Sunday, December 14, 2014

Justice Scalia and his "living Constitution" analysis of the 8th Amendment

Justice Scalia won't rule out judicially supporting the use of torture when millions of lives are at stake. See here.

Scalia is supposed to be the guy who says we read the text and apply it literally. As I have written before, Scalia is (in)famous for abandoning his textualist stance when he wants to reach a different result.

It is also too bad that the justice believes the hyperbole posing as analysis about "millions" of lives at stake when, in most situations, the "secret" is already known to our enemies, just not publicly disclosed to the American people. See Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, "Secrecy: The American Experience."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The really old New Republic....

People are buzzing about what is happening over at the 100 year old magazine The New Republic. Even newspapers (!) are talking about it. See here for Michael Hiltzik's nice primer on the subject at the Los Angeles Times, which article also makes an important point about how the staffers who quit were reacting more to a brusque management style than substance (for if it was substance, certainly The New Republic of the Martin Peretz ownership years should have been the cause of mass resignations).

I read all of this with some amusement, because back in the mid-1930s through mid-1950s, The New Republic was more leftist and more pro-Soviet than The Nation. Yes, you read that correctly. Michael Straight, recruited to the KGB in the mid-1930s as a young man, took over as publisher of The New Republic after World War II and owned it till 1956. However, the pro-Soviet articles in The New Republic were there before that time, even as early as 1934 and 1935 back when Bruce Bliven was managing editor, and all the way through the 1930s. recognizes the issue with Straight, but I am not sure how much the writer at really knows about the articles appearing during those decades, or if he is just connecting dots that often don't connect as much as we think. For having said what is known now about Straight, one can overstate just what his perfidy was and whether he was any more or less odious than say, John Foster Dulles, a man who clinked cocktail glasses with Nazis, defended the war crimes of Japanese war lords and assorted elite fascists during the 1930s and early 1940s. One may also say that under Straight's ownership, The New Republic was less pro-Soviet than it was under Bliven.

It is in this context one should also say the following: The Nation continues to be castigated (and its descendants such as Victor Navasky and Eric Alterman do it too!) for being pro-Soviet during the 1930s and 1940s when in fact The Nation was less pro-Soviet than The New Republic during those two decades. As I have written before, Freda Kirchwhey is unfairly maligned as a pro-Soviet Red as she herself penned one of the most outstanding attacks on the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union in 1939 as she castigated those who bought too much into the Popular Front rhetoric--instead of recognizing the programmatic advantages of the coalition in passing liberal New Deal reforms.

Back in the late 1980s and the dawn of the Nineties, my wife was finishing some courses at Cal State Long Beach. I would drive her to and from her night classes and then sit in the university library to read and wait for her to finish her classes. It did not take me long to start delving into the microfiche archives of The New Republic and The Nation in the 1930s, from which my observations twenty five years later are based. It was fun for me to read through the articles and contrast and compare. I admit to being surprised when I found what I did and it is why I am so strong in defending Kirchwhey.

In all, The New Republic has a zig zag history and its past, while rich also contains some poor judgments over time. One can say more about The National Review magazine of Bill Buckley too of course, but we are talking more today about The New Republic.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

A thought or two on "The Bully Pulpit"

I finally read and finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit" in a matter of weeks after starting it. It was a wonderful read, and I admit I learned more than I thought I would about the background of S.S. McClure, the man who hired the great journalists I did know and read about, including William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker and Lincoln Steffens. For me, however, the biggest surprise from the book concerned William Howard Taft, the only man ever to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court in his lifetime. I already knew Taft brought more anti-trust suits in one term of four years as president than Theodore Roosevelt had brought in two terms. I also already knew Taft had some progressive principles despite his generally conservative pro-business outlook and supported the constitutional amendment to allow for a federal income tax and to tax corporations, and push for stiff inheritance taxes. However, the depth of information about Taft's progressivism, his mother's pro-women's right to vote and abolitionist background and his wife's political ambition that took the genial Taft farther than his son-of-a-trial-lawyer background would have ever risen were definitely new to me. Also, Taft's service as a lawyer, both in private business lawyering and time at the solicitor general's office, and his service as a judge were new to me as I admit I had little idea of his formal educational and vocational background. His genial personality was deeply moving to me and one felt his sadness in his being betrayed by a vanity driven Theodore Roosevelt.

As with Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," I felt as I read "The Bully Pulpit" that Goodwin wrote around the main subject for whom she should have written a straight up biography. In "Team of Rivals," the person who deserved her full and sometimes hagiographic treatment was William Henry Seward, Lincoln's able Secretary of State and a disciple of John Quincy Adams. In "The Bully Pulpit," I found that I reveled each time I reached a chapter that would deal with Taft. I adored Taft as a human being and felt so sad that the nation has not understood him better.

Goodwin's book also perhaps not so inadvertently re-affirmed to me that a president who knows how to move the American people with rhetoric and being out with the people, and developing relations with the most daring investigative reporters of the time, can effectuate great changes that resonate even after they leave office. Taft's successes were in large measure the result of TR's cultivation of the leading investigative reporters (who worked literally in tandem with TR on various exposes of American business and municipal corruption and abuse of power) and the American people. Taft was unable to move people because he was ultimately taciturn in office and approached a bi-partisanship that was almost like the now quaint John and John Qunicy Adams' approach--with the result that all three were, ahem, one term presidents. On the other hand, had TR not promised people in a rash moment of fear not to run for third term, there is little doubt he would have won a third term in the 1908 election and we would not have had Taft at all as president or else no Wilson. The "what if's" proliferate on this and we would rather avoid that right now, for the point remains that those who believe presidents cannot change the political discourse and policies by going among the people and using the "bully pulpit" should recognize that TR was president between William McKinley and William Taft, two personalities who refused to move the public and who did not change the public discourse or policies--but were followers of the conventional wisdom of the time in which each served. Again, Taft was in the shadow of TR and never emerged as his own political leader, and the good things he accomplished may be said to be the result of riding on TR's momentum.*

After completing the book, I went back to Susan Dunn's review of the book at the New York Review of Books and link to it here. Dunn hits in a kind way Goodwin's hagiography about Taft's tenure as governor general of the Philippines, where Goodwin glosses over what Stanley Karnow and others pointed out was in its time and in retrospect one of infamy. 200,000 Filipinos perished in a period of a few years at the start of the 20th Century, mostly from disease as a result of America's suppression of the Filipino independence movement. The name of Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo never appears in Goodwin's book and for reasons unknown not in Dunn's review. Aguinaldo was a true patriotic leader of the Filipino people and the suppression of the movement he led distorted the development of the Philippines for decades and into today.

Overall, though, even if one is familiar with the history of late 19th Century and early 20th Century America, and how TR transformed the presidency between two Ohioans who were ultimately limited in their pro-business outlooks--McKinley and Taft--and how the rise of nationally distributed political magazines began to influence American politics initially for good (but ultimately for bad, though Goodwin did not have the space to make the latter portion of the point), "The Bully Pulpit" is well worth the read. If one is unfamiliar with this time period, one will find the book transformative. Susan Dunn is absolutely correct that Goodwin is a great storyteller. I will add that Goodwin's knowledge also pours out on every page. I would further state that while Goodwin can sometimes be a hagiographer, she was not afraid to reveal TR's vanity and venality throughout his life. The contrast between TR and Taft in this respect could not be more clearly implied and reveals again to me that Goodwin should have focused solely on Taft for a biographical subject.

A quibble should be noted though that most reviewers did not discuss. I had hoped Goodwin would give readers more about the civil service and other 1890s reformers who initially felt betrayed by TR. She might have been able to introduce modern Americans to one of the most interesting reformer-writers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, John Jay Chapman. Chapman came from a family of New England abolitionists, knew Emerson in his last days, and became a leader in good government movements in the New York area where he was born and raised, and where his father served as president of the NY Stock Exchange. Chapman was worth mentioning because he wrote wonderful and then widely read essays in the tradition of Montaigne and Gore Vidal about American politics and mores. In fact, Vidal during his lifetime identified Chapman as an influence, which is how I learned about Chapman. It was interesting to me where Goodwin made editorial cuts of including or excluding names during the period of which she wrote, and while I agreed with most of her editorial decisions, her choice not to include Chapman hurt almost as much has her choice not to mention Aguinaldo.

Again, though, Goodwin's book should be seen as a triumph and is definitely worth reading.

* Goodwin's book expressly re-affirmed why I don't agree with Paul Krugman's recent attempt to rehabilitate President Obama in Rolling Stone. Obama aimed low, and barely succeeded in pursuing a Republican plan on health insurance, and apart from that was anything other than the transformative president we needed following the Great Recession. Like Taft, he was taciturn with the media and the people at large, and preferred cocktail fundraisers with George Clooney than joining a labor rally. Obama is more Barack Hoover Obama as the tepid recovery over which he has presided has left the American middle class more powerless against corporate executives and plutocrats than at any time since the McKinley era. As with Taft, Hoover and Carter, Obama is a deeply intelligent and privately emotive man who nonetheless believes so strongly in the status quo of corporate governance of American society that he is unable to imagine reforming the basic structures of our society.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The anti-small town and cynically confused "Bridges of Madison County"

I finished the book "Bridges of Madison County", after having picked it up for $1 about six weeks or so ago, putting it down and deciding yesterday to finish it. I liked it in the beginning and up to the early part of the passionate affair, and thought maybe there was something more enriching to this book than critics and supporters identified. I had, for example, liked the references Waller makes to various artists and historical events, and the manner in which he describes a photographer's process of turning photos into art.

However, by the time I finished the book, I found most people (apart from one or two Amazon critics) had missed the utter meanness and cynicism behind this book. It is first a cruel sort of attack on small town America. The book's narration reeks of resentment of the people who live there, through the lens of the female character, and also the narrator's incessant harping about the citizens' response to the photographer showing up to take photos of its bridges on the basis of his "long hair." One may compare Waller's drive-by novella poorly against Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street," which is far more kind and balanced with respect to small town America than the usual banter about that book so often implies. Second, the book makes Francesca into a heroine when she has chosen poorly and obviously punished her family with an eccentric distance after her passionate four day affair with Robert Kincaid, the photographer who blows in and out of town on his National Geographic assignment to photograph the bridges in the small towns of Iowa. Third, the author uses lush language of passionate and abiding love for two people who were themselves unable to understand that each had merely turned the other into an archetype and then withdrew after the torrid four day affair from any further attempt at human compassion for the rest of their lives. Francesca never gave her husband a chance to help their relationship and assumed that her husband's plaintive lament on his deathbed about not satisfying her was that he must have found the hidden manilla envelope that disclosed the affair, as opposed to her consistent and heartless withdrawal from him and the family following the affair. For Kincaid, Francesca represented the ideal of home and hearth that he studiously avoided in his world travels and he turned her into the Madonna-Whore that such men of the world claim however inarticulately is their ideal. Neither lead character ever seems to contemplate that if she had gone off with him, her ignorance of photography and her tiring of a wanderlust which she showed little true enthusiasm for would have exposed that theirs was a short term lustful affair, not a basis for a sustained long term relationship.

For women across the nation who were so taken with this book, it occurs to me that we men should be far more sensitive to women's romantic desires because this book is about a psychic pain women may have when they are artistic and are married to non-artistic men, and women who live in smaller communities who desire what they perceive to be a more exciting urban lifestyle. What is further troubling to me is the confusion in the narrator that may be deliberate between short term lust and longer term loving relationships. This confusion, which again may be deliberate and hence cynical, reminded me of Philip Roth's inability as a narrator to realize that his lead character in "Goodbye Columbus" was a jerk, not a hip guy at all (I say this in discussing what Roth thought when he wrote it, not what he may have subsequently learned in later years, particularly after Claire Bloom schooled him about his misogyny). Waller's book is again not worthy of the term "novel" but at best is a disjointed novella that gives glimpses of events, and even then, reveals the writer is unable to or does not want his readers to recognize what is in fact occurring in what he attempts to describe.

I had picked up the book, after avoiding it for years, because I was and remain so taken with the score for the Broadway version of the book and later film, which score was written by a person I consider a most exciting and creative mind in Broadway today, Jason Robert Brown. His explaining his love for the story and desire to write the songs for the play had led me to think, well, I had better give the book a chance, and as I said, my initial view of the first fifty or so pages was very positive. It is just, as I kept reading, I began to sense something wrong, and by the end, I was frankly appalled. One may still see Brown's explanation of what drew him to the book, but I realized my deep middle aged sensibility, and having observed many other marriages including my own, allowed me to see something more than Brown's youthful and artists' perspective was able to comprehend in what the also older Waller was missing and may in fact have been exploiting.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kareem shoots and scores...

See here, from Jacobin Magazine, which apparently Kareem is a subscriber. Yes, the college ballplayers are the serfs and raw materials as Mario Savio also recognized in general.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Third Industrial Revolution: Cyborg feedback loops...

Or something like that.

Sue Halpern explains at the NY Review of Books what is happening, what is maybe going to happen and why Jeremy Rifkin may not be right when he says "capitalism" goes away. Halpern does not appear to be as familiar with Rifkin as I am. I recall Rifkin being hopeful over thirty years ago in "Algeny" that capitalism would go away with the rise of the computer age, yet capitalism just goes on its way and capitalists just keep getting more powerful.* Capitalism in practice is always far different than the folks who tend to gravitate toward Economics as a major or vocation tend to assume. One so tires of most economists' boxed-in theories and their "reasonable person" assumptions. Actually existing capitalism almost always comes with State intervention, whether it was tariff policies from the start of our Republic or the subsidies that continue for corporations today, lower tax rates for capital gains, a host of other credits, subsidies and exemptions in the tax code, and of course the law of torts and contracts so carefully calibrated to protect capitalist interests. And of course, the laws that protect trade secrets and other intellectual property are ever present protectors of the wealthiest sections of our society.

Halpern is one of the best reviewers at the NYRB these days and is always insightful. She is in this review as well. I loved this last paragraph of her review:

So here comes the Internet’s Third Wave. In its wake jobs will disappear, work will morph, and a lot of money will be made by the companies, consultants, and investment banks that saw it coming. Privacy will disappear, too, and our intimate spaces will become advertising platforms—last December Google sent a letter to the SEC explaining how it might run ads on home appliances—and we may be too busy trying to get our toaster to communicate with our bathroom scale to notice. Technology, which allows us to augment and extend our native capabilities, tends to evolve haphazardly, and the future that is imagined for it—good or bad—is almost always historical, which is to say, naive.

Yup. My only quibble is that Sue Halpern should read Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capital" to see that while technology does evolve haphazardly, how technology is appropriated and used is often subject to social forces where the economic elite will have great influence. Still, when reading what she said about work disappearing, work morphing and money made by the usual suspects, one nods and says, as Walter Cronkite did on his news reading show, That's the way it is...and likely will be. For the lucky ones. The rest will be impoverished and, as a result of that impoverishment, we are as likely to see a new Fascist political order as anything Rifkin is imagining and hoping. Or as Bette Davis memorably said...

* "Algeny" was also a book Stephen Jay Gould rightly blasted for Rifkin's anti-Darwinian take, which Rifkin wrote just a few years before advances in genetic research began proving Darwin's theory in ways Darwin did not anticipate in his own time. See: Gould's discussion of Rifkin's book in "An Urchin in the Storm" book of essays for Gould's rip into Rifkin, though I never saw if Rifkin responded in any way.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

An article to make a liberal Zionist's head hurt...

I read this article from Omri Boehm at The Boston Review and my head hurt. If anything, he proved why it is ridiculous for the Israeli Supreme Court to deny that someone be Israeli and insist that the word for the citizen of Israel be "Jewish."

Our nation's refusal to establish a State religion looks better and better in this world where other nations, including Israel and those European nations which literally subsidize churches, temples and mosques, intertwine the State and organized religions.

Israel's Supreme Court has perhaps inadvertently given ammunition to those who want separate but equal with respect to the Arabs living largely peacefully inside the Green Line of Israel. As former Minister Livni said the other day about the demand from nationalist Jewish settlers for "separate" busses for Arabs and Jews in the West Bank, this begins to give credence to those who scream "apartheid" against the State of Israel.

As I think about the Boehm article, I realize that so much theoretical nonsense had to go into writing that article all because Israel demands a State religion. One merely has to change our First Amendment to our Constitution and say, okay, we'll set up our public schools to enshrine Christianity. I doubt many secular, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon families would feel comfortable in American public schools under that scenario.

Israel's Supreme Court was in grave error in not recognizing Israeli as a nationality inside Israel. There are many Arabs living well and decently in Israel who would have found dignity, solace and even pride in being able to place "Israeli" on their passports.

If I am wrong here, I am welcoming to those who are more familiar with the Israeli Supreme Court opinion and their opinions of the article in The Boston Review. But again I find it deeply troubling as an American citizen who adheres and supports the word and spirit behind the First Amendment.