Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Risk of War

The Week re-ran an essay that ran in a recent issue of The Atlantic regarding the Civil War. It explored a provocative question: was that conflict a war worth fighting.

Perhaps that best point Horowitz makes in the essay concerns how close the Confederacy came to winning its sovereignty and how that outcome would have entrenched slavery:

Imagining these and other scenarios isn't simply an exercise in "what if" history, or the fulfillment of Confederate fantasy fiction. It raises the very real possibility that many thousands of Americans might have died only to entrench secession and slavery. Given this risk, and the fact that Americans at the time couldn't see the future, Andrew Delbanco wonders if we ourselves would have regarded the defeat of the South as worth pursuing at any price. 

By the way, I must concur with Horowitz on how close the Confederacy came to winning the war. James MacPherson, in Ordeal by Fire, cannot narrow down the war to just one turning point. He can only narrow it down to three turning points: Antietam, Gettysburg/Vicksburg, and Atlanta. I've often thought on how the election of 1864 was a legitimate last gasp chance for the rebels to compel the north to consent to peace.

The political leaders who lead us into war and the soldiers who fight it take great risks, which seems so obvious it doesn't need to be said. I speak not only of the risk of life, but the risk of history's judgment. So often today we hear the cliche "wrong side of history" (which, I think, comes from a Supreme Court Justice in Brown v. Board deliberations). The servicemen and women (a volunteer force) who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq took the same risks of life as did the soldiers of the Civil War. But little more than a decade has passed and already the majority of the American public looks at those conflicts as mistaken in whole or in part.

I still remember, with great humility, the browbeating a friend and I took when an Air Force colonel overheard us debating the merits of the Iraq occupation in the summer of 2004 at Mount Rushmore. Though we live in a land of free speech, I can't help but think how insensitive he and I were to question his sacrifice.

Political leaders and members of the armed services don't have the luxury of knowing whether or not, generations from the present, their cause will be judged as just. They act in their present, and in the fog of war. They act in response to perceived threats to the nation, without the information that would confirm the reality of those threats.

I want to revisit that portion of Horowitz's essay that talks about the consequences of possibly losing that war. Are not the stakes of wars worth fighting so high? Just as the Confederacy came within a whisker of winning the war, did not Nazi Germany come perilously close to ushering in "a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science" in late 1940? In 2013, it's somewhat easy to appreciate the sacrifices necessary to prevent Nazi victory then, moreso than to appreciate the incomplete destruction of slavery (Jim Crow persisted for a century after Appomattox). Perhaps it is those brushes with disaster that make it easier to cast the wars as so nobly fought.

Monday, July 15, 2013


The Washington Post reminded me today of why it remains my favorite paper. The op-ed page had a variety of opinions on the Trayvon Martin case that made me think. The best of which was by Ruth Marcus. Jonathan Capehart offers a passionate but melancholy reflection. What he says speaks to me as a father. So, too, does Eugene Robinson's essay. Richard Cohen offers counterpoint. Together, it's a collection of intelligent attempts at making sense of a sad, sad event.

Rather than outraged I find myself saddened by the episode that led to Martin's death last year. Intelligent news commentary helps me find perspectives on which I can ponder.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Week in Review

From a game of Creationary. Caroline's castle, my firehouse.
The Johnson household witnessed so much activity in the last week that it seems I accomplished something almost inconceivable, a summer week that seemed to last forever (in a good way). Usually I find myself lamenting how the days are just flying by at the midpoint of July. Not today. Instead, I think of the last week and how much took place.

My band had a performance Thursday in Limerick Township, which was the second time in five days my family found itself out there. The concert was at an unusual time, 6 pm, but that afforded an opportunity for Sam and Caroline to hang in there long enough for a concert. Our first time in the township was Sunday when we, surprisingly, purchased new furniture for the living room. 

Our second instance of spending money like sailors on shore leave was a source of angst for the week. We decided to install central air conditioning. I spent the first part of the week meeting contractors who sized up our home's potential for the project. I actually did my homework and solicited estimates from four firms. Friday I settled on the winner and made the deposit to get the work underway. I used the word angst as I got into this tale: I didn't enjoy entering into a process where I contacted four businesses knowing full well that I would say "Sorry, but no" to at least three. I also didn't enjoy the 24-hour window of time in which I was weighing the costs and benefits of various BTUs and SEER ratings. Still, it's about time we did this. After all, three of the four members of this household live here through the days of the hottest months of the year, and increasingly Sherry and I do a lot of work in the home. It makes sense that we do so in some degree of comfort. 

A great highlight from the week: Caroline has mastered the art of buckling herself in!

Sunday featured a trip to the Johnson estate for a belated celebration of the Fourth of July. All were able to gather save for my nephew, who was away. My brother-in-law and I holed up in the basement for a bit too long re-waging the Cold War (in which the U.S. eked out a one-point victory). 

Sam, Caroline, and I ventured to the library for our second trip of the summer. For the second summer in a row, I've resolved to pick a day of the week and just pick out a new series of books for us to enjoy for the week. 

An interesting moment of frenetic craziness: Within a half hour on Thursday, my daughter had two friends visit and I received phone calls from three individuals on three unrelated issues of pressing importance. I don't know if the phone rang at all the rest of the week. 

Sam, Caroline, and I ventured down to Ocean City, NJ for a day on Wednesday. The weather was miserable (a mid-afternoon thunderstorm chased us from the beach), but we enjoyed the trip regardless. Our neighbor was nice enough to invite us down, and I enjoy spending a summer day with them. I even got to fit in a taut game of Ticket to Ride with the New Hampshire wing of the family. 

The best surprise of the week was the way our first camping trip as a whole family turned out. Sam and I spent an overnight at Site 1 of Hickory Run State Park in April and resolved to stay again. I reserved two nights at that same spot. Originally I was going to venture up Friday and then Sherry would join me Saturday. At the last minute, Sherry decided to come on up with us Friday. The four of us had a blast hiking and making a campsite work. We did three separate hikes at Hawk Falls, Fireline Trail, and Shades of Death. We visited a cold lake where I harassed geese, attended an astronomy presentation, and made a brief trip to the Boulder Field there. We also discovered that the four of us enjoy camping and unplugging for the occasional weekend. I'm stunned at the kids' patience through a night of rain and two failed attempts to start a camp fire. I invite you to check out the album

Supporting videos might be available on YouTube. I'm still working out the kinks of using it for family videos. 

Sunday News Roundup

I returned from being off the grid for 36 hours. It would seem as if all that is newsworthy boils down to George Zimmerman and stalled immigration reform. I think I should have stayed off the grid longer.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On Healthcare

Sorry, it's time for me to address the parts of me that are news junkie, pundit, and economics teacher. What sparked this, two recent columns that caught my eye promising a chance at a real overhaul of what we do regarding healthcare in this country.

The first is a very recent column by Ross Douthat in which he shows how the adage is true: sometimes not making a decision constitutes making a decision. Second, a special iPad-only edition of The Week* re-ran a column written back in February by Jeb Golinkin. The two are offering me both reason for hope and vindication for my cynicism.

I was at first disheartened when I heard the administration's decision to postpone the employer mandate, not because I necessarily agree with the Affordable Care Act, but because I felt further delay of the legislation would simply continue the ability of the law (or apprehension about it) to stalemate hiring decisions by businesses. But if Douthat is correct, that really we're just seeing an awkward transition to a model in which we no longer rely on employer-provided health coverage, then I'm all for the delay.

My greatest objection to the Affordable Care Act is not that I think it constitutes some overreach by government, but that I think it fails to address the costliness of health care in this nation. Also, I'm concerned that it only adds layers of complexity and confusion to a segment of the economy already bloated by complexity and confusion.

I can't help but think we would benefit from a system in which individuals are buying policies from a competitive marketplace, at least more so than from a system in which we rely on our employers to provide it (at least in part). The current system gives us a poor sense of whether the price of health coverage is reasonable, locks the labor force into undesirable jobs, and benefits middle- and upper-class Americans who can command the benefit from their employers.

Golinkin serves us with a useful insight as to how the fee-for-service model is what most inhibits progress on the affordability of healthcare. That is a particular characteristic of how we do healthcare I'd like to see gone as well.

The two columns, linked above, are worth reading.

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*My favorite magazine has me a bit frustrated. The Week typically takes July 4 off (which is fine - they don't publish four weeks a year). However, they slyly offered an extra edition digitally this week. It was re-prints of full-length op-eds from the past year on key issues. I'm a bit concerned at the slightly leftward tilt of their selections in that issue. I pray that they can stay objectively above the partisan fray. I find the whole iPad-only nature of the issue very obnoxious, though. I think we could move on from the age of Apps and rely on our tablets to browse the web the old-fashioned way, rather than with apps. If you're still reading, I encourage you to read this gem about apps from Clark Howard's website.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Favorite News Stories from the Week

It was a week filled with festivities and family. I fell behind on news this week. In picking up the pieces, I found these to be meaningful reads:

A report on a fellow named Warren Mosler who holds theories on the economy that defy simple left/right definition.

A humbling op-ed on poverty and how it frames educational opportunity. I teach in a district characterized by students who are for the most part motivated and who come from households of abundance. How challenging it must be to teach the other half. As an old friend of mine used to say, "My worst day here is better than some teacher's best day there."

On our national anthem, again by Esther Cepeda. Amen.

I once had a chance to view original stereoscopic photos of World War I like displayed here. Memorable in ways that are hard to imagine. I hope that this virtual museum publishes more.

Civil War Historiography

I was a bit surprised to see the Forbes website wade into the waters of Civil War historical interpretation. One of their writers penned a piece about fundamental historical debate regarding the war. You might be interested in reading it here.

I'm sure I could spool up some pretentious critique of what that writer did, but historians can err on the side of arrogance when they try to assert that they alone have the ability to interpret the past. Besides, my history writing is pretty rusty. Oh, and Carl Becker once quipped that every man is a historian, which any self-respecting history major knows from their methods course. So I applaud Peter Reilly for using space on a finance website to take a stab at one of the more nuanced, charged, and unresolvable questions in U.S. History, Why did we fight the Civil War?

Rather than key in on what Reilly is missing, I'd like to instead offer some additional thoughts on his passage that reads:

You will, however, find Lost Cause enthusiasts “proving” that they are right by showing how racist Northern soldiers were.  My own reading leans me towards concluding that a large portion of the Southern elite was very pro-slavery.  A very small portion of the Northern elite were militant abolitionists.  Regular folks - there is a lot of controversy and a lot of problems with the evidence.  The debates can make you a little crazy.  Maybe most Southern soldiers did not come from slave-holding families – depending on how broadly you define family.  On the other hand, if you are twenty years old and don’t own a car or a house, it does not mean that you would not like to own one.  Clearly, though, to the extent there was an idealistic motivation for most regular folks, it was that bad guys were trying to take their country away.  

One of the great challenges in understanding the Civil War Era is to separate opinions on slavery from modern-day sentiments about human rights and racial justice. I would not just contend that a minority of the nation believed the black man to be the equal of the white man, but that a minority of those opposed to slavery believed the black man to be the equal of the white man. The bulk of those who opposed slavery did so for reasons that ignored what might have necessarily been good for black Americans. In fact, many who opposed slavery harbored sentiments that were stridently racist. It's helpful to keep in mind that the Free Soil Party were antecedents of the Republicans who brought about the end to slavery, and who were willing to fight a war to end it.

That last sentence I offered is problematic: Republicans were willing to fight a war to end slavery. Few white Union soldiers or officers would have overtly acknowledged this as their reason to fight. Lincoln's Second Inaugural best articulates this: one region of the country would rather fight than see slavery ended, the other would rather fight than to see the country divided over slavery. "And so the war came."

And those eloquent words came from a man whose position of slavery evolved over the course of his adult life. At one point, Lincoln was a supporter of the colonization movement, which called for slaves to be freed and then repatriated to Africa, presumably because there could be no peace between the races. This is the man who later said that a "house divided cannot stand." He ran as the presidential candidate for a party in 1860 whose platform said that slavery would not be allowed to extend into the West. And then, a week after his famous letter to Horace Greely, he ended slavery with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which, ironically, ended slavery without freeing a single slave. In the last week of his life, he called for the right to vote for black veterans and other respectable black men (which is, in and of itself, a racist position relative to today's politics). The evolution was cut short by an assassin's bullet.

Lincoln's words on slavery and the war are often marked by his Christian faith. The best example of this is in that famous Second Inaugural Address when he suggests that the war might have been God's righteous punishment for the sin of slavery. I wonder to what extent other actors in that era felt the work of God in their times.

I am convinced that the soldiers of the war, and their families and communities who supported them, felt powerfully the role they were playing in shaping the future of the nation. Overtly, their understanding of American traditions of liberty and republican government were at stake. Implicitly, that meant a future with or without slavery. It's impossible for me to not respect the sacrifices soldiers and communities at that time made for the future of their country, though to the sentiments of one born in the 1970s and raised in far different nation are often at odds with their notions of rights and equality.

So, I'm done rambling. Perhaps that fellow at Forbes had it right to create an Idiots' Guide on Civil War Historiography. For history nerds like this, discussing the central questions of that era lead us to write, and write, and write.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Independence Week In Review

What a fantastic week! Not just was it the 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg, but it was also the week of Canada Day and Independence Day.

Monday was Canada Day and I finally hosted a small celebration of our northern neighbors' birthday. This is something I hinted at doing for years, but finally nerved up the will to do. It was impromptu, shabbily planned, but still fun. I invited my brother on over as well as several dads of my son's friends . . . I guess who you would call my Lansdale friends. We enjoyed Canadian macrobrew and Canadian whiskey. I re-learned the ugly consequences of mixing beer and liquor and resolve that I will not again follow a beer with a whiskey with a beer, or at least I won't until next Canada Day.

I spent significant portions of Monday and Wednesday reading about the Battle of Gettysburg. Foolishly, I spent much of Tuesday nursing too much of a headache to read about the battle. As it stands now, Saturday, I've only read Guelzo's account of the first two days of the battle. I'm learning to skim the sections talking about which regiment did which, and invest more time in Guelzo's summation of what leaders made the right and wrong moves as well as on his passages about he nature of combat in the mid-19th century. I'm still finding it to be a very engrossing book.

Caroline and Sam had swim lessons all this week, and I took time on our pool visits to get pictures of what they are up to. These photos come from a long pool visit Saturday (Sherry and I were with the kids for three hours there . . . good way to spend the hottest day of the week). Swim lessons went well, more so for Sam than Caroline. Sam is starting to get into a groove, understanding the whole breathe-as-you-swim thing. As kids get older and more advanced, swim lessons get earlier in the morning. When the next session starts July 15, Sam's lessons will commence at 8:20 in the morning. Caroline's will be at 9:10. Though this means the one-hour dad break will come to an end, I might have a good chance at some one-on-one time with each kid while the sibling is being put through their paces.

Whites Road Pool might be the best thing about our neighborhood. It's four blocks away and the lifeguards know our kids well, calling them by name when they visit in the afternoons. That being said, we had a fun pool visit on Wednesday at the pool across town, Fourth Street.

Sherry's brother and his family visited Tuesday and Wednesday. It was fun to have our little house as a hub for four adults and four kids, ages 1, 3, 5, and 7. The highlight of the visit was likely our trip to Fourth Street Pool. The lifeguards at Fourth Street do something pretty neat by setting out pool toys and letting kids play for the first hour of business each weekday. Actually, they let the kids play with noodles, rings, and balls for the first two hours. Fourth Street also has a pretty shallow end, where even our three-year-old nephew could easily walk.

My band played a concert Tuesday night at Dock Woods, a retirement home nearby.

We harvested our first crops from the garden.

Thursday brought us to Glenside's Fourth of July celebration. We improvised a lunch with six kids under the age of eight at the McDonald's in Abington, which was no small feat. I had a good chance to read more of my book while waiting for the parade while Sherry took kids out back to play in the small pool. We were at the parade along Easton Ave. for about three hours in a spot Sherry's younger brother secured with a canopy tent, which was a good call. I tried to use the video camera to make record of the parade, but I think my success with that was uneven. At some point I'll get around to posting what is worthwhile from that video. 

Friday gave us a chance to visit the parents of our sister-in-law. Sam, especially, enjoyed the water play out back, which was enhanced by the use of water pistols given out as party favors earlier in the day. This gave us a good opportunity to spend time with the family of Sherry's other brother. Altogether, we had three days in which we could enjoy seeing siblings, nephews and nieces, and grandparents, and those opportunities don't happen too often given the ages and distances involved. But as kids get older, those opportunities get easier, I think. 
Saturday ended up being a day of recuperation, which was good. I enjoyed having Sherry home with us for all these days, which was a nice break from our normal summer routine. Unfortunately work calls, and Sherry and I both see a week coming up filled with work responsibilities that will poke and prod at our schedule, which made this holiday week all the more nice. 

July 4 fell on a Thursday, which made it more special. Driving back from Glenside Thursday night, I felt a little bit like I often do on the way home from Sherry's folks on Christmas night. That's a good thing. December 26 is normally a day off and bereft of the stress that can characterize the lead up to the holiday itself. Similarly, we have the gift of three days of time following the holiday.