Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Citizenship

Without leadership, the nation fails
     The democratic dilemma

Without vision, the people perish. Only a vision that links their individual aspirations to some larger purpose can keep a people organized for their own welfare and survival. For such a vision to exist as an organizing reality, leaders must articulate it as well as make decisions that keep it functional. In a democracy where people elect their own leaders, a dilemma arises out of human nature. People can win votes and leadership through using the arts of rhetoric to flatter and lie. In power, such people give lip service to the vision but undermine it in the pursuit of self-interest.

Can a majority of voters be wise enough to resist flattery and see through deception?

Not if the education system is corrupted.


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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Change! Damn it!
     The totalitarian urge

“What we’re saying here is, if you can’t decide to change these practices, we’re not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we’re not going to send those dollars there,” Obama said in an Oval Office interview Wednesday. “And we’re counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change.” Obama, quoted in Washington Post

Obama is up against freedom, but he’s committed to change, so the sticks and carrots come out.

He wants to link student data to teacher evaluation. This does, indeed, put pressure on teachers to get students to change. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give teachers the sort of power to command the change that Obama wants. After all, students will still be free to stay up playing digital games till 4 in the morning, then come to school sleepy, without their homework. They will still be free to cut class and go hang out at the mall. They will still be free to buy term papers on the Internet and text themselves crib sheets for the quizzes.

And parents will still be free, too. They will still be able to lodge complaints against teachers who give low grades. They will still be free to move students from school to school every few weeks as they look for new jobs or new boyfriends. They will still be free to call in bogus excuses for kids who miss school thirty or forty percent of the time.

Since teachers can’t change any of those things--they can’t even decide, in many cases, what materials to use or even whether materials are available, they are naturally resistant to being evaluated based on what students decide to do. Doctors wouldn’t want to be evaluated on the basis of how healthy patients are, since they can only tell patients to quit smoking and to exercise more, but they can’t make anyone actually do it. They can’t even make patients take the medicine that’s prescribed. Obama’s in the same boat. How would he like it if we fired him because the Blue Dog Democrats won’t do what he asked them to do?

Nonetheless, Obama wants power to get educators fired if kids don’t change. As he will find out, to make a real difference he’s going to need to focus more on the people whose behavior is the actual problem: parents and students.

Why work through teachers at all? Why not go for the real power to change?

He could send the school money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers, threatening to cut it off if the kids grades don’t improve. He could turn off cell phone service for kids whose GPA drops below C. He could give each honor student one of those unsold General Motors cars while revoking drivers licenses for any student who gets an F.

There are no limits to changes that could be made.

People have got in the habit of thinking they are free to run their own lives, but since most of them are now on the federal dole in one way or another, it’s time for that to stop. We need to get accustomed to new ways of doing things. It’s time, for example, that people with diabetes reported for morning calisthenics to bring those blood glucose levels down, to do their part to reduce the cost of health care. It’s time for parents whose students miss a lot of school to have their benefits reduced. It’s time for students who are falling behind to have their Iphones jammed and their Ipods erased.

Change, damn it!


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Holding teachers accountable
     The myth and the madness of NCLB

No Child Left Behind is a massive invitation to scapegoating. By setting unserious goals that cannot be met, it manufactures a steady stream of bad news headlines. Of course, this is manna for the noisy poseurs who afflict our political discourse, holding forth as though they were leaders, assigning blame for all that’s gone wrong with the country--after all, bad news is the lifeblood of those who want attention, a name, a little power.

Universities, think tanks, foundations, unions and journalists daily offer their diagnoses or their prescriptions to save us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into the maelstrom. America daily tells itself a thousand stories about how badly our schools are failing, and most of these stories now include the words “standards” and “accountability,” both of which suggest that teachers have failed us.

That’s a comforting thought, in many ways. Believing it gets everyone else off the hook, psychologically.

It saves us from needing examine our relationship with an economy that has no use for millions of people. We can simply say that those millions need to be better educated and then all will be well. The young man with an IQ of seventy simply needs to get a bachelor’s degree and become a knowledge worker adept at 21st Century Skills. If teachers fail to do that, we need to strengthen accountability.

It saves us from an uncomfortable lingering over the avalanche of data showing that children do best in homes where both natural parents are present. We can remain children ourselves, indulging our fantasies and our whims, worrying about whether we are personally fulfilled enough, getting and spending and chasing our bliss. As long as the kids get 21st Century Skills, they will be fine. Teachers need to get up to speed.

It saves us from clarifying what we believe enough to stand for it unambiguously. We can leave the kids’ moral instruction to television and video games and pop culture, collecting snippets of research from NPR that bolster our hope that just the way we are turns out to be just right. We need to keep repeating that condoms make sex safe. Diversity means each of us is okay. Tolerance means nobody can judge me. The important thing is to respect copyright.

All students can learn. All students can succeed. If there are problems, the teachers have failed. We need standards. We need accountability. By 2014, 100% of our children must be proficient in reading and math. The bad news comes in the form of numbers, which give a comforting illusion of control.

Unfortunately, some some critics say 2014 is too soon. More reasonable people, though, see that 100% of people are not going to meet a rigorous standard ever. They also see that the standards are unscientific and unreasonable. Congress has not been able to find credible support for the way it reports proficiency.

Repeatedly the agencies that have been commissioned to evaluate how the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) sets proficiency levels have denounced the process. Although the feds don’t define proficiency in NCLB--leaving that to the states--increasingly state scores are judged against the NAEP, which is taken as the most reliable standard. The first evaluation of the NAEP, done in 1991, called the process for determining proficiency “ridiculous.” Congress then turned to the General Accounting Office, which reported that the approach was “inherently flawed.” So the U.S. Department of Education sought input from the National Academy of Education, which found that the proficiency definitions were “unreasonably high.” Finally, the Education Department asked the National Academy of Sciences to examine the matter. It found that the process was “fundamentally flawed” and that the results “do not appear to be reasonable.”

Those were not the answers Congress wanted so they were ignored, except for the Congressionally-mandated small print that appears in annual NAEP reports warning that conclusions about how many students are actually proficient may not be warranted. At the same time, the large print in press releases highlights those unwarranted conclusions. One benefit of having power is that sanity is optional.

Though it’s true that American students do more poorly in some international measures than students from other countries, my point at the moment is that the children from no country even come close to the standards set by NCLB. In 2001, Sweden topped an international reading test, but two-thirds of Swedish students were not proficient readers as defined by the NAEP. Taiwan topped an international math exam, though 60 percent would have scored below proficient as defined by NAEP. To meet the standard, people with IQs as low as 65 would need to be proficient.

Also, students who are absent 25% of the time need to be proficient. Students who are strung out on drugs need to be proficient. Students who refuse to take the test need to be proficient. Students who are being raped by step-fathers need to be proficient. Students whose mothers change their schools seven times a year as they move from boyfriend to boyfriend need to be proficient. For now, the plan is to hold teachers accountable.

From the start, experts understood that expecting all students to achieve proficiency “defies reality.” Nevertheless, the sanctions schools face are real enough. The power that is being concentrated in Washington really is diminishing the power of states, and of school boards, and of teachers, and of parents. At the moment, schools are the main targets, but the talk is shifting more and more to teachers. Merit pay linked to test scores--that sort of thing.

When that too fails, as it must, parents and students will come into focus as targets themselves.The idea has been established that the central government can set behavioral goals for citizens and then establish data collection systems to track progress. The current debate about what, exactly, those goals should be is a little like a debate about whether we should smoke cigarettes or pipes--the right choice is somewhere behind us.

But there’s no going back.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Narrative identities (23 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of an order that existed before them. To teach them peace, we surround them to the extent that we can with the peace that we’ve made, showing them how it works and what its rules are and why they should care for it.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is fundamentally the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a personal life story that’s more or less coherent.

Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to psychologist Dan McAdams, adolescents are at a stage of development where they begin adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way we respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. It’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolescents are surrounded by perspectives–or voices–that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

In a very real sense, we become who we are by internalizing patterns we see in our narrative environment. This is why the narrative environment that surrounds young people is of supreme educational importance.

Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes audiences that expect to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful young adulthood.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Two ways, one road (22 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The peacemaker learns to recognize two fundamentally different way: one leads toward greater life--which is greater connection and greater order--and the other leads toward greater disorder--which involves separation, a kind of death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can progress toward one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate–it’s easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down toward lower realities which require less conscious effort to sustain, but will tend to do so without daily work to avoid it. Maintaining complex human realities requires intentional effort. They must be willed.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher tend to be easy to govern, though difficult to enslave. Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. They understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity.

A peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption.

Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Peace in a world of oppositions (21 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The hardest part of the reality of living in peace is that we need to avoid the pattern of reading conscious evil intent into the actions not just of friends but also of opponents. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

But we can never be sure. We do not know what other people are thinking.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it sometimes is, then our thoughts naturally turn to strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us. If we want other things more than we want peace, we will find it very slippery.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace, and this is what he said about the matter: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy that is imaginable. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a smaller and shabbier reality, one that will not endure. The true realist, seeing the largest reality, knows that often nothing else will work.

Taking this advice sometimes deprives us of the great pleasure of seeing those who do us wrong get their own, and people who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well suffer as we live by such a policy.

The paradigmatic relationship in the highest reality is that between teacher and learner. All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations and role reversals, taking our turns at both roles. When people act badly, the teacher begins by assuming the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we decide to believe that a person acting badly doesn’t understand what he is doing, or doesn’t know a better way. Sometimes, a person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed. Sometimes he needs to be rescued, even if he is inflicting harm upon us.

If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so the teacher teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the best way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by confronting what they have done and by punishment.

But punishment is not the same as revenge, and neither is it the same as therapy. Punishment seeks to educate more than it seeks to settle scores or to cure. And punishment, as every good parent understands, can be delivered in a spirit of love.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The stories that really matter
     Percy Wollaston's "Homesteading: A Montana family album"

At one point during a conversation I had with an eighth-grader over the summer, she cited from memory Sam’s words at the conclusion of the movie The Two Towers. I quote the words at some length because Sarah quoted them at some length. The fact that she had cared enough to get those words into her head and to hang onto them is important:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. . .There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Sam says these words as he and Frodo proceed onward at great effort and despite great peril. As any teacher would, I thrilled a bit at Sarah’s demonstration that young people are still idealistic and still respond to stories more wholesome than hip-hop and more troubling than Harry Potter.

This is important because we live, like Sam and Frodo, by being caught up in the stories that are loose in the world. Since some of them are not very good, hampering rather than bolstering our efforts, we need to be literary critics of a sort to find our way. When we get caught in the wrong stories, our efforts are vexed and our dreams turn vain.

Thinking along such lines, I was troubled when I heard several people at an education conference succumbing to pessimism about Montana’s future. A teacher said our small towns were dying. A historian lamented the bleakness of the places she passed. And a writer suggested that those who could get out had gotten out and that those who remained were isolated in despair and distrust.

That’s not the Montana I experience. It’s true enough that judging our towns by the standards of, say, a strip mall, can make them seem somewhat incomplete. But it seems just as likely that any people that builds more than a half mile of strip mall may not have a very compelling vision of what the world is for or what is worth doing or wanting.

When I think of Montana places I think mostly of families and landscapes and the way the two interact here. Having truly seen the moon rise over the Snowy Mountains or the sun set over the Missouri Breaks or the storm clouds pile up over the Sweetgrass Hills, one is unlikely to be unduly dazzled by the marquee on Times Square. And having eaten fresh-caught trout with one’s children on the rocky shores of Mollman Lakes, one would have to be ungrateful to hanker after a gourmet meal prepared for profit.

This is not to minimize the economic difficulties some of us are facing. It is only to remember that the surest way out of a bad story is into another story and that there are always other stories. The way the same set of facts and events can be woven into different stories is illustrated by Percy Wollaston’s memoir, Homesteading, set in Montana during the homestead boom that got into high gear around 1910. The memoir tells one story while the introduction by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban tells a different one.

Raban places Wollaston’s work amid the preoccupations of many mainstream historians. In doing so, he finds Homesteading “a story of a colossal failure” (xvi). He sees Montana’s homesteaders as the victims of a dastardly fraud perpetrated by the forces of darkness--corporate marketers. Though he admires the courage and endurance of the Montanans, his big story is the way they were tricked into catastrophe. His introduction is a brief version of the script that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, An American Romance.

But that’s not the story Percy Wollaston wanted to tell or did tell. To be sure, he is an astute and thoughtful man, aware of the issues that capture Raban’s passions. He noted, for example, that the 1912 sinking of the Titanic “marked some sort of turning point in the attitude of people all over the country” (56-57). He observed that “trusted and supposedly competent authority” didn’t make good decisions. “The great and the humble, the dolt and the wise, all seem to have been living in some sort of play world where everything would turn out for the best” (58), he said.

Wollaston wasn’t living in a play world. He didn’t fancy himself an important man whose voice would change the big things, so he was not very interested in railing against the chicaneries perpetrated by the big players, though such chicaneries may be as real as Raban tells them.

Success in the world Wollaston cares about is measured by the sort of character one becomes. Adversity, including failure, is often the occasion for developing and displaying that character. When Jim Morrow lost his cow just before his first blizzard on the prairie, he tracked her till darkness then led her home, where he tied her to the foot of his bed before stoking up the fire and falling into an exhausted sleep. Wollaston noted that the storm “changed Jim from a boy to a man who ever afterward faced poverty, hardship, or any other adversity with a calm optimism” (115).

Wollaston’s story is mainly about calmness and optimism, about people coming together and finding a way. In the Montana he describes, newcomers are welcomed and scrutinized for talents that might enhance life. People sacrifice to organize a school, buying windows, digging wells, and hiring teachers. They form a community club to discuss their problems and share their solutions. When they go to town, they leave their houses unlocked, so traveling strangers can stop and fix themselves a meal.

Such stories may be more useful for kids today than yet more tales of corporate malfeasance. Many of our youth are already as distrustful of large corporations as they are cynical about official pronouncements. But they are hungry for stories that reveal the sources of goodness in the world.

The society the homesteaders built turned out not to be sustainable--though, for that matter, neither was Rome--but it was a society that had its goodnesses. The building of that society--as well as what became of it--is a story worth carrying around in our heads.

Wollaston offers quiet wisdom, noting that people today suffer from “some lack of looking forward” (112). The homesteaders did not build a good society by focusing on what was wrong with the world. “The next meal might be potatoes and water gravy but you didn’t hear anything about hardship unless somebody burned out or broke a leg” (112).

Though their prospects were surely not brighter than our own, those hardy pioneers could build a good society because they stayed committed to a better future. “There were people from almost every walk of life and status of education, but they learned little of each other beyond what each planned to make of his place and plans for the future of the community” (112).

Though the closing pages of Raban’s book are taken up with an ironic meditation on the meaning of the Unabomber--another writer passing through Montana preoccupied with our betrayal by the world’s princes--on the penultimate page of Percy’s story we are offered more hopeful fare: he told of the time he heard Jim Morrow’s father upstairs alone, dancing a jig to music from a phonograph, “just serene and happy to be at home” (129).

In the story Raban emphasizes, we may learn such things as the importance of truth in advertising laws and such--useful, and important in a way. But one gets the feeling that he wants us to be angry. The story Wollaston tells is quite different. We learn how some of our fellows dealt with trouble, including injury, sickness, economic misfortune, bad weather, and death--troubles to which we are not strangers. Wollaston’s theme is human character as it emerged amid the whips and scorns of a particular place and time, and one gets the feeling that he wants us to be wise and strong.

At one point, Jim Morrow dug two dry holes by hand, trying to build a well. On his third try he ran into bedrock at about twelve feet. Things seemed hopeless. He prayed, and then he chiseled and hammered through about a foot of sandstone. Below it, he found good water.

A useful story, that.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Decline of the rule of law 18/24
     The way of the judge

The main weakness of a republic of law is that it cannot deliver results better than the people who operate it. If those people will tolerate slavery, so will such a government. In spite of its marvelous achievements, America’s government is now deeply threatened by the distrust and hatred built up through centuries of unjust policies and practices. At this point, no one can be certain that the American government will survive slavery, its worst violation of its espoused principles. The story of race in America is far from over.

Another weakness is that rule of law is easily corrupted into rule by law. Many people now urge patterns of thought that threaten our by law. Among these are the deconstructionists, who, hoping to improve the lot of the downtrodden have sought to delegitimize established institutions. They teach that the world is nothing but power and its theatrical effects, and that no law is more than a disguised power stratagem, designed to bolster some privileged group’s power. It follows that those who are in authority pursue strategies of self-preservation that the governed experience as oppression, and it becomes an act of liberation to attack authority and to disbelieve whatever those who govern might say.

Some of them seem to think that as they dissolve the authority of existing institutions the oppressed and powerless will miraculously become more free and powerful. But others understand quite well that when a government of law collapses, power does not descend on the oppressed. It is grabbed by someone else. In most places, criminals are best organized to take advantage of power vacuums. Though the deconstructionists have been met and challenged on the intellectual front and their power may be waning in academia, their ideology continues to spread through the popular culture.

Under the banner of “multiculturalism” we are developing habits of governance that we should consider carefully. First, it has become popular to require leaders to make no decisions until politically influential groups have been involved, so we create advisory groups or “blue ribbon” panels, usually made up of influential activists who, it is claimed, provide “input” for various groups. These people generally represent interests that will be affected by the proposed government action, and appointments are often given to those who can apply pressure if they don’t get their way. Thus we create a shadow government of unelected functionaries, ignoring the consent of the governed in the name of extending democracy.

Second, as we try to adjust representation to reflect the race, culture, gender and religion of the represented, we set up conflicts between groups. Since anyone can invent categories, the quest for representation so conceived is hopeless. We can conceptualize society as being comprised of any number of groups, so the argument that we can create governing bodies that perfectly mirror the composition of society is naive when it is honest. The same woman can be classified as a lesbian, a Latina, a Buddhist, a soccer mom, or an infinite number of other labels.

Rule of law interferes with the government’s ability to confer benefits on favored groups, so advocates of multiculturalism often dislike the rule of law. They favor what they call “responsive government,” which judges cases taking into account the race of the people involved. Rather than defining the principles that all will abide by, the constraints that none will escape–which is the essence of the rule of law–we place a premium upon membership in groups that are organized to create pressure.

The way to change government is less and less to present arguments and evidence based on principles and more and more to organize to exert influence. This is a movement away from reason toward force. It matters less and less what is just. It matters more and more who we know. We encourage angry, contesting factions.

In the many attempts to fashion policy not by honest argument but by political force, elected government tends to vanish, becoming a mechanism driven by organized mass movements. Most of us have long since become too cynical to be surprised that C-Span coverage of Congress does not feature the intense debates of past ages. The only Senators we see are there to make speeches to the cameras. The rest are off making deals with lobbyists organized to move money and votes.

Much of our current political and cultural turmoil has arisen as a natural consequence of turning the minds of people away from enduring principles and toward getting all that’s possible for one’s group. As we turn away from rule of law and toward identity politics, we find less and less about which we agree. As we lose our belief in higher realities about which we can, through reason, move toward agreement, we find that our legislatures and courts become increasingly unlikely to provide answers that satisfy more people than they offend.

More and more, government comes to be understood primarily as force, and we feel that we are slipping from law toward fear.

Law, we see, tends always to become corrupted, to become an instrument of oppression. To resist the constant downward pull of our lower nature, we need constantly to refresh ourselves at the sources of our highest ideals. We need an education that helps us see past the cronyism, past the power grabs, past the rough and cynical conduct that is always there.

We need to remember that although up close history is always horrific, we have nevertheless made progress century by century toward a world in which people’s lives tend to be less brutal, nasty and short, and we have done this because in all times and places we have had teachers who talked about a different reality.

Because there are other realities, and our best teachers have showed us how to find them.


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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A balance between oppression and chaos 17/24
     The way of the judge

In 1786 Madison went home to Montpelier to prepare for the writing of a new constitution. He studied every experiment in republican and federal government that he could find. The problems with tyranny were obvious, and to this he added the problems with democracy. One of the “regular faults” he found was that both ancient and modern governments that didn’t have strong central authority were torn apart by jealousies and rivalries among members.

The lesson of the past was always the same: among free people, lack of an authoritative center led to jealousies, dissensions, and disorders among the members. This didn’t lead him to forget his passionate belief, over which he joined a war, that strong governments tended to be actively destructive of liberty. He knew that the key was balance: both freedom and constraint were needed.

He understood that if the parts weren’t free to respond to what they found because they were too constrained by the center, the system would lose contact with reality and crash. But if the parts were too free of central control, the system wouldn’t be able to act as a whole. When it met a crisis, its parts would act without coordination, or they would engage in endless communication, not responding at all, unable to use their resources to respond intelligently. And the system would crash.

Peace could be just as readily destroyed by internal quarreling as by the tyranny of an unjust leader.

The government that Madison and his colleagues built, a republic of laws balanced between the tyranny that results when a small group makes the laws for their own purposes and the chaos that results when law is overwhelmed by the tempests of public opinion, was, as Lincoln told a later generation, “the last, best hope of the earth.” From Lincoln’s position in time he could see that the future of western civilization was taking shape in the great nations of Germany, Russia and America. Otto von Bismarck was destroying the rule of law in Germany and Alexander II was autocratically trying to guide Russia between a feudal past and a brutal revolutionary future.

Lincoln saw in America humanity’s best chance to preserve the rule of law from the constant tendency of civic governments to disintegrate into bickering factions or, through a series of emergencies, to degenerate into slave empires.

These are still the dangers we face. America is still our best hope.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Establishing the rule of law 16/24
     The way of the judge

The dominant story in English political history is of that nation’s gradual development from a feudal society into a society ordered according to law. A key moment occurred when parliament executed a king for ignoring the law.

Much was learned along the way in this, one of the great stories in history, of how political hierarchies could be formed that protected the dignity of individuals while meeting the community’s need for the order and stability. From Montesquieu, we took the idea of separation of powers, and from Hobbes the confidence to replace the authority of divine right with the authority of the governed to give their consent. Though it has been downplayed by moderns, the Bible was also powerfully influential on people trying to understand the central question of the Arthurian legend: how can force be subordinated to rightness?

The governments that resulted were far from perfect, of course, and coercion and force remained, just as oxygen and hydrogen remain in water, but a system of law grew out of them that made it increasingly possible for power to be transferred without assassination, for wrongs to be redressed taking into account developing ideas about justice instead of mere strength, and the stability that resulted made life less terrifying. This system developed slowly, and often at great cost, over centuries. Concepts such legal constraints against government search and seizure were not thought up by philosophers concerned with abstract notions of right so much as they were figured out in bloody struggle.

One of the clearest expositions of what is possible in the realm of law is the American Constitution. It is the oldest national constitution on the planet. Others have come and gone, but, so far, it has endured, though it has been corrupted in dramatic ways. It is durable because it is founded on basic insights into the ecology of human systems. Drawing on centuries of accumulated wisdom from Athens, London, Rome, and Jerusalem, the American revolutionaries invented far less often than they codified the learning their predecessors had won by hard experience.

Among the brightest of many bright stars in that generation was James Madison. Madison’s role as “father” of the Constitution is less dramatic than Washington’s military leadership or Jefferson’s vivid rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence. His ill health and weak voice didn’t make him a formidable soldier or a dynamic orator, but he had other gifts. His reason and intelligence prevailed over many flashier opponents. He was a tremendous systems thinker, more coherent than Jefferson and more serene than Adams.

At college he was ravenous for learning. He slept only five or so hours a night, giving himself to the study of human nature through Greek and Latin authors, and his letters are full of easy references to Fielding, Hume, Butler, Swift, Pope, and, most important, Locke. But he also had direct experience in the bare-knuckle politics of his time. He had grown up in a Virginia dominated by the Church of England, and he had seen how quick the pious were to persecute those who believed differently.

His first involvement with politics was triggered when a Baptist elder was imprisoned for praying in a private home, and Baptist ministers were arrested for preaching without a license. Such acts of state authority infuriated him. He was elected to the Virginia Convention in 1776, only twenty-five years old, and he committed his energies to overcoming a powerful central government that abused people’s rights.

Like most who helped with the Constitution, his wisdom was earned in the heat of real conflict. During 1780, as the British won victory after victory, quarrels, defeat, and treason provided daily challenges for Congress. When the British captured Charleston, making an invasion of the Carolinas likely, the colonies faced an emergency. The man Washington chose to command the southern army was accused of profiteering, so another man was appointed.

Politics overcame military judgment, but then the appointee was immediately defeated in battle and the southern army routed. Chaos and defeat closed in on the colonists, and many of them thought the only hope was help from the French. But even in this there was discord. Many distrusted France and thought that only trouble would come from an alliance.

Hostilities flared when an American delegate to France was accused of trying to get money for goods that had been a free gift from France. Powerful men such as John Adams supported the delegate and equally powerful men opposed him. Madison chaired the committee that met to decide his fate.

Eventually, the war was won and a new government was established under the Articles of Confederation. The revolutionaries’ fear of control by a new central government kept the federal government weak. In the heat of a Philadelphia summer, soldiers demonstrating to get back pay taunted the fledgling congress. When the men began drinking whiskey and making threats, the delegates asked state authorities to provide protection but received no guarantees. The U. S. Congress fled to Princeton in fear of the mob.

By 1783, Madison had learned that a strong central government wasn’t the only way to fail. He saw that the new national government had too little authority to survive. It couldn’t even defend itself from surly mobs.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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