Byron's Babbles

Reflecting On Our Presidents

“The Republican Club,” by artist Andy Thomas, was personally chosen by President Donald Trump to be displayed in the White House.

Andy Thomas Democratic Club presidents painting Image of “The Democratic Club” painting by Andy Thomas

It has been an incredible 2020 President’s Day. I had to drive to Nashville, Tennessee this morning so I had lots of time to reflect on our Presidents. My son and I were together this past weekend and reflected on the Presidents in the paintings displayed in this post. We pondered what they were discussing and thought about how great it would be to have conversations with these Presidents. As I got closer to Nashville, I reflected on the leadership of Andrew Jackson. I had the chance to go to The Hermitage last year and to the site of The Battle of New Orleans the year before that. There are certainly things that I would not have agreed with Andrew Jackson on, but there is no question he was a great leader. I blogged about his leadership in “Old Hickory” Leadership.

I had a great day tweeting questions every hour or so related to our Presidents. There was some great interaction. Here’s the questions I asked throughout the day:

  • Who was our U.S. President the day you were born?
  • Who were the U.S. Presidential candidates the first time you were able to vote?
  • If you could have dinner and a conversation with any past or present/living or deceased United States President, who would choose?
  • If you care to share, who was the first U.S. President you ever voted for?
  • Who has spent time in the Oval Office with a U.S. President? Is so, which one?
  • If you could add another U.S. President to Mount Rushmore, who would you add?
  • Are you reading about any U.S. Presidents right now? If so, which one(s)?
  • Have you finished any great President autobiographies or biographies lately?
  • What is your favorite Presidential Library you have been to?
  • What do you consider the best book by or about a First Lady of our great nation?

Wow, until I typed them out here, I had not realized I had asked 10 questions today. I can’t resist telling you that our 10th President was John Tyler. He became President in 1841 when William Henry Harrison died. He was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency after the death of his predecessor. How about that for some President’s Day learning? It was sure fun reflecting on the past and how our Presidents have affected our lives and this great country we call home.

A Clouded Social Critique

Posted in Compassion, Freedom, Global Leadership, Honor, Leadership, Storytelling, The Warehouse by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on January 25, 2020

The WarehouseThe Warehouse by Rob Hart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an absolute genius work of art. The story is told from the three main characters points of view. I believe the most innovative part of Hart’s writing in this novel is that one cannot distinguish between who is protagonist or antagonist. And, I was left still pondering this after I had read the last words. Additionally, all characters have internal and external conflicts. Two of the main characters, Paxton and Zinnia, are dynamic in their character development and again we are left wondering where this development will leave them. Gibson is the only, round, or fully developed main character. One finds him in the book for what he is, a person who talks great core values, but is caught up in ambition over purpose. I blogged about this in “It has been an Honor To Live This Life”: https://byronernest.blog/2020/01/23/i… The book gives us different versions of the same truth. This really reads as a social critique on America. The business, Cloud, that the novel is written around really almost becomes a character in and of itself. This book treads the blurred line very closely to what is real, not so far off in the future real, and still out there a ways – or at least so I hope. There are parts of this book that seem so real that they should worry us. I blogged about this in “Remember, Freedom Is Yours Until You Give It Up”: https://byronernest.blog/2020/01/25/r… This is a must read book because of the great literary art that it is, but also because of its thought provoking nature.

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“Remember, Freedom Is Yours Until You Give It Up”

Posted in Freedom, Global Leadership, Leadership, Lyndon B Johnson by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on January 25, 2020

Earlier this week I wrote a post about learning from the great book I finished reading last week The Warehouse by Rob Hart. I won’t spend time on talking generally about the book here, but you can get an idea from my original post “It Has Been An Honor To Live This Life.” As I stated in that post the book has statements made by the characters that really made me think. The one that inspired this post was: “Remember, freedom is yours until you give it up.” This statement was made by Zinnia to Paxton. Paxton, referring to Cloud, a live-work industry, where they both lived and worked said, “They’re not perfect, but at least here I have a job, and a place to live. Maybe this is the best way to do things. Maybe the market has dictated, huh?” Then Zinnia opened her mouth, as if to say: “‘Don’t you see?’ ‘Don’t you get it?’ She wanted to tell him about what she’d seen, and what she’d found, and what she felt, and what this place had done to him, and to her, and to everyone. The entire goddamn world” (2019, Hart, p. 324). Remember, this is a fiction novel, but I am telling you it could be real, and we need to be concerned it could be real.

img_7793But let’s look deeper into this thought of “…freedom is yours until you give it up.” Freedom means different things to different people. Personally, I have always broken freedom down into two main categories: 1) Freedom To, and 2) Freedom From. To me, everything comes down to those two things. We need to distinguish between what it means to be free from something and to be free to be or do something. For example, freedom to might be described from a political standpoint of having the opportunity to vote for particular ideas, people, or parties which best represent our views. Examples include the right to bear arms or to assemble and speak freely. Or,  something as simple as leaving the hotel room I am in right now in Murray, Kentucky and pick anywhere my son and I want to go eat lunch. Freedom from could mean the notion of freedom from environmental hazard or some other preventable hazard. This should not be confused with licentious freedom. To be free, and remain free, we must become responsible human beings.

Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 5.16.11 PMInterestingly, however, “freedom to” and “freedom from” have always been an area of civic and political tension. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “…freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” In striving to achieve these goals, we often face resistance from those who are focused on “freedom to,” who see an aspiration towards “freedom from” as a threat to individual liberty. This is being outlined in another great book I am reading right now by one of my favorite authors, Amity Shlaes, in Great Society: A New History. The book told of President Johnson’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan when he said, “The truth is, far from crushing the individual, government at its best liberates him from the enslaving forces of his environment” (Slaes, 20, p. 98). I, for one, do not believe that more government is the answer to any issue.

Johnson’s Great Society, however, is a great case study for the tension of “freedom to” and “freedom from.” Our country’s move toward socialism during that age was marked by our government’s effort to end poverty which drove federal spending to unsustainable heights. “America,” Shlaes wrote, “morphed into a country that could afford nothing.” Harry Truman always spoke of the nuances of leadership, and the Great Society must be studied, which Shlaes did, in the nuanced context of the relationship of the Vietnam War, poverty, and civil rights. It has been debated whether what was being proposed was socialism, but whether one believes that production being controlled or distribution of wealth being controlled is socialism, one thing is clear; the Great Society created a tension of “freedoms to” and freedoms from.” One of the most interesting comments from Shlaes in the book so far (because I’m only on page 124 of 513) is an interpretation of how Senator George Smathers of Florida was thinking: “A law that defined new rights at the national level was taking away from individuals the authority of their own conscience, and substituting a federal, national conscience to overrule them. And who knew whether the federal government’s conscience would always be better? (Shlaes, 2019, p. 116). This is an interesting question to ponder.

If I bring this full circle back to where we began with the fiction novel, The Warehouse where we found that a business named Cloud had basically taken over everything – it controlled the markets, what products people were able to buy, how they lived, et cetera. Certainly, I do not want that any more than I want the government becoming my conscience, controlling markets, or dolling out huge amounts of money for programs that don’t work. Alexander Hamilton believed, as do I, that the people are very capable of governing themselves based on reflection and choice. We also need to stay true to the desire of framers Washington, Jefferson, and Madison who insisted that governments were instituted for the people, not the rulers. So, freedom really is ours until we give it up. We need to be very careful how we balance this tension.

Interestingly, Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) studied this very issue. Berlin called what I am calling two types of freedom in this post, two concepts of freedom: 1) Negative freedom – freedom from control by others, and 2) Positive freedom – freedom to control oneself. Berlin referred to our two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. That certainly does describe each and every one of us. Because of the two selves Berlin posited that negative freedom and positive freedom can both be abused. This was and is an issue that continues to be debated. And, it needs continual debating. This debate is the essence of the statement “Freedom is yours until you give it up.” This is why we must have the tough conversations about issues and why we all need to be involved in our local communities, states, and nations. As I said earlier, I believe as Hamilton did, people are very capable of governing themselves. Some individuals might need help understanding their best interests and achieving their full potential, and some would believe that government has a responsibility to help them do so. The question becomes “Who decides what counts as a rich and fulfilling life?”

There are no easy answers to these questions. Berlin never came up with the exact answer, only new questions. This is one of those conundrums that will continue to be debated, but at least we have distinctions like Berlin’s to help us navigate the tension and contemplate the realization that freedom is ours until we give it up.

REFERENCES

Hart, R.W. (2019) The warehouse. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

Shlaes, A. (2019) Great society: a new history. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing.