In 1729 Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) published his two-fold solution to the problems of Irish poverty and a shortage of meat among wealthy British. Swift proposed poor Irish parents could eliminate their cost of feeding their children by selling them to wealthy British for food. The title to Swift’s essay illustrates why he published it anonymously:
A Modest Proposal For preventing the children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.
Swift’s satirical cure for the pandemic of his time, the great disparity between the few rich and the many poor, is probably not a reasonable recipe for how America might encourage its youth to self-quarantine until COVID-19 is brought under control. However, other less dire approaches may be worth considering.
Jonathan Swift pointed out he could not profit from his idea as he had no young children to sell and his wife was past child-bearing age. In like manner Peg and I are hardly affected by any of the following suggested measures. We are in our seventies, we receive Social Security checks and we live in the middle of nowhere by ourselves. Our nearest beach is the mud around our pond and we have to share it with the cattle. Isolation for us is simply a fact of life. Be that as it may, I submit the efficacy of these ideas should be evaluated on their own merit.
The general topic of discussion in America and the world today is how do we encourage people, especially our youth, to self-quarantine? I say especially the young because Spring Break type activities usually do not involve folks such as Peg and me. And that leads us into my proposed solutions. Perhaps we should look to our own youthful memories to help us understand how we can encourage young people to do the right thing for all of us. And such altruistic behaviors by the young should be encouraged, not demanded. After all, we are Americans. None of us reacts well to someone else ordering us around. A spoonful of sugar is more likely than a threat to get any of us to do what’s best for all of us, at least for a short while.
So, let’s consider how anyone who is young can be encouraged to forego beach parties and similar group exercises. I remember one sure way to get me as a young person to not do something was to have an older person tell me it was for my own good. Maybe first we could have all parents encourage their children to congregate on the beaches so they could get more Vitamin D to help them fight off the virus.
Another sure turnoff was for an old person to tell me how he or she used to do something and how well they did it. We could station kiosks with six foot perimeters on the beaches where old people would loudly and continually regale anyone within earshot of the old person’s one-time youthful exploits.
Of course, the surest way to have younger people not engage in a certain behavior is to have older people offer to engage in such behaviors with the young themselves. So we could have old men and women threaten to flood the beaches, while maintaining six foot intervals, and attempt to cavort with the young as much as arthritis will allow. To complete the program of negative reinforcement we could have the old people wear thongs and fake gold chains and drink prune juice instead of alcohol. You know, something similar to a 1960’s Love-In but without the love or the pot. That should assure young people will voluntarily abandon the beaches and the crowds for the thirty to sixty days we need to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Let’s say you have a knotty problem you would like solved, a Gordian Knot type problem for example. Would you be satisfied with an Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) approach? I think not and I think Alexander’s personal tutor, the great problem solver Aristotle (384-322 BCE), would have reproved his famous pupil for hacking the knot in two instead of untying it. Alexander did provide a simple analysis to a complex problem but he did not solve the problem; he only avoided it.
As most of us have unfortunately experienced: for every complex problem there is a simple wrong answer. Tough problems are tough because they are complex. Complex situations almost always require hard work, imagination, intelligence and often good will to resolve. If the first reaction to a hard problem is to seek someone else to blame or if assessing blame is more important than finding a solution, a solution may not be found or may result in even more harm while an effective remedy awaits.
When it comes to addressing problems I respectfully suggest to you, Gentle Reader, that there are at least two large categories of potential problem solvers: (1) those people who through meanness, laziness or ignorance claim the problem cannot, or should not, be solved; and (2) those people who with an open mind and good will at least try to find a solution.
We have all unfortunately encountered many officious persons who revel in their occasional positions of power over others and deny help just because they can. Then too, we have all been blessed, and maybe surprised, by a chance encounter with a person who believes if they can help they should. Life is pretty much defined for us by whether we run into more people who are haters or helpers, selfish or selfless, grifters or givers, sophists or sages, or as with our most pressing current problem: (1) public servants and consensus builders; or (2) those who yell “Fire!” in our country’s theater instead of helping to put it out.
It is easy to have sympathy for thieves if they steal from victims we do not know. Should the victims include acquaintances, friends, family or ourselves, our magnanimity wanes. And while our heart strings are plucked by someone who steals bread to feed their family, if Jean Val Jean had stolen to feed a personal drug habit Victor Hugo might not have portrayed him as a tragic hero. When it comes to our attitude about punishing thieves it is pretty much, “Whose ox is getting gored?”
And over the last few thousands of years we Homo sapiens have applied sanctions on thieves that have ranged from, “go and sin no more”, to the death penalty. Those of us with Anglo Saxon DNA can search back just about one thousand years ago and find death for theft to be de rigueur in the areas that became Great Britain. Of course, when a society does not have jails what can you do with someone who has no respect for the property of others?
Also, in today’s world we still have countries where thieves are sometimes flogged or who have their hands amputated on occasion. The Book of Matthew (Chapter 5, verse 30) advises offending thieves to cut off their own hands whereas the Old Testament decrees if one steals food because they are hungry we should not hate them (Proverbs 6:30-31). But Exodus 22: 3-4 declares that a thief who cannot pay restitution should be sold into slavery.
In other words, we humans have tried about every possible penalty from turning the other cheek to execution when it comes to thieves. Usually a first time offender in all legal systems is treated more leniently than a repeat villain. A thief of tender years normally calls for more sympathy than an experienced adult. And a thief who can pay restitution or who appears to be genuinely remorseful fares better than one who is more callous.
Now, Gentle Reader, you may be curious as to why you and I are considering whether it is better to kiss thieves on the top of their heads or to lop their heads off. Well, I confess my own approach to these issues during my ten years as either a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney has fluctuated greatly, usually based on which side I represented in court. But it has been my forty years as a trial judge that has seen the greatest variation in my attitude toward dealing with thieves. I have tried practically every approach from rehabilitation to retribution. Suffice it to say I have not found a solution to theft; people are still doing it and on a fairly regular basis. My most recent encounter with the phenomenon of someone who has no respect for the property of others involved a friend of mine who had his tractor stolen right out of our pasture next to the cabin where Peg and I live.
Rape and armed robbery are much worse crimes than theft but the sense of being violated and feeling vulnerable is similar with all three. One immediately feels more generally fearful and angry. The one-time sanctity of our home and the confidence our friend had in the security of his property while on our property has been greatly diminished.
I do not ascribe to Dante Alighieri’s punishment for thieves as he set it forth in Circle 8 of his Divine Comedy. However, it does graphically show how mankind may sometimes feel about thieves. Dante portrayed thieves as having their offending hands bound with flying reptiles that also pierce the thieves’ jugular veins causing the thieves to turn to ashes. The thieves are constantly being turned back to their human form then re-subjected to the flying reptiles. Such a vision for punishing thieves is interesting but hardly in keeping with modern penology. However, Dante’s hypothesized punishments for thieves he personally despised do call upon one’s darkest urge for revenge. Of course, revenge may be understandable but it is not justice.
When it comes to justice, if it ever does, for whoever stole our friend’s tractor, we can probably best hope for something less Draconian than Circle 8, say Circle 3, where thieves would spend eternity lying in filthy slush while being constantly pelted with icy rain. However, such a penalty probably should not make it into modern law.
Should you have read last week’s column you may remember the specific topic was the Electoral College and the general topic was our Constitution’s guarantee of our right to matter or free choice. Free choice, that is what separates humans from animals and America from many other countries. Our Founders designed a government where the ideal was: All matter, but none too much. Of course, as with most ideals, America’s vaunted guarantees of freedom of choice and equality for everyone remain as goals not yet attained. On the other hand, it is no small thing that America not only proclaimed these ideals but set them forth in writing at our founding. And we have struggled mightily since our Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787 to live up to our ideals which were declared on July 04, 1776 to be: “That all men are endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Although the term “all” was advisory only.
To me these ideals come under the general category of a right to make our own choices but with an understanding our choices have consequences. These Civics lessons were burned into my psyche in a most graphic manner one day in Junior High School by one of my teachers who was straight forward, stern and strict; I liked and respected him. As he was also my Junior High football coach I always called him Coach even in the classroom probably because football was a lot more important to me than Civics. Coach’s successful coaching techniques relied heavily on those previously mentioned traits coupled with a no-nonsense attitude that victory came only through sweat. In the Pawhuska, Oklahoma school system of the 1950’s such was the general credo of the entire staff. And remembering my student days I confess such a system was necessary to force an education into me as my personal credo tended more toward the laissez-faire when it came to school work. Alas, the same was also true for some of my classmates including my friends Abby and Jack whom you will meet soon.
An example of how Coach’s attitude helped instill American history in me occurred during our Civics class section on the Civil War. Coach was one of those teachers who did not allow Political Correctness to cloud the facts. When it came to the reasons why the South seceded he taught that the immorality of slavery was a choice supported within our Constitution and the Civil War was about that choice. States Rights to determine whether to allow slavery, not slavery itself, was the gravamen of “The Cause” at the beginning of the war for the South and preservation of the Union, not the elimination of slavery, was the cause for the North. It was these competing choices and their consequences that brought about the Civil War that eventually both ended slavery and preserved the Union.
I probably would have remembered no more of these Junior High Civics lessons about States Rights and slavery than the other lessons I daydreamed through in school had Coach not given that particular lecture right after grabbing my attention with a long, thin paddle. That otherwise hazy school day began with Coach being called away from class for a brief meeting. When he left his discipline left with him and some of us fell immediately back into our natural educational state of benign ignorance.
My friend Abby who sat in the front row got up to talk to a girl two aisles over. When she did my friend Jack saw fit to sneak behind her and remove a thumbtack from the bulletin board then place it, business end up, on the seat of Abby’s desk. Somehow Abby sensed Coach was returning so she turned and hurried back to her seat. Abby sat down on the tack just as Coach entered the classroom and observed and heard Abby react appropriately.
The Coach affixed his terrifying stare on each of us individually and when he got to Jack, Jack folded like a pair of dirty socks. Coach called Jack up to the front of the class and ordered him to bend over and grab his ankles. From an assortment of paddles he kept hanging from the chalk rail Coach chose a thin paddle about two feet long and pushed a thumbtack through it. After the Coach vigorously applied paddle to posterior while Jack manly gritted his teeth in silence, we had our Civics lesson on choices and consequences concerning the Constitution, slavery, States Rights, the Union and the Civil War. I remember them well. And if any of my classmates from that day read this article I bet they do too.
It was not the British Parliament’s tax on tea that caused the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773; it was the denial of the Colonists’ right to be represented in Parliament.
It is not the sexual part of unwanted sex that matters to the Me Too Movement, we Homo sapiens have spent the last 200 to 300 thousand years engaging in sex; it is the “unwanted” factor that is objectionable.
And when our Founders were barely able to cobble together our Republic it was not the fact that some of the Thirteen Colonies had much greater populations than others or much greater wealth than others that almost caused the United States to be simply thirteen entirely separate entities; it was the fear by both the more populous and less populous colonies that their voices would not sufficiently matter.
There were many reasons why and how our constitutional democracy survived colliding circumstances, desires and egos but two of the most significant compromises were the Proportional Representative construct and the Electoral College.
Large states accepted the compromise that in the Senate each state would have two and only two Senators because their proportional influence was recognized by having the number of Congressional Representatives determined by population. Smaller states accepted this arrangement in like manner because they would have an equal voice in at least one of the two Congressional bodies, the Senate, even though they would have fewer Congresspersons than larger states.
Then there is the imaginative system of the Electoral College. The Electoral College determines who will be the Executive Branch leaders, the President and Vice President, via a method similar to the proportional representative system. And because the President has the authority to nominate all federal judges, whoever has influence over the election of the President has an indirect voice in the makeup of the third branch of our federal government, the Judicial Branch. Therefore, the Electoral College, whose only job is to meet every four years and vote for the Chief Executive and the Vice President, has some influence over two of the three Branches of our government. Of course, the Executive Branch contains the armed forces, the F.B.I., the D.E.A., etc., etc., etc. And these countless agencies assert immense power over all of us. We certainly want our opinions to matter when it comes to all those aspects of our government.
The number of Electors of the Electoral College is determined by totaling the number of Congressional Representatives each state has and each state’s two senators. The number of Congressional Representatives is derived from each state’s population. So, very similar to the general system of representative/proportional government, where all states have two and only two senators but have differing numbers of Congresspersons based on population, the Electoral College is based on every state having some Electors but more populous states having more Electors than less populous states.
Currently there are 538 members of the Electoral College based on 100 Senators and 438 Congressional Representatives. For example, Indiana has 2 Senators and 9 Congresspersons for a total of 11 Electors and Oklahoma has 2 Senators and 5 Congresspersons for a total of 7 Electors. On the other hand, California has 2 Senators and 53 Congresspersons for a total of 55 Electors. Indiana’s sister state of Illinois has 20 Electors, almost twice as many as Indiana, and Oklahoma’s sister state of Texas has 38, over five times as many as Oklahoma. The District of Columbia has no Senators but does have 3 Electors based on the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution. Three is the least number of Electors of any state. The U.S. Territories do not receive any Electors.
Whichever candidate receives 270 Electoral votes, the current majority of Electors, is elected President. Sometimes the candidate who receives the most popular votes does not receive a majority of the Electoral votes. This always reignites a debate to eliminate the Electoral College and go to a pure one person/one vote system. Such was the case in 2016 when the Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton received 3,000,000 more popular votes than the Republican nominee Donald Trump, but Trump received 304 Electoral votes, which was 77 more than Clinton received. Had this outcome been inverted I suggest the pro/anti-Electoral College debate would have also been inverted.
There certainly are legitimate arguments for modifying or even eliminating the Electoral College system even though the College has helped to assuage the constant yin and yang of large states versus small ones. As for me, having spent most of my life, so far, in either Oklahoma or Indiana, I do not wish to rely upon the tender mercies of the few lumbering giant states with huge populations of voters that might deign to turn a deaf ear to my concerns and those of the other residents of the numerous less populous states.
Aposematism. “Fair warning.” That is what that long Ancient Greek derived word means. “Stay away!” Or as it applies to skunks, “I stink; get back”. When one sees the white stripes among a skunk’s black fur Mother Nature apparently believes that is sufficient warning of skunks’ antisocial character. The Greeks used the term, aposematic, to identify any animal that had a way to warn off enemies.
My recent experience with skunks has led me to question whether skunks understand the “stay away” thing should go both ways. It also confirms my long held conclusion that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had already discovered over 2,000 years ago almost everything worth knowing.
The Ancient Romans provided the term for the scientific family we call skunks. It is Mephitidae which was based on the Roman god that referred to the malodorous gases emitting from swamps and volcanoes. It appears skunks had infiltrated the greatest cultures of Western Civilization. Of course, skunks and their relatives have not spared any other great cultures either.
But, Gentle Reader, we are not concerned with etymology, the origin of words, but with the origin of behavior, particularly skunk behavior as it relates to the family of skunks that has apparently decided Peg and I are their friends and that our home is, also, their home. What happened to that age-old skunk/human dynamic of don’t bother us and we won’t bother (or spray) you?
For three weeks now a family of skunks has been determined to live with us. This might not have been intolerable if the family of opossums and one squirrel that had already chosen our cabin as their home would have just moved on and given our crawl space to the invading skunks. However, reasonable retreat was not the opossums’ and squirrel’s decision. War was declared and you already know what the Dooms Day war weapon of skunks is. The skunks beneath our cabin deploy their spray frequently every night between about 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. depending upon the aggression of the opossums and the squirrel. Of course, Peg and I, whose only role has been to provide a warm dry area for all involved, get the collateral damage from this domestic terrorism. The stench wafts up through the floor and pervades every inch of our living space.
Peg used to tell me I needed to understand the competing animals are simply some of our fellow mammals acting naturally. My attitude started out negative and has rapidly escalated to that of Bill Murray’s as the golf course groundskeeper in the movie Caddyshack and his battles with gophers. I just want them out from under our cabin and out of our lives. I realized I had slipped over the edge when I began to visibly rejoice each time I’d pass a dead skunk flattened on the highway. And Peg’s “tsk, tsk” admonition to me finally changed last night.
About 2:00 a.m. Peg heard a noise and got up to investigate. She opened the bedroom door that leads out to our porch. Fortunately she had switched on the outside light first. As she gingerly put a foot out the door a skunk came around the corner and headed into our home. Peg screamed, “Skunk!”. I grabbed my shot gun. The skunk kept coming. Peg slammed the door just as the skunk’s nose hit the glass. Peg and I are finally on the same page. Terminix, traps and anti-critter sprays and pellets are now our mantra. One positive thing is the opossums have decided they are through fighting and they and the squirrel have “moved on”. Now we just need to convince the skunks, starting with this “adorable” white with black stripe specimen that we caught last night. See the Euell Gibbons-like photograph Peg took.