Sunday, May 30, 2010

John Waters is less obnoxious than Deborah Solomon

I've mentioned before my abiding distaste for the Deborah Solomon's Sunday interviews in the New York Times. Her questions tend to be confrontational -- even rude -- to no great purpose.

So I was delighted to see today that she interviewed John Waters. Who would come off more tasteless -- the man who got Divine to eat dog feces on film? Or a New York Times reporter?

You already know the answer. Highlights:
It has been more than a generation since your films “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester” established you as a champion of the trash-into-art aesthetic. But now that bad taste is so prevalent in America, does it still carryan artistic charge for you?
Bad taste per se does not, because today it’s reality television and gross-out, big-budget Hollywood comedies. Everything we export — it’s all about bad taste, so it’s not new anymore. You have to know the rules to break them with happiness, and thank God my mother taught me proper table manners.
It gets better:
We should mention that your career went mainstream in 1988, when you directed the film “Hairspray,” which subsequently opened as a musical on Broadway in 2002 and then was made into a second movie starring John Travolta. Has it made you vastly rich?
Last month, I got the very first profit check from the original movie.

How much was it for?
Don’t ask about money. That’s just plain rude.
And, speaking of Waters' new book:
There’s a chapter on Leslie Van Houten, one of the so-called Manson girls, who was convicted of murder in 1971, when she was 21, and who you argue should be released.
I do believe that. Today she is the woman she would have become if she had never met Charles Manson. Leslie is a good friend and someone who has taken full responsibility for the terrible crime she participated in.

What about the families of her victims, who don’t want her released?
They can never be wrong in their arguments, and I would never criticize their viewpoint.
There you have it: John Waters -- despite all he's done -- comes across as mannered, civilized, even a little elegant. Deborah Solomon comes across as ... being Deborah Solomon.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

At The Corner, Shannen Coffin smears the New York Times

Over at The Corner, Shannen Coffin -- Dick Cheney's lawyer during the Bush Presidency -- goes after the New York Times for its apparent hand-wringing over the "unauthorized disclosure" of the so-called "Climategate" e-mails. The post is called "Propriety in Newsgathering" and it deserves to be fisked a little bit.

Let's start at the beginning:

Since at least the Pentagon Papers case (and surely before even then), the New York Times has made many a nickel on unauthorized leaks of sensitive national security information.

It's true the New York Times is a for-profit concern, but I think it's unseemly to suggest the Times tries to profit from -- as Coffin is going to get around to implying -- killing American soldiers. Most newspapers operate with two missions: A) to turn a profit and B) to serve the public. At their best, for-profit media has offered defenders of capitalism a success story: Doing well by doing good. Sometimes, "doing good" means publishing information that's of public interest -- even if the government wants it hidden. Which leads us to the next bit...

The biggest, though certainly not the only, whopper during the Bush administration was its exposure of the Terrorist Surveillance Program — the NSA wiretapping program targeted at al-Qaeda. With as much self-righteousness as he could muster, executive editor Bill Keller at the time explained that the paper published the leaked information because “we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

So the “unauthorized disclosure” of classified or sensitive information is not something that the Times generally loses sleep about.

In fact, the Times lost about a year of sleep over the warrantless wiretapping story. That's how long the paper declined to publish the piece ... because of national security concerns raised by the Bush Administration. In fact, that information was a critical part of the original story:

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

So why did the Times proceed with the story? Because its reporting revealed there were substantial concerns within the Bush Administration about whether the program was legal. Eric Lichtblau, one of the reporters, later recounted:

Jim and I had already learned about much of the internal angst within the administration over the legality of the NSA program at the outset of our reporting, more than a year earlier in the fall of 2004. Still, the editors were not persuaded we had enough for a story—not enough, at least, to outweigh the White House's strenuous arguments that running the piece would cripple a vital and perfectly legal national-security program. It was a difficult decision for everyone.

Risen's book was a trigger, but we realized we weren't in the paper yet. We still had to persuade the editors that the reasons to run the story clearly outweighed the reasons to keep it secret. We went back to old sources and tried new ones. Our reporting brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program—in both its legal underpinnings and its operations—reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration—with unflinching support for the program and its legality—was largely a fa├žade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us.

The Times, it seems to me, did exactly what you'd hope a newspaper would do in a free society: It weighed arguments about the program's warfighting utility against the possibility that the program was illegally usurping Americans' civil liberties. It held the story a year out of an abundance of caution. But it did publish the story, eventually, when concerns about the program's legality couldn't be resolved behind closed doors. A lot of people were angry at the Times for holding the story so long.

Anyway, back to Coffin:

Indeed, an editorial in September 2009 trumpeted the fact that “the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorists and warrantless wiretapping all came to light through the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

Yup. And I say: Hooray for leakers!

Coffin -- like James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal -- then goes on to decry the Times' apparent "anguish" about the "unauthorized" nature of the Climategate e-mail release. (Personally, I think Coffin and Taranto are very much overreading the Times' apparent anguish here, but whatever.) And that leads to Coffin's coup de grace:

Perhaps the Times is turning a corner, and we can expect similar concerns to be raised whenever they root out classified government information that may — oh, I don’t know — result in the loss of American lives.

Here's my challenge to Shannen Coffin (not that he'll ever read this, but still):

Show me the bodies of Americans who lost their lives because of the warrantless wiretapping story. I don't think they exist, frankly, because if they did former Bush Administration officials and their allies would've been parading them around for years in order to get news organizations like the Times on the defensive. So Coffin's invocation of (hypothetical) American deaths is, well, a cynically questionable assertion in the service of letting the government commit legally questionable acts.

I admire conservatism when it urges limits on government in the name of individual freedom. What Coffin's advocating here is somewhat the opposite.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Federalist 14: Something old, something new

The entire live-blog of "The Federalist Papers" can be found here.

My friend Ben is fond of distinguishing American conservatism from its European forebears; American conservatives, he has told me on several occasions, are conserving a revolutionary heritage. I thought about his statement quite a bit while reading James Madison in Federalist 14.

This chapter is, ostensibly, about whether the United States is too big to be governed effectively. (Madison's answer: If we were a pure democracy, with every man given a direct voice in governing, sure. But since we're a republic -- with representatives sent from the 13 states to the heart of the union -- we'll do fine. And hey, we managed to pull off a revolution together!)

But as we near the end of 14, it's apparent that Madison has another topic on his mind: Whether the type of government embodied in the proposed Constitution is so new, so radical, so unfamiliar that its very novelty increases the risks of failure. Madison's answer, of course, is "no." The Constitution might look like a new animal, he suggests, but it's really a hybrid of the best parts of governments found elsewhere in the world, and throughout history. At the same time, though, Madison offers a defense of the spirit of experimentation:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?

(Snip)

Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.

I noted at the outset that conservatives tend to cite "The Federalist Papers" more often than liberals and progressives, and I still think that's true. But it's here that I start to see signs that progressives can also claim a heritage from the Founding Fathers. Today's conservatives, I think, want to bind us to the vision of the Founders in a way that, perhaps, the Founders would've found alien. A reason I hear for that, often, is that human nature hasn't changed so much in 200 years. And that's right. But I don't imagine it had changed all that much, frankly, in the 200 years before the Constitution was written, either. The Founders, in other words, were not the last wise men to walk this earth.

Still, the Founders might've been experimenters and progressives, but they were rationalists and empiricists as well. They didn't build the Constitution out of a sense of pure novelty, but sought foundations in history and experience for what they were trying. And they expected, as Madison notes, that their successors would both "improve and perpetuate" what they built. If we are to conserve a revolutionary heritage, then, perhaps it was intended from the beginning that we preserve both the revolution and the heritage.

Should BP end offshore oil drilling?

That's the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week -- and a trickier topic than usual. Because I want the answer to the above question to be "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" But given the realities of American politics and the country's energy consumption, it seems impossible to end offshore drilling entirely.

So my answer? Regulate the hell out of the industry, and rigorously enforce those regulations.

It would be nice if we could unilaterally end offshore oil drilling. Nobody likes to see the oily bird carcasses washing up on beaches, nor the plaintive looks in the eyes of suddenly idled Louisiana fishermen. The widespread damage being done right now in the Gulf of Mexico should be intolerable.

But we will tolerate it. We have to. America's energy demands are simply too great to give it up - our politicians are not going to ask us to sacrifice our comfortable lifestyles; we won't let them in any case - and the country isn't anywhere close to ready to switch over to "alternative" energy sources like wind and solar to pick up the slack.

If some environmentalists are ready to declare a moratorium without ready alternatives, however, drilling enthusiasts can be much too cavalier about the safety of offshore drilling. Large-scale energy production of any sort is almost always a complicated and dangerous proposition, whether at Chernobyl or in the Atlantic Ocean. Disasters - the devastation of whole swaths of the planet - are inevitable. So regulations on drilling should be tight, and rigorously enforced.

That hasn't been the case. The New York Times reported that the federal government gave permission to dozens of oil companies - including BP - to drill offshore even though they hadn't completed "required" environmental reviews. That's inexcusable.

We rely on oil energy because, for now, we have to. However, that's no reason to let the oil companies essentially regulate themselves. Getting rigorous about the rules and their enforcement will probably make energy a little more expensive for all of us, but the cost will be necessary. Our own ability to survive on the planet depends upon it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I didn't draw Mohammed today

I've got nothing against blasphemy -- in fact, I kind of love it.

I love "South Park," enjoyed "The Last Temptation of Christ" more as a novel than as a movie, think "Dogma" is overrated but enjoyable and, generally, like to see sacred cows nudged a little bit. I think it's wonderful, essential and necessary that we can do such poking in America -- and it pisses me off, frankly, when the "South Park" guys come under threat for depicting Mohammed. Or, looking abroad, when European cartoonists face violence, threats and censorship for doing the same.

Still, I didn't draw Mohammed today. And I won't be publishing any of the cartoons. At least, not for now.

Why? Simple. I have Muslim friends and acquaintances -- at least one of whom, I know, is very offended when Mohammed is drawn or otherwise depicted. Not to the point of threatening or undertaking violence, thank goodness, but still: It's an act that wounds her.

And that, I think, beyond strength in the face of censorship and threats, is part of "Draw Mohammed Day" is supposed to be about: Offense.

Some more hawkish and conservative types have pointed out -- rightly -- that Comedy Central, "South Park" and other American institutions have skewered Christianity for years without facing death threats. But I can't help but notice that many of the people who make that observation have also gotten the vapors -- or are closely allied with those who get the vapors -- about having their religious sensibilities trampled upon. And that many of those people are very, very gleeful about the chance to offend Muslims en masse today.

So yeah, there's a double standard. But I suspect the double standard goes both ways.

Me? I admittedly feel more comfortable blaspheming Christianity because, well, Christianity is mine to blaspheme: I grew up in it, was immersed in it and (yes) fell away from it. Even at a distance of nearly a decade, its rhythms and habits are still etched in my bones. And my own adventures in blasphemy were part of rebelling against a culture that had dominated my outlook and behavior.

But Mohammed was never my prophet. Between that and the fact of my friends' sensibilities, a day devoted to angering his followers seems ... rude. It seems too easy to me, even a little bullying, to blaspheme against somebody else's god.

And I'm weird: I've always felt my principles must be balanced and shaped by the impact that they have on real people. Right now, I don't think I have enough cause to hurt my friends.

Make no mistake: I still find the threats and censorship despicable. There may come a time when I feel that committing a little blasphemy against Islam's sacred cows is necessary. That day isn't today. I won't draw Mohammed.

Federalist 11 - Federalist 13: Moneymoneymoneymoney! Money! (Also: The persistence of Euro-bashing in American politics)

I don't have a lot to say about Federalists 10 through 13. They're chiefly about how a unified United States will fare economically. Considering the United States went on to become the richest nation the planet's ever seen, I don't know that there's much to argue about here, even with hindsight fully engaged. But just to recap, keeping the states together will:

* Make it easier for everybody to make money. A unified America will be able to fend off competition from Europe, bargain from a stronger vantage point and -- very importantly -- be able to field a navy capable of protecting its commerce. Alexander Hamilton:

Under a vigorous national government, the natural strength and resources of the country, directed to a common interest, would baffle all the combinations of European jealousy to restrain our growth. This situation would even take away the motive to such combinations, by inducing an impracticability of success. An active commerce, an extensive navigation, and a flourishing marine would then be the offspring of moral and physical necessity. We might defy the little arts of the little politicians to control or vary the irresistible and unchangeable course of nature.

And, Hamilton adds, a bigger country means a more economically diverse country -- which will make it easier to ride out tough times in any particular industry.



* Make it easier to collect revenue to fund a national government. Remember, this is back before the IRS had really even been thought off, so many of the government's revenues came from import duties and that kind of thing.

* Get economies of scale. This idea might seem farcical at this point, now that the government is buried in debt, the idea was that one big government might be able to do things less expensively, on the whole, than if the 13 states were all spending money on their own and duplicating efforts. Some of that depends on the United States being a much smaller country; Hamilton at one point boasts that the Navy would only have to defend the country in the Atlantic. Projecting power around the globe wasn't really under consideration here.

But speaking of the rest of the globe, there's a kind of bizarre moment at the end of Federalist 11. Hamilton's been playing up the ability of the United States to make money and compete against Europe -- when all of the sudden he launches a sort of ur-Freedom Fries campaign.

Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America -- that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.1 Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the Europeans. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Which just goes to prove: There's no topic in American politics -- and never has been -- that can't be livened up with a little bit of good old-fashioned Euro-bashing. The French suck! USA! USA! USA!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A quick, final thought about Arlen Specter

Unlike Gov. Ed Rendell, I doubt very much that yesterday's rain in Philadelphia sent Arlen Specter to his defeat in the Democratic primary. And unlike a lot of other people, I'm not so sure that generalized anti-incumbent sentiment was all that big a factor either. I think that after 30 years of watching Arlen Specter put political advantage over principle at seemingly every turn, Pennsylvania voters were simply tired of the guy.

It doesn't have to have a bigger meaning than that.

Federalist No. 6 - Federalist No. 10: Let's not fight with each other

I said last time that the shadow of the Civil War would loom heavily over my reading of "The Federalist Papers" -- and starting in Federalist No. 6, it really, really does. Because it's here that Alexander Hamilton starts to make the case that a strong union won't just protect the individual states from wars with external powers -- it'll also keep the states from making war on each other.

So, ummm ... how did that work out for you?

No. Wait. Snark is a little too easy here. Truth is, Hamilton's got history on his side -- but he's going to take his time getting to the most useful parts of it. Instead, he tells us in No. 6 that the problem with leaving the states to proceed forward as autonomous nations is that each small state will be more likely to see the rise of a leader who makes war on neighboring states for his own vainglorious reasons.
Men of this class, whether the favorites of a king or of a people, have in too many instances abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage or personal gratification.
He goes on at length about this, citing examples from Pericles and Henry VIII, and well, he's right. That's absolutely a danger -- but it's not the ONLY danger, and sometimes it's not even the most important one. (And in any case, both large nations and small ones are subject to the danger.) The Civil War came about not because (say) Robert E. Lee dreamed of a thousand monuments to his name, but because there were very real moral (slavery) and philosophical (the role of the federal government) differences between the Northern and Southern states.

To be fair, Hamilton acknowledges as much in No. 7, listing out a series of reasons individual states might make violence upon each other: territorial disputes, including claims to territories in the west; "the competitions of commerce;" the settling of debts already owed by the Union (mostly leftover from the Revolutionary War); differing approaches to settling contracts; that kind of thing.* It's notable, though, that Hamilton speaks here in generalities -- because there's a specific notable omission: SLAVERY! WHAT ABOUT SLAVERY?!?!

*I don't want to spend too much time on a tangent here, but there's been a theory advanced among (for lack of a better word) neoconservatives in recent years that America preserves its security by establishing democracies in other countries because democracies don't tend to make war on each other. After reading Federalists No. 6 and 7, I think it's safe to say that Alexander Hamilton, drawing from history, might pooh-pooh that notion.

The result of all these potential sources of conflict, Hamilton says in No. 8, would be that each state and/or small confederacy would probably end up more militarized -- and thus more injurious to personal liberties -- than if they stuck together under the proposed Constitution. This is kind of a sly argument: One of the main concerns of the Antifederalists, I gather, is that the new Constitution would allow a central government to form a standing Army. Well, Hamilton says, the raising of a standing army can only be inferred from the words of the Constitution -- but it's a dead certainty if the states go their own way. They'll be so likely to come in conflict with each other -- and here Hamilton drops a number of examples from Europe -- that they'll have to raise their guard against each other.

In making this case, he says a few words about the militarization of a society that seem to be worth considering in 21st century America.
The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.
This kind of society, of course, is what the new Constitution is meant to protect against. And that's the promise Hamilton makes.
But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probably, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe -- our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.
Or, as he says more succinctly at the outset of No. 9:
A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.
It is in Federalist No. 10 that James Madison (finally!) makes an appearance and starts to explain why a union under the proposed Constitution will be able to tamp down -- though never eliminate -- factionalism between the states. Basically, the proposed form of government -- a republic -- will allow for democracy but not too much democracy; populist passions will be cooled by the filtration of a small group of elected men, who will thus be able to keep the passions of the day balanced against each other. Maybe one state could come under the sway of crazy men with crazy ideas, he says, but certainly not all of them at the same time. A republican form of government will "refine and enlarge the public views," he says,
by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
Which brings us back around to the Civil War. If the Constitution was supposed to tamp down conflicts between the states and temper their passions ... well, why didn't it?

Maybe it did. I've been reading the Federalists with the idea that the Civil War disproved some of the assertions made about the effects of unity, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Civil War is just a huge, glaring, bloody exception to the rules that Madison, Hamilton and Jay are setting forth here. And it would be 70 years or so before the divisions between North and South turned bloody. We have stuck together -- despite some turbulent times -- since then. So who knows?

In any case, these first 10 Federalists have felt -- to this reader at least -- like so much throat-clearing. There's been a lot of talks about the benefits of unity and the dangers of splitting up into separate states or confederacies. There's been precious little talk about the proposed Constitution itself, as well as the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. We've got a few more chapters to go discussing the benefits of union, but just over the horizon we're about to get some answers to our main questions: Why do the Articles suck? And why is the Constitution so awesome?

Monday, May 17, 2010

On government eavesdropping: Just because you can't find the body doesn't mean there wasn't a murder

Over at No Left Turns, Justin Paulette drops a bomb in the middle of a complaint about Great Britain:
I've previously mentioned several of his examples on NLT, but Mark Steyn sums up the absurd charade of "rights"-based oppression prevailing in Great Britain. It's shamefully ironic that George Bush was consistently denounced for rights-depleting policies by which (as in the "domestic spying program") not a single American can be located who was in any manner harmed in the slightest - yet Democrats merrily seek to silence conservative talk-radio and liberals would arrest pro-life prayer groups as organized crime syndicates without the slightest sense of contradiction or hypocrisy.
I think the last bit of Paulette's claim here is either overstated or outright wrongheaded, but let's leave that alone for his second. I'm struck by his claim that we can't find a "single American" who was harmed by the domestic spying program.

Well of course we can't. We're not allowed to know who was spied upon! And thus we don't know who might've been harmed. Here's the ACLU's summary of the dismissal of its lawsuit against the program:
In July 2007, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, ruling the plaintiffs in the case - which includes scholars, journalists, and national nonprofit organizations - had no standing to sue because they could not state with certainty that they have been wiretapped by the NSA.

The decision "insulates the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance activities from judicial review and deprives Americans of any ability to challenge the illegal surveillance of their telephone calls and e-mails," said ACLU Legal Director Steve Shapiro. He added the ruling "did not uphold the legality of the government's warrantless surveillance activity. Indeed, the only judge to discuss the merits clearly and unequivocally declared that the warrantless surveillance was unlawful."

Because the appeals court refused to rule on the legality of the program, Americans were denied the chance to contest the warrantless surveillance of their telephone calls and e-mails.
When a group came forward with proof it had been surveilled -- the evidence was accidentally given to them by government lawyers -- the government tried to invoke the State Secrets Act. If there was harm (both the Bush and Obama administrations argued) too bad: It couldn't be talked about in court. It would just have to be swept under the rug.

I don't mind if Justin Paulette is concerned about political correctness swamping the rights to free speech; I even share some of his concerns. But his point is undermined by invoking an example where the absence of evidence a "single American" who was harmed by a government spying program might, in fact, be evidence of the government's overreach.

Federalist Interlude: On the Perils of Public Autodidactism

Here's the problem with a project like live-blogging your way through the Federalist Papers -- it quickly becomes apparent to everybody else how much you might not know. In a classroom, you can mostly hide -- and when the moments come to prove your knowledge, well, often those tests are literally tests, and the results of them remain between you and your instructor.

Here, I'm liable to embarrass myself before literally tens of people. Some of them my friends.

I mention this because several people -- Glomarization in the comments, another friend behind the scenes -- have gently suggested that perhaps I'm reading the Federalist Papers in a bit of a vacuum: That I'm not really accounting for or explaining how badly the Articles of Confederation (America's constitution before the Constitution) were broken while I toss around insults like "douchebag" at Alexander Hamilton and "strawman" at John Jay.

And, well, they're right.

Part of this, I think, is a problem of my own expectations: I knew that the Federalist Papers were authored, basically, in support of ratifying the new Constitution. And the new Constitution was created, basically, because those Articles of Confederation weren't really working all that well for the new United States. So I guessed -- incorrectly? correctly? -- that part of the process of persuading the public to ratify the Constitution would involve a little bit of comparison. Not just "This new Constitution is awesome!" but "This new Constitution is awesome -- and here how it's better than the old Articles!"  In other words, I think I expected the context to reveal itself somewhat.

Which is perhaps fine for me as a reader. Maybe less fine for those of you who kindly bother to follow me on this little journey.

The other part of the problem is this: I don't have a teacher in this process. A classroom instructor can guide you through a text, providing context and information along the way. I don't have that; I'm improvising. In my defense: I've got a copy of "The Antifederalist Papers" open side-by-side with my copy of "The Federalist Papers." Additionally, I've spent considerable time with each chapter trying to Google my way to contextual knowledge.

Absent that, though, my knowledge of the Articles boils down to a 20-year-old drive-by from basic civics class: In those days, the United States was led by a weak Congress with no power to tax or, really, lead the country in a unified direction: The states possessed more power in this configuration than they do now. States didn't necessarily respect the laws and regulations of their neighboring states. It was a bit chaotic.

And ... that's about it. Which, for this project, probably isn't enough.

The smart thing to do right now would probably be to abandon this project, or at least the public portion of it. But lordy, that's not what the Bloggy Age is about! Frankly, I'm doing this in public in  large part because I hope I'll get some  pushback and education from my knowledgeable friends. I'll hazard looking stupid, because I figure that's the best way for me to get smarter. It's either that, or go back to college. And I ain't got time for that.

So onward ho. We'll return to "The Federalist Papers" tomorrow.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Federalist No. 2- Federalist No. 5: "Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence"

If you were a late 18th-century resident of New York reading the Federalist Papers for the first time, I think there's a small-but-not-insignificant chance you'd only be a few pages into Federalist No. 2 before you started wondering if "Publius" -- the supposed author of these papers -- is a touch bipolar. Behind the scenes, of course, "bad cop" Alexander Hamilton has turned over the writing duties to "good cop" John Jay. The shift in tone is abrupt, even if the goal is the same.

Still, if Detective Hamilton looks bad because he's bringing rubber hoses and lead pipes into the interrogation room, we can't let Jay off the hook too lightly. Because his job here is to make the case that -- despite what opponents of the proposed Constitution tell you -- it's important that the United States actually remain united states. So Federalists No. 2 through 5 are all about the wisdom of sticking together. Unless I'm missing something, though, Jay is arguing against strawmen.

It is well worthy of consideration therefore, whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government, or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.
And later:
With what propriety, therefore, or for what good purposes, are attempts at this particular period made by some men to depreciate the importance of the Union? Or why is it suggested that three or four confederacies would be better than one?
Yeah! Why do those guys want to break us all up?

Wait a minute. Which guys are those?

Damned if I know. Remember: I'm not an academic. I've got what I think is a decent knowledge of American history, but I can't remember the names of anybody who suggested -- at this point in time -- that America would be better off breaking into pieces. A quick Google search does me no good. I even download a copy of "The Anti-Federalist Papers," hoping to find an example. But what I find, skimming through chapter headings, are a series of other objections: the Constitution's lack of a Bill of Rights (it would later be added), along with a whole host of what might now be called "big government" concerns about taxes and tyranny. What I don't find, though, is a "let's call the whole thing off" attitude about the Union.

Skimming through the Antifederalists, in fact, what's striking is that they -- like the Federalists -- believe the Articles of Confederation (basically: the constitution before the Constitution) are broken. They just think the proposed Constitution isn't necessarily the right solution. Here's "Centinel," writing in Antifederalist No. 21:
That the present confederation is inadequate to the objects of the union, seems to be universally allowed. The only question is, what additional powers are wanting to give due energy to the federal government?
Well, that seems to be a fair question, doesn't it? Even an enduring one.

But we're moving into Federalist No. 3 now, and Jay finally sets himself to the task of answering his strawman question: Union (unh!): What is it good for?

Safety, basically.

Thirteen separate states, he says, will have 13 different ways to give offense to the wider world, increasing their chances of stumbling into war. A unified nation is less likely to go to war over, say, border problems than a border state itself would. Jay doesn't really explain, though, why Massachusetts should care if (say) Virginia goes to war. He's assuming the attachment to Union, I think, because he knows he's already got it -- he knows he's arguing against strawmen.

There's also safety -- and quality -- in numbers. Bigger city high schools usually have better basketball teams than small towns because they have a bigger talent pools to draw from; Jay figures the same thing. Jay starts this case in No. 3, and continues making it in No. 4.
One government can collect and avail itself of the talents and experience of the ablest men, in whatever part of the Union they may be found. It can move on uniform principles of policy. It can harmonize, assimilate, and protect the several parts and members, and extend the benefit of its foresight and precautions to each. In the formation of treaties, it will regard the interest of the whole, and the particular interests of the parts as connected with that of the whole. It can apply the resources and power of the whole to the defense of any particular part, and that more easily and expeditiously than State governments or separate confederacies can possibly do, for want of concert and unity of system. It can place the militia under one plan of discipline, and, by putting their officers in a proper line of subordination to the Chief Magistrate, will, as it were, consolidate them into one corps, and thereby render them more efficient than if divided into thirteen or into three or four distinct independent companies.
Bigger is better. Less likely to be messed with. More able to achieve unity of purpose. And if it weren't for the whole "nobody seems to be arguing against Union, just about how it's going to be governed" thing, I'd think this case was pretty compelling.

Jay's got one last card to play along these lines, though. Unity, he says, will make Americans safer ... from each other. Splitting into separate states or confederacies, he says in Federalist No. 5, will only pit those states and confederacies against each other. North and South will most likely end up competing with and distrusting each other.
The North is generally the region of strength, and many local circumstances render it probable that the most Northern of the proposed confederacies would, at a period not very distant, be unquestionably more formidable than any of the others. No sooner would this become evident than the Northern Hive would excite the same ideas and sensations in the more southern parts of America which it formerly did in the southern parts of Europe. Nor does it appear to be a rash conjecture that its young swarms might often be tempted to gather honey in the more blooming fields and milder air of their luxurious and more delicate neighbors.
(snip)
Hence it might and probably would happen that the foreign nation with whom the Southern confederacy might be at war would be the one with whom the Northern confederacy would be the most desirous of preserving peace and friendship. An alliance so contrary to their immediate interest would not therefore be easy to form, nor, if formed, would it be observed and fulfilled with perfect good faith.
And here I'm tempted to give John Jay a break. The tensions between North and South were already apparent at the time. The Constitution's framers were doing the best they could to keep everybody together, even making concessions that let Southern states count their slaves as almost-people for the purpose of Congressional representation. So maybe the Constitution did delay the inevitable conflict.

What I don't know, though, is if that delay was worth it. Did the history of Union help the states patch their differences after the Civil War? Did slaves go free sooner or later because of the early compromises and the later war? Who knows? But it looks as though the shadow of the Civil War will be looming over upcoming chapters, so we'll have a chance to discuss this more.

A final thought: Back in Federalist No. 2, Jay makes the case for the Constitution by noting that its framers were, well, good guys -- patriotic and wise veterans of the Revolution. And no one can deny those men did good and useful work. Yet even where the Founders are concerned, I'm more than a little enamored of this reply by "Brutus Junior" in Antifederalist No. 38:
If we are to infer the perfection of this system from the characters and abilities of the men who formed it, we may as well determine to accept it without any inquiry as with. ... I confess I think it of no importance what are the characters of the framers of this government, and therefore should not have called them in question, if they had not been so often urged in print, and in conversation, in its favor. It ought to rest on its own intrinsic merit. If it is good, it is capable of being vindicated; if it is bad, it ought not to be supported. It is degrading to a freeman, and humiliating to a rational one, to pin his faith on the sleeve of any man, or body of men, in an affair of such momentous importance.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like I'm finding something closer in spirit to modern, populist Tea Party conservatism in the Antifederalist Papers -- lots and lots of talk about tyranny -- than in the Federalist Papers. And maybe I'm just partial to contrarians, but I'm liking the pluck of the Antifederalists, too. All of which has me worried: Is this reading project going to turn me into a weirdo libertarian?

John Yoo's weird column about Elena Kagan

I'd say that John Yoo's Inquirer column about Elena Kagan is fairly standard talking points stuff -- hates the military, loves her ivory tower, mean to Clarence Thomas -- except for one kind of weird point that he makes. He's critical of Kagan's now-famous decision to support efforts to keep military recruiters off the Harvard Law campus because of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Which is fine, except...
I happen to agree that the president and Congress should allow gays to serve in the military. But Kagan announced her policy while the United States was fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And she defied a federal law - the Solomon Amendment - that ordered schools to provide equal access to the military for campus recruitment or risk losing federal funding.
Remember: John Yoo once suggested the president has the power to suspend even the First Amendment under his war powers, so it's no surprise that he criticizes Kagan for sharing his opinions -- but acting on those opinions during wartime. Which leads us to Yoo's summing up of his critique:
But it was more than just striking a pose. Kagan declared that excluding gays from the military was "a profound wrong - a moral injustice of the first order." Her argument, which lost 8-0 before the Supreme Court, shows she was an activist before she was nominated to be a judge.
Wait. What? "She was an activist before she was nominated to be a judge?" That's clearly meant to be a slam, but what the heck's wrong with that? I get why Republicans say they hate "activist" judges; are we now to believe there's something wrong with activist private citizens? And if so, what would Yoo say about Tea Parties or abortion protesters?

There's only two ways Yoo's argument makes any sense here:

* That he's so loyal to the GOP that he's gotta find a way to criticize Democrats even when they share his positions.

* That he honestly believes the duty of an American citizen -- at least in wartime -- is to submit without challenge to the decisions of government, even if those decisions are (by Yoo's own lights) wrong. In this universe, then, there is no right "to petition for redress of grievances," no check-and-balance provided by the judicial branch. The time-honored tradition of American dissent -- and of nonviolent resistance to laws deemed by citizens to be morally wrong -- is thus "activist," and thus potentially disqualifying when it comes to judicial nominations.

You might think Kagan was wrong to criticize the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. You might think she was wrong for barring recruiters from Harvard campus. Fine. But Yoo goes a step further: He broadly criticizes Elena Kagan for acting on her beliefs at all because they conflicted with the laws and policies of the government. It's an argument that makes sense coming from torture advocate John Yoo, but that doesn't make it any less at odds with the American democratic tradition.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Federalist No. 1: America's Founding D-Bag

Alexander Hamilton has always seemed to me to be America's Founding Douchebag. That's probably unfair, but there's something about duelling -- Hamilton's involvement in an act that conferred "civilized" rules on a savage, life-taking act -- that struck me as ur-fratty. And though he's now celebrated for helping bring about the Constitution's ratification as one of the co-authors of "The Federalist Papers," his apparent monarchist streak still strikes me as at odds with the democratic nature of the government he actually helped launch.

Plus, there's the whole $10 bill thing.

So I'm not surprised, just a page into Federalist No. 1 -- written by Hamilton -- to discover that he was also possible America's Founding Negative Campaigner. Writing under the "Publius" name, he tells New Yorkers that backers of a new Constitution just want candy and kitties and charity for their fellow Americans. Opponents, he suggests, are merely motivated by selfish interests:
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter, may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminuition of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they now hold under the State-establishments -- and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves with fairer prospects of elevation fromt he subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.
Let's step back a second: The purpose of the new Constitution was to centralize authority in the United States under a federal government. It was, in some respects, a power grab -- and Hamilton, as one of the framers and campaigners for the new Constitution, might reasonably be expected to be one of the chief beneficiaries of that grab. But Hamilton starts his campaign by criticizing the Constitution's critics -- they're the power grabbers, petty men who'd rather rule over several small fiefdoms than one big empire. At a vantage point of 200 years, at least, it's kind of hard to take Hamilton seriously when his approach is so naked and, well, unsubtle.

But Hamilton is smart, though, because he acknowledges as much in the next paragraph:
Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question.
This is the 18th century equivalent of sending Sarah Palin out to proclaim that "Barack Obama pals around with terrorists," only to back down a few days later with "He's an honorable man" utterances. The damage is done. We have, however, already learned a valuable lesson: Our Founding Fathers weren't demigods residing on Mount Olympus; they were politicians, with the willingness to roll up their sleeves and start hurling muck if needed. Folks fed up with the "tone" of our politics today should realize it was ever thus.

We're moving quickly, though, and Hamilton -- while he's probably not thinking about a 21st century audience for his words -- is quickly demonstrating not only that the tone of American politics has always been fractious, but the substance of the debates can be unchanging as well. At issue? The authority of a central government versus the rights and liberties of people under that government.  Conservatives these days argue that more centralized government means less freedom for citizens, but Hamilton goes out of his way to pooh-pooh that idea.
An overscrupulous jealous of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pertence and artifice; the bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealously is the usual concomitant of violent love--
Get that? If you're too worried about the rights of the people, you're just like an abusive husband!
--and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the conteplation of a sound and well informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.
Get that? If you're too worried about the rights of the people, you're probably a tyrant in waiting! Real liberty is to be found under the protection of a "firm" government. Sorry, folks, but I'm not losing the "douchebag" vibe from Hamilton here.*

*Don't get me wrong: Revolutions in "the name of the people" have given us tyrannies in Russia, China and a whole bunch of other places. Seeing as how Hamilton had somewhat recently participated in a Revolution aimed at throwing off a tyranny in the name of the proposition that "all men are created equal" his assertion here seems ... convenient.

Hamilton is winding down at this point. But he's also getting started. Yes, he says, he favors the new Constitution -- and the aim of the coming series of articles is to convince New Yorkers to ratify it, as well. Otherwise, he says, the United States will disappear.
For nothing can be more evident, to those who are able to take an enlarged view of the subject, than the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution, or a dismemberment of the Union. It will therefore be of use to begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed from its dissolution. This shall accordingly constitute the subject of my next address.
NEXT TIME: What's so great about the Union, anyway?

Friday, May 14, 2010

LeBron James and Ohio: Why President Obama might not be that smart

You know, if you're planning on running for president in 2012, alienating the population of Ohio might not be the smartest thing to do:
Include President Obama as another Chicago Bulls fan rooting for LeBron James to move to Chicago.

"He doesn't want to tamper," senior adviser to the president -- and former Bulls season-ticket holder -- David Axelrod said. "But as a Chicago fan, the president thinks LeBron would look great in a Bulls uniform."
Tens of thousands of Cleveland fans are beside themselves with worry that LeBron James will flee to a bigger market and the president -- or his representatives -- tweak that anxiety? It's not like Ohio is a swing state or anything. Voters notice these kinds of things. Jeebus.

Bag O' Books: 'The Federalist Papers'

I've never read "The Federalist Papers."

This is a little bit embarrassing to admit. I've spent a considerable portion of the last few years thinking and writing about government and politics, with arguments about the nature of the American Constitution often residing somewhere near the center of my debates. Yet I've never delved into the document that -- outside the Constitution itself -- does more to illuminate the thinking of the Founders who created the government that we still live with today.

It's even more embarrassing because many of those debates have been with my conservative friend and collaborator Ben Boychuk -- and, well, he has read "The Federalist Papers." And he's drawn on them, not infrequently, to make his case against the arguments I've made. I've felt slightly overmatched at times, as a result.

In my defense, I don't think I'm alone in this. I might be wrong, but I've noted that smart conservative commentators tend to invoke "The Federalist Papers" far more often than smart liberal commentators. (Everybody quotes Tocqueville, but that's another project.) I don't think it's because of any anti-intellectualism on the part of liberals: I suspect that liberals -- while respecting much of the founding legacy -- don't feel nearly as chained to it conservatives do. Conservatives, I think, feel that if you can successfully invoke the Founders, you've probably won the argument. Liberals, on the other hand, consider the founding vision to be a critical part of the argument -- but not the trump card. And truth is, I'm sympathetic to the latter vision. I don't think of the Founders as "dead white males" but I do think they built a government for a society that was more rural, more racist, more homogeneous and much less egalitarian than today's.

Still, I feel like I'm missing a critical piece of political literacy. So starting today, I'm going to start reading my way through "The Federalist Papers." And I'll be documenting my journey here. I'm not sure if it matters, but I'll be using a Bantam Classics version of the collection, complete with an introduction by Garry Wills. (Which, yeah, he rubs elbows in liberal circles pretty extensively -- but he started out in the conservative tradition.) I'll update my progress very few days.

Let's be clear, though. I'm not an academic. (Obviously.) I'm guiding myself through this as I go along. So ... I might go down some blind alleys in this journey. We'll find out.

And who knows? Maybe I'll get some "Julie & Julia" style book-and-movie deal out of this gig, with the interweaving stories of me reading the book and Alexander Hamilton dying a bloody, painful death.

More likely I'll come out on the other side of this an Antonin Scalia-style originalist conservative. Anything could happen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Do President Obama's Supreme Court nominations discriminate against parents?

Via Julie Ponzi, Jules Crittenden wonders why Barack Obama can't nominate "soccer moms who went to a state school" to the Supreme Court:

I’d add that President Obama seems bent on packing the court with people who never had children, and would suggest that if you haven’t had your sleep disturbed for years on end; haven’t subjugated everything in your life to someone else’s interests … as opposed to subjugating everything to your career interests … and neve changed a diaper except, say, as a boutique experience; if you haven’t seen your hopes and dreams grow up, charge off in their own direction and start talking back to you; if you haven’t dealt with abuse of authority and human rights issues sometimes encountered in dealings with obtuse school officials, class bullies and town sports leagues; then there’s a high risk your understanding of life may be somewhat … academic.

It’s a humbling experience, parenthood. As well as an inspiring one that gives life meaning. It also, as a friend of mine once put it, makes you sane. Even while it drives you crazy. Put another way, it’s part of the maturation thing.

This sounds suspiciously like pining for a conservative version of "empathy" as a Supreme Court criteria (as Ponzi herself kind of suggests). But nevermind that. The real question here is: Why shouldn't childless Americans also be represented on the court?

Lots of people, after all, don't have kids. One estimate in 2006 suggested that 20 percent of women ages 40 to 44 or childless -- a pretty healthy proportion. But of the court's current membership, only Sonia Sotomayor is without children. (Antonin Scalia has nine kids. Statistically speaking, he more than makes up for Kagan and Sotomayor all by himself.) Bringing Kagan onto the court would mean that just more than 20 percent of justices are childless. So it all works out.

As it happens, I think it's fine to bat around these kinds of questions when looking at justices. I think the conservative approach to judicial philosophy -- were it practiced with any kind of rigor -- would reduce judging to a sterile intellectual exercise, where input A gives you output B. Lots of time, that is the case. But the Supreme Court decides the cases that are more complicated than that. And because law is made by, interpreted by and affects fallible human beings, I think it's naive, at best, to suggest that life experiences won't play a role in judging. So let's look at those life experiences! We'd think it weird if we had a courtful of childless justices, after all. It would also be weird if we had a court that only had parents on it.

Elena Kagan and the Supreme Court: Time to start electing justices

In this week's Scripps Howard column with my colleague Ben Boychuk, I say we don't know enough -- and won't know enough -- about Elena Kagan before she's confirmed to the Supreme Court. And I suggest we can solve this ongoing problem by forcing Supreme Court nominees to face American voters directly:

Heck no, we don't know enough about Elena Kagan. Then again, we didn't really know enough about John Roberts or any other Supreme Court nominee of recent vintage. That's the way the game is played: Smart nominees shut their mouths, still their pens and aim for an air of patriotic inscrutability. Barring scandal, they end up confirmed anyway -- and only then do we find out what they really believe. Kagan will probably be no exception.

Americans deserve to know more about the thinking and philosophy of the nominees who receive lifetime appointments to one of our nation's most powerful institutions. It's time to start putting our Supreme Court nominees to a vote of the American people.

"The Supreme Court has the power to affect lives, yet the judicial branch is unelected," political scientist Richard Davis wrote in his 2005 book, "Electing Justice: Fixing the Supreme Court Nomination Process." "In a democracy, the people should have the right to examine candidates for the court, including their views on issues that will affect the lives of citizens."

Yes: Supreme Court justices are supposed to be insulated from political pressures. The modern nominating process doesn't really work that way. The media and interest-group scrutiny of nominees -- along with the charges and countercharges, and the money spent on media campaigns -- can be every bit as intense as you'd find in a presidential campaign. We already have the politics; why not have an election? Judges in most states already face voters. Direct public scrutiny might shake up the kabuki routine of today's nominating process, and bring some much-needed accountability into the system.

Kagan might make a fine Supreme Court justice, but we can't be sure and the current process won't help us find out. Let her make her case to the American voters.

It's worth saying -- I didn't have the space in my half of the column -- that the justices wouldn't have to be completely subject to partisan pressures under this scenario. Davis in his book suggests a couple of different ways judicial selection could work, but they all involve the president making the nomination and the Senate offering a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before sending the recommendation (or recommendations: it could be a slate of candidates for the spot) to the American people for a final vote. (He also recommends justices be limited to one 18-year term, which I think might also be dandy.)

Funny thing is, I'm not really one of those guys who believes that every controversial issue should be put up to a referendum. But I think it's weird that a whole branch of so-called democratic government is oblivious to ... democracy.

Bob Corker, mortgages and down payments: I wish the Republicans had won this battle

I think Sen. Bob Corker has the right idea with his proposal to require home buyers to put 5 percent down on the purchase of a new home in order to qualify for a mortgage. And I can honestly say I'm disappointed with Democrats for defeating the proposal.

Opponents of Corker's measure apparently say it disproportionately affected minority communities. Seems to me that it really affects people who simply cannot afford to buy a house. And that's unfortunate: In my perfect socialist world, everybody would have the resources to own their own. That's not the world we live in, though, and it seems Corker's proposal would have gone a little way toward saving potential homebuyers and banks, both, from their own worst practices. The alternative is bailout culture and/or massive rounds of foreclosures. That can't be good for anybody, can it?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Let Cam & Mitchell kiss on 'Modern Family!'

Turns out I'm not the only one to notice that "Modern Family's" gay couple isn't very affectionate. Now there's a Facebook group -- nearly 6,000 members strong -- devoted to letting the pair kiss. And the producers have responded:

"Cameron and Mitchell are a loving, grounded, committed, and demonstrably affectionate couple and have been from the beginning of the series. It happens that we have an episode in the works that addresses Mitchell's slight discomfort with public displays of affection. It will air in the fall and until then, as Phil Dunphy would say, everyone please chillax."

Hey: I love "Modern Family" -- along with "Community," the funniest show of the 2009-10 season -- but that "slight discomfort with public displays of affection" is ... narratively convenient. And I don't think it's going to fool anybody. Certainly, we see Cam & Mitchell in private moments together, yet they still don't kiss.

I don't need "Modern Family" to be a gay makeout show. But it's done the foundational work of presenting the gay family as just another strand of a broader American family. Their very "normalness" makes it all the more glaring that they're not given the same kissy-face privileges as the show's straight couples.

Can you be a Hillary Clinton fan and a Tea Partier?

Over at Slate, Hanna Rosin asks if the Tea Party is a "feminist" movement. To the extent that "feminist" isn't used as a synonym for "liberal woman," I think the answer is probably ... no. Yes, women are taking lots of leadership roles in the Tea Party movement -- and good for them! -- but I'm guessing that movement might lose some of its coherence if it became focused on "women's issues."

That said, I'm always perplexed when journalists turn up these types of folks:

For the last few years Anna Barone, a Tea Party leader from Mount Vernon, N.Y., has used the e-mail handle annaforhillary.com: "The way they treated Hillary is unforgiveable, and then they did it to Sarah Palin," she said. "I've been to 15 Tea Party meetings and never heard a woman called a name just because she's powerful. I guess you could say the Tea Party is where I truly became a feminist."

Wait. Really?

Don't get me wrong: I think it's true that both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin received some sexist treatment in 2008. I'm just bewildered how one can go from being a Clinton backer to a Tea Partier in that time and have it be a consistent journey.

What's really earned the ire of the Tea Partiers this last year? Bailouts aside, it's been the Obama health reform bill -- which the TP critics say is A) too expensive and B) socializes the health care industry. Fine. But my question for Barone is: You realize that Obamacare is just the new name for Hillarycare, right? Right?

If you backed Hillary Clinton, you were backing a big expansion of the federal role in health care. Period. If you backed that, it's difficult for me to believe you'd be rolling with the Tea Partiers. Is Barone being disingenuous? Tribalistic? Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Elena Kagan, Ralph Reed and the Second Amendment

This Ralph Reed -- remember him? -- post at The Corner, about Elena Kagan's radical tendencies, deserves a thorough fisking. But there's one point in particular that I found interesting. And by "interesting" I mean "dishonest."

In response to questions during her confirmation as solicitor general, Kagan argued the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, like freedom of speech, enjoys “strong but not unlimited protection.” This is a dangerous view of the law when it leads to the creeping erosion of the Bill of Rights.

Why is this dishonest? Because if you check what Kagan said at her solicitor general hearings, it's clear that she was citing DC vs. Heller, the 2008 case that upheld gun rights. This is a fuller and untruncated quote of what she said:

Once again, there is no question, after Heller, that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to keep and bear arms and that this right, like others in the Constitution, provides strong although not unlimited protection against governmental regulation.

Is that really "a dangerous view of the law?" Consider this: Kagan was basically echoing the Heller decision in making her statement about the limits of the Second Amendment -- a decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia wrote:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to castdoubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms byfelons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Is Ralph Reed really going to say that Antonin Scalia -- about as solid a Second Amendment absolutist as you'll find on the court -- has a "dangerous view of the law?" Of course not. So if he's saying the same view of the law is dangerous when held by Elena Kagan, well, you can be sure he's doing so in the service of dishonest hackery. Ralph Reed isn't telling the truth.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Elena Kagan and the undergraduate gotcha game

When I was 21, it's fair to say that I was to the left of my evangelical Mennonite college campus on the question of homosexuality. It's not that I didn't think homosexuality was sinful -- I did, and thought the Bible fairly clear on that point; I just felt that my fellow Christians were making too big a deal about it.

I've ... changed quite a bit since then. I've left the church, so "sin" doesn't really enter the equation for me; I've been -- for the past few years -- as vocal a proponent of marriage rights for gays as I know how to be. The person I was at 21 was aiming at the person I am at 37, to be certain, but the distance between here and there is considerable.

All of which brings me to this: You'll be hearing a lot over the next few days about Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis on the "sad" demise of socialism in early 20th century New York City, a kind of knowing "proof" of her (and by extention, President Obama's) radical leanings. And it's silly. Kagan was no older than 21 when she wrote that piece; she's had an entire adult lifetime since then to evolve in her views -- a lifetime in which she's been a person more of the left than the right, to be certain, but without anything in the way of reported socialist leanings since then. Maybe she is a socialist, but the fact that she was sympathetic to socialism at the age of 21 isn't proof of much.

We spend way too much time analyzing the adolescent selves of our leaders when we evaluate their fitness for service. So Bill Clinton's marijuana smoking was seen as troubling, as was George W. Bush's service (or lack thereof) in the Air National Guard. And while perhaps those incidents could tell you something about the way those young men were aimed, they couldn't tell us that much about how they'd govern some 30 years later. We'd be better off judging our leaders by their adult lives and their record of public service. Trying to play "gotcha" with somebody's undergrad writings is a loser's game.

Christopher Hitchens is wrong about the French burqa ban -- but maybe for the right reasons

Christopher Hitchens almost makes sense with his defense of the French burqa ban:

The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa—whether the garment covers "only" the face or the entire female body—are often described as seeking to impose a "ban." To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another.

Hitchens appeals to my humanist-slash-libertarian side here, briefly, by casting the proposed burqa ban as a blow for women, letting them cast off their subjugation by forcing them to remove the veil from their faces. But that's not what the proposal does -- at least, not entirely.

Instead, the proposed burqa ban substitutes one set of restrictive authority -- you will always hide your face! -- for another -- you will never hide your face! Women who are forced by husbands or male family members (or, more or less indirectly, by their co-religionists) to cover their faces are given no more choice in how they express themselves through dress than women who are forced by the state to make a precisely opposite decision. Either way, women are treated almost like playthings in the broader Culture Wars/Clash of Civilizations/War on Terror or what have you. It's not about letting them make their own choices; it's about deciding their choices for them in advance.

That's still not any kind of meaningful freedom.

Indeed, the New York Times story that serves as the basis of Hitchens' column hints at this a little bit:

Fewer than 2,000 women in France wear a version of the full veil, and many of them are French women who have converted to Islam. The full veil is seen here as a sign of a more fundamentalist Islam, known as Salafism, which the government is trying to undercut.

It is impossible to know the story of every French woman who converted to Islam and started wearing the veil, but it certainly seems as though many of those women freely made their choices. It's not a choice I would've made, nor would I have made it for them -- but that's not really the point point, isn't it?

There are, of course, separate questions about the veil and the public's right to safety in public places -- and that is a debate that deserves to be hashed out: It's certainly not a debate contained to France. But the feminist argument advanced by Hitchens -- and French President Nicholas Sarkozy -- rings hollow. You don't free women by making choices for them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Our victory in Iraq (an ongoing series)

Via Matt Yglesias, the Center for American Progress offers an "Iraq War Ledger" tallying up the financial, human and other costs of the Iraq War. Bottom line: Not good.

But a couple of data points interested me more than the others:

Empowered Iran in Iraq and region. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the primary strategic beneficiary of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime removed Iran’s most-hated enemy (with whom it fought a hugely destructive war in the 1980s) and removed the most significant check on Iran’s regional hegemonic aspirations. Many of Iraq’s key Iraqi Shia Islamist and Kurdish leaders enjoy close ties to Iran, facilitating considerable influence for Iran in the new Iraq.

Stifled democracy reform. A recent RAND study concluded that, rather than becoming a beacon of democracy, the Iraq war has hobbled the cause of political reform in the Middle East. The report stated that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.”

In the absence of WMD, of course, creating US-friendly democracies in the Middle East became the backup rationale for the American invasion. Turns out there were no WMDs ... and that our invasion might've throttled whatever nascent democratic spirit existed in that region. The Iraq War, simply put, is never not going to be a disaster for us.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Typo nearly wipes out your retirement savings

That 1,000-point drop on Wall Street today? Guess how it happened?

In one of the most dizzying half-hours in stock market history, the Dow plunged nearly 1,000 points before paring those losses in what possibly could have been a trader error. According to multiple sources, a trader entered a “b” for billion instead of an “m” for million in a trade possibly involving Procter & Gamble [PG 60.75 -1.41 (-2.27%) ], a component in the Dow.

That set off a chain-reaction panic on trading floors. As Daniel Foster at National Review noted:

P&G's 37 percent nosedive was only responsible for 172 points of the 992.60 the Dow lost in the slump. The rest was market reaction — and part of that was computerized and automated.

You know, capitalism and free trade generally make a lot of sense. But our current method of allocating capital -- Wall Street being the big mover in that process -- keeps finding new ways to make itself look dangerously insane. Terminator was about how computers and robots set off an apocalyptic attack on humanity; turns out they don't need nuclear weapons to do that, just mindless programming instructions to start selling if somebody else is selling -- even if that sale is the result of a "fat finger" typographical error. Holy crap.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The right to trial? Optional. The right to bear arms? Inviolable. (Or: Why Lindsey Graham is indefensible.)

A friend points me to this Huffington Post article, where Sen. Lindsey Graham defends allowing people on terror watch lists to buy guns -- but doesn't want American citizens accused of terrorism to be given their criminal defense rights:

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's appeal to what he called "common sense" at a congressional hearing Wednesday morning failed to sway two Republican senators who said that giving the government the ability to block the purchase of guns by suspected terrorists would undermine the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.

Graham described the bill as an instrument of those who would ban guns altogether. "We're talking about a constitutional right here," he said, explaining that he could not support a bill that would force "innocent Americans" to "pay the cost of going to court to get their gun rights back."

Graham wasn't nearly as concerned about rights when he launched into a disquisition on the treatment of American citizens accused of terrorism. "I am all into national security," he said. "I want them to stop reading these guys Miranda rights."

Like many of his fellow Republicans, Graham assailed the administration for respecting the constitutional rights of suspected terrorists, suggesting instead that they should be treated like enemies on the battlefield.

"Even if you're an American citizen helping the enemy, you should be seen as a potential enemy," he said, "not as someone who committed a crime in New York."

I'm trying to find a way to make this intellectually coherent, but it involves too much reaching for plausibility. Being suspected of terrorism is enough to forfeit your right to trial -- but being suspected of terrorism isn't enough to forfeit your right to buy weaponry?

Really? The Second Amendment is inviolable but the Sixth Amendment is optional? Isn't Lindsey Graham a lawyer? One who is on the Judiciary Committee and thus lectures judicial appointments about fidelity to the Constitution? It's an embarrassment to the country and the Republican Party.

Are head injuries the reason Ben Roethlisberger is such a colossal jerk?

That's the theory floated by Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein, in an interview with neuropsychologist Dr. Jordan Grafman -- Roethlisberger, after all, has suffered four concussions on the football field during his NFL career.

According to Grafman, two particular behaviors are endemic to people with moderate or severe frontal lobe injury, or to people with more mild but repetitive injury: 1) violating social rules by saying inappropriate things, and 2) saying appropriate or typical things in an inappropriate context.

"If you're married and you're flirting with another woman in an elevator with your wife next to you," Grafman says, "that's the kind of clearly inappropriate behavior." Roethlisberger is not married, but one man told me that Roethlisberger had asked out his wife while the man was present.

Granted, as Grafman notes, "we all say inappropriate things sometimes," but "it's the frequency with which it happens, and the unawareness. When you have a frontal lobe injury in particular, you often become unaware of your inappropriate behaviors. The observations usually come from wives or children." A typical situation in my reporting last week was something like this: I would hear that Roethlisberger had, for example, said inappropriate things to waitresses at a restaurant or walked out on a bill, so I would call the establishment. "I don't know if he walked out on a tab here," would be a typical response from whoever picked up the phone, "but he was really rude to my friend after he invited her over to his table." Tales of indecorous acts abounded.

Or it's possible that Roethlisberger is, you know, a colossal jerk. He wouldn't be the first multimillionaire athlete with dangerous delusions of entitlement, would he? Didn't we all kind of hate the jocks in high school?

And yet: If Epstein's onto something here, the morality of the NFL itself gets trickier and trickier to defend. There's already substantial evidence that playing professional football destroys the bodies and minds of the men who play it. If also it transforms them into moral monsters -- as a natural, organic byproduct of the game -- how could you possibly watch another game in good conscience? What redeeming value is left?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Podcast: Joyce Lee Malcolm and the Second Amendment


Ben and Joel are joined by Joyce Lee Malcolm to discuss McDonald v. Chicago, a Second Amendment case before the Supreme Court, and the history of the right to bear arms.
Malcolm is a professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. She is a historian and constitutional scholar. She is the author of seven books including To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right and Guns and Violence: The English Experience. Her work on the Second Amendment and the right to be armed has been widely cited in court opinions and legal literature including the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 opinion, District of Columbia v. Heller
This coming week -- on May 5 -- she'll appear in Philadelphia at theNational Constitution Center for a discussion about "RETHINKING THE SECOND AMENDMENT: THE CHICAGO GUN CASE AND THE FUTURE OF GUN RIGHTS." The event is 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and is free, but reservations required. Check constitutioncenter.org for details.