International Holocaust Remembrance Day –January 27

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Today, January 27, has been declared by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Just recently, I had the chance to re-read Ellie Weisel’s moving account of his own journey through those terrible years, Night.  If you have never read this book I commend it to you.

This year the theme of the National Holocaust Museum focuses on the warning signs or impending danger.  I am attaching Museum’s presentation  to this blog in hopes that you will watch it and remember not only these terrible years of  oppression and the slaughter of the Jewish people but all who suffer world-wide from humanity’s inhumanityWarning Signs of the Holocaust

The following Youtube video from The Tolerance Project provides a short history of the Holocaust that teachers and parents may find suitable for familiarizing young people with what went on in the Holocaust.

Lest we never forget!


Leadership & the Incredible Shrinking Horse

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Back in 1969, I had the honor of attending the U.S. Navy’s Senior Chaplains’ School located in Newport RI.  At the time, the head of the school was a Roman Catholic priest and Navy Captain named John O’Connor.  It was the first day of school and Captain O’Connor’s job was to introduce this new class of twenty-four students to the concept of leadership in the modern Navy and world at-large.

That morning the man who was to become Cardinal Archbishop of New York painted a picture for me that altered my view of the nature of leadership for the rest of my life.

He started his talk with us that morning by asking what on the surface seemed a pretty simple question, “What kind of a people do you think were the first officers in the Roman Army?”  Various members of the class proceeded to offer different possible answers:  “The sons of the patricians” or “The best fighters” or “The most intelligent soldiers.”

Try as we might, no one in the class seemed to hit upon the answer Capt. O’Connor was looking for.  Finally, he said, “I’ll tell you what I think. I think–a pregnant pause–I think it was the guys on the horses.”

A collective look of  “Whaaat!, the guys on the horses” appeared on the face of nearly everyone in the room.

“Yes, the guys with the horses,” Capt. O’Connor repeated.  “And do you knowofficer why I think that?” he asked rhetorically.  There were blank looks all around.

“Because the guys on the horses were higher up and could see more of the battlefield than the common foot soldier, who could see little beyond the helmet of the legionnaire in front of him.  The foot soldiers marching into the peril of battle needed someone who could really see what was ahead and tell them how best to attack or how best to avoid danger–how not only be victorious but also survive to fight another day.”Roman legion

Capt. O’Connor allowed that it was true that there were other factors which contributed to the Roman legionnaires following their leaders into battle with confidence and bravery but he said he wanted to focus on this one element because it pointed to a particularly important difference in the type of leadership that would work in the modern world from that which had worked previously.

The modern world he said is not like the ancient world in terms of who can see what is going on and who has the vital knowledge that allows enterprises to succeed or armies to win battles.  He told us that with each year, the sometimes gradual and sometimes revolutionary changes in communication, education and technology, critical information and important decisions were no longer the sole domain of farseeing heroes mounted on a noble steeds.  He said that it was as if year by year the mounted nobleman’s horse got a little shorter, a little smaller and  a little shorter again until its rider now sat in a saddle on a horse that no longer enabled the once proud officer to see over the heads of his own men.  The leader of old, Capt O’Connor said had ridden an ever shrinking horse through the ages to a point where he was now as dependent on the foot soldier as the foot soldier had once been on him..

“Now,” he said “the officer needs the troopers to tell him where he is and vice versa”

He went on to close his remarks by saying that he hoped that as we proceeded through the course of the Senior Chaplains’ Program  we would not cling to old and outmoded notions of command and control leadership but begin to open ourselves to a new notion of collaborative and distributed leadership which found its strength in cohesive teams, mutual support, clear and direct communication and the conviction that it is unlikely that any of us sees the whole picture at any one time.  For Capt O’Connor virtues like empathy, openness to novelty and humility needed to stand along side moral and physical courage, loyalty, determination and decisiveness as hallmarks of leadership and that those leadership characteristics could no longer be seen as characteristics of single individual but rather of groups.  Leadership, for him. was a collective not individual phenomenon.

For The Rev. Dr. Admiral John Cardinal O’Connor the horse that once provided for a special view of the world had shrunk and the age of the privilege of far-sight being limited to the mounted few was long over. We now needed to build leadership into our groups (businesses, armies, navies, social action groups, governments, schools and school departments etc. etc.)–into the fabric of our society.  Quite a mouthful for my first day at Chaplains’ School!


I suspect that Cardinal O’Connor would not want to have to defend his “the guys on the horses” thesis to a group of military or other historians.  What he said that day was more of a metaphor than a lesson in historical events.  The world, he was saying, had changed from one where few had the time to think or  the range of vision to see a wide scope to a time in which many more of us think and have a wide and far reaching field of vision.  Further, the world in which we live is so much more complex and interdependent that no matter how tall the horse one sits astride the view defies the comprehension of any single individual or even small group of individuals.  We therefore must work together, take one another by the hand and lead ourselves into the future.

Moments When a Teacher Showed You Something You Will Never Forget

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2This morning I was writing a short essay about adult learning for an online course I am taking.  I am not sure why but I found myself writing about an incident that happen in a classroom at Boston University over forty years ago. As I re-read my little essay, it struck me that we all have moments like this.  Moments when a teacher helps us to see something that changes the way we look at ourselves and the world.  My account of one of those learning moments follows.  After you read it, if you chose to do so, please share any similar moments you may have  by adding your own comment.

During the period 1971-1973, I had the honor of studying with and having Professor Malcolm Knowles as my thesis adviser while working on my M.Ed. in Adult Education at Boston University. I remember the very first day of class with Malcolm (yes, he made us all call him Malcolm not Professor).  He held up a copy of the text for the class, his book on Adult Education, and asked us how many of us knew what was inside that book.  Only a few hands were gingerly raised.  Since not many seemed to know, he then asked us how we were going to find out.

A chorus of students replied, “By reading it.”  “But how?” he asked.  One brave student, not me, offered, “I guess I would start at the beginning and go to the end.”  Malcolm replied, “That is certainly one way.  Any other ideas?”  Silence and quizzical looks reigned.

He then then said, “Suppose you were reading something and came across a word that you did not know the meaning of.  What would you do then?”  Petty much in unison we replied, “Look it up in the dictionary.”  “And how would you do that?” he enquired further.

One brave student described the process of looking up a word in a dictionary and the rest of us tacitly concurred. “So, you would not start at the first word in the dictionary and read each definition from beginning to end until you came to the word whose meaning you wanted to know?”

We all looked around at one another as if to emphatically say, “of course not.”  “Why then, if you wanted to know something about Adult Education would you start at the beginning of this text and read until you found the answer to your question?” he asked with a pleasant smile on his face.

“Think about it now,” he said.  “If I asked you to define the word ‘andragogy’ and you only had this text handy, what would you do?”

You could almost see the light bulbs flashing in our minds, “Look it up,” we offered.  “Where?” he continued.  A thoughtful silence followed.  And then someone, sadly not me, said, “In the index. I would look up ‘andragogy’ in the index and see if I could find the definition.”

“And what if you found a word in the definition that you did not know the meaning of?  Like the Greek word pais? What then?” he asked.

The room was now filled with light (metaphorically speaking).  “I’d go to the index again,” someone replied.  “Exactly,” said Malcolm, “In that way, you could more quickly answer YOUR question without going through a whole lot of material that at the moment was not immediately relevant to your question.  And, you could do that again and again until you had answered a good many of your questions and read the whole book at the same time.  You would have had a dialogue with a inanimate object–a book,” he concluded.

I have never forgotten that first class in “Introduction to Adult Education” and the very simple example that taught me that education was:

  1. not so much about learning “stuff” as about pursuing answers to problems I had whether conceptual, procedural or skill-oriented, and
  2. that it required a kind of dialogue or collaboration between myself and my learning resources (teachers, fellow students, day-to-day experience and even books).

We learned a great deal more in that class which space will not allow me to cover here.  Suffice to say that online education for adults (and I would say children as well) needs to be student and problem centered not teacher and subject matter centered.  Online education can be particularly good at offering self-paced problem-centered education.  For example, branching instructional material can enable students to follow a line of inquiry using hot links.  Online programs can offer interactive exercises which allow students to practice and hone a new skill

Online education can also promote learning dialogue and collaboration essential to the learning process not only with the use of interactive resources but also through synchronous Web-conferencing, seminars and discussion groups.  Students may be geographically separate but technology can enable them to learn and work together both in real time and through the electronic exchange of documents, data and online references.

We were not using personal computers in 1973.  It took ten more years for the first IBM PC to be launched.  But the principles of Adult Education developed by Malcolm forty years ago, are as applicable to online education today as they were to the classroom of the early ‘70s. At a minimum, effective education has to be student and problem centered as well as collaborative.  As Malcolm repeated often, “Students are not empty vessels into which instructors or even college professors pour information. ….Rather, they are voracious and inquisitive problem solvers alert to novelty around them from their first to last breath.”

Large Standing Military More A Violation of the Second Amendment than Gun Control?!?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Most of the scholarship on the Second Amendment revolves around the question of whether the framers included it to enshrine and the “individual” or “collective” right to bear arms.  It seems to me that the preponderance of the evidence favors an individual right to bear arms.  That, of course, is a different issue than whether the Second Amendment prohibits the government from regulating aspects of individual gun ownership.  

Even arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sees a role for regulation in this area.   All gun control folks, like myself, are asking for is  “sensible regulation” not the banning of guns.

As to the Second Amendment itself, the question of whether it was adopted because the framers thought the people needed to be able to protect themselves from their own government is another matter.

The framers saw standing armies as a threat to liberty. red coats 1 Consequently, they saw the need for something different from a standing army (either federal or state) to ensure the security of the people.  

For them the answer to the question of national defense was a people’s army–“a well ordered militia”–that would respond to a call to arms to defend the nation and/or states from aggression.  In a sense, the framers were  leery of a  standing tavernprofessional military (what we now have) and saw the role of national (“free state”) defense as better carried out by temporary and part-time citizen soldiers.  

They did not envision the nation they were in the process of creating as even having a large standing army.  The duty of defending the young nation would therefore naturally fall to citizen soldiers.  History proved this initial vision “of the well ordered militia” as the chief means of defense to be impractical as the War of 1812 quickly demonstrated.  

In summary, Americans have an individual right to bear arms, that right can be regulated to ensure greater public safety and finally the Second Amendment’s major focus was to recognize the “well ordered militia” as the primary means of ensuring federal and state security from aggression and some forms of local social disorder like run away slaves in the south (ironically one of Patrick Henry’s chief concerns) and to ensure that its members had arms with which to respond when called to action.

In modern America, we have largely abandoned the framers aversion to having a standing professional military.  In fact, most Americans are proud of those who serve and this nation’s preeminent military status in the world.   Regulating guns is not a violation of the Second Amendment. If there is any current violation, one could well argue, ironically and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that it is this modern shift to the maintenance of a large standing professional military that runs counter to, at least, the spirit of the the Second Amendment.

Note:  A humorous version of the points made in this post can be found here.

Conflating Gun Control with Banning Guns

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In this morning’s New York Times, Nicolas Kristoff has an op-ed piece about gun control.  Take a look at it:  . 

I am pointing this article out to you because I both like and dislike it at the same time.  In short, I am ambiguous about it.

I like it because it makes a good case about not having guns as readily available as they are.  He does a good job of showing how ready access to firearms can be a very dangerous thing.  If you follow him closely, it is difficult not to conclude that it is unwise to have a firearm in one’s home at all.  

While that may be true, I dislike this article because in making the point about the danger of firearms availability, Kristoff tacitly conflates gun control (limiting and regulating firearms) with banning guns altogether.  Maybe the later is a good idea and maybe not but it is a different thing from limiting and regulating guns.

The gun control debate is a very sensitive one and muddying the issues like this is part of what frightens gun owners.  Granted, Kristoff does not say that guns should be banned but the stories about the goose and the domestic argument concluding with statistics about suicide and how guns make the home less not more safe certainly suggests that he would be happy to see all guns banned and is only really “settling”  for more controls as a fall back position.

I can almost hear the gun owners,  reading between the lines, talking about how this article demonstrates that there really is a hidden liberal agenda:  an agenda to disarm not simply control.  It would be better if those of us who seek a reduction in gun violence through more effective gun regulation did not confuse the issue of sensible regulation with anything that suggests some sort of total ban.  While I personally agree with Kristoff about the danger of guns in the home, I think that articles like this do more to polarize the issue than to resolve it.  

Kristoff himself probably does not want to see a total ban on firearms and his article suggests several practical and sporting reasons for the availability of weapons.  Yet, reading (and re-reading) the article it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that he feels we would be better off without hand guns or other firearms sitting (locked or locked) on closet shelves or gun cases in American homes.  Whether this is true or not, adding these sentiments to the “gun debate” in the way that he does only adds ambiguity and increases the wariness of those who all too easily tend to see secret totalitarian conspiracies to strip them of their liberty lurking around every corner.

Anything But Guns

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2One thing that I have noticed about the current debate on gun violence in the country is that those who argue against greater regulation of guns first response when talk of gun control comes up is to say that gun control will not be effective in lowering the rate of gun violence.  They then proceed to list a variety of things that  they feel may be contributing factors to gun violence.  First on this list is a broken mental health system, second is the entertainment industry followed rapidly by video games.  Most of these factors have nothing to do with actual guns.  When guns are mentioned, the argument is made that the absence of  guns in gun free zones like schools and playgrounds is a contributimg factor to gun violence.

Guns themselves are apparently not thought to be contributing factors to gun violence.  In fact more guns, will very likely improve the situation; they argue.  To me this all sounds oddly counter-intuitive. Guns must have something to do with gun violence.  The weapons themselves may not account for the whole problem.  There are no doubt numerous causes for gun violence in society.  But it strains credulity to suggest the idea that the better control of guns themselves is irrelevant.

It is almost as though, when the question of guns and control appear in the same sentence those who oppose better gun control laws immediately what to change the subject and begin talking about the media or the broken mental health system.  Anything but guns.  They seem want to change the subject and divert attention away from guns.  It as if the subject of guns and their control was simply taboo.

For those who will talk about guns, their talk is only in defense of the right to bear arms and the subject is deflected again into the need for citizens to be able to protect themselves not from home invaders and the like but from the Federal Government which, they say, has a insidious plan to disarm everyone.

In no time what should be a conversation about common sense regulation of firearms gets spun out of control. The problem of lowering gun violence is made to appear too complex to address with anything but more guns and gun control is painted as a violation of a sacred constitutional right to bear arms.

Is this “change the subject” reaction a cynical ploy to avoid further regulation of firearms or does the very mention of the control of guns frighten gun advocates so much that they are just unable to talk about the guns themselves?  Perhaps, cognitive dissonance is at work here.  Gun advocates see guns as good, and in some cases beloved,  things which provide protection, sport or even food.  Seeing guns used for bad purposes presents them with such a dissonant image that they simply, and quite literally, do not see guns as a significant contributor to gun violence and cast their nets to find a whole host of other culprits.

As a consequence, debate on effective action to limit gun violence becomes mired in all sorts of related but not central issues and talk of guns and controlling them gets lost in the shuffle.

Gun Control versus Disarming the Populace

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recent events in Newtown CT and Aurora CO have aroused the concerns of many about the level of gun related violence in America and the safety of public places from schools, to restaurants and movie theaters.  Shocked by the level of gun violence many Americans argue that guns of all types should be better regulated and that guns of some types (e.g.; semi automatic assault rifles) should be prohibited from ownership by the public altogether.

Those advocating better gun control would like to see things like background checks for all firearms purchases, licensing of all firearms, safety training for gun owners, required liability insurance for gun owners and a variety of other measures that stop well short of taking all guns away from all private citizens.

Most Americans whether they are gun owners or not feel that an otherwise law abiding citizen ought to be able to own a firearm for the purposes of self-protection, sport hunting, subsistence hunting, recreational target shooting and related types of activities.  They think that Americans should be free in this way no matter how the Supreme Court interprets the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

What this group of Americans wants is sensible gun control so that persons who should not have firearms do not have them.  They want to stop the completely unregulated flow of firearms at gun shows and they want to see a better (perhaps Federal) data base that is effective in identifying persons who should not be armed.

Most people who take this view realize that better regulation will not prevent ALL gun violence and are not suggesting that lowering the level of gun violence is only a matter of better regulation.  They feel it is a common sense part of a broader approach which also addresses our currently dysfunctional public mental health system and other aspect of our society which give rise to social violence.

In contrast to this first group, there is another segment of the population that feels that it should be armed in order to be able to rise up against a government that becomes totalitarian on the model of a Stalinist Russia or a fascist dictatorship.  These people feel that if the “people” are disarmed then ipso facto the federal government will gradually take over all liberties, eliminate individual choice in most matters of importance and essentially enslave the people and make them passive cogs in the wheels of an evermore dehumanizing state.

These people tend to see the government (especially the Federal government) as a kind of malevolent force which will gradually grind them into submission unless they  arm themselves in a way that would prevent the state from overpowering them.  These individuals argue that the framers of the Constitution recognized the danger of state power over unarmed citizens and that Second Amendment to the Constitution’s purpose is to enable citizens to protect themselves from the tyranny of their own government.  They do not tend to see the US government, as Lincoln eloquently put it, to be, “of the people, by the people and for the people” but rather as inherently alien to “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.  Firearms for this group are tools for maintaining their personal and political liberty.

Any attempt to further regulate guns, appears to this latter group to be an attempt to undermine their fundamental right to protect themselves from tyranny and must be resisted no matter how sensible such regulations might seem to the task of lowering gun violence.  Some even admit that some of the proposed regulations would likely have some impact on gun violence but not enough of an impact for them to give any ground on what they see as their right to defend themselves from the government and its natural tendency to totalitarianism.

On the gun control side of the argument, no one wants to ban guns completely; just make them less readily available to the wrong people and control the types of guns that are available to those a person might need for protection, hunting or target shooting.  The defend-myself-from-the-government side of the argument tends to see gun regulation as the first step on the slippery slope toward the total banning of guns and thus the first step in the victory of totalitarianism over liberty. On the fringe of this movement, we even hear of those who want to make it legal to have things like rocket launchers, hand grenades etc. just in case they are needed for the fight against the government.

There is a lot to say about all this and the very different world views of people on either side of this argument and I will try to address some of them in later posts.  For now, I want to come down firmly on the side of greater gun control for greater public safety and health.  Our form of government was designed specifically to avoid the need to have an armed populace ready to revolt against tyrants in power.  The  American experiment is an experiment, if nothing else, in “self” government; i.e., “of the people, by the people and for the people.”  The people together shape society by regulating things and practices that pose unnecessary risks to its members.  Once we decide that we are part of the American project to build an egalitarian and truly participatory society, arming oneself against that project is self defeating in the extreme.

Labeling efforts at sensible gun control as efforts to ban all guns is both misleading and false. I don’t believe that anyone is suggesting the banning of all guns–just some sensible limitations.  Because these limitations will not fix the whole problem, is no reason not to include them in the array of things we, as a nation, decide to do to stem gun violence.  Most important of all, we should not fall victim to the argument that guns are necessary to defend oneself from the inevitable tyranny of government itself.  If we do that, participatory democracy and the American Dream will have literally shot itself in the foot with a rather large caliber weapon.

Tom Thomson’s New Blog Launched

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Welcome to R&R!

This blog will be a continuing set of reflections and remarks on modern society and politics with a focus on the US.

I hope to make this blog both interesting and challenging. In recent years, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of public discourse in the United States and hope to use this blog a one small vehicle for raising the level of that discourse.  Personally, I tend to view the world through secular humanist and socially progressive eyes.  Although I do come from the progressive tradition, I also try to keep my eyes, mind and heart open to a variety of points of view and to engage in constructive dialogue.

The title of this blog is not accidental.  In military circles R&R conjures up notions of stepping back from the battle field and resting and recuperating from its stresses.  Although one can never escape the cultural fray, I shall try to write pieces here that are not hyperbolic or frenetic but rather provide an opportunity to step back for a moment or two relatively peaceful reflection on American and world society.  Passions run high in the world today and I may from time-to-time fall victim to unnecessary intemperance but, in the main, I hope to provide prudent reflection rather than vitriol.

I look forward to your comments and reactions in the days and weeks to come.