In any industry, there are going to be people who occasionally mess up. Banning all oil drilling, like gutting the public sector, would be going too far. Unfortunately, this type of thinking can divert attention away from systemic problems and keep people focused on defending their ideology and trying to win elections.

Ultimately, politics is all about spin. Both sides want to make sure that their version of events becomes the more widely accepted “truth.” And the most important part of this game is making sure that the majority focuses on the event or issue that most naturally supports your ideology. Environmentalists want us talking about oil spills, and conservatives want us focused on budget messes in Greece and California. If you want to get a good sense of the political pulse of Americans these days, listen closely to see which stories people choose to notice.

How to Cover 30 Years of History in 30 Minutes (or less)

Rarely do songs go as well with a blog post as this one does:

I am teaching a class this semester that covers all of United States History, from Columbus to Obama, in nine weeks (six hours per week). This is an unusual format for me. At the three other schools where I teach, the classes either cover Early American History (before 1877) or Modern American History (post-1877). Plus, classes usually last for sixteen weeks and meet for three hours per week. So students in this “unusual” format are expected to absorb 500 years of History in half of the normal time.

By cutting out some material and moving faster than I normally do, I have been able to get through all of this information when I have taught with this format in the past. I am always worried, however, that if I don’t pace myself properly, I could end up being forced to cover the last thirty years of American History in about a half an hour. So should that ever occur, here is how I might go about covering the years from 1980-2010 during those last precious minutes of class time:

“So in 1980, things were not looking too good for our country. Inflation was out of control, Americans were starting to buy lots of things from other countries (especially Japan), and things like the Iranian hostage crisis made us look weaker around the world. So many Americans turned to a conservative ex-actor named Ronald Reagan to be our savior. He had the right plan for the right time: to get government out of our lives – cut taxes, roll back regulations, cut expensive social programs - and to build up the military so that we could once again take on communists and other evildoers. After a couple of bad years, the economy started to turn around, and inflation was brought under control. As the economy grew, many Americans went back to our good old-fashioned heritage of materialism and individualism. Even some TV preachers used channels on a phenomenon called cable television to tell people that God would make his devoted followers rich. After all, what did years of that hippy, anti-materialist, liberal, secular, “peace and love” crap get us? We rediscovered what Americans always knew: that money makes you happy. There were some problems, however, that would come back to haunt us. The federal government was running big budget deficits, wealth was more concentrated toward the top, and the push toward deregulation may have eventually gone too far.

Then George W. Bush’s dad became president, and an amazing thing happened. The Soviet Union, and their puppet governments in Eastern Europe, collapsed. To the shock of almost everyone, the Cold War was over. This was fantastic, but there was one big problem: what would guide our foreign policy now? For forty-five years, U.S. actions were consistently guided by a desire to defeat communism. Without the big bad buy, what would be the plan? At first, Saddam Hussein stepped into the role of bad guy when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Here was a chance to use that big military that Reagan built up in the 1980’s, and in a matter of days, the Iraqi army was annihilated. Suddenly, Americans were waving flags again and celebrating a military victory. For many, this was a sign that the embarrassment of Vietnam was being put behind us. “Bush the first” seemed like a lock to win re-election.

But when the economy went bad for a while in the early 1990’s, and a quirky businessman named Ross Perot decided to run for president, the door was open for an unknown governor named Bill Clinton to become our next president. And conveniently for him, the economy took off on the longest ride of sustained economic growth in American history. Much of this was due to the increasing integration of the global economy, the growing sophistication of personal computers, and the expanding use of something called the internet (which Clinton’s Vice President had apparently “invented”). And as many Americans gorged themselves on all of this wealth and invested into new high-tech products and industries, politics was of limited interest. O.J., Monica, and Y2K kept us distracted, and it wasn’t like politicians were getting much done anyway. We had a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, and as the two parties became increasingly hostile, they seemed to spend more time talking about Clinton’s sex life than proposing effective policies. Things seemed to be going remarkably well anyway – the federal government actually ran a surplus for a while - so the lack of political achievements did not seem like a big problem. Also, our newfound status as the world’s only remaining superpower created a sense of safety from foreign threats.

But due to Clinton’s “sexual issues,” Al Gore’s lack of political charisma, a spoiler named Ralph Nader, our ridiculous system for choosing Presidents, and the beginnings of a mild recession triggered somewhat by the “dotcom bubble”, “Bush II” became president in one of the stranger elections in history. George W. Bush immediately began to push the Reagan agenda. Then, within a matter of months, the growing terrorist threat that most Americans had spent years ignoring and neglecting hit our country on 9/11. Suddenly, we had a big, scary enemy again, and as you are well aware, the “War on Terror” has been proceeding ever since. Most Americans were terrified and ready to “kick ass” for a while, but it did not take long for many people to become distracted once again by good old-fashioned materialism and the wonders of modern technology: cell phones, high speed internet, social networking, reality TV, “Tivo”, etc. They were also distracted by a new bubble in real estate that began to form after the previous internet bubble had burst. Housing prices rose rapidly, fueled largely by insane loans packaged together into strange, unregulated financial instruments that few understood. Then, toward the end of the Bush presidency, the financial system crashed and burned, and government came running to the rescue.

This collapse laid the groundwork for an amazing event: the election of the first non-white man to the presidency. Unfortunately for President Obama, he came into office at a time of several crises: conflict dragging on in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic recession, the rising cost of health care, and an intensifying level of partisan bitterness that can be traced back to the Clinton years. To a large degree, our nation is beginning to pay the price for past foolishness. Unsustainable spending on Medicare, Social Security, and Defense has caused ballooning budget deficits now that the economy has slowed down. Reckless borrowing and spending over the course of many years brought us to the brink of disaster, although the government, at a very high cost, has apparently managed to ward off a huge crisis. Has the time come where we have to face reality? Have we started to realize that our political and economic systems as they currently stand are unsustainable? Or will self-centered special interest groups and continued partisan bickering continue to hold back meaningful reform?

Every generation must ask itself how the people of the future will judge them. I have a feeling that the last 30 years will be remembered for a couple of things. First, it will be remembered as the beginning of a technological revolution comparable to the invention of agriculture or to the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century. It is still too early to tell where this change will ultimately lead us. Second, it will be remembered as a period of reckless borrowing and spending – in both the private and public sectors - fueled by the belief that happiness comes from accumulating the stuff that every American has a God-given right to have. And as Americans were distracted by their desire for things, tough decisions have been put off by politicians (of both parties) who are afraid of telling American voters the truth: taxes must inevitably be raised, significant spending cuts on big budget programs must be made, the health care system must become more financially efficient, and we must begin the initially painful process of moving toward an economy that is not based on fossil fuels. In short, Americans must make sacrifices. These tough decisions have been put off for too long, and my grandkids might look at me someday and ask me what the hell we were thinking.”

Don't Confuse Punishment With Justice

There are a lot of great songs about people dealing with injustice. Here is one of my favorites. It's called "Blue Sky Mine" by Midnight Oil.

I am not a big fan of the name, “Justice Department.” The implication of this title is that our legal system – cops, courts, and jails – is in the business of carrying out justice. A better title, in my view, would be the “Punishment Department.” Too often, punishment is viewed as synonymous with justice. But as anyone who has ever had a loved one physically abused, raped, or murdered knows, the punishment of the guilty party, no matter how satisfying it may be, cannot undo the injustice. This simple truth, however, has not stopped many from confusing punishment with justice in both their religious beliefs and political ideologies.

Injustice is a big problem for anyone who believes that some sort of a just god or other benign spiritual force controls and regulates the world. Monotheistic belief systems such as Islam and Christianity deal with this problem by promising that a day of judgment is coming for both individuals when they die and for the world in general in some sort of a future apocalyptic event. Things may seem unfair now, but they will someday be made right. Buddhism and Hinduism, on the other hand, believe that spiritual forces will inevitably cause people to experience the consequences of their actions. If “justice” is not carried out in an individual’s current lifetime, then it will come at some point in his or her future lives. The goal is to eventually become enlightened enough to see that the world we experience is just an illusion. Then you can be free of apparent suffering and injustice, and you will break free from the cycle of birth and rebirth.

Christianity in particular equates justice with punishment in its core theological idea: Jesus had to come to earth and be crucified in order to satisfy God’s desire for justice. Jesus, by taking upon himself the wrath of God, made salvation possible for those who believe. So apparently, when believers are rewarded and unbelievers pay the price for their refusal to repent, all of the obvious injustices in the world will be wiped away. There is a big problem, however, with this notion of justice. Even if some future day of reward and punishment comes, the injustices of the past still occurred, and nothing can ever undo the damage. Even if God is somehow able to wipe away bad memories, the pain experienced at the time that the injustice occurred was very real.

So what is the point of this little theological discussion? Am I trying to argue that we should stop punishing people because it is impossible to bring about justice? On the contrary, I recognize that punishing criminals has some very important and valuable functions. Strong punishments can deter crime, get dangerous people off of the streets, and make people who have done horrible things suffer. They cannot, however, undo injustice. The only way, therefore, of creating a more just world is to prevent crime and injustice in the first place. And while the justice system plays an important role in preventing crime, it is vitally important for a society to broaden its concept of national security and to seek out creative ways of preventing the likelihood of injustice. A strong case can be made that effective regulations and investment into education, infrastructure, and technological innovation, among other things, might do as much (or more) to enhance our security as putting tons of cops on the streets or building lots of weapons and jails. These actions may, in some cases, even cost less money. It is shortsighted, therefore, to focus too exclusively on punishing criminals and blowing up bad guys. If the goals are security and justice, then you need to be more creative and proactive. Of course, if the goals are merely to punish people and get revenge, then you can content yourself with nothing but weapons, cops, and jails.

Some people have given up on the concept of a just world. The only hope, they say, is to wait for judgment day. To me, this is both the ultimate copout and the final bailout plan. Since the world is a complicated place with difficult problems, it’s comforting to believe that some divine being or force will ultimately make things right. We are then freed somewhat from taking responsibility and doing the hard work of creatively engaging the world. And what I find particularly disturbing is that some people seem to take comfort in the fact that a lot of people are going to pay a heavy price. It will then be the ultimate opportunity to say, “I told you so” to both the blatant sinners and to the stubborn unbelievers who picked the wrong belief system (and who might have made fun of “the faithful”).

Many people also think that God created human beings in his image. I tend to think that the reverse may be true. By creating an image of God as divine judge, we ended up with a being that deals with injustice as we do. In the end, when an individual has committed a crime, punishment is the best that we humans can do. If some divine being or force exists, I hope that he (or she, or it, or they) has a more creative and effective plan.

Our Trip to the Huntington Library

Here's an oldie from one of the greatest voices in rock history: Roy Orbison. It's called "Working for the Man."


Yesterday, as part of my wife’s birthday weekend, we went with the kids to Huntington Library & Gardens up near Pasadena. It is definitely worth checking out if you have never had the opportunity. The place is part historical research library, part museum, and part arboretum. If you do nothing but wander through the various botanical gardens, you will easily get your money’s worth. The kids had a great time sniffing and photographing the various plants and flowers. Just the Rose Garden took about an hour. I’ve included some pictures below (most of which were taken by my older daughter, a budding photographer.)

As we wandered through this amazing place, my wife and I had the same recurring thought:  “man, Henry Huntington must have been freaking rich!” The main art gallery is located in a small part of what used to be his ridiculously huge mansion, and the various botanical gardens are essentially his former front and backyard. Much of what you see has been collected and planted since the Huntington exhibit was established after his death in 1927, but still, what he and his wife managed to compile and create is astounding.

So how did he get all of this money? I did a little research, and it turns out that he got some of his fortune the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. Collis Huntington, Henry’s Uncle, made an enormous fortune in the railroad business.  Henry started working for his uncle as a young man and worked his way up in the company. When his uncle died, Henry inherited one-third of the family fortune. Henry would then proceed to become quite a businessman in his own right, making much of his money building electric public transportation systems in California. This was how he ended up buying his “little estate” in Southern California. He married his uncle’s widow – who was close to Henry’s age, so it wasn’t too gross – a woman who turned out to be quite the art collector herself. And the rest, you might say, is history.

Some would therefore describe Henry Huntington as a great businessman, collector, and, ultimately, philanthropist. This is not the only valid point of view, however. After all, how did Henry’s uncle accumulate the massive fortune that became the basis for his nephew’s success? Who did the hard labor of building those railroads, and how well were these workers paid? Some, myself included, would argue that Henry, like his uncle, was also a great exploiter of the working class, and money which could have gone toward providing these workers with a decent standard of living instead went into a fancy house; a hell of a collection of art, furniture, and historical documents; and some damn impressive landscaping. It’s a beautiful place, but was the cost truly justified?  I better discontinue this line of questioning. People might start labeling me as one of those Obama-supporting socialists.

The Huntington Library is one of the many great monuments to wealthy and powerful individuals that have been built throughout the history of the civilized world: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, The Forbidden City, etc. One of the greatest mysteries of life for me is how certain elite individuals are able to amass so much wealth and power. Why do the masses feel compelled to devote so much labor, resources, and devotion to an individual who, in a purely physical sense, is basically the same as they are? Why do people tolerate this degree of inequality? Many answers to these questions have been developed over the years, but I have yet to hear a completely adequate explanation. It may be just another piece of evidence proving that our species is not particularly rational. In the end, monuments to the powerful may be the ultimate paradox. In a place like the Huntington Library, beauty and incredible human achievement are wrapped together with human vanity, waste, and injustice.