They Got It

June 24, 2010


“A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best, most natural defense of a country.”

James Madison

4th President of the United States of America

“You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be an armed American behind every tree.”

Isoroku Yamamoto

Japanese Fleet Admiral

Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy


The Great Unknown (Or, Caveat Emptor)

May 11, 2010

United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ imminent vacation of the bench means the Obama administration will have another chance to add a friendly jurist to the Court, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the President’s pick.

Typically, proposed justices are vetted against their judicial records: were their decisions often overturned by higher courts, or upheld? Did they hold fair trials? Did they often commit reversible error, as decided by reviewing judges? Have they written thoughtful, scholarly opinions which carefully set out their reasoning? The judicial history assembled by each judge reads like a resume, and those resumes are the yardsticks by which candidates for the nation’s highest court are measured.

Unfamiliar with Solicitor Kagan’s judicial record? Not sure, based on her published opinions and decisions, how she feels about pressing issues or how she behaves as a judge?

So is America, because Ms. Kagan has never been a judge. She has no record in the courtroom, no library of opinions, no history of having decisions upheld or overturned… in short, she has no judicial resume which might hint at even a whiff of qualification.

Perhaps the President based his support on her commendable record of service in the Solicitor General’s office? If so, there must be some stellar example of federal advocacy in it, because she’s barely been on the job one year. Hardly enough time to have compiled anything even close to a reviewable record of performance, good or bad.

True, she did well as the Dean of Harvard Law School. She strengthened what was already the world’s finest law school and made a demonstrable effort to reach out to conservative factions of the faculty, earning a reputation as a concensus-builder. But running a school is much different from serving as a justice on the most powerful country in the world’s most powerful court.

Ms. Kagan is likely a very deft administrator and a skilled attorney; you have to be, to run Harvard Law and to represent the United States government in court as Solicitor General. Unfortunately, neither of these things begins to hint at, let alone establish, her qualifications as a judge, let alone one sitting on the Supreme Court. And, considering the lifetime appointments which justices enjoy, there is little room for error in their selection… and even less for the dangers of the unknown, untested, and unproven.

Affirmative Distraction

September 9, 2009

Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the recently seated 17th president of Dartmouth College, was interviewed in the most current edition of that college’s Alumni Magazine. Though his comments are specific to that school, the gist of his message is applicable to any organization in its common sense, simplicity, and importance. Some excerpts, below:

Kim is a sharp critic of prevailing approaches to diversity at colleges and universities because they overlook the fundamental role of cultural identity in how people see the world and apply their intellect and creativity. He cites, among other examples, the largely racially based method of measuring and describing population mix — black, white, Asian, Hispanic — and the prevalence of “political correctness” which, according to Kim, stifles honest engagement and hides issues that ought to be aired.

“The way we deal with diversity on American campuses is so superficial that it is dangerous,” Kim says. “The worst of it is that smart young people can see through the superficiality and conclude that diversity is not important or that the shallow, stylized way we deal with cultural competence is sufficient. It is not. In the end we have to understand each other’s humanity.”

The Value of Tradition

August 4, 2009

The rapid way we live makes immediacy essential: we need e-mail right away, we subscribe to “on-demand” cable services so we won’t have to wait for television shows, we eat frozen meals to eliminate cooking time and drink “instant” coffee, and we’re very concerned with the speed of our internet browsers. And lest we miss a beat while on the move, our mobile phones are portable secretaries which keep us informed of every call, message, tweet, e-mail, and appointment. If we’re bored waiting the quarter-second it takes our phones to display e-mail, they also play music for us.

While materially productive, our speedy days are harmful in their insistence on “now.” A pre-occupation with squeezing the most out of every minute of the present may detract from reflection on the past and, our grandparents say, we can’t know where we’re headed without knowing where we started. Where we started is our past, and we keep it relevant by participating in the ceremonies which connect us to it: that is, our traditions.


Traditions provide us with identity, continuity, and familiarity… qualities too often sacrificed for efficiency, modernity, and utilitarianism. Things like our National Anthem and common holiday celebrations – fireworks on the Fourth of July, turkey on Thanksgiving, etc. – provide us with an identity as Americans. We all share in a tradition of celebrating these things in particular ways and that sharing makes us similar; through our traditions we develop an identity as Americans and we know our neighbors, observing the same traditions, are also Americans. We now share an identity with them. Our traditions have given us a sense of commonality and fraternity and in sharing these things we become more connected to each other.

Our traditions are also guideposts in unfamiliar waters. We can act in new situations as tradition would dictate: though we may not have experienced death in our own families, tradition informs us that the appropriate thing when others do is to wear a dark suit, attend a wake or funeral, send flowers, and bring food. Our traditions provide a type of Standard Operating Procedure and at times of distress this can be comforting. For example: the loss of a leader is easier with the public catharsis of a traditional state funeral. Seeing the tradition observed for a modern President just as it was for the Founders comforts observers by insisting that “this too shall pass” and “the nation goes on.” Conversely, a Presidential swearing-in ceremony demonstrates continuity through tradition: the Presidency is as solid and strong as it was when the same ceremony was performed a century ago, and it will be equally so 100 years from now, when it is performed again. The tradition of the ceremony establishes continuity and faith in the institution behind it.

Our own identities and values are wrapped up in our traditions more than our modern, feverish world would like to allow. For instance, families identify themselves by doing things in particular, repetitious ways: “We always watch that movie on Christmas Eve, it’s a family tradition!” In this case, watching whatever movie it may be is a central way of participating in the family life and identifying with other family members. So too is it with neighborhoods, friendships, and countries, and while keeping to tradition may seem inefficient, outdated, and unnecessary in our mile-a-minute days, our past is a more sure guide to our future than any mobile phone, no matter how well it handles our e-mail.