Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't Like Our New Constitution? Don't Worry, It's Bound to Change Tomorrow

We have a new constitution, says Angelo Codevilla in this Independent Institute article. He asserts that the effort that has been ongoing since at least the 1930s to eliminate any substantive limit on governmental power has finally succeeded. The "Constitution of 2014," says Codevilla, "is best understood by asking, ... what may the president of the United States NOT do, so long as at least one third of the Senate protects him from being removed from office."

The chilling answer, says Dr. Codevilla, is "not much." He writes, "Quite simply, our ruling class behaves as if the Constitution of 1787 no longer exists, and as if the words of laws merely authorize the powerful to “do anything I want.”" Those final quoted words are a direct boast from the current US president (see Washington Post 2/10/14 article).

After regaling readers with several proofs supporting his thesis, Codevilla writes, "Increasingly since the 1930s, our lives have been run by administrative agencies that make, administer, and apply regulations as they see fit rather than by laws that Congress passes, that the President administers, and that only courts and juries may force onto individuals."

(I might quibble with Dr. Codevilla about his 1930s starting point. I think he could easily look back at least to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, and quite possibly, even further back to the Civil War and post Civil War eras.)

This expansion of administrative power has been bolstered by the fact that the "Supreme Court has shaved away to nothing the distinction between law and administrative decree" so that today's "so-called laws are in fact grants of power to bureaucracies."

Partisans will insist that this state of affairs is due to the nefarious dealings of the "other" party. But Codevilla asserts that it has in fact been a completely bipartisan effort. While opponents eagerly hurl accusations of presidential incompetency at the current occupant of the White House, there is little doubt that he has been immensely successful in expanding executive power, taking the expansion game played by all of his predecessors over the last century to a new level. The opposition party "facilitates this process and looks forward to filling the shoes that they have helped ... expand," since the White House will inevitably someday change hands.

(On a side note, Gene Healy explains in this Reason.com article why presidents always pursue and accept new expansions of executive power. It comes down to the general expectations of Americans who place "virtually boundless" demands on the president for nearly all of their public and private aspirations; an example of overly successful government marketing and the all too human desire for a divinely empowered earthly monarch.)

I think that Dr. Codevilla is a little late coming to the party, since Murray Rothbard very clearly outlined this thesis 40 years ago in his 1974 treatise Anatomy of the State. Rothbard explores in some detail the expansion of the state and the ineffectiveness of constitutional law in providing any real limit to the power of the state.

The government, asserted Rothbard favorably quoting H.L. Mencken, is not "a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but ... a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members."

Of course, this corporation could not continue to exist without co-opting significant portions of the populace, combining with the politically powerful, rendering vast swaths of the populace politically impotent, regularly demonstrating its power over the commoners, perpetuating myths about individual liberties that no longer actually exist, and maintaining a certain chimera of legitimacy among the public. In his "What the State Fears" section Rothbard outlines how the state goes about maintaining legitimacy while oppressing its subjects citizens.

Any Boy Scout that has earned the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge ought to be able to explain how our government was structured to maintain individual liberty by having three competing branches (executive, legislative, judicial) and multiple competing levels (federal, state, local). The fact that all of these entities are merely vying for power over the lives of individuals — and are thus part of the same corporate entity whose interests are often at odds with those of the populace — is never mentioned in merit badge classes.

In his "How the State Transcends Its Limits" section Rothbard carefully demonstrates how the state has set itself up as its own judge, leaving the fox guarding the hen house, as it were, when it comes to limiting the power of the state and preserving liberty. The judiciary, which wields the ultimate authority on what is constitutional, has instead steadily legitimized the expansion of state power in defiance of the original intent of our nation's founding documents.

Rothbard laments, "The last few centuries were times when men tried to place constitutional and other limits on the State, only to find that such limits, as with all other attempts, have failed. Of all the numerous forms that governments have taken over the centuries, of all the concepts and institutions that have been tried, none has succeeded in keeping the State in check. The problem of the State is evidently as far from solution as ever."

I highly recommend the book Ratification by Pauline Maier, which explores the process of ratification of the US Constitution. No one could tell how it was going to turn out at the time. Anti-federalists that raised many valid concerns about the document ended up losing. State legislatures ultimately sided with the federalists, who admitted to certain flaws in the document but insisted that it was the best that was politically achievable. Still, the anti-federalists demonstrated prescience, since nearly every warning they issued about the inability of the new constitution to curb expansion of state power has come to pass.

A number of voices have lately called for a new constitutional convention, as authorized by Article V of the US Constitution. I believe that such a convention would serve as a wake up call to the federal government that it is doing an inadequate job of marketing itself. But I also believe that a new constitutional convention would end up disappointing most of its supporters.

Even with all of its amendments, the US Constitution is a very concise document, containing fewer than 5,000 words. Would a new constitutional convention succeed in creating anything so succinct at such a rapid pace? Think of all of those vying for political power that would line up to lobby to affect the new constitution.

A few years ago when the European Union attempted to develop a constitution, the multi-year effort resulted in a sprawling document that delved into nitpicking details of daily life. Efforts to produce clarity instead produced confusion. Is it any surprise that ratification could not be achieved? Is there much of a chance that a new US constitution wouldn't suffer from the same kind of bloat and ambiguity?

Rothbard might have been ahead of his time. But his 40-year-old conclusion that constitutional government has failed to realize its stated goal of limiting the power of the state seems quite accurate. Without explaining further, Rothbard called for "new paths of inquiry" to find "a solution to the State question."

Some might regard such rhetoric as treasonous. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence states, "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

But it is important to realize that James Madison and his cohorts were breaking new ground when they developed a new system of government that did better at preserving liberty for longer than just about any other documented system in history. Maybe it is time to explore new ideas, given that the system bequeathed to us by our Founders has ultimately proven inadequate to the task for which it was created.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mashed Peas and Other Missionary Food Hazards

I underwent a fair amount of culture shock after arriving in Norway to serve as a full-time missionary for my church. I had spent two immersive months at the MTC in Provo Utah learning the Norwegian language and learning about Norwegian culture. (Yeah, Norwegian is its own language; a fact that seems to surprise many Americans — who may or may not even realize that Norway is it's own country.) But no amount of training can fully prepare you to live in a different culture.

A couple of days after arriving in Norway, my missionary companion and I were invited to eat lunch with a family. They served us sausage (more like bratwurst) and sauerkraut. The sausage was spiced differently than anything I had ever tasted, but I had no problem eating it. The sauerkraut, on the other hand....

My father was German and my mother had served a mission in Germany, so I grew up regularly dining on German food. But I never learned to enjoy German sauerkraut. Or other cabbage based dishes, for that matter. Norwegian sauerkraut was somewhat different than the German version. I may not have liked the German stuff, but at least I was used to it.

Despite my utter dislike of Norwegian sauerkraut, I did as any good missionary would do and cheerfully choked it down while thinking that I was going to die from it. Having slogged my way through the nightmare, the lady of the house happily insisted on serving me a second portion. I managed to choke most of that down too. But this time I was wise enough to leave some on my plate, signifying that I had had enough.

A few days later the local branch president invited us to eat dinner with his family. Their home had what I eventually came to understand had a classic Norwegian upper middle class style and atmosphere. The wife served us a gracious meal that included far less meat than I would have liked, small whole potatoes with a delicious sauce, and mashed peas with a distinctive blend of spices that I came to realize was very common in Norwegian dishes.

When I expressed surprise at the mashed peas and whole potatoes, explaining that I was used to whole peas and mashed potatoes, the family members looked at me like I had a third arm growing out of my forehead.

A few days later it was my companion's turn to prepare breakfast. I saw him open both ends of a long can and systematically push out something that had an odd scent and looked like some kind of mashed meat. Maybe liverwurst? He kept slicing off half-inch thick pieces onto the skillet until the pan was covered with wafers that seemed to fry quite readily.

I could see the label on the can, but I didn't know what "Torskerogn" meant. My companion served the fried wafers and we ate them. The flavor was unfamiliar but not unpleasant. It was only after breakfast that he revealed that we had eaten cod roe, which is compacted codfish eggs. Go figure.

One of my companions introduced me to hvalbiff (whale beef). It had lots of protein. But it frankly tasted like beef liver; something I have never learned to like.

Not all Norwegian food was strange. There was the bread. Oh, the bread! So many varieties to choose from. And freshly baked each day. Oh, my goodness! And the cheeses! Along with the various delicious white cheeses (including nøkkelost spiced with cumin and cloves), I learned to love brunost (aka geitost), sweet brown caramelized goat cheese. I think I had only ever eaten cheddar and faux Swiss cheese prior to my time in Norway.

Norwegians served a rice porridge dish (riskrem, risgrøt) made of short fat rice grains in a creamy sauce that was very delicious. They had marvelous pastries that enticed us to visit bakery shops way too frequently.

One Thanksgiving Day, a lady invited us to dine, knowing that we would probably be missing our traditional American celebration. She couldn't serve us a traditional American meal, so she served us a traditional Norwegian meal that included these huge delectable potato dumplings that she called kumle (aka raspeboller). I subsequently had many opportunities to enjoy this dish. My mouth still waters when I think about it.

But back in my day standard American fare was pretty hard to come by in Norway. Things like peanut butter, root beer, McDonald's food, and the sugar sweetened breakfast cereals I craved were pretty much nonexistent. We made our own breakfast cereal by mixing corn flakes, puffed wheat, puffed rice, and dry oatmeal in a big bowl, sweetening the mass with a mixture of butter and light syrup. A hefty batch would last two weeks. Yeah, not too healthy. But it gave us our breakfast cereal fix.

The longer I was in Norway the more I liked Norwegian foods, including many different types of fish and other seafood. I never thought that the dreaded pickled herring was bad at all.

When I had been in Norway for about a year and a half, my companion pointed out to me that we were mutually relishing the idea of our weekly dinner of sausage and sauerkraut the following Saturday. His point was that both of us had gone from disliking Norwegian sauerkraut to craving it. How was this possible?

I still have fond memories of many of the dishes I ate while in Norway, including some that I initially considered to be barely tolerable. I even make or buy some of these foods from time to time. My children regularly pester me to make Norwegian pancakes, thin crepe-like concoctions filled and/or topped with whatever interesting delicacy you can think of.

So if you serve as a missionary in a different culture or otherwise have opportunity to live immersed in another culture for a fair period of time, you might find yourself later on craving foods that you initially found unpalatable. That's a good thing, no?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Oft Will He Gather Us?

"I haven't lost my faith," the man told my friend. "But I'm not coming back to church until there is a change in leadership."

Maybe the man was just trying to get my friend off his back. He might have been trying to fool himself into thinking that what he was saying was true. Or maybe he really believed what he was saying. But if past results are any indication of future performance, the man will still refuse to return even after local church leadership changes.

Of course the man has a good reason for his position. Years earlier the man had made a public case against his bishop following a sharp disagreement. When his attempts to rally others to his cause against the bishop yielded minimal results, the man largely withdrew from church activity, vowing not to return until the bishop was released.

But after the bishop was released the man still did not return. Some years later the former bishop was called to serve in a stake position. The man again cited this as his reason for staying away from church meetings and activities.

Someday the former bishop will be released from his stake calling. What will the man say then? I suppose it would be easy for him to say that all stake and ward leaders have been so tainted by their association with the former bishop that it would be better to spend 40 years in the wilderness until all of these unworthies finally leave the ranks of church leadership.

But to what avail? I do not doubt the depth of the pain the man feels. But how are his current actions helping his situation? The years that have passed hardly seem to have been therapeutic. How is this affecting his family? If the man does indeed believe in the gospel, how does his spitefulness serve the gospel cause? How does it improve his relationship with God?

As an outsider looking in I can easily see the mote that is in my brother's eye (see Luke 6:41-42). I'm sure that from the inside looking out, the man's chosen course of action appears positive and rational. Which of us never uses faulty reasoning to justify our favorite sins and indulgences?

I pray for this man. Sincerely. Because the gospel is essentially optimistic, seeing opportunities for spiritual improvement even for those that currently seem unwilling to be gathered with the Savior (see 3 Nephi 10:4-6, Isaiah 54:7). It is this kind of optimism that also gives me hope for my own soul.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Frozen: A Fun Slice of Scandinavia

Right after the new Disney animated movie Frozen was released we took the family to see it because my wife had obtained discount tickets. I honestly wasn't very happy about it.

I knew nothing about the movie except that it was another Disney animated film. The first serious cold virus I have had in a couple of years was at its peak, complete with stinging watering eyes, ear pain, nasal discharge, congestion, and coughing. I had no desire to be in a crowded movie theater sharing my illness with others.

It was a work and a school night. I work long hours several days each week. The theater was 20 miles away, so I had to cut out of work a bit early to get there on time and it would be after my ideal bedtime by the time we got home. My condition called for extra sleep instead of an abbreviated slumber. I was chagrined that the kids would get no homework done.

But I decided to follow the counsel I received from a wise man before my wife and I were married. He said that I needed to learn and frequently employ two words if I wanted to ensure a happy marriage. Those words are, "Yes, dear."

We walked into the theater after the notoriously noisy and borderline assaulting previews and ads had already started. It was crowded enough that we had to split the family up to find seats. I was in a dour mood.

As the feature started I felt shivers down my spine as I heard the opening song, which sounded like Sami yoiking. Having lived in northern Norway, I have mixed with and heard the unique singing and chanting of Sami people. I was captivated by next scene, which featured ice cutters singing a song called The Frozen Heart that sounded deliberately Sami.

It soon became clear to me that the movie was designed to appear Scandinavian. The geography, landscape, architecture, settings, decor, etc. screamed Scandinavia. The Scandinavian blood that runs in my veins rendered me hooked from that point on.

Disney loves to kill off one or both parents of its main characters. I can think of exceptions such as MulanThe Incredibles, Tangled, and Brave. But most of the main characters in Disney's animated movies have lost or else end up losing one or both parents. Frozen is no exception, as the king and queen of Arendelle meet their demise early in the movie. I realize that knocking off parents makes it easier for the story tellers to place young people in situations and adventures that would generally be impossible or implausible if the characters were an integral part of a wholly intact family. But a plot device used too often can seem tedious.

Frozen is (very) loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story the Snow Queen. Characters, purposes, and plot lines are shifted dramatically from the original; although, Disney used the Scandinavian motif to honor Andersen, who hailed from Denmark.

Sisters Elsa (who becomes queen) and Anna are the main characters, although, younger sister Anna clearly plays the lead role. Both are very strong figures. Anna's memory of Elsa's magical ice capacities are lost in childhood after Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic. Elsa spends years hiding from Anna for fear of harming her again. This fear eventually leads Elsa to take a number of actions that seem harmful and villainous; although, the audience understands why Elsa is doing what she does and she remains a sympathetic character.

In the meantime, Anna, who has been behind the castle walls for years, gets an opportunity to mix and mingle with more people. She immediately falls in love with Hans, a handsome prince. This event comes complete with a fun and quirky love song.

When Elsa delves into destructive behavior, Anna sets out to redeem her. Along the way Anna meets up with Kristoff, a handsome ice cutter. This develops into an awkward love triangle, even as Olaf, a snowman accidentally brought to life provides comedy relief. (Frosty the Snowman, anyone?)

The situation with Elsa left me feeling bereft of a traditional Disney villain — until later in the film when Prince Hans is suddenly revealed to be the actual villain. While this resolves Anna's love triangle, Anna and Kristoff do not marry in the Disney fairy tale tradition. Rather, by the end of the movie they seem to be starting to work on a dating relationship.

During Anna's attempts to rescue Elsa from herself, Elsa ends up wounding Anna in a potentially fatal manner. The wound can only be healed by an act of true love. The story tellers deliberately lead the audience to think this must be the traditional fairly tale kiss from a handsome prince, a la Sleeping Beauty. But instead it turns out to be the moment Anna gives her own life to save Elsa. Of course, this breaks the spell. The seemingly dead Anna comes back to life and Elsa gains control over her magic so that she can use it for good.

This is clearly a Christian theme. Hans Christian Andersen was a devoutly religious man. Christian religious themes are woven throughout his works and Christian redemption is the main message in his original Snow Queen work. In Frozen, Elsa plays the role of the fallen sinner who keeps doing wrong despite her desires to refrain from doing so. Anna plays the role of the Savior who continually works to redeem the fallen soul. She ultimately gives her life to save that soul before finally being 'resurrected.' (Harry Potter did something similar.)

While Frozen has been wildly popular with audiences, there is no shortage of critics that find fault with the movie. And really, there is plenty of fault to find, if that's what you're looking for. Success always begets much criticism.

Many claim to find all kinds of hidden messages throughout the movie. Both religious and homosexual activists claim that a briefly appearing character that operates a shop in the mountains is gay. Some angrily state that the movie smacks of "faux feminism," whatever that means, whining that there are no strong supporting female characters. Others are chapped that the story doesn't culminate in a marriage or that there isn't enough multiculturalism. (Hello, racial and cultural diversity were pretty narrow in Scandinavia at the time setting of the story.)

Whatever. Disney movie makers are famous for adding private jokes and cleverly disguised social messages to animated features. A professor of literature that I know says that the focus on these minor elements misses the whole point of the story. It's not the background messages that are important, he says; it's the big messages that audiences get. In the case of Frozen, I'd have to say that the big messages most viewers get are redemption and self sacrifice for the sake of others.

Despite its deficiencies, it is important to remember that Frozen is primarily a bit of entertainment aimed at children. It's not sacred writ or anything like that. So what if it has a few flaws? It is also useful to remember that the defects perceived by some do not seem like defects to others. Disney has apparently done a pretty good job of putting together a story that speaks well to modern audiences.

The main thing Disney is trying to do with Frozen is to make money. You don't make money like Frozen is making without pleasing your customers. Given that the show's music is already becoming very popular and that the story is well suited for a Broadway stage play, it seems that Disney will be able to parlay its movie achievement into success in other markets as well.

I suspect that Frozen will end up being a cultural icon for today's toddler and elementary school girls. At least, my daughter walks around the house singing tunes from Frozen. Once the movie is released for home purchase many more will do the same.

In the end I walked out of the movie theater quite happy to have seen the movie, despite the inconveniences involved. While that might by my Scandinavian blood talking, I think it's more than that.