Some Men Just Want to Watch Mexico Burn

In the introduction to La Vida, famed anthropologist Oscar Lewis unfavorably compares Puerto Rico to Mexico:

But perhaps the crucial difference in the history of the two countries was the development of a great revolutionary tradition in Mexico and its absence in Puerto Rico.  Puerto Ricans sought greater autonomy from Spain during the nineteenth century, but they were never able to organize a revolutionary struggle for their freedom, and the single attempt along this line, at Lares, was short-lived and never received mass support.  By contrast the Mexicans fought for their independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821, drove out the French in 1866 and later produced the great revolution of 1910-20 with its glorious ideals of social justice.  In the course of these struggles great heroes emerged, men who have become symbols of the Mexican spirit of revolution and independence.

La Vida was published in 1965, just 45 years after the end of the Mexican Revolution.  Lewis personally knew many Mexicans who lived through it.  But what actually happened during this “great revolution” with its “glorious ideals of social justice”?  The best paper I could find on the topic is Robert McCaa’s 2003 paper “Missing Millions: The Demographic Costs of the Mexican Revolution” (Mexican Studies 19, pp.367-400).  After a detailed review of earlier estimates, McCaa deploys new techniques to reach a grim conclusion:

The human cost of the Revolution was paid mainly in blood. Of a total demographic cost of 2.1 million, excess deaths accounted for two-thirds,  lost births one-fourth, and emigration considerably less than one-tenth of the total… The best two-sex inverse projection to 1930, taking into account the age and sex distribution of the population in that year,  points to some 3 million missing as of 1921. Census error in the 1921 enumeration reduces this figure by 1 million. Two-thirds of the remainder was due to one factor: excess mortality (1.4 million deaths), with 350,000 more male deaths than female. Lost births were substantially less at 550 thousand. Smaller still, at less than 10 percent of the total loss, was emigration to the United States, with the persisting number of male “refugees,” generously defined, slightly more than 100,000, and females about three-fourths of this figure.

The basic history of the Mexican Revolution, moreover, was hardly “heroic”:

[O]nly six months passed between Francisco I. Madero’s pronouncement of revolution (November 20, 1910) and the overthrow of the old dictator Porfirio Díaz. The resignation of Díaz came in late spring 1911 and was accomplished with little violence or destruction. The fighting scarcely began until 1911… Victory at Ciudad Juárez came to the revolutionaries on May 10, 1911, after a siege lasting only a couple of days… Although the fall of Díaz was achieved due to uprisings throughout the republic, the cost of the Revolution, to this point, was probably only a few thousand deaths.

The real fighting began as the revolutionaries trained their weapons on one another over the course of the following six years… Zapata, having waited four months to rebel against the hated Díaz, did not allow four weeks to pass before rebelling against the enormously popular Madero. In late November 1911, Zapata, “tired of waiting” for Madero to carry through an agrarian revolution, according to the conventional view, denounced Mexico’s first democratically elected president by proclaiming the Plan of Ayala. Yet, until 1912, Zapatistas did not pose a serious threat to the Madero government. Elsewhere regional bands (and bandits), some with plans, others without, escalated the plundering of the countryside, hamlets, and towns. As is well known, within two years of Díaz’s resignation the nation slid into chaos…

With the assassination of Madero on February 21, 1913 –- probably on the order of the Madero-appointed commander in chief of the federal army, Victoriano Huerta—civil war erupted. The usurper proved incapable of suppressing the many revolts… [A]fter the failure of the Convention of Aguascalientes to resolve the differences of regional warlords, an even bloodier phase of the Revolution began, as, once again, the victors turned on one another.The year 1915 was the year of hunger. Marauding bands destroyed the few crops that were sown, many before they could be harvested. Destruction continued into 1916, although with the defeat of the northern chieftain Pancho Villa at the Battle of Celaya in April 1915, the violence began to wane, however slowly. Devastation was made worse by the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918/19, to be examined in detail below.

McCaa thoughtfully concludes:

Given the magnitude of the human losses caused by the Mexican Revolution, the silence of some scholars and disbelief by others is surprising…

For the Americas, both North and South, the Mexican Revolution was the greatest demographic catastrophe of the twentieth century. From a millennial perspective,the human cost of the Mexican Revolution was exceeded only by the devastation of Christian conquest, colonization, and accompanying epidemics, nearly four centuries earlier.

How then could as knowledgeable a scholar as Lewis credulously praise the sordid bloodbath that was the Mexican Revolution?  As a Marxist, he was obviously predisposed to positivity.  His gushing, however, would probably resonate with many non-Marxists, too.

What possesses anyone to so gush?  One could say, “You can’t make huevos rancheros without breaking eggs.  The war was tragic, but the results were great.”  Since we’re talking about Mexico, though, this seems absurd.  Sure, it’s a middle-income country, but violence remains a grave problem to this day.  And given its proximity to the U.S., gravity alone should have turned it into a peaceful, First World country by now.  The legacy of the Mexican Revolution is one of the better explanations for why this transformation has yet to happen.

In any case, people who admire revolutions rarely bother with counterfactual history.  What excites them is revolution itself.  Revolution is romantic.  The vision of tearing down the wickedness of the world, serving wrong-doers their just deserts, charging barricades with our brave leaders, and building a better world on top of the ashes is a thrilling story.  Counting corpses and asking, “What was it all for?,” in contrast, is a real downer.

If you share this romantic vision, you might even welcome my analysis: “Yes, I’m inspired by revolutionary idealism.  At least they tried.”  Yet calmly considered, this romantic vision is inexcusable.  Launching a bloody war without even asking, “How likely is this war to improve the world?” is as “romantic” as drunk driving at a playground.  Giving revolutionaries credit for “trying” is ridiculous.  If you combine brutality with wishful thinking about the consequences, your real goal isn’t to make those consequences a reality.  Your real goal is just to exercise brutality.

So why did Lewis gush over the Mexican Revolution?  Batman’s butler got it right: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  I’ve learned a lot from Lewis, but the less real-world influence people like him have, the better.

Open This Content

Don’t Make a Politician Your Leader

It was once a common theme in science fiction humor for a flying saucer to land in front of witnesses, with little green men coming out to say: “Take us to your leader.”

If this happened to you, to whom would you take them?

Do you have a leader, and if so, who?

Most people seem to think of a politician in this case — perhaps a president — but who in their right mind wants to follow a politician? Why would they?

It’s similar to the mistake of looking to politicians as role models. No one who seeks political power is worthy to be your role model.

If you mistake a politician for a leader you will be led astray. You’re better off on your own, even if you don’t know for sure where you’re going. Your own mistakes will not be as disastrous as the mistake of following a politician, even under the worst case scenario.

Politicians rarely lead. Their normal approach is to rule. If you doubt this, refuse to “follow” where a politician tells you to go. If you’re allowed to take your own path without punishment, then perhaps the politician was also a leader. If, instead, threats of government violence result from your independence, you aren’t dealing with a leader, but with a ruler.

You don’t need a leader most of the time, if ever, and you never need to be ruled. You know your own life better than anyone else. Why follow someone who doesn’t know where you need to go? Especially a person who probably can’t even run their own life very well, as seems to always be the case with politicians, much less run everyone else’s life successfully.

A leader will be on the front line when a threat is faced. Not hiding behind wave after wave of cannon fodder, nor sitting in an office getting reports and sending orders. If they send you into danger while they stay safe, facing nothing more deadly than the risk of losing the next election, they are not a leader.

I’ve never seen a politician I would want as my leader. You may feel differently. I wouldn’t forbid you to follow whoever you like, nor force you to follow someone you didn’t want to follow. I ask the same in return.

So if little green men ever walk up and ask you to, “Take us to your leader,” I hope you’ll respond with, “That would be me. What can I do for you?”

Open This Content

Childhood Play and Independence Are Disappearing; Let Grow Seeks to Change That

Many of us are old enough to remember how childhood used to be. Our afternoons were spent outside playing with the neighborhood kids—no adults or cell phones in sight. Sometimes we got hurt, with occasional scraped knees or hurt egos, but we worked it out. We always knew we could go home. We had paper routes, mowed lawns, ran errands, and babysat at ages much earlier than we allow our own kids. What happened to childhood in just a generation that now prompts neighbors to call the police when they see an eight-year-old walking her dog?

The answer rests on a host of cultural changes over the last few decades. As Lenore Skenazy writes in her book, Free-Range Kids, the combination of 24-hour news media that often sensationalizes rare events like child abductions, as well as the introduction of true crime dramas, often make it seem like the world is less safe today than it used to be—despite crime statistics showing otherwise. As more mothers entered the workforce, demand for full-day kindergarten and after-school care surged, limiting opportunities for afternoon free play. Now, many parents don’t seem to value free play and childhood independence, preferring instead to focus their children’s time on structured, adult-led activities and organized extracurriculars. We have a generation of children today under constant surveillance.

I’m guilty of this, too—hovering over my kids more than I’d like to admit. I’m nervous when my older ones walk to the store or the library despite knowing that I walked much further at their age. I tell them to let me know when they arrive somewhere, although my mother said recently that it never occurred to her to ask the same of me when I was young. Despite a much safer childhood today, we worry more about children and subsequently limit their freedom and independence.

Let Grow

Some parents and educators are pushing back on this troubling trend. Skenazy is now president of Let Grow, a non-profit organization that she co-founded to help families and communities recapture childhood independence and play. One of their most successful initiatives involves teaming up with interested school districts across the country to assign Let Grow Projects to elementary and middle school students. Teachers tell their students to go home and do something independently that they haven’t done before—with their parents’ permission. Some of these projects might be to make themselves a sandwich or ride their bike to the store. As Skenazy told me in a recent interview: “This is so simple but so transformative. We are trying to renormalize letting go.”

Skenazy described one town in Connecticut that has implemented the Let Grow Project community-wide. She explained how an elementary school-age child rode his bike to a local market. At first, the shopkeepers were concerned. Where was the boy’s parent? Why was he alone? When he explained he was doing a Let Grow Project for school and his task was to go to the market by himself, the shopkeepers relaxed. As more children visited, the shopkeepers and customers became accustomed to welcoming children into the store. It became less unusual, less alarming—more like it used to be. All of the resources and suggestions for Let Grow Projects are available for free on the organization’s website and can be implemented by any interested family or group. “The reason we go through schools,” says Skenazy, “is so we can transform whole communities.” It’s not just the parents who are fearful of granting children more freedom and independence; it’s the community as a whole that is unaccustomed to seeing free and independent children.

That said, much of the change is focused on parents. The Let Grow Project encourages parents to give their children more autonomy, to allow kids to take age-appropriate risks and build resilience and confidence. When parents know that they are not the only ones in their community who are providing this freedom, they are more willing to try it. Once they do, they feel great joy in seeing their children successfully take on these solo challenges. Skenazy explains: “The reward for parenting is to let go so you can see what a great job you’ve done, what a great kid you’re raising. The joy is what rewires the parents.”

Bringing Back Play

While offering children more freedom and independence is a central goal of Let Grow, reclaiming childhood play is also a priority. With mounting research showing a link between the decline in play and the rise in childhood mental health disorders, Skenazy and her colleagues feel a sense of urgency in finding ways to bring back free play. The Let Grow Play Club is an initiative to get more schools to open up their playgrounds and gymnasiums for after-school free play. Adults are present to ensure safety, but the goal is for them to stay on the sidelines and allow children of mixed ages to make up their own games, work out their own conflicts, and build important life skills, like collaboration and compromise, through self-directed play. Unlike the Let Grow Project, the Play Clubs have been slower to catch-on. Skenazy thinks this is due in part to the additional, small expense of adult play supervisors, but it’s mostly related to a lack of demand for free play. “We need parents to recognize that these are the skills kids are going to need—resilience, organization, empathy, creativity, negotiation—rather than structured extracurriculars.”

It’s unfortunate, of course, that we need projects and play clubs to grant our children a taste of the freedom and fun we enjoyed as kids. But at a time when children have virtually disappeared from our neighborhood sidewalks and public spaces, efforts to reintroduce children into our communities and let them play should be widely embraced. Those of us who remember the value of an independent and play-filled childhood can be the ones to reintroduce this gift to today’s children.

Open This Content

Mandatory National Service: “Strengthening American Democracy” by Ignoring Americans’ Rights

On January 23,  the US National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service released its “interim report”  following up with hearings for public comment in February.

The Commission’s motto, or at least the sentiment expressed in large font at the top of its web site, is “Strengthening American Democracy Through Service.” But the report itself bespeaks a working definition of “American democracy” completely at odds with both long-held American standards of freedom and basic rule of law.

The commission reports that it is “considering ways to implement universal service, such as …. Establish[ing] a norm for every American to devote at least a full year to either military, national, or public service; and Requir[ing] all Americans to serve, with a choice in how to satisfy the requirement.”

As a matter of law, that last suggestion was — or at least SHOULD have been — settled in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

As a matter of the values for which Americans rose up and fought their revolution, they are clearly laid out in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”

Put differently — and this is a universal, not merely American, moral claim — your life belongs to you, not to the state.

The state has no legitimate power to take your life, or any portion of it, from you, nor any legitimate power to force you to serve its goals rather than seeking after your own happiness.

“Mandatory national service” is slavery, full stop. It’s a moral abomination with no conceivable justification in anything resembling a free society, and under the US Constitution in particular it is clearly and unambiguously illegal.

And yes, that includes the military draft, contrary to the sophistry of the US Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, Jr. in 1918’s Arver v. US ruling upholding that institution in World War One.

If anything, a military draft is even more repugnant than non-military “mandatory national service” insofar as it goes beyond deprivation of liberty and pursuit of happiness and, as a matter of policy, places the draftee’s very life in danger.

The full brief of any legitimate National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, properly understood as a matter of both morality and law, would be to  recommend that Congress abolish the Selective Service System and its mandatory draft registration scheme.

Open This Content

“Second Shutdown” Theatrics: Heads Trump Wins, Tails America Loses

Unless Congress and the Trump administration reach a new spending deal by February 15, the federal government will go back into “partial shutdown” status. As of February 10, congressional negotiators seem to be nearing agreement on a deal that includes about $2 billion in funding for President Trump’s “border wall” project. Trump, as before the recent shutdown, is seeking $5.7 billion.

My prediction: There are three ways this can come out. One is highly unlikely, and both of the other two would constitute a victory for Trump and a loss for Congress in general, even more so for congressional Democrats, and most of all for the American people.

Let’s get the unlikely outcome out of the way first: There’s probably not going to be another shutdown. Trump is going to sign whatever deal lands on his desk.

If the deal includes the $5.7 billion he’s demanding (it won’t), he’s obviously the winner. Expect a lavish White House Rose Garden signing ceremony, even if there’s snow on the ground.

If the deal offers a lesser amount (it will), congressional Democrats will have lost anyway, by buckling on their previous opposition to funding the wall at all. That’s a bad outcome for a new Democratic majority in the House. It signals a lack of political will to take on the Republican agenda.

Whatever amount the deal includes, Trump will sign it — and if it’s less than $5.7 billion, he’ll then follow through on his threat to declare a “state of emergency” and use existing military funding to make up the difference.

In doing so, he’ll throw yet another serving of red meat to his electoral base, acting as the strong-man figure they adore.

He’ll also add another boxcar to a long train of abuses & usurpations (as the Declaration of Independence puts it) by himself and previous presidents. His contemplated “state of emergency” tactic would seize executive power to do what only Congress, under the Constitution, may do (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law”).

Not long ago, journalists might have labeled that situation  a “constitutional crisis.” But in the 21st century, Americans and American politicians have seemingly become desensitized to presidential rebellion against the Constitution, from George W.  “unitary executive” Bush’s use of “signing statements” to modify the content of bills passed by Congress, to Barack “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” Obama’s claims of power to wage war in Libya, Syria and elsewhere without congressional approval.

The border wall is fast becoming more than just a morally bankrupt and economically stupid political ploy. It’s in the process of becoming yet another milestone on the road to the presidency as an openly proclaimed, and uncontested, dictatorship.

Open This Content

“Deep State” Isn’t What You Think

You’ve probably been hearing about the “deep state” recently, with some pundits saying it’s a danger and others saying it doesn’t even exist.

It’s real, but it’s not the conspiracy theory some would have you believe. Its reality shouldn’t be controversial; it’s there for everyone to see and experience.

The “deep state” is, in simple terms, the government bureaucracy. It is all those parts of government that don’t change from one presidential administration to the next.

When presidents change, the new president hires new people to run the various government agencies, but most employees in the massive agency keep their job. The new boss depends on the experience of those who have been in the job through multiple administrations to keep things running.

Since their jobs are safe, they get entrenched, and in some positions, feel invulnerable because of their experience and years in the job. When no one else even understands or knows for sure what they do, how can they be replaced?

Thus, you have a “deep state.”

Some people want to turn this recognition of reality into evidence of paranoia.

Sure, when you involve powerful agencies such as the CIA and FBI, opportunities for abuse are probably irresistible. It’s likely that some will come to see themselves as the real power behind the scenes and see the elected officials as figureheads to be tolerated as long as they don’t upset the status quo too much.

Some of them undoubtedly act on this power.

Scenarios of “deep state” presidential assassinations and other undemocratic schemes are thrilling, but the majority of the damage is done to your liberty by the everyday governing, which goes on openly, in front of microphones and cameras.

The state, both deep and broad, has been tightening the noose around the necks of Americans almost from the beginning.

The state has been preventing the people from choosing to uncouple from an out-of-control federal government since Mr. Lincoln’s war to repeal the Declaration of Independence. It has been violating the Second Amendment since at least 1934. The state keeps the tax records that are used to entrap and enslave the people. It steals, compiles, and stores your private data. All in the name of governing you.

Yet people worry about what the mysterious parts of “deep state” might do to other parts of this enemy organization? This seems like displaced concern to me.

Open This Content