Cautionary Tales About Pigeons, Sparrows and Ideological Extremes

Standard

For those who still remember Paul Harvey and miss his “and now you know the rest of the story” delivery style, Lance Geiger will scratch the itch. His episodes, on “The History Guy” YouTube channel, have been my entertainment in the morning before work and enjoy the storytelling adventure before his “forgotten history that deserves to be remembered” wrap-up at the end.

His show is not political. But two of the episodes sparked my thinking about the danger of ideological extremes and the need for checks and balances. One story an example of the central planning gone seriously awry, the other about the unfortunate consequences of technological development combined with market forces, and both stories involve the extinction or near extinction of a species of birds.

Socialized Sparrows and Starvation

The first video, “When China went to war with sparrows” is about the “Four Pests Campaign” that was part of the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The idea was to eliminate certain types of critters as a way to increase hygiene and reduce disease. The targets, mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows, were picked by the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong. Claiming that “birds are the public animals of capitalism,” armed with a population bound to statist fervor, they dramatically reduced the numbers of sparrows.

The end result of this sparrow control campaign was an ecological disaster. As it turns out, holding to Marxist ideals does not make a person an expert on economic development or biological science, and this deliberate elimination of sparrows came with some very serious consequences. This misguided policy is believed to be a leading cause of the Great Chinese Famine, a catastrophe that cost between 15 to 45 million human deaths and was abandoned when Chinese authorities, on the advice of an actual ornithologist, finally realized their terrible mistake.

Che Guevara T-shirt wearing, professional far-leftist ‘rabble-rousers’ may celebrate “people power” when it aligns with their personal prejudices. They often sit smugly and sanctimonious, on their intellectual ivory towers, confusing their book acquired knowledge and ideological indoctrination for wisdom. But given real power these people are dangerous. Mao Zedong, the well-educated son of a wealthy farmer, was not an idiot or especially ignorant. But the masses he controlled (with his anti-Capitalist rhetoric) amplified his mistakes, caused great suffering and claimed many innocent lives.

Sparrows, as it turns out, help to control locust populations. These bugs, now unrestrained by the sparrows, quickly proliferated and went on a crop-destroying rampage. This, along with the reckless use of pesticides and poisons by the Chinese government, was all well-intentioned. Likewise, there are many Socialist policies, championed in the past century in this country, that have failed us as miserably and yet continue to be touted as solutions. Unlike Mao, however, our crop of ‘progressives’ more often doubles down on their mistake, hiding behind their ever more convoluted logic, rather than ever reconsider.

Capitalized Pigeons and Profitable Purges

The second video, “How the extinction of a species affected whiskey production,” deals with the plight of the passenger pigeon. This North American species was once so numerous that the flocks would blot out the sun was hunted to extinction, the last of the birds dying September 1, 1915.

Native Americans had hunted passenger pigeons as they were plentiful and a good source of protein. But, because of the limits of their technology and smaller population size, never put a dent in the numbers of pigeons. But this would all change with the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Trains, telegraphs, and gunpowder enabled more people to join the hunt at pigeon nesting grounds. One well-aimed blast from a two barrelled shotgun could kill as many as 61 birds and tens of thousands were slaughtered with great ease.

The real compounding factor was not the hunters, not the tools that they used, but was rather the money and markets that gave them motivation. Unlike in times past where it only made sense to hunt for only enough to sustain your own family or village, the railroads made it possible to ship vast quantities of the fowl meat to city markets back East. The apparent plentifulness of the birds masked the severe drop in their numbers and the cheap source of protein (or profit) they provided ensured the hunts would continue.

That is not to say that nobody was aware of the decline of the species. There were indeed attempts to reign in the slaughter in the mid-1800s. But these conservationist efforts never gained enough traction to make a difference, the legislation introduced too little too late, and extinction followed.

It would be easy to say this plunder of natural resources was a product of greed. But, insomuch as greed is a selfish excess, that is not an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If it were greedy or selfish for one to merely act in their own self-interest then we would all be equally guilty for breathing. The real problem is that no individual accounted for more than their own harvest. There was not nearly enough consideration for the big picture and market forces took care of the rest.

In a Capitalistic system, productive behavior rewarded. That reward is distributed to those who have the ability and motivation to work. But, without anything to hold this motivation in check, a mass of humanity can quickly become like a swarm of locust devouring everything in its path. The beauty of the Capitalistic system is that it allows people to do more to advance their own self-interests and that is also the downfall of Capitalism as well.

What Is the Moral to the Story?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Perhaps if God cares about the sparrows we should as well?

In the two stories economic systems that could not be more different and produced nearly the same results. Both cases demonstrate the power of a mass of people and remind me of the demotivational poster in my bedroom (gifted from my awesome little sister) featuring a circle of skydivers and the text: “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

The poster, a satirical take on motivational posters, is meant as tongue in cheek humor and not to be taken too serious.

Nevertheless, as there is truth to every joke, the useful message is that it is prudent to stand apart from the crowd, to resist conformity and ask questions. Had enough people questioned the party propaganda or the collective actions of their profit-seeking neighbors the death of millions of Chinese and the extinction of passenger pigeons could have been avoided.

These accounts of pigeons and sparrows are also cautionary tales about two opposite ideological extremes. In Socialism the stupid decisions of a small group of people can be vastly magnified by the subjugated masses. In Capitalism the masses, motivated by profit and market forces, can become a source of terrible devastation. The central planning of collectivists and the lack thereof in individualistic and free-market systems both come with their own unique manifestations of the same risk.

It is worthwhile to note that the unchecked power of the central state, in the path century, is responsible for more deaths (due to wars, genocides, famines, etc) than any one person or group of people motivated by profit. Government policies, often favoring big corporations or particular individuals, at very least contribute as much to the problem as individual desire to profit and are, in fact, responsible for some of the worst man-made ecological disasters in modern times.

However, the properly restrained state can provide a good counterbalance to market forces, to keep the masses from acting like a runaway train unaware of the destruction at the end of the tracks and offers some necessary protection for endangered species. It is for our own long-term good that there are limits to our freedoms.

In the end, I’m not for unrestrained Capitalism anymore than I am for unrestrained government power. As much as possible I prefer to let people make their own choices and therefore, for that reason, shade towards free markets—which, when not interfered with by governments through subsidies or social programs, are the most democratic institution known to men. It is better to allow mistakes to be corrected at a lower level through bankruptcy and individual loss. That said, the extinction of the passenger pigeon speaks to the need for a collective consciousness to hold back our self-interested impulses.

Much destruction can be caused by taking a good thing too far or not keeping it properly restrained by other equally valid principles and concerns. Do not repeat the mistakes of these competing ideological extremes and their equal potential for economically or ecologically disastrous results. Remember the sparrows. Remember the pigeons.

Finding your motivation…

Standard

I’ve been listening to a motivational video since a friend posted a link to it.  It is advice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose to prominence through body building, with an unlikely accent began a career as an actor and then later was elected governor of California.

What he said resonates with me.  I know enough of his story to appreciate the ethic of hard work, confidence, need to overcome fear of failure, to break rules, to ignore naysayers and pursue visions.  We limit ourselves.  The truth is that I limit myself and it is because I doubt my chances for success.

Had Schwarzenegger thought like I do sometimes could he have accomplished what he has? 

No, probably not…

I am a driven and determined guy.  I dream of the impossible.  I hope for the impossible and I believe the impossible is possible by the grace of God.  For some faith is an excuse for them to sit on their hands and do nothing.  But for me faith means full investment in the visions that God has put on my heart.  There can be no compromise with those who tempt you to quit.

I have encountered the naysayers, they are many, and they will try to turn you from what is best.  For your good, they claim, you should settle for less and seek the compromise.  They will recount their own failure as reason, cite facts and present logics, but do not let their faithless words take away your courage.  Fight for what is right and good because you trust that God is right and good and is on the side of those who pursue righteousness and goodness.  Do not listen to the naysayers.

I have my own anxieties.  I too often have made excuses for myself and can too easily withhold my best effort with a fatalistic attitude.  Yet, when we do not put forward our best efforts because of fear, can we blame anyone other than ourselves for our own failure?  It is a lie to blame God or fate for our own failure unless we have truly invested our all.  Those who have done their part and still come up short have still won.

Another thing I have done too often is view failure as defeat.  Failure should instead be viewed as a learning experience.  As the saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  If you give up at the first sign of trouble or after facing some tough opposition, then the goal must not be all that important to you.  To stay focused on the prize, despite the pain, the scars and torments of past failure, that is victory.

I am not afraid to think outside the box.  Sometimes success requires being alone and setting the trend yourself rather than wait on others.  Yes, I would rather the comforts and company of the group, but when the group is limiting God’s purpose for them or encouraging complacency, then one must lead.  A true leader does not wait to be sure others are following, they do not pay attention to rules that come between them and doing what God has for them.

Now, there are components I believe are missing from Schwarzenegger’s perspective, namely God’s providence and grace, nevertheless there is much true in his advice.  Those who have faith can overcome pain, failure, naysayers, fear, worldly rules and be willing to work their butts off for what they believe.

So find your motivation, do not be content to live mediocre and safe, go out and change the world with the fullness of your God given abilities.  To do less than your best, less than you are able to do, that is failure and faithlessness.

Height Privilege is Overrated

Standard

There’s no denying the advantages of being tall. 

Tall people are able to reach higher to get something off the top shelf and can see over a crowd.  It is a competitive advantage in many sports where factors like wing span or vertical leap can potentially earn millions and worldwide popularity.

It is a distinct social advantage to be tall.  Height seems to increase a candidates chances for winning elections, statistics show that taller men fare better in wage earning and in attracting female attention.  It is historical too, tall men seem to have been admired since at least the time of king Saul:

“Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2)

Height is a factor in how people judge qualifications and character.  Short men who gain power are besmirched with the ‘Napoleon complex’ label to describe them.  I can’t imagine a tall man being called a weasel or rodent.  Furthermore, why is person lacking character called a “low life” or an insult to “belittle” a person?

This is obviously systemic discrimination and an insidious prejudice that seeps into the very way we construct language, right?

According to a Slate article, “Short Changed,” the proof is in the numbers:

“Economists have known for a long time that it pays to be tall. Multiple studies have found that an extra inch of height can be worth an extra $1,000 a year or so in wages, after controlling for education and experience. If you’re 6 feet tall, you probably earn about $6,000 more than the equally qualified 5-foot-6-inch shrimp down the hall.”

Armed with this knowledge, one could peg many things lacking in their life to their not being tall, they could claim their leadership skills have been overlooked because they were shorter than another candidate or claim their ambitions would be cast in a more favorable light if they had been accompanied by a 6′-2″ commanding presence.  A single guy of shorter stature could accuse women of being superficial and small-minded for rejecting him and could possibly be right.

But this also gives a lame excuse for lack of effort and honesty…

Maybe a guy is short and a jerk?

Or he’s not actually qualified despite his oversized ego?

Statistics tell us a story and they probably do indication some slight injustice towards short men.  But some damage could be self-inflicted as well.  When a person assumes they are handicapped or victims of discrimination they can react in a way that damages their own reputation and the conditions they create for themselves cause their own disadvantage.  If taller men have a psychological edge, then shorter men may be more prone to inferiority complex and a lack of confidence that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Life isn’t fair and there is no simple solutions to correcting these types of subtle injustices.  Measures taken to fix privileges of height based in overall statistics would likely create only another level of injustice if other disadvantages were not also considered.  How can we decide the benefits of beauty so that ugly people are properly compensated or determine what was a product of simple lack of trying?  Should we punish those naturally confident to make life fairer for those of timid disposition?  It is impossible to right every wrong.  It is hard to find who owes who when all things are taken into account.

image

Nick Vujicic and Kanae Miyahara

My advise is to use disadvantages (real or perceived) as motivation rather than as an excuse to fail.  Nick Vujicic, pictured above with his wife, was not only born short, but he also has no legs and arms, but that didn’t doom him to a life of despair. 

Some of us have likely been discriminated against more than others on the basis of our height, age, gender, weight, ethnicity, race or beauty, but it should never be our excuse to hide behind.  We all have unique challenges, but these challenges we face can prove our strength of character and overcoming these giants will be to our credit.

It is interesting that the man who was picked to lead after king Saul (who had turned out to be an irresponsible and jealous man) was not picked for his unusual height or beauty:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

David, the king who followed Saul’s reign, despite flaws, had courage and made no excuses.  David’s claim to fame was slaying the giant Goliath who had taunted Saul and his army to a contest that nobody including the tall king was willing to take on.  What David lacked compared to Saul in stature or notable appearance he made up for with faith and a good heart.

Short or tall it is better to be a David (or married to one) than a Saul.  Heart trumps height even if nobody but God notices.  So make no excuses and take on the challenges before you without fear or doubt.