Saturday, September 06, 2008

How the North Vietnamese Got the Last Laugh on McCain (and the rest of us)

So the original plan was to post on the Republicans' logical fallacy of choice, but after watching their convention it struck me that the most striking thing about it was John McCain's biography and how it was portrayed explicitly, but also how it's ultimate results infused the entire message implicitly. So while I would no doubt enjoy ridiculing the begging of numerous questions, or McCain's attempt to one-up his opponents in the ad misericordiam column, I will instead dedicate my analysis to John McCain's heroic battle with his North Vietnamese captors and his ultimate tragic defeat at their hands. Evidence for this defeat (which Senator McCain interprets as his victory) is drawn strictly from his nomination acceptance speech which was full of implicit admissions of the North Vietnamese triumph over Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain.

McCain's story is, by now, well known. On his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, John McCain was shot down and captured. For the next five and a half years, a battered and beaten John McCain fought a test of wills with his captors who dangled release in front of him in order to embarrass his Admiral father. He was beaten regularly. He was denied medical care. They did everything they could to get John McCain to give up. McCain and his fellow American POWs refused to capitulate and those who survived could return home with heads held high over their heroic service in an often unheroic war. But in a more fundamental sense, McCain lost his battle of wills and it's clear that he never realized it. The only thing that allowed McCain and his comrades to survive was their confident knowledge that as individuals, their lives were worth something, that they had rights that no amount of yelling, beating, or anything else their collectivist captors could throw at them would change that. Unlike the North Vietnamese, indoctrinated in a collectivist ideology which degraded individuals and exalted nothing but the "revolutionary morality" of the group (Ho Chi Minh's words), Americans were a proudly unapologetic individualistic people, and John McCain used to be one of them. That is, before being captured by the North Vietnamese.

John McCain's description of the pre-capture John McCain is a description of the sort of soldier it's easy to admire, the kind of person that I am, quite frankly, proud to have as a soldier defending our republic. McCain described himself in his speech this way: "I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride, I didn't think there was a cause that was more important than me." Huzzah! Why didn't this John McCain run for President? The answer is simply that while McCain did not die that day, this version of John McCain would be killed over the next five and a half years by unremitting torture and pain. Why? McCain describes the process himself. What were the great lessons he learned while collectivist garbage passing itself as the vanguard of humanity tortured him? The post-capture McCain pathetically sums it up: "I didn't feel so tough anymore.....I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence.....I was never the same again; I wasn't my own man anymore; I was my country's." McCain believes he reached the true morality of America, he claims that this experience was a "blessing" precisely because he had this epiphany. The horrid tragedy is that McCain, much closer to the true spirit of this country before capture, actually was turned into an almost perfect foot soldier in the ideological army of the very people torturing him.

Ho Chi Minh, the romanticized tyrant who consolidated a socialist "people's republic" North of the internationally demarcated border and then began infiltrating his cadres and special army units into the South in order to destroy any attempts at non-socialist self-government in the South to avoid Vietnam becoming another Korean peninsula, laid out the underlying ethical code upon which his political screed was based and he did so repeatedly. I only mention this because the mythology of Ho Chi Minh as some sort of happy-go-lucky "nationalist" who was not helped or was even betrayed by the west, thus "forcing" him to turn to China and the Soviet Union for help, is pure nonsense. Ho was a committed socialist and later communist going back to his time in France during the First World War. Ho was an ardent nationalist as well, but his sense of Vietnamese nationalism was not unconnected from his political ideas (as they shouldn't be for anyone actually). One reason he undermined and attempted to destroy the South's various elected governments was their opposition to socialism and allegiance to a moderately liberal order.

Quoting his friend, Bob Craner, who helped get him through the worst of his torture, McCain told the Republican National Convention and the millions watching on televisions around the world: "No man can always stand alone." Ho wrote an essay in 1958 entitled "On Revolutionary Morality," which sounds not dissimilar to John McCain's post-capture understanding of his relation to society and the proper ethical posture of citizens to one another. Ho was, unsurprisingly, not overly fond of individualism. In the struggle for survival he said "To succeed in this struggle each individual must rely on the force of large numbers of people, on the collective, on society. Alone, he cannot get the better of nature and subsist." This principle also applied to production: "Production, too, must rely on the collective, on society. Alone, the individual cannot produce." And aside from words like collective and revolutionary, see if this sounds somewhat familiar in light of McCain's "Country First" sloganeering: "Our era being a civilized, revolutionary era, one must rely all the more on the force of the collective, of society, in all undertakings. [McCain, keep in mind, referred to his "energy plan" as a "great national cause" that "we" must all "attack" together] More than ever the individual cannot stand apart but must join the collective, join society." (emphasis added)

What was the role of proper revolutionary in Ho's mind? There was more than one way to be a moral revolutionary in Ho's system. You could follow the list of party martyrs and others who "laid down their lives for the sake of the people and the Party, thus setting brilliant examples of total dedication to the public interest and complete selflessness." Short of that height, one had to "devote one's life to struggling for the Party and the revolution;" one had to "work hard for the Party, observe Party discipline, and implement Party lines and policies;" and one had to "put the interests of the Party and the labouring people before and above one's own interests. To serve the people wholeheartedly. To struggle selflessly for the Party and the people and to be exemplary in every respect." And unless a would-be revolutionary wanted to forget, Ho exhorted: "the prime criterion of a revolutionary is his resolve to struggle all his life for the Party and the revolution."

John McCain doesn't speak of revolutionaries, but he does speak to the proper roles citizens should play in the republic, and he also speaks to the concept of patriotism and what it should mean to proper citizens. Like one of Ho's ideal revolutionaries, McCain is a servant without (allegedly) a life of his own: "My friends, I've been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I've been her servant first, last, and always. And I've never lived a day, in good times and bad, that I didn't thank God for the privilege."

What should be the pinnacle of human ambition? Success? Wealth? Individual accomplishment and achievement? NO! McCain will have none of that, just like the man responsible for his torture. McCain the individual, the actual maverick, died long ago in North Vietnam. The Senator, who belongs not to himself, but to his country (the rankest form of collectivist drivel uttered at either convention this year), has something else in mind entirely. His idea of showing one's humanity is not by exercising one's reason, that faculty which separates us from the rest of the animals and allows our domination of the rest of nature and, thus, allows us to survive and prosper, but instead is exemplified by his wife's altruism and empathy: "Her concern for those less blessed than we are -- victims of land mines, children born in poverty, with birth defects -- shows the measure of her humanity."

A person's individual worth? Instead of being derived from the individuals ability to think rationally, set rational goals, and then achieve those goals, McCain gives us a collectivist valuation straight from one of Ho's contemporaries (almost anyway): "Roberta McCain gave us her love of life, her deep interest in the world, her strength, and her belief that we're all meant to use our opportunities to make ourselves useful to our country." Of course this is merely a reiteration of John F. Kennedy's famous "Ask not" query in his inaugural address, but just as Kennedy was horribly wrong, so is McCain. People do not exist in this republic of ours or anywhere merely to be servants to the state. One's "usefulness" to the country is irrelevant to their rights and the obligations of their government to protect and defend them, yet McCain's drift seems to be that maybe there is relevance after all and that is frightening. Who defines this usefulness? What are the criteria? What are the rewards for being deemed useful to the state and what are the punishments for failing to be so deemed?

McCain doesn't see anything outside of a collectivist context anymore, which is unsurprising given that he is, by his own proud admission, no longer his own man. For instance, people should not even be seen as autonomous individuals in the world of John McCain, but merely as one more member of society with something to contribute to said society or the state, or both. "In this country, we believe everyone has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential [for contributing]." Forget the idea that Republicans used to champion (rhetorically) of being left alone by the government. McCain merely promises for the government to "stand on your side and fight for your future." Who knows what that means? But instead of being honest and standing in your way or doing the right thing and getting the hell out of the way, McCain's government will pretend that it's helping you as it attacks you where you're not even looking, from the flank.

And remember that pursuit of happiness bit in the Declaration of Independence? I had always assumed (apparently incorrectly) this applied to individuals defining their happiness rationally and then freely pursuing it in a country dedicated to protecting their individual rights, including the protection of their various achievements and properties gained in their pursuits. Not so according to McCain, "nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself." Since when? Does McCain, a man who claims to not even belong to himself, appear very happy? Also, what cause is greater than oneself? Love of country and what it stands for (any country) flows from a series of value judgements made by individuals. Should one decide to value their country and what they think it means and stands for highly enough, even the acts of fighting and dieing to protect it means that one is serving one's own cause still, since anyone who has joined the armed forces has obviously made the decision that defending the country they love is worth the risk of their untimely demise.

It's ironic that McCain and the other RNC speakers would ridicule Senator Obama's laughable "community organizing" experience for what it is, a nullity, but their own candidate lauds, promotes, and exhorts just such "service" as the pinnacle of what any person could do with their lives and for their country. If Senator Obama ever wised up and stopped being a completely naive milquetoast, he could pillory Senator McCain by his very own standards, but I'm not holding my breath. No, the saddest thing about the current state of the two party system is that when the party which usually plays up the rhetoric of liberty and individualism switches over to the collectivist nonsense of the other party, who will stand up to offer the rational alternative? The answer, sadly, is no one.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Brief Note on "Experience" and the Presidency

"Experience" is the word of this election, contrary to all of the hoopla surrounding "change." Senator McCain has made much of Senator Obama's lack of "experience" to discredit his opponent's pretensions to knowing what he is talking about on a whole host of issues, but primarily those dealing with foreign policy. Senator Obama has now countered that Senator McCain's Vice-Presidential nominee selection, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is an even greater novice, having only been in her current job for a year and a half. So what is one to make of all this talk of "experience?" Is it merely a canard? Or is there something to it? And if so, what?

The history of the Presidency is full of the experienced and the inexperienced, but it really depends on what sort of experience one values when selecting a President. For instance, George Washington had virtually no governing experience whatsoever when he became President. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and, of course, had been Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. But, he had never been an executive officer in a constitutionally limited republican government, which is far far different from being the commander of an army. James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover were men brimming with experience that most thought would be invaluable to their respective Presidencies. Abraham Lincoln had no executive experience at all and his only national experience in government was one rather unsuccessful term as a representative from Illinois.

What sort of experience do we want in a President? The job is rather straightforward: 1) Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, 2) Sign or veto legislation from congress, 3) Appoint officers to various posts in the executive branch and the federal judiciary, and 4) Protect and defend the constitution. Very few people will ever have experience in more than one or two of these however. Aside from General Washington for instance, no one has ever had experience as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces before being President. State governors are the only people with some sort of comparable experience in items 2 and 3. And I would contend that there are very few politicians around who can credibly or legitimately claim they have any notion of how item 4 works. To put it simply, the job is a unique one that even a lifetime of experience will never adequately prepare one for. Ironically, the only thing that prepares someone to be President is being President, which is why people running for reelection are seldom besmirched as being inexperienced.

Experience is valuable mostly to voters because it provides something by which to judge how someone behaves and acts in office, under pressure, etc. Someone with little or no experience in office of some kind has to rely more on rhetoric and assurances simply because there is little or no publicly available evidence upon which they can base their claims. Incumbents are dominant not simply because of money, though that can and does help, but because they are experienced. As long as that experience does not upset a majority of their constituents, or rather a majority that cares and votes, they are highly unlikely to be turned out of office involuntarily. But while experience matters to voters when trying to get an idea of how a person will behave in office and perform as President, it is a surprisingly unreliable indicator of future job performance.

Richard Nixon did not have a reputation for dishonesty until becoming President (one of the many reasons his actions in office destroyed him so utterly in his second term). Military chiefs have been Presidents fairly often in the United States, but their various performances are hardly indicative of any patterns: George Washington served two terms and performed the job as only the republic's one indispensable man could, Andrew Jackson served two tumultuous but ultimately quite successful terms, William Henry Harrison died within a month of taking the job, Zachary Taylor had a difficult year and three+ months before dieing, Ulysses S. Grant's Presidency was an inglorious end note to a brilliantly successful performance in the Civil War, and General Eisenhower's presidency was an eight year affront to sound governance. There have been men in the job with far more experience than any of the nabobs currently running, like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, etc. who have not had particularly successful times in office.

Senate experience is no more indicative of success or failure than being a governor of a state or a member of congress or even a Vice-President. Success as a President depends upon the person filling the job and the events he will face while in office. The judgement of the potential President is really what prior experience is meant to highlight in concrete ways. How does the candidate make decisions? What ideals and principles guide them to the decisions they eventually make? All the experience in the world means nothing if that experience is characterized by poor, irrational, or otherwise inept judgment.

Senator McCain should beware that fact whenever he points to his reservoir of "experience." Any thoughtful examination of his years in the Senate reveals a non-stop horror story of government expansion, assaults on individual liberty in a whole host of areas, and an "I'm holier than thou" hypocrisy unworthy of anyone trying to become President, even in these degraded times of ours.

Senator Obama should not be quick to dismiss experience when he has nothing to offer in assurance that he's thought through any of things he's saying or proposing. If he has thought them through, then it's an unfortunate sign of the caliber of his alleged "intellect."

The real experiences the press should focus on are the experiences of the American people over the past seventy-five years (at least), and the failures, big and small, of their perverse "experiment" in altruist-based and collectivist-laden government. The Presidential candidate who does not take that experience seriously and attempt to learn from it is doomed before he even gets elected no matter how much or how little "experience" he's had in making things worse.