Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guns, the Frontier, and Frederick Jackson Turner

As politicians file in and out of smoke-filled rooms today in a desperate attempt to avoid becoming fiscal cliff divers, Lindsay Graham, Senator from South Carolina who these days passes as a moderate Republican, has been tweeting about his opposition to gun control:
The assault weapons ban didn't work then. It's not going to work now. I will oppose it.

You're NOT going to be able to stop mass murderers with no criminal record just by taking my AR-15.....

.....and making me pay $200 and get my finger prints and say, I can't buy another one.

Gun sales are UP and crime is DOWN. It's a false sense of security gun control advocates are pursuing here.
Graham is laying down the familiar platitudes in the school of practical opposition to gun control that erroneously leads so many gun-rights advocates to dismiss gun control as implausible. And if legislative or constitutional alternatives for addressing America's epidemic of gun violence will not work, there is only one intellectual path left to take, to investigate the peculiar nature of American identity that has given rise to this scourge. Alex Massie, whose thoughts on Newtown I have I linked to previously, spends the better part of his essay speculating on just this issue:
And so our loop returns to the initial, unanswerable question why? These horrors happen in other countries too – Germany, Finland, even Britain – but they unquestionably happen more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. And they do so even when you control for the number of households which contain a gun (which is not quite the same measurement as guns per capita).

So why? What is it about America that makes it different? 
For those on the other end of the political spectrum, this pathology in American identity is just as engrossing. Filmmaker Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine" pursues this question, and the film is all the more compelling (unlike many of his other films) for its uncertainty in finding a cause to American gun violence.

On the conservative side the answer always lies in the sacred heritage of individualism, the wellspring of American culture. Massie takes this traditional line with an added twist that "variance coupled with individualism" has produced America as we know it, "a country of magnificent wonders and jaw-dropping failures. Its highs are very high and its lows exceptionally low. This, if you like, is a feature, cause and consequence of American exceptionalism." To drastically restrict these values is not only likely impossible, but undesirable: "the frontier – or the idea of it – must forever remain open. Because if it – or the idea of it – closes then a part of the American idea is also closed."

Sheyda Jahanbani writes that it is exactly this right-wing fixation with the memory of the frontier and the dogma of individualism that might defeat substantive gun control:

Perhaps nothing will change because heartbreak and astonishment and outrage aren’t enough to uproot the deep ideological commitment Americans have to the image of the rugged individualist, the mythopoetic hero of a frontier never-land, the hero-loner. Perhaps, as a society, we are too beguiled by the illusion of that solitary figure’s place in our history to embrace collective action, to place our individual trust in the public institutions that we have built to protect our families and communities, to see beyond the mirage of a radical, “self-sufficient” past, and fortify the bonds of our complex civil society today. Perhaps we are living in the thrall of a yesterday that never was.
The frontier has been the concern of Americanists ever since Frederick Jackson Turner gave an address to the American Historical Association in 1893 called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."

Turner's purpose was, in essence, to sound the alarm over the disturbing revelation in the 1890 census that the western frontier was no longer in existence. With its disappearance went the defining force in the shaping of American identity.
Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.
Turner's thesis has maintained its relevance through the decades in spite of gutting critiques from many other historians, notably Patricia Limerick, and with good cause. In celebrating individualism on the frontier, Turner missed the mass of evidence that suggested other factors, more significant factors, were at work in the settlement of the West: the role of government, the role of non-whites (for many of whom the West was not actually west of where they originated), the role of corporations, and the role of cities. Still, there is wisdom in Turner's work that has stood the test of time. He offered this warning that speaks as well to 2012 as it did to the 1890s:
So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking.
Nor did Turner neglect altogether the significance of Union and the individual acceptance of sacrifice, even sacrifice of cherished liberty, in the enterprise of civic belonging.
It is not strange that in all this flux and freedom and novelty and vast spaces, the pioneer did not sufficiently consider the need of disciplined devotion to the government which he himself created and operated. But the name of Lincoln and the response of the pioneer to the duties of the Civil War,--to the sacrifices and the restraints on freedom which it entailed under his presidency, reminds us that they knew how to take part in a common cause, even while they knew that war's conditions were destructive of many of the things for which they worked....

Pioneer democracy has had to learn lessons by experience: the lesson that government on principles of free democracy can accomplish many things which the men of the middle of the nineteenth century did not realize were even possible. They have had to sacrifice something of their passion for individual unrestraint.
In all these discussions of individualism, especially in the horrific response to Newtown by Wayne LaPierre and other NRA leaders, it is that notion of civic obligation that seems missing. Gun-control proponents have already made their sacrifice: we have given up our safety and the safety of the children around us. What, going forward, are gun-rights advocates willing to sacrifice?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Most Interesting Essay of 2012

It is the tradition of many pundits and media outlets to offer year-end awards as the days in December wind to a close. My personal favorite (for sheer entertainment value) is the McLaughlin Group awards, presented in two episodes available here and here on YouTube. The Daily Beast has offered their favorite longreads of 2012. Popular Science suggested theirs too. I can even spare a few kind words for David Brooks, who writes about his favorite essays of the year in his annual Sydney Awards columns.

For my money, the most interesting and provocative read of the year was "The Myth of American Meritocracy," authored by Ron Unz, editor of The American Conservative. It gives short shrift to the significance of diversity in education, but nonetheless makes a compelling case that left-wing visions of diversity and right-wing visions of meritocracy in their purest forms are not only unattainable but undesirable. A new admissions paradigm for our elite institutions is required because, as it stands, the current procedure is  utterly corrupt.

Give yourself some time though... it's long even by longread standards.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why Congress Stinks

As I write this, the twitter-verse is popping as the last-ditch meeting between House leaders, Senate leaders, and President Obama to avoid the fiscal cliff (the effects of which are well explained here) has failed. The scuttlebutt from the Washington press corps, or as I like to call them "democracy's first-responders," is that Obama asked for one of two things:

  1. Tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year should expire, while those under that income threshold should be extended. Unemployment insurance should be extended for those unemployed for more than 6 months.
  2. If #1 is not acceptable, propose a bill that can pass both houses of Congress.
The Senate has already passed a bill that includes the policies from #1, so the major impediment here is the Republican controlled House. Unfortunately Speaker Boehner's caucus would rather pass kidney stones than any legislation that might appear like a tax hike. The result: Congressional gridlock and a Presidential address about Congressional gridlock at the rarely used Friday 5:45pm holiday weekend time slot.


And now Obama has issued his statement. If no two-party deal is reached, he will ask Harry Reid to bring proposal #1 to the floor of the Senate for a vote, effectively daring Senate Republicans to filibuster it if they'd like. Presumably they won't, and enormous pressure will fall on House Republicans to pass the same bill they could have passed weeks if not months earlier.

Joseph de Maistre once said that "people get the government they deserve," but surely no people deserve a Congress this wretched. The problem is not a partisan one—there have been too many examples in US History of bipartisan agreements between Congress controlled by one party and the White House controlled by the other. The problem is gerrymandering. Redistricting was employed after the 2010 census and midterms to insure safe seats for a Republican majority, which logically rendered other districts safe for a Democratic minority. Dave Weigel pointed out how effective and outrageous redistricting worked in the blue state of Pennsylvania this election cycle, where Obama won the state by 5 points while Republicans won 13 of the 18 Congressional districts.

Gerrymandering is a lot like burning fossil fuels; it gives you a lot of power in the short-term, but it'll destroy you in time. That seems to be what is happening to the Republican Party. So well crafted are these districts that right wing House Republicans only fear assaults from further to their right flank. So the Republican Party is incentivised to work only for the minority that elected it, not the interests of the nation. That is a recipe for minority party status and diminishing national influence will only augment the fury of their ideological faith. At an operational level gerrymandering works against the reasoning of James Madison in Federalist 10, his famous essay defusing the fear of the "violence of faction" in a large republic. His description of small societies reads as a blueprint for gerrymandered districts:
The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Nate Silver has quantified the radicalizing of the House through gerrymandering in the most recent post at fivethirtyeight, wondering if no-compromise government is a norm we should all learn to accept. Perhaps he is right; it is a difficult problem to solve, since politicians on both sides have every motivation to block its reform. But different ideas have cropped up, and from all across the political spectrum. Some political scientists have called for proportional representation from states. has called for independent commissions for redistricting and multi-member districts. Others have taken a more mathematical approach by considering the problem of districts as a geometric one rather than a political one. These solutions come from computer scientists at UTEP as well as (unexpectedly) the ultra-conservative Heartland Institute.

If the fiscal cliff has you down on the House, just remember that the Senate has its own special dysfunctionality to work through. Democratic Senators have been pushing for filibuster reform for some time now because of Republican exploitation of the tactic. After the election Harry Reid finally got serious about it, even claiming that he might push through a partisan rule-change with 51 votes. This threat got a number of senior senators from both parties antsy, and they've proposed new bipartisan rule-changes, which sounds more politically appealing but has the possibility of doing nothing to change the Senate.

As Kevin Drum observes, this will leave Obama to deal with "fanatic Republicans and mushball Democrats" for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Lincoln's Christmas in 1864

Merry Christmas Blog Readers!

Thanks to one and all for perusing the commentary on this page, whether you agree or disagree. I hope Santa has brought you wonderful gifts.

In December 1864, William Tecumseh "Santa" Sherman gave Abraham Lincoln one of the best Christmas gifts of all time. Lincoln, who had behaved very well that year, was well pleased. Here is Sherman's yuletide greeting to the President:

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Music Interlude

My Contenders for Top 5 Christmas Carols:

  1. Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas — The Staple Singers
  2. Little Drummer Boy — Lou Rawls
  3. Linus & Lucy — Vince Guaraldi
  4. It's Christmas Time — James Brown
  5. Sock It To Me Santa — Bob Segar
Other nominations welcome... Merry Christmas Eve!

NRA Incoherence

After watching NRA CEO and spokesman Wayne LaPierre's interview on Meet The Press, this morning, I am more confused than ever about the position of the far right-wing on guns. None of what LaPierre said made any sense. Spotting NRA contradictions was like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Here's what I took note of:

  • The NRA defends Second Amendment rights to guns without restriction as a bulwark against tyranny of the government. This morning LaPierre accused gun control advocates of wanting to put "every gun sale in the country under the thumb of the federal government." Yet he called for "putting an armed guard in every school" and cited police and the Secret Service as models of "good guys with guns" protecting people from "bad guys." A massive, armed domestic security force spread across the nation in every school house would not be considered a potential tool of tyranny? Out of curiosity, what if the new school security was packing copies of Origin of Species as well as guns?
  • The NRA supported right wing political candidates who reject, besides gun control laws, any new form of taxation and demand substantial cuts in the federal spending. But LaPierre wants the federal government to pay for this new security force, saying, "With all the money in the federal budget, if we can't come up with [the money] to do this...." Perhaps Grover Norquist, who sits on the board of the NRA, can explain how this will work.
  • Among the many things on which LaPierre blamed Sandy Hook in his speech on Friday was "viscious, violent video games," which create a culture of violence. Yet sending armed guards into schools everywhere to shoot bad guys wouldn't contribute to this culture? And incidentally, Slate pointed out that one of the games the NRA blamed is set in a school in which everyone is armed.
  • The NRA considers itself a protector of civil liberties. LaPierre demanded a "national database" of anyone with mental health issues, ignoring (As David Gregory pointed out) personal privacy laws and the rights of states to defy forced federal cooperation. Which civil liberties should matter more? At the least, should it not be acknowledged that broadening interpretations of the Second Amendment entail narrowing interpretations of the Fourth Amendment?
I suppose it is possible that trying to sound coherent while articulating all these contradictions was the reason LaPierre actually began foaming at the mouth. Course ultimately, LaPierre won't have to straighten out these inconsistencies. Good luck to the pro-gun Republican and Democratic lawmakers who will have to explain NRA logic to voters.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Futility: The Response of the Right Wing

A few days have passed since the shooting at Sandy Hook and the right wing response to the horror is starting to crystallize. I have already documented some of the more ridiculous knee-jerk responses here and here, but more recognizable and smarter conservative arguments have begun to appear in the last couple days that deserve closer attention. It is these arguments, I think, that will diminish or thwart new legislation on guns, not so much through fire-breathing anti-liberal rhetoric but through multifarious expressions of futility. The terrible truth of Sandy Hook, as they would have it, is that there's really nothing we can do.

One of the better conservative essays on guns in America comes from Alex Massie at The Spectator. Besides being an interesting (if infuriating) read, it illustrates the patterns in right-wing thinking about the coming debate. As I read it, the defense of gun rights seems to run in two broad categories. The first is the abstract rights-based rhetoric, an invocation of founding documents and founding principles that make access to guns for Americans an inviolable privilege. Massie writes
The (London) Times... editorialised that the Second Amendment "ostensibly protects the right to bear arms". There’s no ostensibly about it. The Amendment does just that and no amount of sophistry about the Founding Fathers’ intentions or the difference between muskets and semi-automatic firearms can change that.
Presumably he is talking about left-wing sophistry such as mine. After dismissing such reasoning, Massie moves into the second broad category, a pragmatic recognition of the ubiquity of guns in America. To "control" guns in a nation where there are nearly as many privately owned guns as people is an impossibility. So Massie, three paragraphs after his nod to the Second Amendment, writes:
Nor, despite the impression given by the international media, are American guns the sole preserve of right-wing lunatics. True, conservative households are more likely to possess guns than liberal households but almost one in three self-identified Democratic homes contains a gun and nearly 60% of those in rural areas do so. So do nearly 40% of Democratic households in the mid-west and south. “No guns” is a fantasy.
Since Sandy Hook this type of argument, reality-based rather than rights-based, has become vastly more popular than the constitutional argument, and for obvious reasons: abstract philosophies and paeans to men in powdered wigs are not compelling when six-year-old children have been shot. Commentary on the omnipresence of guns in our society, however, delivered in tones ranging from the clinical to the resigned, is far more acceptable. The meaning that is conveyed, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, is that conservatives lament this problem just like liberals, but unlike liberals they recognize the hard truth that nothing can be done. It allows them to establish a false middle ground in which they commiserate with the rest of America while rejecting any ideas for reform. Take, for instance, the close of the editorial "Banning 'Assault Weapons' Is Not The Answer," in The National Review:
The Left would like to take this tragedy as an opportunity to reform our laws in such a way as to make public shootings significantly less likely. This is a noble goal. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not accomplish it.
What would stop such tragedies? In this piece the editors of The National Review have nothing to suggest.

While this second category of gun rights rhetoric, the reality-based category, is more useful in situations like the post-Newtown debate, the first category, rights-based constitutional arguments, remains essential. Indeed, in almost every article, the pragmatists invoke the Second Amendment sooner or later (usually quite briefly to avoid looking callous) to establish an impassable boundary to reform measures. Passing gun control laws, the reasoning goes, will be ineffectual... unless it is effectual, in which case it will be unconstitutional. Those, it seems, are our only choices. The National Review editors are quite plain about this:
Both of these measures raise Second Amendment concerns as well. It is difficult to claim there is a legitimate reason to ban assault weapons, given the above-explained irrelevance of the distinction. And reviving the 1994 ban’s ten-round cap on magazine capacity would outlaw the standard versions of popular guns such as the Glock 17, which is likely a violation of the Second Amendment interpretation laid out in Heller and McDonald.
It is, one must admit, a well constructed closed-loop system—a dilemma with no solution, constructed by the very people who don't want to find a solution. Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment is the cornerstone. Massie does his best to make the whole thing ironclad by delegitimizing any criticisms of these Supreme Court decisions.
The Supreme Court agrees. This is settled law. Arguing that, somehow, it should not be places you in the same category as those people who once began any discussion of the Northern Ireland peace process with the observation that Northern Ireland “should not” exist or that if it were born today it would have looked very different. But it did exist and it wasn’t created today. Regrettable or inconvenient as this may have been, it was the way it was. And is. So with the Second Amendment. (This doesn’t mean all guns are legal. Not at all. Machine guns have been banned for decades. Further restrictions are also possible; prohibition is not.)
But now let's try to take this apart, and I can spot at least one initial vulnerability. Challenging in civil discourse a Supreme Court ruling is like arguing that Northern Ireland shouldn't exist? (Northern Ireland??) No, not so much... citizens and politicians (and even other judges for that matter) do not stop debating issues because the Supreme Court issues a ruling. For one reason, the Supreme Court has been wrong, and disastrously so, on a number of occasions. For another, politics and jurisprudence changes over time, and often because public discourse coupled with groundbreaking events can shift the culture. Eventually, the Court catches up. I do not recall anyone successfully convincing Frederick Douglass to stop advocating for the abolition of slavery after Dred Scott effectively made slavery legal everywhere in 1857. Six years later, I think it's safe to say Douglass had come out on top over Roger B. Taney. In contemporary America, I don't think conservatives have ceased to advocate for pro-life causes because Roe v. Wade is settled law. Nor have they stopped pursuing legal means of ending Obamacare, even after this summer's Supreme Court ruling.

This tactic, rhetorical idol worshiping of the Second Amendment, is significant for its superficiality. Few of these pundits want to engage in a real discussion on the merits of the Second Amendment because it is a losing proposition. Consider Republican Congressman Steve King on Constitutional gun rights in (I'm not making this title up): Caffeinated Thoughts: Stimulating Christian Conservative News & Commentary. King states that the Second Amendment was "the right of the individual" granted by the "Founding Fathers to ensure that a nation of armed individuals could always act as a check against any type of tyrannical encroachment by the federal government."

No one with any familiarity with American history can make this argument seriously because there is scant evidence that Americans have ever used privately owned arms to fight off the tyranny of the federal government. (Spare me any references to the American Revolution or the Civil War... those were professional armies with guns procured by their governments. Also, the Confederacy lost.) To the contrary, the great mass of historical evidence suggests that private arms are themselves the instruments of oppression, and the federal government has (too infrequently) intervened to protect its citizens. King, a Tea Party darling, can throw that kind of red meat around without fear of criticism, but pundits with half a brain and an educated readership know better. They have to tiptoe around the history of the Second Amendment.

Meanwhile, the superb New York Times opinionator series, "The Stone" has in the past few days since Sandy Hook demolished the philosophical defense of the Second Amendment. The phenomenally named Firmin Debrabander has argued that guns inhibit freedom. Michael Boylan has written that self-defense is not a reasonable argument for a society to protect gun ownership. And Jeff McMahan, following all these lines of reasoning to their logical end, concludes that the only effective gun control is to end private ownership of guns.

What would such a ban look like? Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat claims banning guns would resemble Prohibition itself. In a response to Adam Gopnik's brilliant essay in The New Yorker, "The Simple Truth About Gun Control," Douthat argues:
All of the arguments that he’s making could be made with equal force and feeling about alcohol — and indeed were made, plausibly enough, by temperance crusaders in the years leading up to our national experiment with prohibition....

I am not one of the many millions of Americans for whom gun ownership provides a sport, a pastime, and a feeling of security, and like Adam Gopnik I enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner. But I don’t confuse that cultural difference with a self-evident moral distinction.
Here is the final manifestation of the reality-based defense of gun rights, and one that does not stand up to scrutiny. While I like Douthat's work quite a lot, it is rife with self-evident moral distinctions, so let us dispense with the implication that various "cultural vices" cannot be evaluated critically or morally. The question worth asking here is whether guns as a commodity resemble alcohol as a commodity under the terms of government restriction. And some Prohibition history photographs (linked below) ought to help provide some of the answers:

  • During Prohibition nearly anyone could produce alcohol if they wanted to. Local hardware stores sold home still equipment. The illegal production of guns could never occur on such a household scale. To compare the viability of small arms manufacturing with home brewing is ridiculous.
  • Alcohol during Prohibition continued to be sold through giant loopholes for medicinal uses. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no medicinal use for guns. More to the point, people could package alcohol in a bottle and call it something else in order to sell it during Prohibition. One cannot bottle a gun, call it a cold remedy, and continuing selling it at Walmart.
  • It is not terribly difficult to drink alcohol inconspicuously. Speakeasies could operate in the middle of cities because customers could duck in for a drink and sneak out again. Do we actually imagine an equivalent of the speakeasy for guns? How would that work... customers sneak in and, very very quietly fire illegal assault weapons at the carefully hidden firing range no one else can hear? Consumption of alcohol is not readily comparable to "consumption" of firearms. People keep wine in their cellars because they want to drink it, but a lot of people keep a gun in their home hoping not to use it.
  • Alcohol can be addictive. Pulling triggers is not.
  • A massive percentage of tax revenue for state and federal budgets was derived from liquor sales in the early part of the 20th century making Prohibition a dubious economic policy at best. Sin taxes remain a matter of great policy debate, but as a percentage of budget revenues they have dropped substantially over time. In fiscal year 2009, the government collected $20.6 billion from alcohol, tobacco, and firearms & ammunition combined (incidentally, an up year), less than 1% of total federal revenues. Banning guns in 2012 has significantly fewer economic ramifications than banning alcohol in 1919.

What, then, should we make of the right wing expressions of futility regarding guns? There are, I would say, a number of worthwhile lessons to draw from conservatives. Certainly real gun control will be tremendously difficult—no one denies this (left wing writers, like Ezra Klein and Alex Pareene, have already acknowledged this). Comparisons with Prohibition might be quite useful and cautionary, even if problematic. It will be a long, gradual fight to rid America of guns, just like other worthwhile fights that conservatives claimed were impossible, like ending slavery or enforcing civil rights, took decades.

But if we accept that guns don't make us safer—and they don't—and that guns don't make us freer—and they don't—and all we have left is Antonin Scalia's word that the Founding Fathers wanted us to have them, then complaining about regulation being too difficult is not a persuasive or useful reaction. Gun rights advocates owe the nation better stuff than that.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bork Is Dead

Robert Bork is dead. The living Constitution breathes easier.

I can muster an inch of sympathy for his friends, his family, and his soul, but not much more. Whatever his personal virtues, and professional graciousness ("graciousness" seems to be the word of choice used in admiring Conservative obits), they dwindled to insignificance beside his wretched, racist, sexist, hate-filled jurisprudence. Consider what he published in The New Republic in 1963 about civil rights legislation:
The principle of such legislation is that if I find your behavior ugly by my standards, moral or aesthetic, and if you prove stubborn about adopting my view of the situation, I am justified in having the state coerce you into more righteous paths. That is itself a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.
Lots of unsympathetic journalists have pointed to that passage, but I'd also like to highlight a later passage that is, I think, illustrative of the Conservative perspective of law:
Though the basic objection is to the law's impact upon individual liberty, it is also appropriate to question the practicality of enforcing a law which runs contrary to the customs, indeed the moral beliefs, of a large portion of the country. Of what value is a law which compels service to Negroes without close surveillance to make sure the service is on the same terms given to whites? It is not difficult to imagine many ways in which barbers, landlords, lunch counter operators, and the like can nominally comply with the law but effectively discourage Negro patrons.
Bork never thought the government, certainly not the federal government, could change the attitudes or the behaviors of Southern white racists—it wasn't just that such legislation would trample the liberties of all Americans; it was that the legislation would never, ever work. He was wrong about all of it, but I mention it because similar language has been used all week in the press to deny the efficacy of gun control, a topic I shall take up again in the next post.

In most of the obits, though, the act of dying seems to have shielded Bork from the judgments he deserves. Even Jeffrey Rosen at The New Republic just published his insipid final thoughts on Bork, which include this travesty of a line:
Next to Antonin Scalia, Bork did more to put constitutional text and history front and center than any other judge in America.
Let's get accurate. Scalia and Bork did more than most other judges to distort history to serve a neoliberal worldview and a constitutionalism devoid of humanity. The notion that these guys were somehow immersed in American history more than other judges is fantasy. A tip for Rosen and others who think like this: just because they call themselves "originalists" does not mean they actually know what was going on "originally" in 1789 any better than anyone else.

If you want to read an obit Bork earned, check out Jeffrey Toobin's piece in The New Yorker.

There is one final counter-factual irony I was musing on: It was a tremendously good thing that Bork was denied by the Senate, but if he had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy would not have been. That means Obama would now be looking to fill that spot with a justice of his own liking that would swing the balance of the court.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Update: The Gun Debate

The debate gets smarter, and much, much dumber, in the same journal in the space of a day.

At The Daily Beast historian Saul Cornell makes essentially the same argument I have made—"Up until the 1980s, there was no 'individual-rights' theory of the Second Amendment"—though he rightly focuses much of his attention on the significance of Shays's Rebellion in 1786. So does Jack Schwartz, in a separate article for TDB.

Only fourteen hours earlier, TDB libertarian columnist Megan McArdle published this piece of libertarian fatalism that may win the gold medal for idiotic commentary on guns. (Perhaps I was wrong to focus my wrath at James Taranto yesterday?) Convinced that any measure of gun control would be either ineffectual or unconstitutional, and once again ignoring real world evidence that gun control measures in other nations have worked, McArdle compares the coming of oppressive regulatory legislation to (wait for it)...

There's a terrible syllogism that tends to follow on tragedies like this:
1. Something must be done
2. This is something
3. Therefore this must be done.
. . . and hello, Gulf War II.
And that's not the best part. McArdle concludes with this:
My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.
Yes, training young people to "gang rush shooters." When we start doing that we'll know for certain that we are living in a libertarian paradise and that our freedoms, though not our children, are safe forever.

I am confused, however, how this idea would square with the Louie Gohmert / Larry Pratt / NRA argument that teachers and school staff should have guns too. How would they heroically gun down the criminal if the students were heroically leaping into the line of fire? So many heroes... perhaps that's the failure of understanding here. Laws and regulations exist, or ought to exist, to preclude the need for heroes. I'm pretty sure that's what non-libertarians call "civilization."

Postscript: If looking to kill some time, search Twitter for #McArdlePitches

Late Update: Tennessee takes the lead on the Gohmert / Pratt plan: more guns in schools.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Enemies of Gun Control

As my last post made pretty clear, I think the road to an America with sensible, effective gun laws will eventually run through the Supreme Court. I am not optimistic the current court will uphold any law that effects substantial change for the better—the conservative majority likes to make decisions that seem detached from the reality in which the rest of us live.

A few pundits seem more hopeful in spite of the horrific Heller decision. David Frum tweeted yesterday, "Reading DC v Heller this morning. Almost all leading gun control proposals easily meet court's definition of the 2nd amendment right." In response, some of his followers observed that Scalia gave an interview in July in which he acknowledged limitations on guns were conceivable even after Heller and the 2010 case McDonald v. Chicago (another defeat for gun control in a 5-4 decision).

Um, maybe... but here's what Scalia actually said:
Obviously, the [second] amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried. It's to keep and bear. So, it doesn't apply to cannons. But I suppose there are handheld rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes that will have to be (looked at) ... it will have to be decided.
Yeah, we'll have to decide on the rocket launchers. One wonders how Scalia would rule on civilian drone use? Sure, I can't actually hold a drone in my hands (yet), but I could probably hold the remote that controls the drone, right? We'll have to decide on that one too, I guess.

Yet Scalia is hardly the most rabid opponent to common sense gun legislation or jurisprudence. I've seen a few contenders for that role in the wake of Sandy Hook. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, had this to say about the shooting: "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"

Classic Huckabee, offensively off-topic evangelical schlock delivered in a mild-mannered desperate-to-sound-like-Reagan tone of voice. Still, he's not a patch on Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. The opening of Pratt's written statement on the massacre at Sandy Hook reads:
In addition to the gunman, blood is on the hands of members of Congress and the Connecticut legislators who voted to ban guns from all schools in Connecticut (and most other states).  They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school when that is the only effective way of resisting a gunman.
But it's not just the pro-gun-control legislators who are guilty. In a statement to the press, Pratt took on the pro-gun-control voters who elected them as well:
Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to insure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones. The only thing accomplished by gun free zones is to insure that mass murderers can slay more before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.
There it is, and we've heard it before: the gun rights solution. Forget gun control; we need guns everywhere. Louie Gohmert, Congressman from Texas, made the same case on Fox News, saying of the principal at Sandy Hook:
I wish to God she had an M-4 in her office locked up — so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands. But she takes him out, takes his head off, before he can kill those precious kids.
Who are these guys? Conspiracy theorists, fire-eaters, and Republican clowns... all true. But they aren't crazy. They are deep believers. We let ourselves off the hook when we dismiss them as crazy. I think that accusation carries with it a kind of civic inertia, where we sit back and wait for reasonable minds to displace the nuts that have somehow found their way into public office. And it can blind us to the same absurd sentiments when they masquerade as rational discourse. Consider, for instance, The Wall St. Journal's editorial response to Sandy Hook written by James Taranto. He finds the cause not in the Second Amendment, but in the First, arguing that mass murderers do what they do for public recognition, a crime that is only made possible by freedom of the press:
Our point here is that the medium is the motive: If these killers seek recognition, it is available to them because the mass media can be counted on give extensive attention to their horrific deeds. They are, after all, newsworthy, and they do raise important questions of public concern, not only about the availability of weapons and the vulnerability of "gun-free zones" but also about the treatment of mental illness.

We journalists often proclaim high-mindedly that the public has a right to know--and we're right. But as in the Garden of Eden, knowledge is dangerous. An industry devoted to serving the public's right to know gives twisted and evil men the means of becoming known.

This problem is not obviously amenable to a solution, and it certainly is not amenable to a legal one. A regime of media regulation that would be both effective at preventing mass shootings and consistent with the American Constitution is no easier to imagine than a regime of gun regulation that would meet the same criteria.
This is a revolting and ignorant argument, one I find far more offensive than the drivel spun by Pratt and Gohmert. It is, first and foremost, utterly false. It is incredibly easy to imagine "a regime of gun regulation" that would "be effective at preventing mass shootings" because many nations have already done so, and with tremendous success. Moreover, such measures would only fail to be "consistent with the American Constitution" if we all took a similarly flawed viewed of constitutional history as Antonin Scalia.

Second, the premise of this opinion rests on the notion that the Second Amendment provides the same essential foundation to a free society as the First Amendment. Taranto would have us believe that putting limitations on the former, which might seem reasonable (because it is), is the same as restricting freedoms to the latter. On what planet? If the government takes away my ability to write this blog, I am less free, and so too would everyone else be less free. Such is the manifest importance of civic debate and outspoken dissent. But if the government takes away everyone's assault rifles, our grand republican experiment moves forward without a hitch. We're still free... we just don't have assault rifles. That reality, that maybe all constitutional rights might not be equal, cannot be acknowledged, though. All Taranto has to offer are the same uncritical platitudes for the sanctity of the Second Amendment:
Many of the voices demanding stricter gun control, like [David] Frum, openly scoff at the Second Amendment. Others simply ignore it. Very few acknowledge the need to respect Americans' constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
Yes, because it's a bullshit right. Did you not know?

These, then, are some of the enemies of gun control. It is to be hoped that they can be defeated. We cannot in our outrage call out for Obama to do it alone. This has to be a broader and more democratic fight. I was trying to think of a prescription or plan of action to write about, but nothing I came up with could match the diagnostic precision or the eloquence of Sheyda Jahanbani of the University of Kansas, who wrote this (and please click and read the whole thing) on her blog Withering Speeches:
We must summon the collective will to defend the very idea of society in word and deed. For, when we venerate “rugged individualism” as the preeminent American virtue, when we allow fabulist politicians to equate school teachers and garbage truck drivers with the Leviathan, when we reify anti-social values in our political economy, we do a different kind of violence to our children. We plant a seed of suspicion in their minds that the society of their fellow human beings is a source of oppression rather than a sacred and mutually advantageous bond. We communicate to them that they are, in some very real and terrifying sense, on their own.
 Well said... we are not, and should not be, alienated from one another. We are a Union.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On the Second Amendment

To write a post about the regulatory confusion and moral insanity of America's gun laws would be redundant at this point. Since the Newtown mass shooting every commentary writer in America has weighed in already, either demanding stricter gun controls or offering bromides about politicizing this tragedy. (By the way, the best reads to my taste are Nick Kristof's and Garry Wills'.)

Instead let me begin with a couple of images:

Behold the .223 Semi-Automatic Bushmaster assault rifle, one of three semi-automatic weapons Adam Lanza brought with him to Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is, even to an untrained eye, a different sort of apparatus than the weapon of choice during the American Revolution, the flintlock rifle:

The former in its semiautomatic form fires 45-90 rounds per minute, which explains why authorities in Newtown reported finding "dozens and dozens" of shells at the murder scene. The latter fires 3 rounds per minute, assuming the colonial Minuteman wielding it has some skill with powder and a ramrod.

Any investigation of gun violence in America reveals that this nation has a dramatically different relationship with guns than other industrialized nations. Even other nations where gun ownership is allegedly high, like Switzerland and Israel, have much stricter gun control laws. The reason for America's outlier status is of course the 2nd Amendment, drafted and ratified at a time when the flintlock rifle was the standard, 3 rounds per minute was fast, and the frontier still existed. It is this short text that gun rights advocates cling to with maniacal devotion:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Let us all thank the Anti-Federalists for that bit of wisdom, which in the last few decades has been misinterpreted, abused, and disfigured to advance a culture of guns and violence.

The primary problem with the 2nd Amendment is its shelf life. How we make sense of the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights has always shifted as time has passed, and Americans have generally looked to the courts (for good or for ill) for the proper interpretations. These interpretations, however, emanate from bedrock truths within the text itself. People across the ideological spectrum might reasonably argue about the application of the protection of free speech in modern American society—can I tweet "fire" in a crowded theater? (seriously, can I?)—but regardless of anyone's particular answer, few people doubt that vigorously maintaining freedom of speech is essential to the health of the American republic. That truth gives the 1st Amendment life for all time. History, however, has made a mockery of the 2nd Amendment. There are too many modern free states in which gun ownership is not protected. These free states exist and persist without enshrining the right to bear arms. There is simply no longer any truth in the logic of the 2nd Amendment.

Most of us know this. Except for right-wing whackjob survivalists out there, who actually believe they will lead a successful revolution against a tyrannical US government, the rest of us, as Josh Marshall notes, are pretty certain we can't realistically fight off the armed forces of the federal government. Voicing that sentiment in political debate is a harder task. To acknowledge that the Framers of the Constitution may have laid an egg in the middle of the Bill of Rights is simply anathema for devotees to an American cultural mythology who revere the infinite wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

It might help to know that this issue about the efficacy of militias was contested even in 1789, when the ratification debates over the Constitution were in full force. In order to reassure Anti-Federalists that the new Constitution would not confer tyrannical power to the new federal legislature that would be empowered to raise an Army and Navy, James Madison wrote in Federalist 46:
Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops.
Alexander Hamilton, more impatient with the distrust of federal power and perhaps more persuasive on this particular subject than Madison, offered a contrary perspective in Federalist 25:
Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defense. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved. The facts which, from our own experience, forbid a reliance of this kind, are too recent to permit us to be the dupes of such a suggestion. The steady operations of war against a regular and disciplined army can only be successfully conducted by a force of the same kind. Considerations of economy, not less than of stability and vigor, confirm this position. The American militia, in the course of the late war, have, by their valor on numerous occasions, erected eternal monuments to their fame; but the bravest of them feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perserverance, by time, and by practice.
Despite their differences, both Madison and Hamilton were engaging the question of bearing arms in the same context as everyone else in the ratification debates did: a question about the right of the collective people to guard against the threat of a standing army. There was never a discussion about the right to bear arms as an individual right of private ownership. Never.

Yet a sacred and inviolable individual right is exactly what Justice Scalia finds in his extraordinary majority opinion in the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, which invalidated Washington D.C.'s strict handgun ban. I say "extraordinary" because Scalia discovers this individual right and detaches it utterly from the clause about militias without compelling historical evidence for doing so. In this argument, the phrase "bearing arms" has nothing to do with military service, but just means to own a gun. The beauty of this steaming pile of a decision is to rid the 2nd Amendment of its raison d'etre, which the historical record makes clear: to protect the people from the tyranny of a government with a standing army. After Heller, people have a right to own a gun because... well, just because the Constitution says so. (Except it doesn't.) Scalia argues: has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.” 
Where did Scalia find traces of this "pre-existing right" for Americans? The Glorious Revolution in 1689! Only a century removed from the actual ratification of the Constitution, and in another country. One might think Scalia would be better off finding evidence closer to 1789, but that turns out to be quite difficult. For instance, the 1774 Declaration and Resolves on Colonial Rights of the First Continental Congress, precisely the place one would imagine the aggrieved colonists would demand this right, makes no mention of it. The word "arms" never appears in that document.

Without any evidence in the national debates, Scalia turns, like all good conservatives, to the states for succor. Pay dirt. He finds four state constitutions that invoke the language of self-defense in a "bear arms" article. But crucially (and somewhat dishonestly) he never quotes those passages in full, which link their meaning to a wider context of military service and the danger of standing armies, just like the Bill of Rights does. For example, the appropriate passage from Vermont's 1777 Constitution reads:
That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State--and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.
Scalia has ignored here that the "right to bear arms" was established as a bulwark against tyranny, not an individual right of ownership for its own sake. He's also ignored that nine other states could have cared less about this right regardless of the reason.

Justice Stevens makes the case against Scalia far better than I can in the minority opinion. So too does Justice Breyer in his dissent. And so does P. A. Madison at The Federalist Blog. For that matter, Garry Wills made the case against Scalia nine years before Heller was decided in his brilliant book A Necessary Evil. Wills, taking on the NRA interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, anticipated exactly what Scalia would do in Heller:
The tactic of of the private ownership interpreters is to ransack and document no matter how distant from the ratification debates, in the hope that someone, somewhere, ever used "bear arms" in a non-military way, as if that would change the overwhelming body of military usage.
Actually Wills put it in tighter language earlier in this chapter, observing that the phrase "bear arms" takes on absurd meanings if not used in military contexts. He stated, "One does not bear arms against a rabbit."

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: to look for real gun control regulations after the massacre at Sandy Hook is to demand from Congress and from state legislatures laws that five Supreme Court Justices believe unconstitutional. (There are lesser restrictions that might survive and might help, but I do not believe they will stop the violence.) These Justices are adherents to the same ideological creed that plagues nearly the entirety of the Republican Party. Scalia is not a stupid man. Nor does he believe he is dishonest, though he is. Only ideological devotion facilitates such a distorted interpretation of historical evidence that lays the entire nation at the mercy of a twenty-seven word sentence that no longer makes any sense.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


A more topical post on America's pathology regarding guns coming soon, but in the meantime let us consider this contribution to the blog on the subject of greatest all-time covers in response to an earlier post.

Reader CC writes
Top 5 desert island covers for my money...

1. Twist & Shout, The Beatles (pure fun, so good you forget it was originally an Isley Brothers song
2. Hallelujah , Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen writes great songs, but Buckley sings it better than anyone. The Jon Bon Jovi cover of this song should not be on any top 5 lists.
3. Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles (just better than Simon & Garfunkel)
4. Hard to Handle, The Black Crowes (pure rock bliss)
5. All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix (simply the best cover song ever).

Bonus Holiday Track: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (come on, its the Boss)
Friends and neighbors, dispute at will. The comment box is yours.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Planetary Thresholds

Nature published this graphic of humanity's deep imprint on the earth's planetary systems in 2009.

Obviously there's bad news there (and it's three years old too... things haven't exactly gotten better.) Still, it is interesting how something like the nitrogen cycle is so far out of whack compared with climate change or global freshwater use, yet gets comparatively little attention in the mainstream.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Changing Anxieties

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones had a post the other day listing what he worries about over the next fifty years.  In order, he says:
  1. climate change
  2. robots (for real... interesting case he links to)
  3. immortality (yep)
  4. bioweapoons
  5. energy
I would probably swap 3 and 4, but otherwise I thought it was a pretty good list. Then it occurred to me how extraordinary it is that nuclear war or nuclear terrorism does not appear. And that got me to thinking about what this list might look if it were 1962, fifty years back, when nuclear war was everyone's apocalyptic anxiety of choice. Maybe...
  1. nuclear war
  2. communist revolution
  3. robots (hey, they must have been on people's minds. The Jetsons aired in primetime in 1962. And by the way, that jazzy little theme song still gets it done.)
  4. brainwashing
  5. and, of course, SPECTRE

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Paranoid and the Disabled

Every so often we arrive at moments when the behavior of people on the other side of the political spectrum defies our best, genuinely open-minded attempts to understand their thinking. It is one thing for red-staters and blue-staters to mix it up over tax policy, reproductive rights, foreign aid, or fuel efficiency. It is quite another to reject a treaty defending the rights of the disabled, particularly a treaty designed on current US law that demands no alteration to current US law. The news lit up the pundit universe as the media struggled to grasp why 38 Republicans voted no. Jon Stewart, in a Daily Show segment titled "Please Tell Me This Is Rock Bottom," summed up anti-right-wing exasperation in one comment: "Look, I'm willing to keep an open mind here... what are your bullshit reasons for opposing this?"

Fair question, especially since it's so much easier to enumerate the reasons why they should not have opposed ratification. I mean first of all, it's December; Santa was watching. Second, this was really bad politics. No one looks good sticking it to disabled people, certainly not a party struggling to shake its reputation of prejudice and exclusivity. Third, this had as much bipartisan cover as any Republican could possibly want. George W. Bush's White House negotiated the treaty and a number of prominent old-guard Republicans endorsed it, including George H. W. Bush, John McCain, and Bob Dole, who sat in the Senate chamber in a wheelchair staring down all the Republicans voting against it.

The response from those Republican Senators voting nay was twofold: that ratifying the treaty would interfere with home schooling and would endanger US sovereignty. But as Catherine Powell argued in the New York Times, neither of these explanations makes much sense. The treaty has no force of law in the US that isn't already enforced through the ADA. How, then, should we make sense of this?

I am tempted in these moments to turn to historian Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," because it puts my emotive instinct—these guys are lunatic ideologues—in a scholarly framework. Hofstadter diagnosed in certain political movements "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Writing in 1963 & 1964 as Goldwater campaigned for the presidency, Hofstadter identified the small but influential John Birch Society as a contemporary example of the paranoid style, but pointed to other examples stretching back through American history: McCarthyism, anti-Masonry, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Illuminism. (Incidentally, the John Birch Society is still out there and unsurprisingly called for the Senate to reject the treaty for the disabled.) From all of these movements, a pattern or a kind of worldview emerged. For the paranoid...
History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.
 It is hard not to see these traits in the far right wing in America today. Paul Krugman invoked Hofstadter in 2009 to explain the outrageous distortions told about Obamacare and then again (less compellingly) in 2012 regarding Romney's accusation that Obama was responsible for high gas prices. And there are plenty of other examples of crazy crusades championed by the far right that smack of paranoia, like birtherism and climate change denialism.

On the other hand, the journalist Richard Bernstein warned against using Hofstadter too often to understand modern politics. "Not every upsurge of a radical populism or unrestrained irritation qualifies as paranoid," he wrote in the New York Times in 2010. "Nor is it certain that rational good sense won’t prevail among most Americans."

Bernstein's is a useful reminder—calling people crazy ought to be an explanation of last resort and skepticism of all grass-roots politics is not healthy for a democracy. Yet it is hard to escape the fact that, in the case of the treaty for the disabled, good sense did not prevail. Paranoid isolationism prevailed. Right-wing Republicans dismissed the interests of disabled people as inconsequential next to the terrible specter of global government and its malevolent instrument, the UN.

Here Hofstadter seems appropriate, because while most us see in the treaty a chance to, say, help people in wheelchairs, the paranoids see a sword pointed at the heart of American independence. As with all classic paranoids, their warnings concern the slippery slope the nation approaches, the trajectory of doom that America will find itself on should it take the first innocent step—it's crucial that they spell out how dire the implications will be at the bottom of the slope, because in truth there's nothing offensive at the top. In fact, there's not even a slope.

So Rick Santorum fired one salvo from his new post at World Net Daily that the treaty's use of the phrase "the best interest of the child" would actually threaten his daughter's life. Meanwhile The Heritage Foundation, where Tea Partier Jim Demint is headed, called the treaty "a threat to US sovereignty" and warned of "extreme liberal moralizing." And on the floor of the Senate, James Inhofe from Oklahoma had this to say:
Because of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we don’t need UN bureaucrats dictating our nation’s laws in the name of worldwide application. The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty through the establishment of the unelected UN bureaucratic bodies called the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a Conference of States Parties that would implement the Treaty and pass so-called “recommendations” that would be forced upon the U.S. as a signatory.
They are what Peter Spiro calls "New Sovereigntists," or conservative anti-internationalists. Unsurprisingly, they are also climate change deniers, since any admission of a problem that is global in scope will require a global solution. And, as Hofstadter reminds us, on all these issues, even something so benign as a treaty for the disabled, there is no deal to be made:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.
Lest we imagine these are just a few of the fringe candidates on the right wing, it is probably worth mentioning that the GOP party platform itself called for the Senate to "reject agreements whose long-range impact on the American family is ominous or unclear." It specifically listed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Friday, December 7, 2012

On Repeat

"For the Turnstiles"... the Be Good Tanyas covering Neil Young off of their 2006 album Hello Love.

This song is good. So good it has me thinking about my all time, top five, desert island covers.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Better Lincoln Poem

In response to my post, a reader offered a link to Walt Whitman's superior effort regarding Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." It is well worth its own post.

It begins...
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Forgive the sentimentality, but scenes like this are one of the reasons to become a teacher. Students matter, even in a country where national figures frequently express disdain for academia, because they can effect change.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Unbreakable Vow

As Fiscal Cliff negotiations move forward—which is to say, as Boehner, McConnell, and Obama take turns punching each other in the face—it is becoming clear that absurd fidelity to Grover Norquist's tax pledge remains central to Republican Congressmen. Today there are two narrative threads running through the news. In one, the GOP presented their own offer to solve the fiscal cliff. Boehner drafted a letter to Obama that included the following:
Notably, the new revenue in the Bowles plan would not be achieved through higher tax rates, which we continue to oppose and will not agree to in order to protect small businesses and our economy. Instead, new revenue would be generated through pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates.
Shorter version: Read my lips: no new taxes. Another thread, however, has hinted that the GOP is secretly considering, as Talking Points Memo puts it, "surrendering on taxes" in a "Doomsday" plan. In this scenario:
The bill would come to the floor, and Republicans would vote ‘present’ to register their disapproval with letting the top marginal rates go up, allowing Democratic votes to carry it to passage. Having already cleared the Senate, the bill would be sent to the White House and signed into law. Over and done, middle class tax increases averted.
Brian Beutler, among others, has argued that the reason for Republicans to cave is to give themselves more leverage for battling the White House in the New Year. Dave Weigel thinks this plan "sounds brilliant" for Republicans. Jonathan Chait is less convinced, since Obama will still have plenty of leverage of his own in January.

Regardless, both plans maintain the primacy of the anti-tax pledge. In Boehner's "offer" to Obama it is straightforward enough although laughable as a proposal. In the "doomsday" plan, the voting dance Republicans are contemplating in order to appease Norquist is ridiculous. Chait explains the logic:
Interestingly, Republicans also appear preoccupied with avoiding the atmosphere of surrender. Karl reports that Republicans are considering having their members vote “present” on an extension of the middle-class tax cuts, thus allowing it to pass with Democratic votes. What is the difference? That way, they haven’t done anything that could be called a vote to raise taxes. Instead, they have stood aside and allowed Democrats to raise taxes.
Insanity. The point of a negotiated compromise is that flexibility (otherwise known as sacrifice) from both parties is required such that both parties can own the result. It's one thing to posture and take strong positions in the early rounds of sparring, but standing by and voting "present" to avoid taking responsibility for legislation is derelict. (This Columbia University professor calls it treasonous.) The anti-tax pledge and the rise of the Tea Party has the House Republicans and Boehner in fetters and, unless they find some hidden reserves of courage to break this orthodoxy, it will drive the nation over the cliff.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Ever since Spielberg's "Lincoln" came out, political pundits have rushed to weigh in with their opinions on the film and the "lessons" that it offers Obama. Some have been more successful than others. But more significantly, the convergence of popular culture and contemporary politics tells us that the mythology of Lincoln is intact and as readily accessible as ever. Few historical figures remain so complicated, so important, and so revered as Lincoln... which means few are so abused by contemporary writers and politicians to advance their own agendas. Slate's movie critic, Dana Stevens probably got it right in her review when she wrote: "Of course these two figures were bound to collide at some point: the most mythic of American presidents and the most myth-making of American filmmakers."

Most people most of the time cannot escape the gravity of the heroic Lincoln myth, and that is certainly true of Spielberg. Admittedly, it is hard to deny the awesomeness of Lincoln, that lonely individual who seems to have stepped out of time and space to save the nation in its moment of great crisis.  This is the Lincoln to whom Walt Whitman paid tribute (in what we should acknowledge was not one of his better poems). This is the Lincoln who, in the film, at one point actually asks an aide whether "we can choose to be born or are we fitted into the times we are born into?"—"you maybe" is the indulgent reply. And who better to portray this Lincoln than Daniel Day Lewis, whose awesomeness may be even less in doubt than Lincoln's. Let's not forget, Lewis played this guy, this guy, and this guy, and in "Lincoln" gets to proclaim, "I am the President of the United States CLOTHED IN IMMENSE POWER."

Good stuff, except that: 1. Lincoln was usually clothed in a shawl, which doesn't exactly scream power and 2. this representation of Lincoln advances a longstanding view of emancipation as the gift of white men to black slaves, born of the moral clarity of Lincoln's mind and midwifed by the sacrifice of (mostly white) soldiers. Unbalanced by a dearth of substantive black characters, the film establishes Lincoln as the center of all historical agency in the fight for emancipation. All actions toward the successful passage of the 13th Amendment have their origin in him. The story of emancipation made real by the inexorable pressure of African-Americans who forced the hands of white politicians like Lincoln is all but ignored. This is a history recounted by many historians like Barbara Fields and Eric Foner, but perhaps best told (in brief) by Ira Berlin.

The cunning of the movie is that the Great White Man view of history it unintentionally promotes is shrouded by a different kind of balance struck between high-minded idealism and the nasty business of vote wrangling. "The genius of 'Lincoln,'" A. O. Scott gushed in the New York Times "lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane."

Politics! So grimy, so sleazy, so beautiful! Here was the escape route for pundits who desperately loved this movie that had sated their appetite for hagiography, but had to find a smarter way to write about it. So columns started appearing like "Lincoln's Master Class in Politics," "Spielberg's Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age," and "Why We Love Politics." Frank Bruni of the New York Times used this reading of the movie to condemn Grover Norquist:
There’s no place for absolutists and absolutism in a democracy, which is designed for give-and-take, for compromise. That’s one of the lessons of “Lincoln,” which moviegoers are thronging to and intellectuals are swooning for precisely because it illuminates and validates the intrinsic and purposeful messiness of our system. It exalts flexibility. It venerates pragmatism.
Growing up a hardscrabble, self-taught prairie lawyer, Lincoln was the perfect puppet master to manipulate this system built on compromise—at least, so David Brooks implied on a Meet the Press roundtable. "Politics is about paying attention to other people," he helpfully explained, then continued:
There’s a beautiful scene where Lincoln is tending a fire.... getting in the trenches with people. And he gets down on his hands and knees and he’s moving the wood around the fire.  That would never happen in a [modern] presidency. There’d be a million people to move the wood for him.  So he was down there with people and could relate in a much more natural way—how to control them with a story.  And I’m afraid we’ve made the imperial presidency, made that so much harder.
There are two problems with this. The first is that in celebrating the importance of a president connecting with the common people, Brooks has apparently forgotten that he endorsed Mitt Romney for president in October after calling him Thurston Howell Romney in September. If being down with the people is so important to Brooks, maybe the guy who worked as a community organizer might have been the better choice.

(Incidentally, I know I pick on David Brooks a lot. It's because he doesn't make sense to me. Also, I am the author of this blog, CLOTHED IN VERY COMFORTABLE SWEATPANTS, and I'll write what I like.)

The second problem with the compromise reading was noted by Dave Weigel at Slate & Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, who argued that all of these pundits were misreading "Lincoln." Far from a story of compromise, Weigel observed that "Everyone else who watches it sees a story about a president who refuses to move from one goal and bribes people to get there." So the question for Obama, who screened the film at the White House, is whether to compromise like the Lincoln most of the pundits revere, or hold firm like the Lincoln everyone else admires.

But there's a broader historical issue that everyone I've read seems to have overlooked, and that is the naked fact of secession. Whether Lincoln succeeded in this legislative fight in 1865 because he compromised or because he held firm, everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that his most strident, uncompromising political enemies had left the Congress to join the Confederate government. All the maneuvering Lincoln did in 1865 was to corral votes in his own Republican Party, while sniping a few lame-duck Democrats. That political reality has little in common with 2012.

Just to illustrate the point (and for fun), consider how Obama might lead the nation if the 112th Congress, the current lame-ducks, did not include the Senators and Representatives from the eleven states of the former Confederacy. Currently, the Republicans control the House with 242 members to 193 Democrats. In the Senate, Democrats have a small majority, 53-47. Lose AL, AK, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, and VA and the Democrats would control the House 156-148 and the Senate (with a supermajority) 47-31.

Fiscal Cliff, solved. For that matter, the Fiscal Cliff would never have existed with that Congress.

As I mentioned in my first blog post, contemporary American politics reminds me of "the ideological rigidity of the 1840s and 1850s." It is not akin to 1865 at all. Lincoln, even if he had been president in that decade of tumult preceding the Civil War, did not have the ability to make pro-slavery Southern Democrats see reason or to compromise—that choice to concede to the will of the larger nation rested with Southerners alone. The lesson worth learning from that history has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with the Republican Party.