Profanity Revisited

In 2014, I wrote a blog post titled "Why There's No Profanity in My Books" (you can read it here). It remains, to this day, the most-read essay I've ever posted on this blog; responses to it were all over the map. But I think that one section of that essay just became especially relevant last week. Here's what I said at the time:

I want to live in a more polite society. The fact is that our society (I'm speaking about the United States here) has become far more coarse and far less civil in my lifetime. Our federal government is grinding to a halt because our leaders can't figure out how to agree on issues and maintain personal respect for each other at the same time; but that's just a symptom of what's happening among the body politic. We've decided that people who disagree with us aren't just misinformed or mistaken; such people must be downright evil, or at least so stupid that we don't have to respect them.

When did I have that epiphany? On Friday, June 25, 2004. (warning: there's profanity in the linked article and audio soundbite).

Do we really want to celebrate our national leaders verbally attacking each other like that?

I don't think so; but can we realistically expect our leaders to behave any better when the citizens who elected them talk to each other the same way? That's the beauty of and problem with democracy — the people get exactly the kinds of leaders they deserve. Swearing in public used to get the speaker shunned as crude and uncivilized. Now we elect leaders who insult each other in open view of the media and celebrate it, and then get frustrated when those leaders can't work together to solve serious problems. Well, it's our fault for putting them there and for creating a climate where those leaders think such behavior isn't merely okay but actually a sign of strength.

And here we are.

Assuming that you haven't been living under a rock, you know that last week during a meeting on immigration, the president of the United States used a hard profanity to describe third-world countries. The exact wording of the sentence is in dispute, but his curse word is the one constant in everyone's story. That set off a storm of public criticism, and rightly so—it was the most vulgar, derogatory thing a US president has said about foreigners in recent memory. He crossed the line from vulgarity to racism.

President Trump and his defenders swear that he isn't racist. To be generous, let's just assume for a moment that it slipped out without him really thinking about what he was saying. That kind of thing happens when profanity is a habit; but even if we are so generous as that, the problem is that he is clearly a man who is not in the habit of mentally screening his words. Look at his track record. He made a crude comment—recorded years before—that sparked the biggest pro-women's rally in historyHe cursed on the campaign trail and continues cursing during public rallies. He tweets whatever he thinks without bothering to ask anyone what the potential consequences might be. This is a man who has no filter between his mind and his mouth; and if he hadn't been so relentlessly crude and vulgar in the past, developing a habit over many years of spewing whatever he thinks, he wouldn't have to defend himself now for having said something that really is indefensible. The line between vulgarity and racism (and misogyny and homophobia etc etc etc) is much thinner than most people care to admit and the president has been skating absurdly close to that line for a long time. It was inevitable that he would cross it at some point; but even if this particular profanity was accidental, he gets no pass. He's the president of the United States. He has an obligation to watch his words because his words now carry real weight and so have very serious consequences.

On a more personal note—given our society's accelerating decent into public vulgarity, I believe that it was only a matter of time before we ended up with a president who uses such language in public and in on-the-record meetings. A culture marinating in public potty language cannot expect to produce political leaders who are dignified in their speech. So if we don't want more of the same, we need to clean up our language. We, the citizens, need to watch our own words; we need to stop giving our patronage to movies, books, TV shows, comedy shows, and other forms of entertainment overflowing with gratuitous profanity; and we need to tell our politicians that they will lose our votes if they fail to represent us with class and decorum when they open their mouths.

China's new stealth jet just entered service

The PLA Air Force's stealth fighter, the J-20.

The PLA Air Force's stealth fighter, the J-20.

Little known fact — my first novel, Red Cell, was originally named Assassin's Mace. The title stuck through the publishing process far enough that Simon & Schuster even had a version of the cover with that title. But the marketing department changed it at the last minute because someone got worried that readers might mistake it for a Game of Thrones-esque fantasy book. I really don't know that could happen with a Blackhawk helicopter on the cover, but I'm not a marketer; and marketing departments tend to get their way on this sort of thing. 

It didn't bother me much at the time, but I kind of regret the change now. If the book was still named Assassin's Mace, people might connect it far more readily with what's really happening to China's military.

Six years after China's Chengdu J-20 strike aircraft made its first flight, the innovative jet has entered service with the People's Liberation Army's Air Force...Peter Singer, a strategist at New America and author of "Ghost Fleet" — a novel that depicts a World War III situation with China, Russia, and the US — told Business Insider that this fits with a Chinese strategy called "assassin's mace." According to Singer, in the Middle Ages, "Chinese assassins would carry a little mace under their sleeves" when facing a guard armed with a long sword. Instead of the assassin carrying their own long, conspicuous sword to match the guard's strength, they used a mace designed to smash the guard's sword, turning the guard's strength into a weakness.

China's J-20 brings this ancient strategy into the modern world.

Read the whole story here.

The Founding Fathers Got It Wrong? I Think Not.

The moment the news broke of the Orlando shootings, I knew that calls for new gun control measures would follow. They always do and they did; but this time, they seemed even more impassioned than usual. The impression was solidified for me when Speaker Ryan called for a moment of silence on the floor of the House of Representatives for the victims and was met instead with yells from Democrats demanding legislative action.

Then I saw this Rolling Stone essay calling for outright elimination of the Second Amendment. Written by David S. Cohen, a constitutional law professor at Drexel University, the essay says flatly,

...sometimes we just have to acknowledge that the Founders and the Constitution are wrong. This is one of those times. We need to say loud and clear: The Second Amendment must be repealed.

Normally I try not to get enmeshed in that particular debate. The arguments for and against had been going around forever and emotions run high enough on all sides that minds never get changed. But something Cohen said got under my skin enough that I feel compelled to offer a rebuttal.


Cohen largely bases his argument for repealing the Second Amendment (let's call it the "SA" so I don't have to keep typing "Second Amendment") on a single assertion — "As much as we have a culture of reverence for the founding generation, it's important to understand that they got it wrong — and got it wrong often." Attacking the Founding Fathers as "deeply flawed people" is a tactic in vogue among many liberal academics these days. The Founders were certainly not perfect people by any stretch; but this particular argument always seems to be made for the express purpose of devaluing the Constitution, thereby making claims that we should rewrite it seem more valid.

To which I say to Cohen and those adopting this tactic: no, the Founding Fathers didn't get it wrong.

To say they "got it wrong" is to commit the cardinal sin of historical analysis — judging historical decisions by modern moral standards. The Founders lived in a different time, facing different cultural, political, and moral constraints than we do. They made the best decisions they could for their time. To declare those decisions wrong based on the cultural, political, and moral norms of our time and with the benefit of hindsight the Founders didn't have is intellectual fraud.

But that's exactly what Cohen does. He applies his own moral framework, shaped by 21st century culture and education, and his own hindsight to the decisions of 18th century Americans and says "they screwed up." His case in point? Slavery.

Much more profoundly, the Framers and the Constitution were wildly wrong on race. They enshrined slavery into the Constitution in multiple ways, including taking the extreme step of prohibiting the Constitution from being amended to stop the slave trade in the country's first 20 years. They also blatantly wrote racism into the Constitution by counting slaves as only 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation. It took a bloody civil war to fix these constitutional flaws (and then another 150 years, and counting, to try to fix the societal consequences of them).

That's another favored tactic of Constitutional critics — invoking its provisions regarding slavery as evidence that the Founders' moral judgment isn't to be trusted. "Boy, if they were such a bunch of racists, why should respect any of their values and ideals?"

Unfortunately for Cohen, that's really crummy history.

First, a significant number of the Founding Fathers wanted to see slavery abolished, George Washington not the least among them, which is quite remarkable when you consider that not one single Founding Father was born and raised in society where slavery was abnormal. Every person's moral code is shaped on a deep, fundamental level by the culture around them, and by the time Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al came of age, the institution of slavery in the colonies was almost 200 years old, its origin about as far removed from them as the Founders are from us. Most proponents justified their support for the institution by invoking biblical passages, so the question of its morality was very divisive; but even among those who proclaimed it a moral evil, the idea that blacks were inferior wasn't even remotely controversial—free, educated blacks who could argue otherwise were virtually non-existent. Some of the slaveholding Founders had considered freeing their slaves but were very worried that newly freed blacks wouldn't fare very well in a society that viewed them as inferior. Slave traders kidnapping and re-enslaving them was a real possibility.

Because slavery was so deeply entrenched in the colonial culture, the Founders recognized something else that Cohen doesn't acknowledge — that, in 1787, a provision banning slavery would've been a poison pill to the Constitutional Convention. Adding the words "slavery is hereby abolished" to the draft would have instantly destroyed the project; and without a stronger constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, the union of the colonies would have dissolved in short order and America would have become a patchwork quilt of weak states dominated by foreign powers and possibly warring with each other well before 1861. Everyone knew that — and yet, some of the Founders at the Constitutional Convention tried to abolish slavery anyway. They thought emancipation was a moral imperative worth gambling the future of the country, and they almost blew up the Convention over it at several points. So all of the constitutional provisions regarding slavery that Cohen invokes as "wildy wrong" actually were hard-fought compromises finally made because the abolition-supporting delegates finally agreed that the alternative — the total dissolution of cooperation among the original 13 colonies — would be far worse. 

Does Cohen think they were wrong on that point? If so, what alternative does he think was available to them? Because they thought the alternative was anarchy. George Washington himself said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson at the start of the Convention in May 1787—

That something is necessary, all will agree; for the situation of the General Government [created by the Articles of Confederation] (if it can be called a government) is shaken to its foundation—and liable to be overset by every blast. In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy & confusion will inevitably ensue.

So any critic who wants to denounce the Founders for "enshrining slavery" in the Constitution needs to explain either 1) why continent-wide "anarchy and confusion" would have been preferable to a failed attempt to abolish slavery in 1787; or 2) just exactly how anyone could have rammed stronger restrictions on slavery or its outright abolition through the Convention without destroying the whole enterprise. It took everything the most brilliant men of the 19th Century had of labor, persuasion, and painstaking compromise to first draft and later get ratified what has proven to be the greatest national constitution ever written; and I personally find it incredibly arrogant for people like Cohen to say the Founders could have and should have done better.

The Constitutional compromises regarding slavery were the best outcomes possible at the time. The Founders knew the Constitution wasn't perfect. They also knew changes would be needed to address evolving conditions over time. That's why they gave us an amendment process for altering it, which they themselves used almost immediately after the new government was formed. And they knew perfectly well that the slavery issue was far from settled, but they tried to give the United States a fighting chance to resolve it without violence in the form of a strong federal government. So Cohen and like-minded critics should consider this — the federal government that the Founders established by the Constitution they wrote was the same one that fought and won that later war that finally abolished slavery. That abolition ultimately did require a civil war was the failure of later generations to advance the progress the Founders had already made; but it was the Founders' Constitution that empowered Lincoln's government to both survive and win the Civil War when it came. 

The fact is that the Constitution of the United States was and is an incredibly progressive document. So it's one of the great ironies of our time that many progressives like Cohen want to denigrate the Founders, who were some of the most progressive men of their age, and the Constitution, which codified some of the most liberal ideals ever conceived. In their zeal to transform American culture and promote progressive goals, those critics are clawing at the foundation that has, in the past, enabled them to advance progressive goals so very far.

I don't know what kind of constitutional scholar Cohen is; but, based on his essay, I don't think that he's a very good constitutional historian.

First Review for The Fall of Moscow Station

The most nerve-wracking part of being a writer is waiting for the first reviews of a new book to come in. It's one thing to hear a friend or family member say they like the book; it's another to hear a professional critic say the same. So it's a relief when that critic reports that your book is a good one.

I'm therefore happy to report that Kirkus—one of the heavies of literary criticism—likes The Fall of Moscow Station. This review will appear in their 15 December edition:

After a vital clandestine U.S. spy network is gutted by a defector, CIA Red Cell agent Kyra Stryker is forced to make a daring last-ditch attempt to avert disaster. Former real-life intelligence analyst Henshaw (Cold Shot, 2014, etc.) has set this tale of international intrigue in the immediate future. Russia's still a bully. The Putin kleptocracy remains in power, considering the U.S. its main enemy. Gen. Arkady Lavrov, head of the military intelligence agency and chief of the Foundation for Advanced Research, especially enjoys stepping on Yankee toes, slipping stealth technology to China and nukes from Iran to Venezuela. The CIA put the screws to those adventures. Now, rumors suggest the clandestine-weapons-trading FAR will sell an electromagnetic pulse weapon to Syria. The situation worsens when CIA agent Alden Maines offers to turn mole for the Russians—this needs better motivation—but is double-crossed. Lavrov personally tortures Maines and gets the identities of every CIA asset in Russia. The clandestine-weapons quandary takes a back seat as Red Cell leader Jonathan Burke and Stryker make a Maines damage-control run to Berlin. People die. Next attempting to rescue Russians working for the CIA, Stryker goes lone-wolf to Moscow. The amoral yet philosophical Lavrov makes a worthy villain, compelled to confront his counterpart, Anatoly Grigoriyev, the FSB (the old KGB) chief who railed against the "madness of selling our technologies to third-world runts" and who now resents Lavrov's dangerous ambitions. The settings seem spot-on, whether a luxurious Moscow CIA safe house, an abandoned Soviet military base in eastern Germany, or the Oval Office, especially as Henshaw's cast of Washington old hands deals with a skeptical young President Daniel Rostow. Henshaw's narrative is a high-tension page-turner, and his tough-minded, independent, and deadly Kyra Stryker is ready to run with the likes of Reacher or Bourne.

Second Thoughts?

I have been asked if, in the wake of the San Bernadino shootings, I have had second thoughts about the sentiments I expressed in my previous blog post. The answer is no. In my opinion, compassion for others is the key characteristic that makes us better people than terrorists. Our country's greatest moments have always been those where we came to the rescue of others. If our appreciation for that legacy is so paper-thin that we're willing to abandon it because two evil people committed an atrocity, then America's best days really are behind us. I don't believe that.

As before, I'm not saying that we should just throw the immigration doors open. We need to be smart about our security arrangements and do all we can to turn evil people away at the border. But those efforts must be grounded in the idea that the United States welcomes anyone seeking freedom and liberty, and that Americans are willing to accept some risks to make that dream available to anyone who truly wants it.

Freedom, Bravery, and Syrian Refugees

The Paris attacks have sparked a significant debate in the US about how to handle Syrian refugees seeking to immigrate. Several governors have declared that they will not allow the refugees into their states.

Esquire magazine published author and retired US Marine Phil Klay's thoughts on the subject. This is the part that struck me—

I get that people are scared. But it's only during frightening times that you get to find out if your country deserves to be called the 'home of the brave.' 

I agree with Klay. If fact, I think Klay doesn't take the point far enough. The US national anthem doesn't just call our country the "home of the brave"; it also calls the US the "land of the free." I would suggest that those two titles aren't just interrelated, but interdependent. Bravery is the prerequisite to freedom.

With apologies to the original author, I would like to repurpose an ancient bit of literature to make the point—Jesus Christ's Parable of the Good Samaritan (ignore any religious implications for the moment; the parable is a literary gem). The story, as originally told, illustrates the world's need for compassion that overcomes all barriers; but I think we could rename it the Parable of the Brave Man and the Cowards to teach another point.

In the story, a man traveling the road to Jericho "fell among thieves," gets beaten up, and lays nearly dead in the road. Several people come by, but no one helps the man. Why not? The parable's author doesn't give a reason. Racial or cultural animus? (The Israelites and Samaritans hated each other). Not wanting to get mixed up in someone else's problems? Too busy? All are possible reasons, but I think the author didn't specify any one reason to make a point—whatever justification we might favor, there really aren't any reasons good enough to justify refusing to help another in need when we can.

For the moment, let's assume that at least some of them might have been afraid that, had they stopped to help, they feared that they might also be attacked. (The road to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, which is probably why Jesus chose it as the setting for the parable). Only the hated Samaritan is brave enough to risk an attack by stopping to help and save the victim's life. Those who didn't help let fear dictate their choice, and that fear really only gave them a single choice—to run. Only the Samaritan's courage, fueled by his compassion, opened up options for him the others couldn't enjoy.

Fear is reactive. Fearful people let threats (real or imaginary) dictate their choices, and fear only allows for two responses—fight or flight. In the case of the admitting Syrian refugees into the US, "flight" amounts to throwing up barriers to stop downtrodden people seeking safety. Courage, on the other hand, allows us to consider other selfless, compassionate options. Yes, terrorists could take advantage of that to kill some Americans, but the truth is that the US government can't protect all its citizens everywhere at all times from all forms of attack anyway. It's a logistical impossibility. So I'd rather see us remain a compassionate country, willing to risk pain to help others, than see us selfishly push away desperate people in a mad chase for the unachievable chimera of perfect security.

"The land of the free" won't be free if it doesn't remain the "home of the brave." The fearful really aren't in control of their own choices or destiny. Yes, we should be careful and take wise precautions, but let's not allow fear to dictate our security policies and deny us the chance to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for people who've been far less fortunate than we've been. 

Of Maps and Sextants

This makes me happy.

Officials reinstated brief lessons in celestial navigation this year, nearly two decades after the full class was determined outdated and cut from the curriculum. That decision, in the late 1990s, made national news and caused a stir among the old guard of navigators.

Maritime nostalgia, however, isn't behind the return. Rather, it's the escalating threat of cyberattacks that has led the Navy to dust off its tools to measure the angles of stars.

After all, you can't hack a sextant.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a US Army officer in which he opined that West Point should stop teaching map-and-compass navigation to cadets.

"Nobody needs that old stuff anymore," he groused. "We have GPS now. It's faster and more accurate."

"What happens if the GPS system goes down?" I asked.

"Not gonna happen," he assured me. Why he was so confident, I have no idea. My brother is an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist and he's not nearly so confident that the GPS satellites will survive in wartime against an advanced enemy.

"What happens if a soldier trips over a tree root and smashes his GPS receiver on a rock?" I asked.

Uncomfortable silence ensued.

"It'll always work" has got to be the least persuasive reason ever for not having a redundant system backing up your primary, and especially in a system on which people will be staking their lives. And the more fragile parts the primary system has, the stupider the argument becomes. Factor in an advanced enemy with a interest in breaking that primary system and not preparing redundant systems or skills should be considered an unforgivable dereliction of duty.

Maps, compasses, and sextants—all technologies that our ancestors developed when they had no access to computers or radio transmitters, and they worked for centuries under some of the worst conditions imaginable. They explored the globe with them and they won wars with them. They require no electricity (less batteries for a soldier to carry) and can't be hacked. They're the most indestructible navigation systems we have. 

"But what if I trip over a root and smash my compass? What if I drop my sextant overboard?"

With a little MacGyver-ish know-how you can make a basic sextant or compass out of common household materials. With those, a wristwatch, and a bit of astronomical knowledge and you can figure out where you are anywhere on the planet with a pretty reasonable degree of accuracy. They're so cheap and easy to build and learn how to use, I can't figure out why the military ever stopped teaching those skills in the first place. It's sure not rocket science.

Were I in charge of US military education, I wouldn't even begin teaching GPS navigation until soldiers and sailors had proven their mastery of the old skills first.

- - - - -

If you want to read an excellent book on how one of those old navigation methods technologies was developed, I recommend Dava Sobel's Longitude. 

If you want to get really hardcore about learning how to navigate by the stars, you'll want your own copy of the definitive manual on celestial navigation— Bowditch's American Practical Navigator (first published in 1802). I've got a copy on my bookshelf and it's a beast. Bowditch is also available for free online, but I prefer the hardcopy version. After all, the time when I'd be most likely to need celestial navigation by the stars would also be the time when I could least count on my iPad working.