Freedom, Fanaticism, and Flags

Today I'd like to tackle what seems to be an uncomfortable topic these days: freedom of speech. The impetus for my discussion is that one of my family members recently posted a link to the following petition:

Remove the Confederate Flag From All Government Places

For me, the Confederate flag represents a failed attempt by a group of rebellious traitors to secede from the Union in order to keep their slaves, and I largely feel that way about statues of Confederate Generals like Robert E Lee. The Confederate Generals were traitors, and they do not deserve our adoration. There's a reason why we don't keep statues of Benedict Arnold around; despite his heroism and triumphs as a General for the Continental Army, Arnold sold out his country and fled to England, and his name has become synonymous with traitorship.

I say all of this in order to reinforce the point that if the Confederate flag went away tomorrow, I wouldn't miss it any more than I miss the Swastika. But here's some food for thought: the predominant argument that I see against the Confederate flag is that racist idiots use that flag as a symbol; but think about it - these same idiots also use the United States flag, and they also use the Christian cross. What should we ban, then? Should we also ban the flag of the United States? Should we also ban crosses? Where should we draw the line on what we allow in our society? When will enough be enough?

For some people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, whereas for other people it represents their cultural origin. I personally think those people are misguided, but still - we do not complain about people who fly a Mexican flag to show pride in their heritage. Or a German flag. Or a Canadian flag. At my house we fly an Irish flag on St Patrick's Day in honor of my Irish roots. Let's make this more personal - should we deny someone the right to display an Iranian or Chinese flag just because our nation is upset with their nation of origin? Or should we respect their freedom of speech and allow them to display their pride in their heritage?

At the end of the day, the racist idiots of our society can use any emblem they choose as they spew their toxic filth, but that doesn't make the emblem itself a bad thing. If we're not banning Christian crosses, which have been used by the KKK and other stupid domestic terror organizations for over a century, then I think we can let the misguided people who think that the Confederate flag is a representation of their cultural heritage have their freedom of speech. That is what living in a free society is all about.

Once you start banning every symbol of cultural heritage that offends you, then you might as well start banning books next. And when banning books isn't effective enough, you might want to start burning books. And when burning books isn't effective enough, you might want to start locking up the people who write or say things that offend you. And when locking up the people who offend you isn't effective enough, then you're one short step away from becoming the very evil that you despise. Returning to my earlier thought, I have no love for the Confederate flag; to me, it is a symbol of cowardice, greed, immorality, and rebellion. But to ban the Confederate flag would deny others their Constitutional right to freedom of speech, and therein lies one of the fundamental dilemmas of living in a free society. Sometimes the problem with an idealistic goal like banning a flag is that it fails to take the full picture of its ramifications into account.

Let me close with an apropos thought from Adlai Stevenson: "My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular. Where it's safe to say what’s on your mind, especially when everyone disagrees. Where it's safe to believe what you believe, especially when everyone else’s beliefs stand elsewhere. Where it’s safe to swim against the current and be perfectly safe from the other fish."

With that in mind, my personal objections to the Confederate flag are secondary to others' right to freedom of speech, and that's exactly how it should be. Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from offense; to have freedom, you must accept its consequences.


UPDATE: I occasionally watch John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, and a few years ago he posted the following video, wherein he presented some of the same feelings that I have about Confederate symbols; namely that most of them belong in a museum. We should not attempt to erase all symbols of darkness from our sordid history, but we should place some of those symbols in the proper context, and I think that a museum is the best way to do that.

Those Who Do Not Learn from History…

There is an old adage which states, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," and I think that history is replete with examples that have proven that statement again and again. It is from that same perspective that I would like to share the following thoughts from one of President John F. Kennedy speeches, which are just as true for today's world as they were true in his circumstance almost 50 years ago.

JFK"The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives.

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality."

11 June 1963

You can read and listen to the full text of this speech on the JFK Library website by using the following link:

Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, June 11, 1963

It's all about Perspective - Part II

Several people that I know have been posting and reposting images like the following, which cite the fatality current numbers from www.worldometers.info. More often than not, people are posting these images in an effort to downplay the fatality rate of COVID-19 by comparing it to other causes of death.

Worldwide-Deaths

First of all, I think it's foolish to compare diseases in this manner. I'm not sure why so many people are intentionally trying to deny that COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that has a pretty decent chance of killing people.

Let me be clear, I fully admit that many people have overestimated the spread of this pandemic, and it seems that both the academic and scientific worlds are making up the numbers for their projections based on some sort of randomization algorithm. In addition, the press seems to have nothing better to do than to drag the country through thousands of hours of reporting, wherein the common denominator seems to be, "We have no idea what we're saying, but please listen to us anyway - because we desperately need the ratings."

However, there is another problem that I often see throughout the Western Hemisphere, which bothers me more than these numbers: we see everything from the perspective of what impacts us, so we tend to ignore things that affect the rest of the world. If you were to step outside the safety bubble of the Western Hemisphere, you would see that diseases like Measles, Polio, and Tuberculosis still run rampant.

In North America, we don't care about any of those diseases, because we haven't had to deal with them for several decades. As I have pointed out in other blogs, this has led to the unscientific Antivaxxer movement, and a completely illogical public distrust of our medical establishment, which is best health care available in the history of humanity.

With all of that in mind, I would say that the following lists illustrates what a lot of the people in this country are thinking when they see lists like those in the images:

COVID-19 "OMG!!! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!" -or- "IT'S JUST A HOAX!!! WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!!!"
Seasonal Flu "Meh, those pro-vaxxer idiots get their flu shots, so I have herd immunity."
Malaria "Meh, not in America. We have screen doors and fly swatters."
Suicide "Meh, those people were unhappy. They just needed to cheer up."
Traffic Fatalities "Meh, those are acceptable losses. I gotta have my wheels, dude."
HIV/AIDS "Hey! That's a privacy issue! You can't ask me about that! So leave me alone! Or leave them alone! Or, whatever...!"
Alcohol "Meh, Prohibition was sooooooo bad for the country. Besides, I'm not an alcoholic. I can quit drinking anytime."
Cancer "Meh, not gonna happen to me. Got any cigarettes?"
Hunger "Meh, there's like a McDonald's or Starbucks on every corner. So what's the deal?"
Abortion "MY BODY!!! MY CHOICE!!!"

More often than not, people in the Western Hemisphere or North America ignore the lists in those images for two reasons: complacency and denial.

  • The cause of the complacency is: decades of successful vaccination programs and our excellent health care system, both of which are still the best medical services that the world has ever seen.
  • The cause of the denial is: selfishness. People want what they want, and they don't want anyone telling them that they can't have what they want, whether that is harmful to themselves or others or the environment. (We live in a free society, and one of the downsides to freedom is: it teaches people to be irresponsible.)

In short, many people living in the Western Hemisphere believe that they have the right to selectively care only about what they feel might impact them adversely, and to ignore everything else; whether that means the suffering of others, or their poor lifestyle choices.

Annoyed

It's all about Perspective

One of my former colleagues recently posted a link to the following blog, which I thought does a great job of putting a lot of our current situation into a better perspective:

However, that blogger cites the source as unknown, so he wasn't the original author. With that in mind, I think it's fair to reprint the contents here:

For a small amount of perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900. When you are 14, World War I starts and ends on your 18th birthday with 22 million people killed. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until you are 20. Fifty million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

When you're 29, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, global GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy.

When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren't even over the hill yet. When you're 41, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war and the Holocaust kills six million.

At 50, the Korean War starts, and five million perish.

At 55 the Vietnam War begins, and it doesn't end for 20 years. Four million people die in that conflict. Approaching your 62nd birthday you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, could well have ended. Great leaders prevented that from happening. As you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.

Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900.

How do you survive all of that?

A kid in 1985 didn't think their 85-year-old grandparent understood how hard school was. Yet those grandparents (and now great grandparents) survived through everything listed above. Perspective is an amazing art. Let's try and keep things in perspective. Let's be smart, help each other out, and we will get through all of this.

That article, in summary, lists all the ways that the 20th century would have tried to kill you if you had been born in the year 1900. Between world wars and devastating diseases, the previous century was a terrible time to live.

And yet, I cannot help but think that the fatality numbers in that blog mostly reflect only the situations where the Western Hemisphere was somehow involved; they fail to address other mass repressions and genocides like:

  • The Stalinist Purges in Russia (approximately 30 million deaths)
  • The Chinese Cultural Revolution (approximately 30 million deaths)
  • The Cambodian Genocide (approximately 2 million deaths)
  • The Khmer Rouge repressions (approximately 2 million deaths)
  • The Armenian Genocide (approximately 1.5 million deaths)
  • The Rape of Nanking (approximately 500 thousand deaths)
  • And I have no accurate sources to estimate the number of deaths in South America and Africa due to famines, diseases, genocides, and civil wars

In other words, if you had been born in the 1900, but you had lived somewhere other than North America during the 20th century, your chances of meeting with a violent death would have increased even more dramatically than the original article would suggest. I mention that because I met several people when I was stationed overseas who had survived many of those devastations; I knew Germans and Britons who had survived World Wars, depressions, repressions, famines, diseases, etc., yet today's over-privileged youths act like the world is ending if their Internet is too slow. As the writer of that blog suggested, it's all about perspective.

Anyway, it's food for thought.

Thinking smile

Learning the Local Language

Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I never bothered to lean Spanish. I had plenty of opportunities, though. Spanish was offered in all the schools, and I ventured south of the border on a handful of occasions through border towns like Nogales. But the main reason why I never bothered to learn more than a few words in Spanish was because I resented the fact that so many people were coming across the southern border and insisting that I learn Spanish to speak with them, instead of learning English to speak with me in my own country.

It frustrated me to no end that everything in Tucson was required to be printed in both languages; I thought that this was laziness on "their" part. Meanwhile, I studied German in High School, because I was certain that German was going to be a useful language in a state where the two spoken languages were English and Spanish. (Hint: Sarcasm.)

But then a weird thing happened: I joined the Army to become a Russian Linguist in the mid-1980s, and I was sent to the the Defense Language Institute (DLI) to learn the Russian language. After I graduated from two years of military training, I was sent to Germany for the next several years. (As it turns out, my years of studying German had actually paid off. Who would have thought?)

However, while I was stationed in Germany, I noticed an odd thing happening: a lot of the American GIs who were stationed there never picked up the German language, and many of the Germans appeared to have no knowledge of English. But here's the odd part about that: I discovered later that most of those Germans actually spoke English. I got to know some German friends while I was stationed there, and they told me that they resented the fact that Americans were "too lazy to learn the local language," so they pretended like they didn't know English. But by the late 1980s, all students were required to study English in the local German schools, so it is no stretch of the imagination to say that pretty much everyone spoke a modicum of English.

It reminds me of the following video:

That being said, I could speak the German language on a passable level, and most Germans were very forgiving of my frequent mistakes because they could see that I was making an effort. I remember botching my order at a restaurant, and my waitress coldly retorted in condescending English, "I can speak English!" To which I replied in fluent German, "Yes, but we're in Germany, and I want to speak German in Germany." This caught her off guard, and her attitude improved greatly; for the rest of the evening we spoke nothing but the local language. And that was largely my experience while stationed in Germany; most Germans spoke a bit of English, and yet most Germans respected my efforts when I attempted to interact with them in their native tongue.

Although I have to say, there was one woman that I knew in passing when I was stationed in Germany who NEVER learned any English.

Here's her story:

My wife and I lived off post in a tiny German village, and there was an older woman who took her evening walks around the time that I arrived home from work each day. And by "older," I mean that she was in her 80s, and I was stationed in Germany during the late 1980s. In other words, she was in her 40s when WWII ended in 1945, which means that I represented an "occupying force" in her eyes. I was a visible, constant reminder of everything she hated.

I already knew a bit of German when I arrived, of course, but I continued to learn German while I was stationed there, and I would always greet the old woman by at least waving and saying, "Hi." By the end of my first year, I received nothing from her but the evil eye treatment. For the second year, her apparent loathing of me was reduced to a passing, disapproving glance. By the third year, she had met my wife and young daughters several times as they went through the village on their own walks; the old woman LIKED them, so eventually I would receive a smileless shrug in exchange for my more elegant greetings.

When my wife and I finally left Germany sometime during our fourth year, the old woman still wouldn't talk to me, but she would at least make an effort to stop and wave in return. There was still no smile, of course, but I think she viewed me less and less as a potential enemy... even if I kind of was the enemy. I would like to think that in the end, the efforts my wife and I made to assimilate ourselves into the local culture yielded a grudging respect from her.

Nevertheless, when my wife and I returned home from Germany, we returned to Arizona, and my former resentment over the local language was long gone. By that time I had interacted with and experienced multiple cultures, and I had learned the value of making an effort where language is concerned. Oh sure, I meet the occasional person who has lived here for more than a decade and still insists that they haven't learned any English. I'm willing to bet that they're not being entirely truthful, but I learned during my tenure as a linguist that not all languages are equal, and as it turns out - English is a terrible language to learn if you weren't born here. On the other hand, Spanish is considerably easier to learn, for just about anyone.

So in the end, these days I make a conscious effort to speak Spanish when I have the chance, and I appreciate it when visitors who travel across the southern border make a conscious effort to speak a little English from time to time.


POSTSCRIPT:

As my wife and I have continued to travel the globe, I have always made an effort to pick up something of the local language wherever we go. Of course, the depth of my learning is usually just enough to greet people, to understand basic directions, to purchase something, and to order food. I learned enough French to get by in France, enough Italian to get around in Italy, and even a basic understanding of some common Tahitian phrases when I was in French Polynesia. I would never say that my language skills were anything more than the most basic of levels in any of those languages, but still - I made an effort, and it was always appreciated.

Optimism and Hope

Someone I know recently posted a question about the correlation between optimism and hope, which is a subject that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about. Between my years in the military and in corporate America, I have endured both good times and bad times, periods of prosperity and adversity, and seasons of rejoicing and mourning. All of these experiences have given me pause to reflect on what I cling to by way of personal philosophy. I posted a fairly lengthy response to the original question, which I would like to paraphrase here.

I firmly believe that there are differences between optimism and hope, although they are intertwined. For example, I believe that hope is often the source of optimism. At the risk of too much information (TMI), I realize that much of the following discussion will be semantics, but to expand on the original question a little bit, here is my take on several related concepts: optimism, pessimism, hope, faith, joy, depression, happiness, and unhappiness.

For me, optimism is the "glass is half full" approach to an immediate situation, whereas hope is the over-arching belief that everything in general will work out for the best; both in your immediate situation and for the future. Sometimes your immediate situation is terrible, and hope is what enables you to look forward with anticipation that things will improve. As I said earlier, I believe therefore that hope often leads to an optimistic viewpoint. In a like manner, optimism may produce happiness, but there have been plenty of times where I have been unhappy and yet still had an optimistic viewpoint; and this was usually caused by having hope.

On a related note, pessimism is often found when all hope is lost, but that is not always the case. I have known pessimists who have a miserable outlook in a given circumstance, and yet they are able to have hope for something better eventually. In a like manner, I have seen some people who are happy, yet still have a pessimistic viewpoint. (e.g. "Life is pretty good in general, but my current situation sucks.") I think a loss of hope can lead to both unhappiness and pessimism.

In my interpretation, faith and joy are somewhat interchangeable and both are related to hope; they are based on a worldview that there is a greater purpose for everything, or that God is in control, etc. So faith and joy are the underlying certainties that produce hope, which can lead to optimism. Conversely, a lack of faith or joy can cause you to lose hope, which may lead to pessimism.

I am generally a pretty optimistic guy; and at times my sense of optimism has been much to the chagrin of those around me when we are collectively suffering through a miserable situation. I possess a strong faith, and usually have both hope and joy to spare, which leads to both a sense of optimism and happiness. However, as I mentioned before, I have occasionally had what might seem to be mutually exclusive attitudes: I have been unhappy yet optimistic, or I have been pessimistic yet happy, etc. Once again, having a strong foundation of faith, hope, and joy are what enables me to keep a greater perspective during some pretty heinous circumstances.

All of this leads to a discussion of depression, which is not the same thing as unhappiness. However, there are scores of people - especially optimists - who believe that depression and unhappiness are the same thing, so they say encouraging things to people who are depressed like, "Why so glum? Buck up! Tomorrow's another day! Greet the day with a smile!" etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Those statements are pouring salt on a wound. That advice may work for someone who is unhappy, but depression is very different.

On the one hand, depression can be caused by clinical conditions. For example, I am a workaholic with really, really bad work/life boundaries. (Working from home for years has made that worse, for understandable reasons.) I have on more than one occasion overworked myself right into burnout, which can cause chemical imbalances. As a doctor explained to me after a recent struggle, I had burned the candle at both ends for so long that I was running day to day on pure adrenaline, which changes the brain chemistry in some weird ways, and eventually that can lead to clinical depression. This situation may need to be fixed by prescription medicine and a forced schedule to restore body and the brain to their correct chemical balances. (I've had to go through that on more than one occasion. Which reminds me - I've averaged about two hours of sleep per day for the past week. You'd think that I'd learned my lesson by now, but apparently I'm a slow learner.)

On the other hand, another type of depression hearkens back to several of the subjects I was discussing earlier: I have been depressed when I felt abandoned by God. In those situations, I may have been experiencing any mixture of happiness or unhappiness or optimism or pessimism at any given moment, but my overarching feeling was an emotionless state of numbness. I had no faith, no hope, no joy - therefore I had no foundation upon which to base my outlook of the world. Once again, no amount of "positivity" was going to fix that situation; I simply drifted from day to day in that continued state of numbness until my faith was restored, after which I was able to slowly rebuild the rest of my life.

In summary, all of this was a far greater answer than the original question had sought. And to be clear, everything that I have said here is just my opinion, which is based on my personal observations and experiences.

Kierkegaard on Freedom of Speech

As I watch divisive malcontents spew copious volumes of unproductive and odious drivel during these trying times, I am often reminded of the following quote...

Søren Kierkegaard - People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

The Assumption of Privilege is Racism

I saw this video when it came out, and I've always been bothered by it, because it is based on a flawed assumption, draws the wrong conclusion, and promotes a message that is toxic to diversity.

The textbook definition is racism is to act on one's pre-existing biases based on ethnicity; therefore, to espouse the concept of "White Privilege" is an unmistakable form of racism at its worst. To put it another way, if I walk into a room and you assume that I have some form of "privilege" based on my skin color, then for all intents and purposes you are a racist.

Because here's the thing - I grew up quite poor in a single-parent home, then I married young, and fell even deeper into poverty when I lost the dead-end job that I had when we were married. I had no career, no skills, no education, and no prospects for the future. My skin color didn't amount to anything; I was simply another nameless face in a crowd of nameless faces that would take any work to put food on the table. I eventually landed a job cleaning low-income houses after the occupants were evicted. I was paid by the hour, under the table; no insurance, no benefits, no hope.

Out of desperation, I joined the military, which offered me two hopes for the future:

  • I would have an actual/steady paycheck for the first time in my life.
  • I might finally have money to go to college when I was done.

I served eight years in crappy conditions that you can't even begin to imagine, but my perseverance and hard work paid off. I eventually got out, got my degree, and then I was hired by a great company.

It's Just Like Camping They Said

Here's something for you to consider: for everyone who served with me in the military, it didn't matter what color our skin was, what gender we were, whether our parents were together or divorced, how much money our families had, etc. Everyone was dogmeat when they got off the bus at Basic Training; the Drill Sergeants made that quite clear.

When we graduated from all of our initial training and got to our respective duty stations, it still didn't matter what color our skin was, what gender we were, whether our parents were together or divorced, how much money our families had, etc. All that mattered was how good we were at our jobs. If we were bad at it, we got to remain dogmeat. If we were good at it, we got promoted. Those were the rules. Period. (Of course, I am certain that there were racists scattered throughout the military, because in any large group you're going to have your fair share of idiots. But on the whole, none of that mattered.)

Here's what else I noticed: some people's illusions of who had "privilege" were just that - they were illusions. I knew a guy from a well-to-do African American family who went to private school and complained about the clothes his parents bought him when he was a teenager; he joined the military to run away from home. On the other hand, I knew a Caucasian guy who grew up poorer than me; he had to take a job at 12 to help put food on the table for his family. He had to buy all of his own clothes for as long as he could remember, and he commented that would have loved to have had parents that could buy him any clothes.

At the end of the day, the color of their skin was not a factor for either of these two soldiers' lives; one had privilege, and one didn't - but their skin tones don't fit into the "White Privilege" narrative, so you never hear about people like them. But here's the thing: I knew hundreds of stories just like those throughout my time in the military. One way or another, we were all dogmeat, and all that mattered was what we did with our opportunities.

As an FYI - both of those guys I mentioned left the military, got their degrees, and founded their own companies. Neither of them got to where they were at based on their environment growing up; they both succeeded by accepting the fact that they were dogmeat, and they both worked their butts off so they wouldn't remain dogmeat for the rest of their lives. Which is what I chose to do, too.

Several years ago the author Louis L'Amour put it this way: "Up to a point a man's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and the movements and changes in the world around him. Then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be. Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate. Everyone has it within his power to say, 'This I am today; that I will be tomorrow.' The wish, however, must be implemented by deeds."

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

I tend to work late. A lot. Most of the time, in fact. I have done so my whole life - even during my years in the Army; despite being required to show up for formation around 6am every morning, (and therefore rolling out of bed at 5am), I still stayed up until 2am almost every night. It's simply the way that my brain is wired, I guess. To be honest - it often feels as though I'm living two lives at once, although I know of no other way to live.

That being said, it's not healthy. And I know that. I have written blogs about my experiences with Essential Tremors, and a lack of sleep makes my struggles with that disease so much worse. And yet, night after night I find myself back at my computer slogging through another list of issues that I feel I should have resolved a few days earlier. I just cannot seem to turn my brain on and off according to some other schedule - even if that schedule is being dictated by the rotation of the planet.

Out of frustration with my personal dilemma, I penned the following:

If you burn a candle at both ends
To slave throughout the night
It illuminates your toils
To your struggles brief respite

But its glow is a deception 
And does not dilute your plight
Its candescence will soon wither
As shadows reclaim their right

Two flames convey no solace 
For despite their pretty sight
Candles last for half as long
When they
burn with twice the light

burning-candle-both-ends


(H/T Edna St. Vincent Millay)