Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Ross Douthat Batting For Bill Kristol

Ross Douthat
will be tne NY Times conservative columnist replacing Bill Kristol. A former Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute, Ross displays his cleverness in a review of a new book on Billy Graham and civil rights. He astutely provides a conservative position on a liberal dogma, while at first giving every appearance of favoring it. From the last few paragraphs:

In one story, Sun Belt Republicanism was a coalition forged in cynicism and denial: it perpetuated real injustices while denying they existed and relied on the votes of bigots to achieve political dominance. In another telling, though, the majority that Nixon built managed to achieve something that seemed impossible at mid-century--using the rhetoric of Christianity and colorblindness to reconcile the white South to a legal and social revolution, and confining the once-ubiquitous support for segregation to a lunatic fringe.

Again, as with Graham, both of these stories are true....

I have confidence we will not be saying, Ross, it was nice knowing ya, and gee we might have had Ramesh or Yuval.


Save the First Amendment

Kill McCain-Feingold. Some recent developments:
The issue bandied about on Tuesday asked whether banning the broadcast of "Hillary: The Movie," 30 days before last year's Democratic primary, violated McCain-Feingold (a lower court said yes), and whether that application of McCain-Feingold violated the constitution.

Much of the intrigue arrived courtesy of Malcolm Stewart, the lawyer for the government. According to the NYT's take, Stewart largely argued that Congress has the sweeping power to ban political books, signs and videos, so long as they're paid for by corporations and disseminated not long before an election.

Stewart argued there was no difference in principle between the 90-minute documentary and a 30-second television advertisement, a position which Justice Kennedy seemed to find hard to stomach.

"If we think that the application of this to a 90-minute film is unconstitutional," Justice Kennedy said, "then the whole statute should fall under your view because there's no distinction between the two?"

It didn't sit well with other justices, either. According to the NYT's Adam Liptak: "by the end of an exceptionally lively argument at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, it seemed at least possible that five justices were prepared to overturn or significantly limit parts of the court's 2003 decision upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law . . . ."

Categories > Congress

Greetings from Memphis

I’ve been attending the annual meeting of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, which remains one of my favorite conferences. Dan Cullen of Rhodes College has outdone himself as host and panel impresario, treating us to first-rate barbecue last night and putting together two most excellent panels on liberal education and civic education over the past two days.

I’ve also heard a lot of grumbling about assessment, but it remains an unavoidable feature of contemporary higher education. We do it all time--didn’t Socrates say that the unassessed life wasn’t worth living for a human being?--albeit not in the way that many accreditors would recognize and appreciate.

Next stop: Berry College, where I’ll be responding to James W. Ceaser.

Some Thoughts on Piracy

FPRI, which publishes Orbis, the journal I now edit, has sent out my short essay on piracy and what to do about itas an "e-note." It is reprinted on the Ashbrook site here. The essay is a more complete version of what I posted recently on NLT.

I am indebted to one of those who commented on my earlier post for reminding me of Locke’s agrument on behalf of the right of self defense.

I must make a correction to my piece. It was Decatur who set fire to the USS Philadelphia but the naval squadron that bombarded Tripoli was commanded by Commodore Edward Preble.

Absent Books

On the one hand, for Stephen Marche there are too many books and yet he uses the same-day death of Shakespeare and Cervantes to contemplate some possibilities for new ones. Wouldn’t it be fun to have another play from Sophocles (we have only seven of his one hundred and twenty), or to have the Bard�s "Cardenio," which the King�s Men performed twice in 1613 and was probably based on Don Quixote (Thomas Shelton�s translation was released in 1612)? I looked through my Kindle. Not there.

Mark Twain’s new book

Mark Twain has a new book coming out, Who is Mark Twain?, a collection of 24 previously unpublished stories and essays. In "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair," a piece in the new book, Twain describes his dentist: "He was gray and venerable, and humane of aspect; but he had the calm, possessed, surgical look of a man who could endure pain in another person." I’m going to hand one to my dentist the next time he goes into the "increased pressure phase" of his work when I’m in the chair.

Lincoln’s Death: Contemporary Reactions

NY Times
reprints contemporary reactions to Lincoln’s assassination. How can we recover the literacy and the obvious spiritual depth of people back then?


Obama at Georgetown

Father Schall and Mary Eberstadt offer their commentaries on the covering up of IHS at Georgetown. There is nothing more to add to this sad and pathetic demonstration from the White House. An apology, however, ought to attempted.
Categories > Presidency

Obama vindicates Bush?

Several commentators, includingJoe Klein (to cite a Lefty) are noting that the release of the "torture memos" is problematic: "There are real concerns in the intelligence community--and a potential rebellion in the clandestine service." Letting our enemies know what we will do to them when we catch them could prepare them to resist more effectively.

On the other hand, the President is probably correct that the memo had to be released, if only because of world opinion, and the opinion of America’s elite class too, I suppose. All kinds of rumors have spread all over the world about what, exactly, the US was doing. Judging by what I have seen so far, the memo suggests that the Bush Administration hardly wend medieval on our enemies. A sample:

The Bybee memorandum, which was written on August 1, 2002, described the CIA’s plans for using insects this way:

“You [the CIA] would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us [the Department of Justice] that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.”

If that’s an illegal interrogation technique, there’s a problem with the law, not the technique.

If the techniques were, as a rule, closer to that than not, and if only three people were waterboarded, and if such methods were only used on people who were carefully selected, as seems to have been the case (for the most part), it suggests that by releasing the memo, President Obama has shown that the Left was rather misguided in its understanding of things. It was the mistrust of Bush, combined with the (not unreasonable) concern with secrecy, that snowballed into a conspiracy theory. There is a trade-off between security and public information. Legitimate concerns about security might have led the Bush administration to go too far. No doubt, as one report notes, there are concerns about "a potential rebellion in the clandestine service" over this. On the other hand, the CIA, like any other bureaucratic organization needs to be reminded who is boss sometimes. The trouble is that the CIA has a history of taking its pound of flesh from Presidents who do things it doesn’t like.

Update. Here’s a bit more info:

Prisoners could be kept shackled in a standing position for as many as 180 hours. The documents also noted that more than a dozen CIA prisoners had been deprived of sleep for at least 48 hours, three for more than 96 and one for the nearly eight-day maximum allowed. Another document seemed to endorse sleep deprivation for 11 days.

In some cases, the memos address specific interrogation plans. When the CIA proposed putting an Al Qaeda suspect in a small box with an insect, the Justice Department endorsed the idea but added conditions it said were necessary to keep the agency from violating the international convention against torture.

"If you do so . . . you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain," said a 2002 memo sent to the CIA’s acting general counsel. A footnote clarified that the CIA never carried out the insect interrogation plan.

Anyone else surprised by just how lawyered up this stuff seems to have been? (There’s a reason why the old "Mission Impossible" began with tapes concluding, "should you or any of your team be apprehended, the secretary and I will deny any knowledge of its existence." That reflected an understanding, which used to be more common, that certain acts by govermment must be off the books) There also seem to have been relatively few involved.

Don’t let a crisis go to waste

For the moment, it seems that the markets are stabilizing. If that is indeed the case, it suggests that the reason might have something to do with the policies enacted, largely by bi-partisan consensus, starting in late 2008, and continuing through 2009 that address the finance and money markets. It’s too early for the stimulus package, and the other stuff, to have made much of a difference.

A Good Morning Bombast

Having glanced at Instapundit this morning I came across this Nick Gillespie rant against Obama, mass transit, and the implications of gifted Portugese water dogs. Better than caffeine.


Forever in Blue Jeans?

Some months ago, I noted on these pages the expected and coming "demise"--pronounced, of course, by the fashionistas on high--of that time-honored fashion article known as "the dress." Almost a year later--in no small part because of Michelle Obama, I'd add--I am happy to report that this looming danger seems to have escaped us. Americans are justly proud of Mrs. Obama's good sense and good taste in dressing--and I am glad that this American woman appeared in Europe even to show up the French Sarkozy's supermodel. In part because of her, the dress appears to be cool again and looking glamorous has taken on a refreshed kind of respect. Even Old Navy is promoting a line of dresses for the summer. True, they are a rather sack-like sort of thing--vaguely reminiscent of the flower-child peasant dresses of the 60s--but, still, they are a welcome relief from the low-riding (and ill-fitting) blue jeans that sprout muffin-tops on most young women.

Having said that, George Will in today's Washington Post, still sees enough cause to take aim at what remains America's favorite fashion article: blue jeans. Will is spurred on by a very clever column from Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal last month. Both Akst and Will see a kind of demonic leveling instinct at work in our obsession with denim. For the open-minded and not easily swayed, I think Will and Akst offer a much-needed corrective with their none-too-gentle opinions about blue jeans.

On the other hand, the point that they have (and this is especially true about Will) is taken to an extreme that demonstrates the weakness of their point. They go too far in condemning Americans for their iconic fabric. After all, the original reason for the popularity of blue jeans is something uniquely and wonderfully American. They were born of the practical necessity of creating an attire that suited the grubby and difficult work of pulling riches from our soil. Levi-Strauss--an industrious and ingenious American if ever there was one--made those pants to fill a need for miners and struck his own gold in the process. Indeed, the actual gold of the 49ers might be said to fade in comparison to the luster of the gold Strauss created out of cotton, indigo, and copper rivets. From miners to cowboys, jeans became the uniform of America's eternally youthful and optimistic striving. If, at first, denim was the uniform of hard-work and striving, it is also no wonder that it made a turn with James Dean to become the symbol of America's youthful rebellion against bourgeois conformity. And it is equally revealing, of course, that this rebellion against bourgeois conformity led full-circle right into itself in another form. Instead of despairing it, Will and Akst might do better to be bemused by it. Will and Akst both despair, that everyone (and most especially the American bourgeois) wears jeans today. The real rebels of today, it seems, would do better to wear bow ties. And perhaps they do.

But maybe that's the point of Will's article--though the tone of his rhetoric seems to work against him if persuasion is his intention. Does he have no love and sympathy for jeans wearing, rock-and-roll loving Americans? If he has, he does not betray it in this piece. He posits Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly as the sartorial models for American men and women. But really?! Grace Kelly was a fine woman and one could do a lot worse than to aspire to her charms . . . but it is ridiculous to think of her as a balanced American model. After all, she left America and became a monarch! And that seemed to suit her. Far too delicate a flower, if you ask me. And Fred Astaire? Again, very charming . . . and I, like most women, love to watch him dance and imagine myself spinning across the floor with him. But one would get rather dizzy after too much of that, I should think. And then, what is all that dancing and finery going to do about the looming injustice and tyranny of this world? A friend of mine noted, in passing along this article to me, that the one thing Europe still has over America is that they still know how to dress. Maybe that is so. But at what price? I guess they will be able to boast that they all looked good as their civilization deteriorated and their numbers dwindled. Mark Steyn might wryly note that they should enjoy their finery while they can . . . for a much less stylish wardrobe item is lurking in their future.

It bears mentioning that Akst made a point of noting in his article that the elements of fashion which always take on the widest appeal are those associated with heavy work and the martial spirit. Well . . . there's a reason for that. There is need for those tough men and their hard work and we do right to honor it by attempting to emulate it--in whatever poor way we can.

Of course, we can over-do both kinds of dress. A life entirely devoted to finery or to grubbiness is incomplete. And if we have a predominant vice, it is that we have become too slovenly and disrespectful in our jeans-wearing indifference to time and place. Our youthful (and American) disregard for the hoity-toity putting on of airs that repulsed us from our motherlands and into the unknown vastness and remote possibilities of America can sometimes lead us directly into another version of self-importance--as the jeans wearing rebellion against conformity led to a new conformity. There is snobbery abounding in every crowd of enthusiasts. Better to develop a measured kind of respect for both types of dress, regulated more by what suits the occasion than by what suits our taste. A good American woman, perhaps like Michelle Obama, knows when (or, in some cases, whether) to don blue jeans and when to don a stylish evening gown. She is not caught up in either extreme--she adapts, she bends, she does what is required by the circumstances and within the bounds of sensible good taste. She is neither a pig nor a fop. And it goes without saying, of course, that the same is true of a good American man.

Categories > Presidency

The Poet Trumps the Historians: Archaeologists May Prove

Reports from two years ago suggesting that Cleopatra’s reputation as an irresistible beauty had been greatly exaggerated by the likes of Shakespeare (to say nothing of Elizabeth Taylor) now appear to be refuted. Good. It is cheering to know that sometimes that which ought to be true turns out actually to be true--not only in the highest sense but also in the earthly sense of things. Poetry sometimes ought to slap the debunkers among the historians and it is doubly amusing to see the scientists facilitating the hit. Let Cleopatra forever remain as Enobarbus described her:

I will tell you.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,

Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggar’d all description: she did lie

In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--

O’er-picturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature: on each side her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,

With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem

To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,

And what they undid did.

Anti-War, or Anti-Bush?

Justin Raimondo notes that the antiwar movement has pretty much fallen apart since Obama became president, even though fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, some of the most outspoken peaceniks are starting to sound hawkish now that there’s a Democrat in the White House.

Life Imitates Art

Snakes on a Plane, for real. (Hat tip: Derb.)

Now, if anyone spots snacks on a plane--that would be remarkable these days.


Federalism and firearms

An interesting case:
Montana's staunchly pro-Second Amendment Governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, has signed Montana HB 246, the Montana Firearms Freedom Act. The bill declares that a firearm which is manufactured in Montana, and never leaves the State of Montana, "is not subject to federal law or federal regulation, including registration, under the authority of congress to regulate interstate commerce. It is declared by the legislature that those items have not traveled in interstate commerce."
Presumably Wickard v. Filburn, or something like it, will be made to apply. Our courts don't like it when elected officials get uppity, and try to challenge their right to be the sole and final arbiters of the meaning of the constitution. Even so, it is interesting to see the people, acting through their representatives, questioning what the limits of federal jurisdiction are.
Categories > Courts

Shameless Self-Promotion

Hayward on Reagan

Here is Steve Hayward's Bradley lecture, "The Reagan Revolution and Its Discontents." Good, and relatively short, for Steve.  

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Since 9-11, the U.S. government has poured millions and millions of dollars into research on terrorism and political violence. Most of it has gone to major research universities where major social scientists work. What they have produced so far is either what was already known or trivial. As an example of both, consider the recent report from
(National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism). This pathbreaking work reveals “a violent history of fatal attacks against law enforcement officers in the United States by individuals who adhere to far-right ideology.” Far right ideology consists of “principles such as fierce nationalism, anti-globalization, suspicions of centralized Federal authority, support for conspiracy theories, and reverence for individual liberties (including gun ownership ).”
Addendum: Here is the link.

The Young Love Liberty

Here’s some (selective) evidence that the country is going libertarian. The young hate big government and moralistic regulations, but they love the technology that empowers them to be self-sufficient individuals with personally programmed iPhones, iPods, and other iThings. It’s true enough, I have to say, that they were completely tonedeaf to the music of the honorable McCain, may not suffer that much from the moral anxiety that animated preacher Huckabee, and with some justice think Rush and Hannity (and even Newt) are ridiculous old white guys. I wish I could say I thought the young were principled opponents of big government, but my studies show that they, like most of us, like both governmental minimizing of economic anxiety AND lower taxes. I also wish I could say I thought they were rebelling strongly against the "hook up" culture and thinking strongly in terms of love, marriage, and making babies. For the most part, I’m not so sure that the libertarian impetus among the young is change I can believe in, but it is an impetus that has to be shaped by Republican statesmanship if Obama is not to realign us.

Bringing Down Cuba?

So Obama is going to start lifting some of our restrictions and embargoes against Cuba. Probably about time. William Rusher used to argue that we should at least lift the embargo on Cuban cigars on the view that if we can’t bomb their cities we should at least be able to burn their crops. To which I added, if imports of western blue jeans helped bring down the Soviet Union, think of what Spandex could do to Castro.

More seriously, though, every time in the past when the U.S. started trying to thaw relations, Fidel would provoke some deliberate outrage to stop it cold in its tracks, whether instigating the Mariel boatlift in 1980, or shooting down light planes in international waters under Clinton. The embargo suited his purposes for a long time, and may still serve the interests of the political class. Increased trade and exchange with the U.S. and the Cuban community in Florida has to give the rulers nightmares. Keep watch on this; we’ll see if Raoul Castro is cut from different cloth from his brother.

Are (Very) Old People a Threat to Society?

That’s the view of Daniel Callahan, who urges us to make no special effort to keep them alive beyond their "natural" lifespan. The view of ME, which is part of the linked SOCIETY symposium, is that such a pro-death policy is both contrary to our culture of rights and an offense against human dignity and human love. (The older I get, the more convinced I am of this view.) Even the Bible is in favor of people living a very long time, if they can figure out how to do it. The culture of life includes both an openness to the possibility of extreme prolongevity and acting on the awareness that the point of human life is not merely staying alive. Here’s the title of my contribution: "Stuck with Virtue in Our Pro-Life Future."

Who Rules America?

Not our elected representatives, much of the time:

HUD officials said that because the Dollar Homes program was mandated by Congress, it does not receive the same type of attention and follow-up as programs created by HUD itself.

Our bureaucrats like policies they create, judge, and enforce. They don’t like it when that pesky legislature gets in the way.

Scholars on the Sidelines, Indeed

Joseph Nye has a useful op-ed in today’s WaPo on the self-marginalization of political scientists. Money quote:

Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one’s career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. Editor Lee Sigelman observed in the journal’s centennial issue that "if ’speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal."

I think it was E.J. Dionne who some years ago took the program book of an APSA annual meeting being held in Washington and showed it to Capitol Hill staffers and political operators in DC to see if there was anything they might find useful or interesting in the program. Nope.

My own contribution to this debunking is to take an APSR article at random, put the basic equation of an article on the blackboard, and ask students if they can suggest modifications to the equation that would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This usually gets the point across quite effectively.

Captain freed

After a lovely Easter meal I came to this WaPo report that Cpt. Richard Phillips was freed by the Navy. Three pirates dead, one injured and captured, Navy Seals, snipers, the whole package. Nicely done by the guys on the scene and President Obama for giving them authority to do it. Now I’ll listen to a few Clarence Frogman Henry songs and light up a stogie, while sucking up some coffee.