Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Nature of a Hero

With the luxury of time to look back on the value that resulted, we endow our heroes with all manner of mystic qualities, such that our heroes, hearing themselves described as such, often don't recognize themselves.

[Medal of Honor]

Heroism is often not something you can plan or save up for. The need for it may come upon you suddenly. It must be done in the moment, which is often part of the sacrifice. If you knew the need was coming, you might have scheduled other events differently. The event may be something they were prepared to do, but the timing of the event may not have been.

A firefighter may be prepared to lose his life in a fire for another, but he doesn't get to choose a good day for it to happen. Every day could be that day, and yet the day it happens is never a good one. It may be the day he's had a fight with someone and wishes he hadn't, or it may be the week before that big trip he was going to take with a loved one.

It is rarely something where you get a second chance. Usually what you do is what you do. It is therefore messy, unfinished, not particularly artistic, “done in a single take.” And in the time just afterward, while everyone is singing their praises, our hero, if lucky enough to have survived at all, is probably lost in self-critical thoughts of “I should have somehow done it differently, better,” as if that were really an option.

The messiness of heroism is illustrated in the brilliant movie 1776, where the spotlight falls at one point on the awful dilemma of patriots committed to opposing slavery being told in a high-stakes game of intellectual poker that the new nation would have slavery at its core or there would be no new nation to later rise above slavery. Who would want to be the kind of hero who said yes to that deal? Bad enough you had risked your life daily just for the right to participate in a process you'd hoped would free all men, but in the end you realize your opposition to slavery will likely be forgotten by history and you'll be remembered instead for having enshrined it. For some of those men, signing their names to the Declaration of Independence on those terms must have been the kind of awful compromise faced by a doctor who saws off a man's leg to save him from death. Messy, but something one sometimes has as one's only choice. Our heroes sometimes make these choices just so we won't have to, accepting a shame upon themselves so that others will not have to.

George Bush was not able to muster what it took to be the messy kind of hero. In the final days of his Presidency, when the economy was a mess, due in part to a war that should never have been fought, he could have made a useful sacrifice and drawn fire upon himself by taking responsibility and admitting it was his fault. Even if he didn't believe it, he could have said he did. That would have freed his whole party to move forward without pointing fingers at one another. But he couldn't do it, and so he condemned many to endure continued finger-pointing. The kind of heroism he wanted was the clean, pretty, photo-op kind of heroism of a scheduled landing in a pristine jumpsuit on a military-looking set that sat well out of harm's way.

Barack Obama, by contrast, was a hero when he apologized on behalf of the US for the economic mess that we as a nation pulled the world into. He didn't cause the problem, but he didn't make a big point of that. He had no reason to expect the world to applaud him for what he said. It wasn't completely true, but it was enough true, and saying it was just the right thing to do. He must surely have known that the Republicans would say he had somehow sold us out. But he took with grace the slings and arrows that followed.

Some heroism is big and public, while some is small and private. Some happens in an instant, perhaps under active gunfire, while some is the product of relentless small acts over time, like the aforementioned founding of our nation or the unheralded endurance of a parent raising a child.

My wife is such a private hero. I won't detail why here. The details probably matter, but saying them out loud will only arm her with ways to dismiss the accolade. Like the enigmatic referent in Carly Simon's famous song, but without all the unattractive vanity, she'll have to just know that if she can think up something about which she wants to say “but that was nothing,” the very fact that she knows what to disclaim is proof that she knows she did something worthy. And, anyway, I'll always know.

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Public domain graphic obtained from

Author's Note: Originally published April 30, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): barack obama, bush, firefighters, firemen, first responders, founding fathers, george bush, george w bush, heroism, mothers, obama, police, policemen, politics, sacrifice, slavery, social, society, thank you, thankless, thanks, wives

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fresh Thoughts on Kissing ... and Beyond

I was pretty nerdy in my youth—unlike now, of course—and so my parents confronted the issue of sexuality with me by doing the obviously right thing: They handed me a four-volume encyclopedia on the subject and told me to read up.

I wish I could remember the name of the thing, but alas I don't. A lot of it was stuff that was boring to me at the time, like the details of reproduction. I skimmed it but didn't really care a lot about the details. I never really resonated to biology—it always seemed messy and imprecise.

There was a section on dating, though, and I read through that pretty thoroughly in case it had any useful tips. It did. It's funny the kinds of things that stick with you over the years, but this did because of the practical and specific nature of it. It defined the confusing term “fresh” (a sort of interjection that was supposed to get uttered just before you got slapped in some mysterious circumstances) in the only detailed, serious way I've ever seen anyone try to define it. I checked the dictionary just now and it merely says very vague things like these:

15. informal forward or presumptuous
Random House Dictionary

15. Informal Bold and saucy; impudent
The American Heritage ® Dictionary

12. improperly forward or bold; “don't be fresh with me”;
WordNet® 3.0

This encyclopedia, instead of offering just a word or two, offered a full description of how things were supposed to work and why the word was significant. It was highly specific in a way that I doubt people will readily agree with—many will quibble that the numbers are arbitrary, and I suppose they are. But I was able to read past that and to get the essence of what it was getting at.

The article just came straight out and said that it was permissible for a boy to try to kiss a girl on the second date and to try “petting” on the eighth date. I have no idea where they got these numbers. They seemed arbitrary and unmotivated to me, and I knew even at the age of 11 or 12 when I read this that they were probably not universally agreed upon. But the point was that there was some such number. What was interesting was that the article was very clear on the notion that you had no entitlement to succeed in these things. It did not encourage you to be pushy. It didn't say that someone must submit. What it seemed to imply was that there was a time at which it was not out of bounds to think it might be proper.

So, as the article explained, it might be that a girl will kiss a boy on the first date, but he ought not try. The relationship is too fresh. After the first date, he may try, but she may still decline. Likewise, it might be that the girl would engage in petting on the eighth date, but maybe not. The relationship was too fresh before that to really consider the matter.

By the way, I'm recalling all of this from memory, but I don't recall it talking about discussing, only trying. It might be I was just reading selectively, but more likely they were just acknowledging the obvious truth that it's enough trouble having to be a bumbling adolescent without having to be articulate about what you're bumbling about.

And that was a lot of dates out—I don't think I ever got to that many dates. I did count, though, even knowing that my date probably didn't have access to my encyclopedia and that all my counting was probably for nothing. I wasn't going to feel emboldened after that time, more likely just like I was timidly missing out. Being a kid is rough. It's a wonder any of us survives to adulthood.

Anyway, I think my encyclopedia's definition of this obscure word highlights an important detail that is often lost in a lot of dialog between the sexes at any age. Lessons in interpersonal communication rarely distinguish between the correctness of a bid for doing something and the entitlement to do something. This leads to the magical and unrealistic notion that people will “just know” when it's right, and that if either party tries something when it isn't “just known,” that's wrong.

Great emphasis is placed in our society on how important it is for men to respect a “no” answer from a woman. And I agree. But equally great emphasis should be placed on giving respect to the fact that there will be questions that, in due course, need asking, even if the answer will ultimately be “no.” Whether by word or by wordless bumbling deed, the mere asking of those questions at the proper time and without attempt to pressure is not disrespectful, and the need to ask them must be respected in the same way that the answer must. Respect between caring individuals goes in both ways.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published April 26, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): language, linguistics, vocabulary word, usage, word usage, meaning, semantics, definition, terminology, fresh, dating, kissing, petting, caress, touch, felt up, feel up, felt out, feel out, getting to first base, get to first base, getting to second base, get to second base, encyclopedia, dating, social, advice, manners, etiquette, polite, politeness, impudent, bold, saucy, sex education, sex ed, first kiss, first time, sexuality, kissing on the first date, kiss on the first date, first date, eighth date, appropriate, inappropriate

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disobedience, Civil and Not-So-Civil

Disobedience of the Civil Kind

I have a beef with certain people who enagage in civil disobedience and then expect to be treated as if they did nothing wrong. Should they be treated with human decency and respect? Of course. But should they be treated as if they did nothing at all? No, I don't think so. I want to say why.

It's not the idea that people should be allowed to walk free that bothers me. There are reasonable arguments made about why we might sometimes not want to punish someone who commits an act of civil disobedience. We all know that's true. We tell people not to kill one another, but there are times when we all agree that it's legitimate to do so—certain cases of self-defense, for example. So my gripe here isn't about that.

“Non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment are often regarded as marks of disobedients’ fidelity to the legal system in which they carry out their protest.”

  —Civil Disobedience

(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

My gripe is that people who commit acts of civil disobedience seem to have come to expect to be let off. It's almost as if they see civil disobedience as a right, and they are morally indignant (not to mention surprised and terrified) if they are arrested.

When I was in college at MIT, I attended a meeting in which activists who were concerned about the Seabrook nuclear plant trained others on how to protest. (I think I was there as a reporter covering the event, by the way. I wasn't especially political back then.) Among the things they explained was how to behave if people wanted to be arrested. That wasn't the main thrust of the protest, it was like an extra credit aspect they said some might want to do. In fact, it was pretty carefully explained that not everyone should do this, that only people who really understood the consequences of being arrested and were willing to pay that price should do. They weren't planning anything violent, but they did think it was a legitimate choice to be more-than-average obstructionist if the person was willing to pay that price of being arrested and having a mark on their record. In fact, it was the price they would pay that made the action noteworthy.

Refusing to move when instructed by the police was not seriously going to keep the nuclear plant from being built. But their willingness to spend time in jail peacefully might get them time on the news, since it would arouse sympathy in the population, who might think it awful they'd had to make such a sacrifice just to be heard. But once such a penalty is removed, or routinely waived, why is it be noteworthy? Sacrifice is only sacrifice if you lose something, and if you're assured you won't, you're not making one.

Disobedience of the Not-So-Civil Kind

I want to turn now to another issue that I will ultimately tie in with the above, and that's the issue of ticking time bombs. And no, in case you're worried, I am not going to suggest that these are some good form of civil disobedience. But the discussion of their existence at all will set up something else that I want to talk about.

As you probably know, the ticking time bomb scenario involves the notion that there will be imminent harm to many people very soon, that you are the one who must interrogate a suspect, and that everyone is depending on you to avert a catastrophe. “What would you do to get the needed information?”

And, indeed, here on Open Salon, DJohn posted such a question just the other day in a thread to which I responded. I've lifted my response to him into this post here (with very light editing) to make sure my thoughts on the matter didn't get lost in the shuffle.

The fallacy here is that you think this problem is unique to torture. It is not. Consider any law we have. There are laws against driving fast on highways, against breaking into buildings, and against killing people. We know, for example, that there are sometimes extraordinary reasons why good decent people need to drive beyond the speed limit, break into buildings, and even kill other people. And we do not say, therefore, that there must not be laws against driving beyond the speed limit, against breaking into buildings, and against killing one another. Rather, we expect brave souls to do in extraordinary times what needs to be done, consequences be damned. In some cases, we will exonerate them afterward for breaking a rule because we agree that circumstances warranted it. In some cases, we will not, and we will hold them accountable and they will console themselves knowing that they sacrificed themselves for something they believed was more important.

The situation of national security is no different. Were there really a case where millions could die and there was a chance torture might work, I expect someone would try the torture. If it worked, I imagine he'd be found a hero and forgiven. If it failed, I imagine he'd be court-martialed for his foolish notion. That's not much reassurance, but it ought not be. That's what it is to be illegal, to say that the risk of doing the thing is entirely to be engaged at a personal level. It's what we heard every week in Mission Impossible growing up: Should you or any of the IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge.

It's an uncomfortable truth but an honest one. It doesn't just give a wink to someone saying “it's ok, we know you'll need to do this and we'll forgive you later” it says “if you think this is your only option, you'd damn well better have examined every other one and it better really be because this is not one we'll forgive lightly.” For things that are truly (rather than merely rhetorically) one's only option, who asks for permission?

Anyone who tortures should never do it as a matter of process. He should do it as a last resort knowing that he is potentially sacrificing his life or freedom. That's a nice high bar that I'm comfortable won't get misused. Anything less, I'm not so sure.

Kent Pitman
April 19, 2009 01:22 AM

Checks and Balances

The traditional argument goes that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Fair enough. That's a theory that goes quite a ways back in history, well before its recent formulation in words. But it was always about “above board” (pardon the unfortunate waterboarding pun) action. The problem isn't that the Bush administration wanted to change the policy, the policy is that they did so without informing the public and without subjecting themselves to trial. Having seen the need to do it, they should have done what they needed to and then marched straight to court demanding a trial. In the worst case, they should have told the public what they were doing so that the public could decide.

The claim by Bush echoed claims made by Nixon, who in turn quoted Lincoln when he was interviewed by David Frost: “Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation.” I don't even propose to debate that here; it might well be right. Let's assume it is. The critical difference between Lincoln and Nixon on this point is that Lincoln's actions were public and subject to scrutiny by the electorate. Nixon was secretive, and so was Bush.

Secrecy matters a great deal because the Constitutional foundation of allowing the Executive this much power is not that we like trusting the Executive with this much power, but rather we understand that some decisions must be made quickly, before the populace or perhaps even Congress could offer advice. And some decisions must be made coherently to avert the effect of Congress tearing our nation limb from limb by each Congressperson going in a different direction. A President must know when he acts on his own that he is still doing so at some risk of being judged harshly, and if he does it in secret, that risk is averted. The essential check on Presidential power is the option to impeach or at least not to re-elect. And even for those who will not be re-elected, we have the option to publicly discuss with new candidates for the office whether they subscribe to such doctrine. We are robbed of all of that when such actions are taken in secret, and we end up making decisions about the Presidency without critical information that would allow us to make good decisions.


And so I'll close with the point I opened with, that there is a relationship between civil disobedience as it has become and this kind of not-so-civil disobedience. In both cases, the actions have become so comfortable that the high bar of sacrifice has been removed. With that bar removed, the acts in question are too easy to do and too hard to later judge. We must repair that.

Author's Notes:

If you got value from this post, please “share” it.

Originally published April 26, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): recourse, impeachment, impeach, informed electorate, re-election, election, democracy, we the people, democratic rule, checks and balances, dick cheney, cheney, george w bush, george bush, bush, frost/nixon, frost, nixon, lincoln, abraham lincoln, 24, time bomb, ticking, torture, ticking time bomb scenario, war, co, conscientious objector, unjust law, civil disobedience, politics

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rule of Law

“Rule of law.” I like the sound of that. And yet, what exactly does it mean? Wikipedia suggests it is a “general legal maxim according to which decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws, without the intervention of discretion in their application.”

Personally, I would sum it up by contrasting it with “might makes right.” Rule of law isn't about having a powerful leader do something and then just defining that something as right; it's about following pre-established rules and procedures even if you're the leader.

I applaud the situations in which Obama has, in fact, returned us to the rule of law. But I'm starting to believe there are a number of cases where Obama exercises as much discretion as Bush in questionable areas and where he seems to seek to distinguish himself by using better judgment, by coming to a better conclusion.

“There are no political answers,
   only political questions.”

Kent Pitman
(in a technical forum, 2001)

I've evolved a tool to help me sort out certain tricky kinds of political issues. The tool is embodied in my claim that “there are no political answers, only political questions.” What this emphasizes is that there is no such thing as a neutral position on a political matter, there are only positions that people hope will not be spotted as equally political. And so when one spots an answer to a question that seems political, it's important to backtrack in the conversation to find the question itself, and then to explore its other answers (including the status quo), and to view each of these as a political outcome as well, not as somehow intellectually neutral.

In this case, it would seem that Obama either thinks or wants us to think that pursuing a prosecution of Bush and his administration for war crimes (waterboarding, for example) would be politically motivated—but that not pursuing it is not politically motivated. Cynics and conspiracy theorists might say he's trying to fool us; I'm not so sure he's not fooling himself as well. But either way, the objective truth is that it's the question that is political, and the question definitely exists already and cannot be avoided.

Bush may have violated the law. Has he? We don't decide such things as matters of fact within the US except by application of a court of law. And how would we proceed to do that? Well, we do employ an Attorney General. The US Department of Justice explains that the Office of the Attorney General “evolved over the years into the head of the Department of Justice and chief law enforcement officer of the Federal Government.” You'd think his job was to enforce the law by invoking the appropriate legal mechanism. But apparently not.

And so we return to that pesky phrase “rule of law” because the question is how much discretion is exercised by the Attorney General. Because on a matter of this magnitude, which is, appropriately enough, the metaphorical elephant in the room, to exercise discretion is to say that there is no rule of law.

Ironically, one of the most offensive things about the Guantánamo situation is that we don't even know if the people there are innocent or guilty, because they have never been offered a trial. It seems likely that many are guilty, but it's the trial that decides. One of Bush's greatest offenses is to substitute his judgment for a court's. And some would like to say that Bush was a criminal for having done this, but we can't say that either. A trial is needed. And now a different President is substituting personal judgment for due process.

There exists a political question. That fact cannot be avoided. Having the President turn a blind eye is not a process. There is a notion of “due process” for resolving matters such as these. The prosecutorial trial system is a process, one that's due.

due   -adj

3. Such as (a thing) ought to be; fulfilling obligation; proper; lawful; regular; appointed; sufficient; exact; as, due process of law; due service; in due time.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary

If the trial system cannot be trusted to resolve such matters as these, at least have the decency to change the process to say what the rule is. If it's “in certain matters, the President just decides,” then do us the courtesy of changing the law so that we can know and discuss the policy. We purport to be a nation of laws, so let's make the law and the practice of law align. If we can't do that, have we improved since the previous administration?


Don Geddis observes that there is still a place for prosecutorial discretion, and I certainly didn't mean to suggest otherwise. He suggests, as an example, that where there is insufficient evidence, it might be appropriate not to prosecute. I agree. But the places where I want to see such discretion exercised should be on the technical merits—is there sufficient evidence to bring a case (which I think has to meet the standard of “probable cause” or some similarly preliminary level of proof sufficient to build a prima facie case); that indeed requires some human discretion. But where I don't want to see prosecutorial discretion used is in the style of a Jedi mind trick where someone says to an official “these are not the people you should be prosecuting” and then suddenly there is nothing to prosecute or defend. I'll have more to say about that in another post sometime soon, I hope.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published April 17, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Other articles on the topic of prosecuting war crimes:
Obama Administration Releases Torture Memos (Saturn Smith)
The Memos Don’t “Shock the Conscience” of Obama (Christine Smith)
The Ethics of The President's Decision on Torture (Monte Canfield)
Take Action: Demand Justice for Torturers w/NUDITY (Behind Blue Eyes)
Torture: Principles and Practicality (Tom Cordle)
Obama and Torture: Did He Say Just Following Orders? (Libertarius)

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, rule of law, attorney general, prosecutorial discretion, political questions, political answers, might makes right, obama, bush, war crimes, torture, guantanamo