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    Monday, May 22, 2006

    The Constitution and my wife

    Here's my wife's second essay on the founding principles of the Constitution. As before, she is taking a class, "American Heritage," which functions as a politica-history class. I help with ideas, brainstorming, grammar, vocabulary, and editing.

    Warning, it is long. Read at your own risk!

    *****Essay 2 by My Wife (quotes may be used with proper annotation. This work may not be reproduced in full without the expressed written consent of the author. A reminder, everything on this blog is under copyright)*****

    One of the favorite foods in Vietnam is rice paper. It is used in many ways. Some people wet it, and fill it with chopped meat, and vegetables, then roll it and eat it as spring rolls. Others put in rice noodles, big leaves of lettuce and mint, and beef, and then roll it in half. In both cases, the rice paper is not the center portion of the food that the palate tastes—it is the structure used to hold all the various ingredients together. Rice paper is chosen for this work because of its flexibility, its size, edibility, taste, and look. In just this way the Constitution influences our lives. It is not the main law that Americans see every day—but it is the underlying structure that holds all laws together. And the principles of the Constitution, like the attributes of rice paper, are what gives it this ability and makes it special.

    One of the basic principles of American government is the sanctity and amorality of the Constitution. It is a written fundamental law higher than man or government. The Constitution is a legal document that serves the country and its people—not a moral theory. The Framers of the Constitution did not use it to expound certain moral theories or beliefs or enforce righteousness. In fact, they tried to keep morality from the Constitution on purpose. They believed that a document focusing on truth and justice, without preaching morality, would accumulate support from the individualistic Americans who did not want someone or something telling them how to live their lives, and who were inherently virtuous anyway.

    This pose on amorality stemmed from a strong belief in natural rights, like those described by John Locke, and an opposition to British common law. Americans felt that the Constitution outlined all the basic rights citizens and the government had, thereby making it impossible for someone to pass a law contrary to these basic rights, and that by writing down the Constitution, it would serve as a clear benchmark to judge laws passed later by Congress.

    Today we see the wake of these of ideas in the turmoil over Supreme Court Justices. Ultimately, all controversial decisions about the constitutionality of a law appear before the Supreme Court. When Pres. Bush nominated Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito, they were subjected to extreme scrutiny from all parties because their voices would be the voice of the constitution. Also, this principle is shown clearly in the language of today—just two sentences earlier. People talk about the “constitutionality” of things, of laws. All actions are not answerable to the government, but to our constitution.

    Creating an amoral document did not mean the Founding Fathers wanted an amoral government. In fact, they hoped for the opposite. Madison argued in Federalist 43 for not just any government, or any form of self-government, but for “good government.” The Founding Fathers lived in a land with a strong emphasis on Christian moralism, and to achieve this, they expected virtue to pervade, influence, and guide the actions of the polity. In Vietnamese, virtue is “duc hanh,” the combination of “duc,” meaning morals or righteousness and “hanh,” meaning good nature or sweet character. Its overall meaning is “behaviors that show high moral standards or goodness.” The Constitution was written with the expectation that a moral populace could be trusted to vote and elect leaders in a federal republic.

    The Founding Fathers also realized that communication and coherent political process in between such a large population in a spacious country would be weak and inefficient at best. In order to merge their hopes with the reality of America, they settled on the principle of popular representation. Popular representation was a republican form of government more than a democracy. People chose individuals who would represent them in the government. This way, the numerous, varied, and sometimes specific wants of the populace would be relayed efficiently to the government, and the often unpopular and necessary laws could be relayed back to the governed. The Framers, believing people to be inherently virtuous, expected the people to choose representatives more virtuous and intelligent than themselves.

    Today we see the importance a virtuous candidate has in the political process. It is widely accepted that the sexual misconduct President Clinton did with his aide, Monica Lewinsky, occurs often between coworkers in the workplace. Yet, the scandal seized the attention of the American public for years. Why? Because a president is supposed to be above such moral lapses in character. Any student of history can find plenty of examples of past presidents and sexual license (Thomas Jefferson and children by his slave), but most instances were kept under wraps. In retaliation, President George W. Bush has served two terms in office riding the backlash of this scandal—the growing power and popularity of a morally-conservative Christian movement in the Republican party. His allegiance to them, a portrayal as a down-to-earth politician with a genuine love for his wife, answered the virtue questions that Pres. Clinton raised, and overcame other political shortcomings (a controversial war, etc.) to earn him victories over both Al Gore and John Kerry.

    The Founding Fathers realized that nobody was virtuous all the time. Some people were never virtuous. Often when personal benefit and virtue crossed each other, self-interest would be the first choice. Laws and government structure based on self-interest is called auxiliary precautions because all actions taken with self-interest as a guide are supposed to be auxiliary to virtue.

    Due to auxiliary precautions, the Framers of the Constitution structured this document according to the principle of counterpoise. Everyone has his or her own interests that might conflict with others’. One interest is balanced against another, so no group can be in control. This helps maintain the power of balance and control within a large republic. It also led to the principle of shared sovereignty.

    Using counterpoise, the Founding Fathers insured that people choosing leaders out of self-interest instead of virtue would never gain a permanent hold on the government by setting up a federal republic. A classical republic often lost effectiveness due to factions. This attribute was of extreme importance to those like James Madison, who wrote in Federalist 10 against all forms of factions. However, Madison counterintuitively rebuffed the arguments against republics by saying that the larger the republic the less corrupt it would become. The more tiers of government, the more factions would be represented. It would be easy for a representative to represent one faction if he or she represented one small group, but a larger group would have more varied needs and would be less likely to be ruled by one faction. Modern political parties, although factions, rely on such a broad support base of people, that the sub-factions make it extremely difficult for one faction to control a government and oppress the other.

    A strong central government was also likely to be led by one faction; however, a government where the federal government shared some sovereignty with the states muted this point. People living in states would work for their own self-interests—states’ interests—and those on the federal level would argue for federal interests. Often these two outcomes would be at odds with each other. It also let people turn to the states for specific needs that would be poorly addressed at the federal level. Today this is seen again with the marriage issue. When Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, many other states’ voters opposed the idea by writing amendments to their constitutions defining marriage as between a man and woman only. This freedom of states to legislate for their constituents provides a laboratory to see what works before implementing it on the federal level, and allows the government the flexibility to meet individual needs of states without affecting all other states.

    Such a balance of counterpoise was achieved by structuring the Constitution according to the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. The Founding Fathers were fearful that an omnipotent executive could usurp power and create a monarchy. On the other hand, without a strong central government, the representatives of the people and the states (House and Senate) would be about as weak and inefficient as the old Articles of Confederation government. First, they divided powers. By creating an executive branch that is responsible for administering the laws and a legislative branch that is responsible for creating the laws, the desire for reelection by the people would keep the branches working towards separate goals. There would be little incentive to create a “grand coalition” because carrying out the laws and international duties had a different set of goals than creating laws. This set up prevented Congress from passing laws to achieve a particular purpose because it did not enforce the laws, and it would never want to give up that power to an executive either. The two branches became counterweights.

    In addition to separation of powers, the Founding Fathers introduced checks & balances. The executive office was given a veto power over bills and the legislative branch could override the veto with a two-thirds majority. The judicial branch checked to make sure all proceedings followed the Constitution, and in return the justices must be appointed by the president and approved by the senate. This set up not only gave separate powers, but made the three branches fundamentally at odds with each other on some basic points. A popularly elected president would reap the blessings or cursings of bad federal legislation, and would be free to enforce or veto as necessary to keep himself in office. Meanwhile, a representative of senator must create laws that reflect his or her constituents’ views—that might not reflect the average American voter—and if enacted might benefit the senator at the expense of other Americans.

    Today, the immigration question highlights the balance of powers in the American government. A republican led House passed a bill restricting illegal immigration by building a wall and making it a felony to be illegal. The Senate, also republican led, cannot pass that same bill because (ironically) a republican president would veto it. He is pressing for worker permits that are far more liberal than many senators’ constituents want. So, the senators are caught between a rock of a house bill and a hard spot of easy “amnesty” (as opponents call it). Pres. Bush does this because he is trying to court Hispanic voters on a national stage. Senators, meanwhile, worry about their constituents, which may or may not be predominantly Hispanic. If not, they have little incentive to vote the way President Bush wants.

    Ultimately, the Constitution of the United States of America became one of the most libertarian of all documents in this government. It hoped for virtue from citizens and leaders, but expected self-interest. Through that expectation, it setup a system of counterpoise, by playing the goals of the branches of government off each other. By sharing sovereignty with the states, the federal government gained flexibility to meet the needs of smaller constituencies without sacrificing a strong central identity. Ultimately, the constitution became the perfect skeleton to hang an ever increasing and changing set of laws and statutes.

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    Sunday, May 21, 2006

    Short Airplane Thoughts

    I'm sorry for the sudden drop off the earth, but I and the wife spent the last week traveling around the middle of Vietnam. It was great, and I'll have stories and pics later. For now, I want to start at the end of the trip.

    Here are some thoughts on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Hue to Saigon...

    The cha sandwich is barely better than eating bread alone...no wait, it’s not. The Uni chocolate bar (from Thailand)
    In America you get the airline magazine and a catalogue of overpriced, quirky items to buy
    tastes like chocolate covered cardboard, and is worse than the cha sandwich. But the water was good.

    Fashion magazines. Why are Viets so obsessed with fashion? Actually, that would be an interesting comment thread, so respond if you want, but the question is largely rhetorical. I find it extremely poignant that on Vietnam airlines' flights you get two magazines to read from the back of the seat in front of you – Heritage Fashion and Heritage (the airline magazine). In America you get the airline magazine and a catalogue of overpriced, quirky items to buy. Indicative of our cultures? I think so.

    This month's models are ugly
    Who is Elka Ray and how do I get her job as an English Consultant for Heritage Fashion magazine? In the first article alone I saw two glaring misprints – the English short version of a story about ancient art in Vietnam said that art appeared 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and a fish tablet was 18cm x 18cm x 1.2cm. The Viet long story said 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and 18cm x 8cm x 1.2cm. Sorry, but when talking about ancient stone art, those are BIG errors.

    This months models are ugly.

    My favorite section is the “Fashion & Health Briefs.” Read this:

    “Big baby, fat adult?
    Large infants or those who grow rapidly in the first two years of life are at increased risk of obesity as children and adults, say British researchers. An analysis of 24 studies on 400,000 infants found that one in five UK children is overweight or obese. The heaviest infants (those with the highest body mass index) and those who gained weight rapidly during the first and second year of life were more likely to be obese at all stages of life – childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood – than other infants. The doctors noted that breastfeeding helps to protect babies from excess weight gain.” (p. 48)

    1. BMI is not accurate, so stop using it.
    2. Yea, Americans aren’t the only fatties on the planet (also see children in HCMC)
    3. Why are “all stages of life” only three?? Since when did we all die in early adulthood? Isn’t that the definition of early adulthood – that there is life after it (i.e. adulthood)?
    4. One more reason why breastfeeding for the first 6 mo to one year is imperative unless you are not healthy enough to do it. Time isn’t an excuse. Love your children and do what’s right – breastfeed.

    And the other good article:

    “Migraine relief
    German researchers report that acupuncture works as well as standard drugs for migraines. Surprisingly, drug treatments and both real and fake acupuncture were all found to be equally effective. All of the more than 900 patients who had been randomly selected to receive Chinese acupuncture, sham acupuncture, or drugs reported similar. In the so-called sham procedure the needles were put in places that were not traditional acupuncture points. (p. 49)

    1. Hey Ms. Ray, similar ... what?? The end of the sentence should say "similar benefits." How do I know this? Because ...
    2. ...you wrote half of the short brief one page earlier. For someone whose title is "English Consultant" in English and "Assistant Editor of English" in Vietnamese, you seem to be woefully inept.
    3. What kind of crap reporting is this? The tag line is "acupunture works as well as standard drugs." Shouldn't we all be looking closely at how real and sham acupuncture both received the same results?? More proof that acupuncture is mental. Gotta love that placebo effect.
    4. Western drugs with documented physical effects also worked as well as the sham stuff. Maybe most of western medicine's efficacy for migraines is also due to the placebo effect?

    There needs to be a warning light before the person in front of you leans back in his/her seat. My laptop almost got crushed as the man in front of me just leaned back. My very loud shout didn't even elicit a look back or "I'm sorry" from the man.

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    Friday, May 12, 2006

    Stop the birthing!

    I know you have no more desire to hear about caesarians in Vietnam, but I thought I'd share this anecdote. Two days ago, I was talking with my coworker, Tam, who recently had a baby (by recently I mean within the last year and a half).

    When I mentioned that I wanted four children, she, typical of people in Ho Chi Minh City, flipped out. "How can you want more?"
    if your parents had stopped at two, we wouldn't be having this conversation would we?

    "Why not?" I said. "What number are you?"

    "The last five," she replied.

    "So," I countered, "if your parents had stopped at two, we wouldn't be having this conversation would we? And I'd have missed out on the blessing of knowing you. If you have the ability to support more than two, and the desire, I say more power to you."

    "Yeah..." she sighed, "but I can't have more than two anyway. My last one was caesarian and the doctor said only two."

    "Really...why'd you have it caesarean? You do know that Vietnam has 40% of total births via caesarean section?"

    "40%, more like 95%" interjected Hao (another female coworker).

    "Well, I wanted it vaginal," continued Tam, "but the doctor wouldn't let me. When I insisted, he told me that my healthy pregnancy wasn't healthy anymore and I'd have to have it caesarean."

    The more people I talk to, the more this story gets repeated: caesarean rates are above 90%, everyone wants a normal birth, somehow everyone's birth is incredibly dangerous, and a caesarean is performed, and finally, doctor says that you can only have two children if you have a caesarean. What an ingenious way to enforce an unenforceable rule. Oh the ethics irk me.

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    Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Oh, the humanity!

    Although this is my first post in 7 days, I have not been away from my blog. It's just, most of my work is on the back end--coding and coding to try and define the right look for The Bleeding Ear.

    Frankly, I'm tired of the space I'm in--gray and funny red...I want something different. Obviously, I'm NOT an expert programmer, so I am limited in my differences, but I want to make the site more accessible to people, more open (can you do that on the internet?)...more...I dunno--just more!
    "all other hats I own are tacked to the wall of my brother's childhood bedroom"

    So, I keep tinkering around (daily, and much to my wife's chagrin) with TBE v2.0. You can catch it here. Actually, I have about 5 different versions, only one of which you see at that link--its the one where I test blogger template tags. Other versions testing design layouts are on my comp...sorry. The magazine quotes in this post are one of the fruits of such versions. Do you like? But, the main template is here. That's www.yourmind.org, the webpage design business of a friend of mine, Ken. He's from Canada. And he's Indian. And he's got a Portuguese last name. So we're gonna call him "Canakenindiguese." Anyway, Canakenindiguese has great stuff, so if you're looking for a designer, check him out.

    Also, it has been a sad week. On Wednesday, my beloved hat was stolen. If you know me, you know that I wear this hat everywhere. In fact, it was the only hat I wore--all other hats I own are tacked to the wall of my brother's childhood bedroom in Houston, Texas. Here's a good picture:

    (copyrighted by Hatland, but the only pic I could find. So, PLEASE go buy your hats at Hatland).

    It was a zephyr hat. Size 7 1/4. Just in case you see it. It was stolen from my English School (VATC) in Go Vap district, Ho Chi Minh City (Quang Trung St.) after I left it in the room of my first class on accident.

    Needless to say, I have a sour taste in my mouth everytime I teach there now. No, it wasn't an expensive hat--$20--but it was MY hat, I've had it everywhere I went, I feel violated that someone would steal it. I wasn't even gone more than two hours. It's just wrong.

    So, I hope everyone had a happy 30 April and 1st May, if you're in Vietnam or Cinco de Mayo, if you're in northern Mexico (the USA).

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