Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Department Trip to Cuba

Right after finals week the Political Science Department is headed to Cuba!  Department Chair Dr. Chuck Moran and I will be leading a group of students, alumni, and friends of the university to the island nation.

We will depart on May 20 and stay in country until May 28.  While there we will spend time in Old Havana and Trinidad, as well as visit the Escambray Mountain Range.  

Cuba is of great interest to students of political science because of its revolutionary past and its promising future.  It is of course the location of the Cuban Revolution led by Che Guevera and Fidel Castro.

From an American political perspective, few figures loomed so large over the height of the Cold War.  These men grew into symbols of both the specter of anti-capitalist socialization and the international boogeyman of communist expansion.  

Cuba was where JFK’s failed Bay of Pigs debacle took place, as well as the backdrop for the Cuban Missile Crisis.  No closer has humanity come to destroying itself than those tension filled days in October of 1962.

For now Cuba stands as a country in transition from a closed economy to a blossoming member of the world community.  While the small nation’s fate is not yet written, and the winds of change might at least temporarily stall forward progress, it seems as if the country is opening up its borders.  Likewise, the world community is embracing Cuba.  In a few years Cuba will likely have changed substantially into something quite different than what it is today.  This is a once in a lifetime chance to visit a culture that only now opening its arms to its neighbors.

On a personal note, this trip is meaningful to me as a Rockhurst political science alum.  While a student here I traveled to China, Hong Kong, Israel, and Russia with Dr. Moran and Dr. Frank Smist of the political science department.  It is a joy to be making this voyage with students of my own as a member of the faculty.  I invite anyone who has an interest in this joining myself and Dr. Chuck Moran on this journey to contact me at  Initial deposits are due on February 20th, so don’t delay! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

AHA Conference in D.C.

Each semester I get the joy of meeting “new” students to teach.  I use quotation marks because Rockhurst is a small enough place that I have had many of them in classes before, or perhaps I’ve been on a service trip with them or serve as their academic adviser.  Even if the mix of faces is a blend of new people and the familiar, the group dynamic of the classroom is always unique.  

Not to mention the subject matter.  Because we have a small department I have the privilege of rotating through a variety of course topics.  This journey through different ideas keeps my teaching job fresh!   I can’t imagine spending a career teaching say an introductory course and one or two upper level seminars.  While it can be challenging to keep up with such a broad scope of subject matter, I feel very intellectually alive by the dynamic.  Yet there is one commonality I have come to see across the subtopics of my discipline: history matters.  

Over break I attended my first history conference: the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  It was held in Washington D.C., a capital city filled with mammoth scale statues, museums, and office complexes.  There is the epic grandeur of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the somber starkness of Arlington National Cemetery, and the majestic Capital Mall: backdrop to so many historical events.  Pierre L’Enfant’s Washington has been built block by block with these granite and limestone edifices that celebrate and memorialize our collective past but also stake out history’s claim on our future.  

One of the first lessons of American government is to explain what is meant by political scientists when they write about “institutions.”  It’s an early step into college level abstraction to stop thinking of political institutions as buildings, official seals, and even collections of people; but rather as the rules and procedures that shape behavior.  The budget of this year is based on what?  Last year’s budget.  We don’t write the whole thing from scratch each year, in an attempt to rebirth America every 12 months.  We just sand down the edges, move around a few things, and of course build on a bit.

The government of this country is not giant buildings or cabinet departments, but better understood as the continuing effort to solve collective problems within a decision-making framework.  This is where history comes into the social science, because this framework is a lingering response not to today’s challenges, but yesterday’s.  Semi-eroded or on life support, the tools we have in our nation’s garage to address 2014 were purchased to solve problems at various points in the past.  

For instance, the most recent omnibus spending bill capped the number of TSA agents who can be hired.  So as we move over a decade past 9/11, and American involvement in the Middle East is fading, an important institution established to protect our safety is losing its head of steam…but yet remains, chugging along.   If history is any guide it will likely remain for quite some time, even as external threats to our country change quickly.    

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Richard Nixon and Cat Litter

Individual student leader presentations in my Political Leadership course start Monday.  So this was the last week of topical content.  On Monday Sam Rushay, Supervisory Archivist of the Truman Presidential Library came in and talked about President Truman as a leader.  He also shared with us his unique expertise on President Nixon.  Prior to working at the Truman Library he spent years transcribing the infamous, as well as the less infamous, Nixon White House tapes.  He played the so-called “smoking gun” Watergate tape in class.  Our discussion with Sam brought up such topics as: Why would he ever record himself committing a crime?  How are electronic records saved in today’s White House?  What sort of redeeming qualities did Nixon possess for him to be elected (twice!) to the presidency?

Yesterday we used the power of our whole group to discuss Chris Lowney’s book on Jesuit Leadership.  We broke the book down into sections before class, with two students serving as moderators for the discussion.  In a true exhibition of magis the moderators, Danielle and Caitlin, prepared discussion slides over the entire book on their own accord.  It went fabulously thanks to the efforts of all!  Frank Kane led the class in a reflection at the end of the session:

A better caption might be: Frank and Professor Beverlin's ongoing exchange over the work of Stephen Ambrose has the class riveted.

...Man Caitlin, it looks like you’re in the 5th hour of REM sleep back there.

Also this past Monday was a symposium on Just War given by Tyler Head, Joel Poindexter, and Professor Curtis Hancock from the philosophy department. 

This got me thinking (I know, uh oh) about the conference Dr. Moran and I attended last week on ethics in the media.  At the conference we heard from foreign policy correspondent Jeremy Scahill, whose most recent work centers on the Obama Administration’s drone war.  If you haven’t read Scahill’s work I encourage you to do so.  He is probably most known for his expose on the private security firm Blackwater (then Xi, now Academi), but has now pivoted to more broad coverage of the Middle East.    
So here’s my thought; which connects to the notion of “we are all leaders all the time” rather than mere pawns in a world led by Thomas Carlyle’s great men.  (Google him; or better yet, don’t).  There have been great leaders who attain their acclaim not through positions of authority or the trappings of high office, but rather through what they actually do and accomplish first. 
Here’s a list of five, there are many more: Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan, and Johann Adam Schall Von Bell.  Some famous, some not; but I definitely encourage you to Google them.      

  …and I leave you with Leadership Lessons from Vader (my dog) #3: be nice to everyone.  When Vader goes to the dog park he befriends the big dogs, little dogs, fat dogs, fancy pampered dogs, 3 legged dogs, even the dogs with the choke collars that bite him on the ass. 

#4.  If you are going to violate norms of behavior be discreet.  I don't advocate pulling a Richard Nixon, but it was amazing he freaking tape recorded it.  Vader on the other hand is a master of the clandestine.  I haven't scooped out the cat litter in years.  Years I say!  I probably don't have to spell out what's happening here. He might not understand abstract language, but could have taught Nixon a thing or two about getting away with it.

#5.  Sleep more, worry less.  This one is what we call "self-evident."

#6.  When forming policy, think about the future.  I don't want to sell my dog short here, he always focuses on the children first.  Public policymakers could learn a thing or two from that.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Political lessons from my dog, Part I

Today Dan Rather visited Kansas City as part of the Rockhurst University Leadership Series.  Before his talk downtown, he visited campus and participated in a question and answer with students.
Here’s a picture taken after the session:

Photo Credit:  Estuardo Garcia

His exchange with the students was great, as were his more formal remarks.  He named the top four leaders he met in his career: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and John F. Kennedy.  He also pointed to the top components of successful leadership and living: beauty, truth, love, loyalty, and courage.  He was funny and engaging when he spoke, and attributed much of his success to his wife. 

This all got me thinking?  Without, a multi-decade career in international journalism under my belt, what could I draw on to pass on my wisdom about all things political?  What else, but my dog, Vader.  This is Vader:

So here goes nothing:  “All I need to know about politics I learned from my dog, Part I.”  

Lesson #1.  Don’t accept phonies for the real thing.

Let’s face it, dog food is crap.  We love these little guys we invite into our home, but we serve them up scoop after scoop of bitter smelling lumber mill byproduct.  I even buy IAMS, the good brand!  Nope…still awful.  But my dog eats it without fail because we have an agreement with each other.  Long ago established, we both understand that this is his lot in life if he is to live under my roof.  He doesn’t love it, but he accepts it.  There is a certain honesty in it. 

Sometimes, in twisted acts of empathy, I’ll try to feed him more expensive human food.  Of course, this is stuff nobody else in the family wants.  He sniffs it and walks away.  He won’t touch fast food, mystery nuggets, or processed meat like turkey hot dogs (Really? “low fat turkey links?”).  No wonder I’m shilling it at the dog.  He might even suck down some expired hamburger or old roast beef.  Again, I’m up front with him. I explain to him, “Look, Vader, its expired, but this is the only way you’re getting actual human food.”  But he doesn’t like things breaded, shaped into ovals, squares, or dinosaurs, or elongated into phony hot dogs.

We citizens are like Vader, we don’t want a politician to sell us a bill of goods.  We would rather eat actual hamburger than a substitute steak.  If a lousy policy goes south (Mortgage derivative sales anyone?) we handle it better when public leaders own up to the problem and lead us out of it.  You might remember those terse meetings at the White House between John McCain and Barack Obama.     

If a poor policy action is swept under the rug and called "OK", we get upset.  The great new example of this is the Obamacare website.  So yes, I’m comparing our old healthcare to familiar dog food and Obamacare to mystery nuggets.

Lesson #2.  As elected leaders, fulfill your duties with energy and enthusiasm.  My dog responds to the doorbell like he woke up to open his presents on Christmas morning!  He pops up and sprints to the door no matter who might be there: grandma or the parolees selling pest control products.  He sniffs away while the visitor thinks “I might not like what’s he’s doing down there, but by golly this guy’s got gusto!”

I think leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and at least early stage Obama and Reagan grasped that we want to be lead forward by a positively engaged force.  Some failed leaders are like my cat though, sitting around on the DVR all day plotting the dog’s death.  They fall into the trap of forgetting they are in a privileged situation, put there by the people. Nixon, and LBJ with Vietnam, fell into this later in their terms.               

…Ok, I have a night class now, but my next blog entry I’ll pick up here with more political lessons from my dog!