Archive for June, 2014

When ambition becomes ambiguous

Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” profiles the political brilliance of Abraham Lincoln. In the book she references a French aristocrat who visited a burgeoning America in 1831.

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent on a royal mission to examine America’s prisons. But after touring the United States for two years, he published a broader work in 1835 entitled “Democracy in America.” Its insights are timeless and its warnings are timely.

As Goodwin notes, Tocqueville captures the spirit of the age in which Lincoln and his contemporaries rose to leadership. As children of the American experiment, these men recognized the experiment’s distinction from European aristocracy and its value for social mobility.

Tocqueville writes:

“When both the privileges and the disqualifications of class have been abolished and men have shattered the bonds which once held them immobile, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind.

“Ambition becomes a universal feeling… Every American is eaten up with a longing to rise.”

Lurching forward 175 years: Is ambition a universal feeling in America today? Does every American have a longing to rise?

A handful of factors makes me think not.

First, the post-modern culture ridicules ambition. Take the latest McDonald’s commercial in which a high school freshman scans extra-curricular options: debate team, math team, chess team and then this innovation: “The Chill Out with a McCafe Iced Coffee Team.”

Two less-than-eager team members lure recruits by leaning coolly back in their chairs and sipping on sugary, caffeinated bevs.

Second, the consumer culture levies high finance costs. Consumer lusts leverage future income and limit financial flexibility. Committing tomorrow’s money today makes the present look brighter than the future. It’s tough to see the way up when one is paying the minimum $86 payment on a $8,000 credit card balance.

Third, government benefits neutralize ambition. When taxing authorities provide more and more goods and services, people get complacent. When basics are met apart from a person’s hard work and determination, it zaps his/her drive to ascend. Poor decisions then beget poor decisions.

Fourth, government regulation postpones or eliminates the rewards of ambition. When a business owner has to spend more time complying with laws and regs, the payoff of risk-taking makes less sense. Heavy government intrusion squelches the drivers of growth and mobility, namely, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Fifth, relational inadequacies are growing. In Lincoln’s day, young people served as apprentices and proteges. They built the trust of older generations. They needed these connections in order to survive and they wanted them in order to advance.

Today, TV, movies, video games and Internet browsing often interrupt relationship-building. They can diminish ambition. Very little of modern media is productive or creative. Most is consumptive and reactive.

Not everyone is made to be an entrepreneur. However, everyone is made to create in some way. Media consumption crowds out creativity, and, without creativity, there is no ambition.

Elsewhere in “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville warns against a democracy of unambitious citizens.

In their ignorance and materialism, they are susceptible to a despotic government that “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him online at www.kwt.info.

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What a difference a year makes

A year ago we San Antonians nursed our wounds. Tim Duncan’s chance at “one for the thumb” had slipped through the net like a Ray Allen three-pointer. With an aging core, a Finals return seemed unlikely.

Then, Coach Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to the NBA’s best regular season record and a triumph over all Western Conference foes.

And then, Mr Duncan promised redemption. “We’ll get it done this time,” he calmly pronounced after defeating Oklahoma City on May 31.

I had my doubts. The Spurs were again up against the “best player on the planet” and a Big 3 that took its talents to South Beach to win “not two, not three, not four…” but more championships.

Oh, but what joy that basketball inventor James Naismith concocted a team sport! And what a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, San Antonio entered a collective depression. This year, the celebration hasn’t stopped. Not even headfirst fall from a pickup can keep us down (Google “Spurs fan face plant”).

Last year, Manu Ginobili made more turnovers than an English bakery. This year, he dunked on Chris Bosh and resurrected moments of brilliance.

Last year, a once-dominant Duncan knocked hard on retirement’s door. This year, it looked like he could be an effective role player for another five years.

Last year, Patty Mills waived a mean towel from the bench. This year, he threw daggers that put a languishing victim out of its misery.

Last year, Kawhi Leonard was 21. This year, he was 22. And MVP.

Last year, Heat forward LeBron James rejected Spurs center Tiago Splitter in a series-defining play. This year, Tiago sent Heat guard Dwyane Wade packing.

Last year, the Heat’s supporting cast showed up. This year, they appeared tired of the LeBron show.

Last year, the air conditioning worked every game. This year, a warm June night separated the men from those who cramp.

Last year, LeBron swaggered. This year, he whined.

Last year, a yacht-owning Heat owner accepted the championship trophy. This year, a heavy equipment-dealing Spurs owner accepted it.

Last year, the Spurs ran a stale triangle offense. This year, Coach Pop changed to a 1940s weave.

That was about all Pop changed.

He still spoke concisely in interviews. He still graciously hugged LeBron when it was over. He still thanked the fans. (Last year, it was the thousand who greeted a losing team at the airport. This year, it was 75,000 who celebrated at the Alamodome).

Yet again, Pop represents all that’s right with the Spurs and the world. The love he has for his players. The lightness with which he navigates success and fame. The perspective he brings to the game.

When other NBA coaches would be straightening their ties for the championship photos, Pop took his off. It draped casually around his neck as if to say, “Hold loosely to things that pass.” Fittingly, this philosophy had put his team on the championship stage.

During timeouts, Pop would tell his players, “Don’t let it stick,” referring to the ball and the importance of frequent passing.

The principle orchestrated a Mozartian display of team basketball and a fifth NBA title. Pop knows it will orchestrate a fulfilling life, as well.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

 

P.S. Related: An open letter to Pop, July 2013 – https://kwtinfo.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/an-open-letter-to-pop/

 

Remembering Operation Overlord

“I know the sorrow this message has brought you and it is my hope that in time the knowledge of [his] heroic service to his country, even unto death, may be of sustaining comfort to you.”

A half day of heroism seventy years ago today put that sentence in 2,500 heart-wrenching War Department letters to wives and mothers across our great country. Nearly two thousand families in Britain and Canada received similar missives.

June 6, 2014, marks the seventieth anniversary of Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day.

Men died in many ways on and before D-Day. Some fell during cliff-climbing exercises on the southern coast of England in the weeks leading up to the invasion. Others died early that morning parachuting in behind enemy lines.

Offshore, heavily armored “swimming tanks” sank. According to one soldier, “Them poor guys, they died like sardines in a can, they did. They never had a chance.”

Then there were the courageous souls aboard the flat-bottomed boats. The watercrafts, designed by Louisiana entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins, were invented to save Mississippi River flood victims. As their ramp doors lowered off the coast of Normandy, the boats did anything but save.

Infantrymen, many grossly seasick from the choppy ride across the English Channel, hopped into frigid, waist-deep water under ominous overcast skies. German machine gun, mortar and artillery fire welcomed them into the water and onto the shore.

“There were bodies floating around, no end of them,” one survivor recounted.

Another remembered, “You couldn’t lay your hand down without touching a body. You had to weave your way over top of the corpses.”

Lt. Col. William Friedman: “Rank had nothing to do with anything on that beach… Not by unit, not by role, everybody individually…did what they had to do… [Men] started yelling, God*****, get up, move in. You’re gonna die anyway, move in and die!”

Void of self, many moved in and died. God rest their souls.

A comrade recalled the scene: “I walked by, oh God, the guys that died that day — all those beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, the day before, the night before, kidding and joking.”

Why did so many have to die?

In short, so that 130,000 infantrymen and 20,000 airborne troops could land safely after them.

In medium, so that a continent could be liberated from a madman.

And, in long, so that you and I could have the freedom to say, write and do what we want.

Lt. Gordon Osland of Michigan was one hero who fell that day. Three days earlier, he had written to his pregnant wife for a final time. He describe her as Sweetheart, Darling, Honey, precious and beautiful. He acknowledged the mission before him but seemed not overwhelmed by it. “I am very calm and not the least bit nervous.”

In a P.S., he asked for her help on one matter: “If anything should happen to me, please pay H.J. the $25 I owe him.” An odd request given the weight of the moment, but also an inside look into a soldier’s honor.

Maybe H.J. stood by her side when the Adjutant General’s letter came two weeks later. I’m quite confident he at least considered the debt paid in full – paid not by U.S. currency but by the blood of a patriot on a beach called Omaha.

 

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at www.kwt.info.


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