Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Take The Party Back From Fat-Cat Developers

That goes for Democrats and Republicans alike.

First, it's the Dems turn. Voters in Tennessee have a clear choice when it comes to their Senate candidate in 2006.

Democratic candidate Rosalind Kurita states in a press release:

One day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against private property owners in a case that has far-reaching implications for the future of property rights, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rosalind Kurita said the court was wrong in its decision and that she would fight for federal action to preserve the rights of private property owners.

"The Supreme Court got it wrong," Kurita said. "The unusual interpretation of the 5th Amendment by a majority on the court means private property rights are subject to the will of the powerful with no checks and balances. America was built on the principle of private property, and this decision flies in the face of what our Founding Fathers intended."

While, fellow Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. believes:

"I've always believed individual rights are a big thing..... but, I find value in the court's decision. As long as people are compensated fairly, I can appreciate the decision. Certain areas in our state are crying for development, if this decision helps - it's a positive."

(Gee... it's nice to know Ford thinks individual rights are a "big thing." I guess actually upholding them is less important.)

Well, at least this is a no-brainer decision for Democrats.

Go Kurita!

(Gleaned from QandO)

Opinions, Good And Bad

More on Kelo from the press:

Michael Kinsley-

The "takings" clause of the 5th Amendment is for conservatives what the equal protection clause of the 14th is for liberals. It wouldn't be fair to say that conservatives cherish property the way liberals cherish equality. But it would be fair to say that the takings clause is the conservative recipe for judicial activism - imposing their agenda through the courts, rather than bothering with democracy - the way they say liberals have misused the equal protection clause.

Of course, conservatives always claim to be against judicial activism. Liberals have long suspected that this was a decoy, and that once conservatives had control of the federal courts, they would twist their mustaches, laugh contemptuously and reveal the various policies they planned to impose by judicial fiat.

I cannot tell if Kinsley is being deliberately obtuse here, or if he really is this big an idiot. It would seem clear that in order for something to qualify as "judicial activism" it would require some deviation from long standing practice or precedent. That would mean there existed some case, say in the 1830's, where the Court upheld, for example, taking someone's rowboat making business and giving it to someone who makes clipper ships because that would be better for society. If it were long established by such cases that this was within the government's purview Kinsley would have a point. However, it isn't and he doesn't. It was clearly believed that the Bill of Rights curtailed this type of governmental taking. By Kinsley's "standard" upholding any portion of the Constitution would be "judicial activism" if one political party liked it more than the other. That is nonsense. Kinsley would have us believe that the "Takings Clause" was never meant to protect private property from governmental action. How could it be any other way? Kinsley tells us that the government can take your property for "public use" AND the government gets to define what counts as "public use." If this is so, obviously the "takings" clause is contentless. (Please, Michael, show me where any protection for private property remains.) So Kelo v New London effectively erases this part of the Constitution and Kinsley has the gall to tell us it was the other side that was being judicial activists?!

And Kinsley "bothering with democracy" line is the worst sort of demagoguery imaginable. The entire purpose of having a "Bill of Rights" was to protect individuals from the excesses of popular government, from the excesses of democracy. We don't let legislatures decide what religion you can be, what you are allowed to say or print. And we do not let legislatures decide what does and what doesn't count as free speech or free exercise of religion precisely because that would destroy them as rights.

Going back to my earlier "either/or" question...I'm finding it difficult to believe anyone could be deliberatelyly this obtuse.

Robert Robb-

Last Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that private property can be confiscated by government for private development stands the Constitution, as written by the founders, on its head.

Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent quotes Alexander Hamilton as saying that the "security of property" was one of the "great objects of government." That was a universally shared view among the founders. In fact, it's fair to say that the founders agreed on that principle more than any other.

That protection was given concrete reality in the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states: "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

As Clarence Thomas painstakingly points out in his dissent, by this the founders did not mean that private property could be taken for private use without just compensation. They meant that private property could not be taken for private use, period.

The majority opinion, written by John Paul Stevens, contends, however, that private property can be taken for private use so long as government perceives that the public will benefit from the change in use. Moreover, the court isn't going to get into the business of second-guessing local governments about what constitutes a public benefit or whether the change in use will result in one.

This completely reverses the intent of the founders to create a system of private property protected by government. Instead, according to the court, all property is in a fundamental sense communal. Government can take it from a private owner any time government believes that someone else would put it to a use that government prefers.

And if the government prefers wealthy people over poor people, the Supreme Court (and folks like Michael Kinsley) say "So be it."

More from Robb:

Nationally, the unwillingness of the U.S. Supreme Court to do the job the founders envisioned is leading to a crisis of liberty.

The founders intended to create an energetic but limited government. The job of the U.S. Supreme Court was to protect fundamental liberties against an overreaching government.

To the founders, there were no more fundamental liberties than private-property rights and the freedom of political speech.

In this case, the court has abandoned protecting private property against confiscation by an overreaching government. Previously, it had abandoned protecting political speech against government regulation and limitation when it upheld McCain-Feingold.

Meanwhile, the court has aggressively protected rights of its own creation, such as to an abortion or to homosexual sex.

Now, an intellectually honest argument can be made that the new rights the court has created are logically derived from the explicit rights the founders clearly established in the Constitution, and created the Supreme Court in part to protect.

But no intellectually honest defense can be made of a court that aggressively protects the derivative rights while abandoning protection of the explicit rights.

In our system of government, if the U.S. Supreme Court is unwilling to protect fundamental liberties against an overreaching government, what are a free people to do?

One thing I would advocate is for lower court judges to ignore this ruling. Treat it as being the morally indefensible position it is. Were I a judge, I would treat this ruling the same way I would have treated the Dred Scott ruling. We are all morally obligated not to follow someone else's orders to engage in fundamentally unjust activities. Were I a policeman in New London I would not follow orders to remove these people from their homes. Hell, I'm half considering going to New London and chaining myself to these people's homes. And yes, from what I have heard on the news from some of the people affected, I believe it will come to that.

I cannot fathom that self-proclaimed liberals would really sell their fundamental liberties for a place to get a latte and do pilates.

What is wrong with these people?

Monday, June 27, 2005

SCOTUS: Good For Something (Really!)

For the present the Court has decided they don't feel like creating a Constitutional right for reporters to be above the law...at least not today. Try them again next year, maybe. This all goes back to the supposed "leak" involved in the whole Joe Wilson debacle.

It will come as quite a shock to some journalists to discover they actually have to follow the same laws as the rest of us poor schmucks. I'm sure they will find this much more outrageous than Kelo.

Self-interst is tricky stuff, no? Not that your average reporter would admit it.

A Rallying Cry?

From the Chicago Tribune: There's No Such Thing As Home, Sweet Home

So, here's the irony: A liberal Supreme Court now makes possible the destruction of human-scale neighborhoods, with their ma-and-pa stores and affordable housing, in order to build despised, but revenue-generating, shopping malls and office parks--usually at the expense of poor people.

As O'Connor said in her strongly worded dissent: "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

How have we gotten to this point, where conservative judges are standing up for persons with fewer resources and liberal justices are backing the play of the powerful and influential? Perhaps the cynic would say it's because liberals salivate over any chance to enlarge government power, and because conservatives are willing to go to any lengths--even to backing the little guy--to advance property rights.

The more important question, though, is: Is it right? The court has denied homeowners a constitutional protection against assaults by out-of-control local government. In response, those wishing to protect the little guy will have to be more vigilant at the local level, and ultimately fight to replace those elected officials who don't respect the basic right of domicile.

Or, better yet, to replace the Supreme Court justices who endorsed this assault.

Well, this cynic might disagree with the writer on some specifics (e.g. name a way in which the conservatives of this Court have "advanced" property right an iota,) but there is a much broader area where consensus is the rule. As things exist today, there is no way to resist the forces of "central planning" that will be deciding to rip the heart out of neighborhoods for the benefit of the already wealthy. What I'd ask my liberal friends to do is imagine, as proposed by reader Walt in the comments, how they would feel if working class people were being driven from their homes for the purpose of putting in a Wal-Mart on their land. They would be outraged, right? Now, ask yourself if it is in principle any different if instead of a Wal-Mart they put in a Whole Foods, a Bed, Bath & Beyond or a Crate & Barrel?

Another point to remember is that suburban areas, which most liberals despise as soul-less cultural deserts (and they have a point), were not the product of "rampant capitalism" but of central planning. The post-World War II era of the suburbs was clearly the product of Levittown syle social engineering, and to think it was anything other is to engage in a rather massive case of self-delusion. Real urban renewal has always been neighborhood based, the work of countless individuals that make homes for themselves and their families and who band together to stabilize their area more and more and attract new neighbors. "Central planning" isn't involved. You allow people to create their vision of a good neighborhood for themselves. If you have seen any of the great urban neighborhoods in cities all across the country, you should know they are damn good at doing it themselves. We don't need to steal their homes away fom them to prove that some bureaucrat could do it better. There is already a long track record proving that they cannot.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Washington Post: Totalitarian Bastards

Here is what the benighted paladins of the WaPo have to say about Kelo v New London:

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires government to pay "just compensation" whenever it takes private property, and the Fort Trumbull residents will be compensated. But it further requires that "takings" be for "public use," and it was this requirement that residents cited in their lawsuit. They contended that the city was taking their land not for any legitimate public use but for the benefit of businesses -- essentially that the government was exchanging one set of private owners for another that would pay more taxes and bring jobs to the city.

The trouble is that there is no good way to distinguish New London's use of eminent domain from assertions of the power that local governments depend on all the time for worthy projects. Railroads, stadiums, inner-city redevelopment plans and land reform efforts all have involved taking land from one owner for the apparently private use of another. As Justice John Paul Stevens noted for a five-justice majority of the court, the justices' response has long been to avoid "rigid formulas and intrusive scrutiny" of legislative determinations "in favor of affording legislatures broad latitude in determining what public needs justify the use of the takings power."

This is not to say that a "public use" is anything government says it is. If the supposed public use were plainly a pretext for a simple private-sector land transfer, the court would presumably step in.

Really? If this was true how could you possibly state IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH,

However unfortunate New London's plans may prove, stopping the city based on a standardless judicial inquiry into how "public" its purpose really is would be far worse.

So, let me get this straight, you say "Don't worry about government abuse because if they go to far the courts will step in." And in your next breath say "It's not the job of the Court to decide if any Use is public enough." THOSE TWO POSITIONS ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE YOU MORONS! If you are not allowed to inquire about how public its purpose is how could you ever stop abuse? The answer is you never could. Which is exactly what the WaPo wants. They are not an advocate for regular citizens and their rights. How could anyone claim otherwise? (It also makes you wonder what the WaPo really thinks about other "standardless" rights we have, like Freedom of Speech or Religion. Today they willingly sign away our property rights in the name of public expediency. What goes tomorrow?)

The Washington Post's attitude can be summed up thusly: "C'mon! The government would never do anything bad."

Were an angry mob of torch bearing citizens to descend upon the offices of the Washington Post and burn them to the ground it would be nothing more than simple justice.

It is too bad simple justice isn't all that likely in our new America.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

You Don't Have To Be A Lawyer...

...to have a valid opinion.

I say this because in my looking over commentary on Kelo v New London I have come upon quite a few folks who claim that they cannot have a "real" opinion about the case because they are not lawyers. I feel like giving these people a good shaking (or a thrashing...I'm pretty worked up.) Our Constitution is not a document "of the lawyers, by the lawyers, for the lawyers." Its meaning is every bit up to all of us. It really pisses me off that A) the Supreme Court is all lawyers, and B) If anyone else is ever suggested for the job they are lawyers AND politicians. (Like that is a better mix or something.)

The founding of our nation was not only an exercise in law, although that was obviously an important component. It was primarily an exercise in political philosophy. This court has proven time and again that they know next to nothing about our founding philosophy. Really. The Supreme Court, as a group, is as ignorant as dirt about the subject. Scalia is the only one I ever heard speak intelligently on the subject. Anyone else I've heard has been an utter embarrassment. The truth is law is not necessarily an intellectually demanding field of study. Any idiot can be a lawyer. (If you have spent any time around law students you know what I say is gospel truth.) In the same manner any idiot can be an elected official. (Everyone knows this to be a fact.) What do you get when you mix idiot lawyers with idiot politicians? Idiot judges, of course. Now who, in this day and age, can honestly believe that near complete idiots cannot reach the very top of American political life? So, you shouldn't be amazed or worried to find out there are idiot Supreme Court justices. There always has been and there always will be idiot Supreme Court justices.

What you should be worried about is what political philosophy these particular idiots are substituting for that of the founding. It doesn't seem to be one that thinks much of your rights.


The Disappointing Blogosphere

On a day like this it is quite disheartening to see most blogs more interested in the flag burning amendment or in calling Karl Rove a bastard than in the fundamental change in our society wrought by the Supreme Court.

I was going to try and do a Kelo v. New London roundup, but it is depressingly slim pickings:

Doug Petch always keeps on top of just about everything;

QandO never passes up the chance to talk about our disappearing property rights;

Jack Grant over at The Moderate Voice pushes TMV to somethig that is actually important; (Yes. That is a bit of a criticism.)

I'd have posted something from The Daily Kos, but they thought it was more important to post 9 things about how much they despise Karl Rove. The DK is quickly becoming little more than a waste of bandwidth.

Liberalism Repudiated

It's official. None of us live in a Liberal republic anymore. Welcome to the Socialist Republic of the United States of America ruled by politburo members Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsberg, Souter and Breyer. Official Motto: "Waterfront property for party members only."

Today the Court decided the government can take away anything you own, even if all they want to do with it is give it to another (wealthier) individual. Oh, you have to first give it window dressing and claim it will "produce a public benefit", but in the end it winds up the same.

"You're a poor person who happens to live in a home that yuppies want? Well you are shit out of luck my friend, because the yuppies have a CONSTITUTIONALLY ENSHRINED RIGHT to take your home away from you (with the help of the government, of course.) Why? Well, bucket of scum poor people like you don't pay as much in taxes as yuppies do. Go and die under an overpass somewhere."

Makes you proud to be an American, don't it?

In his opinion Justice Stevens goes out of his way to prove beyond a doubt his is the worst kind of jurisprudence imaginable. Get this:

Two polar propositions are perfectly clear. On the one hand, it has long been accepted that the sovereign may not take the property of A for the sole purpose of transferring it to another private party B, even though A is paid just compensation. On the other hand, it is equally clear that a State may transfer property from one private party to another if future "use by the public" is the purpose of the taking; the condemnation of land for a railroad with common-carrier duties is a familiar example. Neither of these propositions, however, determines the disposition of this case.

As for the first proposition, the City would no doubt be forbidden from taking petitioners' land for the purpose of conferring a private benefit on a particular private party. See Midkiff, 467 U.S., at 245 ("A purely private taking could not withstand the scrutiny of the public use requirement; it would serve no legitimate purpose of government and would thus be void"); Missouri Pacific R. Co. v. Nebraska, 164 U.S. 403 (1896). Nor would the City be allowed to take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit. The takings before us, however, would be executed pursuant to a "carefully considered" development plan. 268 Conn., at 54, 843 A. 2d, at 536. The trial judge and all the members of the Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed that there was no evidence of an illegitimate purpose in this case. Therefore, as was true of the statute challenged in Midkiff, 467 U.S., at 245, the City's development plan was not adopted "to benefit a particular class of identifiable individuals."

Really? Really? REALLY? That's funny, because I can quite easily identify a particular "class of individuals" that benefit from this taking. They are ALL WEALTHIER THAN THE POOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE JUST HAD THEIR HOMES TAKEN AWAY FROM THEM. It is amazing that Stevens can't identify rich people as an identifiable class. Most Americans don't have that difficulty. Justice Steven's riposte (if such it can be called) that this is a "carfeully considered development plan" and so must be bowed before, has to be just about the dumbest legal "principle" ever proclaimed by the Court. Now our courts have to decide what is and what isn't a "carefully considered" plan? What complete and utter bullshit. It will never happen. The courts will simply defer to the State whenever they say "We did a study that said X." I know it, you know it, and Justice Steven's and his cronies know it.

This decision represents a complete repudiation of the political philosophy that underlied the founding of this nation. Nobody who lived in the first 175 years of our country's existence would recognize a single thing about the political philosophy motivating Stevens and Company. You know the whole "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" thing? Well, Justice Stevens today has said, "F*ck that shit" and a whole lot of our fellow countrymen will applaud him for it...at least the wealthier ones.

The rest of us realize a right we used to enjoy against the rich and powerful has just been taken away by a pen stroke.

Justice Thomas dissented:

Long ago, William Blackstone wrote that "the law of the land postpone[s] even public necessity to the sacred and inviolable rights of private property." 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England 134-135 (1765) (hereinafter Blackstone). The Framers embodied that principle in the Constitution, allowing the government to take property not for "public necessity," but instead for "public use." Amdt. 5. Defying this understanding, the Court replaces the Public Use Clause with a " '[P]ublic [P]urpose' " Clause, ante, at 9-10 (or perhaps the "Diverse and Always Evolving Needs of Society" Clause, ante, at 8 (capitalization added)), a restriction that is satisfied, the Court instructs, so long as the purpose is "legitimate" and the means "not irrational," ante, at 17 (internal quotation marks omitted). This deferential shift in phraseology enables the Court to hold, against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation, is for a "public use." [Emphasis Added]

I cannot agree. If such "economic development" takings are for a "public use," any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution, as Justice O'Connor powerfully argues in dissent.

So, the State can do whatever it wants to your property as long as it isn't irrational. (Real comforting, eh?) I must have missed that part of the Constitution.

Justice O'Conner dissented:

Over two centuries ago, just after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Justice Chase wrote:

"An act of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority . A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean . [A] law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with such powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it." Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386, 388 (1798) (emphasis deleted).

Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power. Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded-i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public-in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings "for public use" is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property-and thereby effectively to delete the words "for public use" from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

I don't care how much of a Democrat you are, if you care about Liberalism at all you should be advocating more "conservative" (and therefor more Liberal) justices. If not, you should come forward and admit to being the socialist you without a doubt are.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The "Real" Problem, Post Style

From the Washington Post:

At a Starbucks across the street from Seattle University School of Law, Kirsten Daniels crams for the bar exam. She's armed with color-coded pens, a don't-mess-with-me crease in her brow and what she calls "my comfort latte."

She just graduated summa cum laude , after three years of legal training that left her $115,000 in debt. Part of that debt, which she will take a decade to repay with interest, was run up at Starbucks, where she buys her lattes.

Only the Washington Post could do a story about law schools and discover that the real problem is $3.00 lattes and not $40,000 a year tuition bills. If the WaPo wants to do us a real favor maybe they can do a story about what cash cows and rip-offs law schools are. Students are herded into huge (and cost efficient) lecture halls; the simple fact that all you need to learn law is high-tech gadgets called "books" (which students pay for in any event); law schools taking huge portions of University budgets to first class facilities while other parts of the Univeristy languish.; etc., etc. etc.

But all the Post feels the need to say is, "Holy Mother of God!! These kids are getting extra foam with their coffee!"

Way to take the pulse of your community.

Monday, June 20, 2005

No News Good News?

The Supreme Court issued six rulings today, but there is still no word on Kelo v. New London. (In case you don't remember that was the eminent domain case. The court is deciding if it is ok for the government to seize property from poorer people in order to give it to wealthier people. Nice, eh?) It seems they are taking a good long time to decide this one. After the oral arguments back in February it looked like the court wasn't gonna waste much time and affirm the state's power of eminent domain as damn near asolute. So I'm a little bit surprised a ruling hasn't been handed down yet.

It might be a slender thing on which to hold out much hope, but last winter things looked hopeless.

C'mon SC! Shock the hell out of me... Do the right thing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Promoting Democracy


Over at the Daily Demarche a challenge was issued for right and left leaning bloggers to engage each other in a great debate on the merits of the U.S. promoting Democracy around the world. With the encouragement of Marc Schulman of American Future I decided to throw my voice into the fray. I have asked David Leftwich of the blog Eclectic Refrigerator to handle things coming from the left-of-center perspective, while I handle duties from the right-of-center. It is probably safe to assume David and I are both more centrist than anything else, but I believe there will be enough variation in our starting points to make this a worthwhile endeavor. As a bonus I thought it would also be a good thing to get David's voice back in circulation after a few months away from the world of blogging.


Should the U.S. support foreign pro-democracy groups around the globe?

It might seem, in a post 9-11 world, that this question is a bit superfluous, but I think it is worthwhile to take a moment to consider the arguments one could make against U.S. involvement with any foreign pro-democracy groups.

One strand of thought often used, in certain circles, stresses a culturally relativistic view of the world. In such a view the U.S. promoting democracy around the world is just another example of a kind of Imperialism. Whether it stems from a sense of cultural superiority or the desire to dominate others economically, it all comes as one in the end. "Promoting democracy" is, for such folks, just another way the hegemonic nations exercise their power over weaker nations.

As an explanation of the world, such a view is seriously lacking. It requires a rather stolid caricature of the "democracy promoter" straight out of Marxism's Central Casting that bears little relation to anything actually existing. As such this view can be safely disregarded.

However, a milder form of the same argument is a little more interesting. It can be argued that the U.S. should allow pro-democratic groups to spring up on their own accord. Such "homegrown" groups, it can be argued, would be more attuned to cultural differences within a given society that could aid it in taking root deep within that society. What happens when we try to export democracy abroad is that we wind up trying to make folks American democrats instead of simply democrats.

At one level this makes some sense. It is obvious any political group that wishes to influence how their country is governed will need to seem as if they are representing an integral part of that country's society. However, it seems more unclear how promoting the prerequisites of democratic societies could be viewed as necessarily relativistic. A free press is a free press. Its definition will not change depending on if one is in the United States or in Austria or in Indonesia. A "free press" that does not include opposition views is not a free press even if the Iranian government says it is. Likewise, the definition of a "free election" does not change from country to country either. It would seem these concerns could be dealt with by making sure the our efforts do not suffer from having a tin ear when being translated into different societies. It does not strike me as a fundamental difficulty.

These concerns have been largely at a theoretical level to this point. There is however a more practical objection one might posit to U.S. pro-democracy efforts:

The risk of the U.S. seeming too involved in the internal affairs of other nations.

It could be argued that when the U.S. actively supports a specific pro-democratic group within a country they help to in effect de-legitimize that group, particularly in places that are at least nominally democratic to begin with. One can think of the example of Venezuela. It is clear that the Bush administration supports the various middle-class opposition parties against President Hugo Chavez. It is also clear that, strictly from the standpoint of promoting a democratic society, there are legitimate reasons for criticizing Chavez. The heavy handed tactics of the Venezuelan government obviously inhibit the workings of a free and independent press, and present unjust conditions for opposition political groups. However, it also seems clear that the U.S. involvement with these opposition groups has done either side little good. Indeed, it has made these groups susceptible to charges they are nothing more than lackeys for the Americans, and it has made the U.S., at the very least, look responsible for the missteps and illegalities perpetrated by the Venezuelan opposition. What our actual involvement was, is, for this discussion, irrelevant. It is enough to show that U.S. efforts are deemed to be intrusive and are as a result counter-productive.

As presented this argument is convincing. If the U.S. efforts are seen to be intrusive of the internal workings of a foreign country, they will ultimately be of no value. However, it is not evident that all U.S. pro-democracy efforts are doomed to such intrusiveness. Defining them as such does not make them so. What is clear is that however the U.S. goes about promoting democracy abroad it must be seen as neutral vis-a-vis the individual political groups within a country. At this point we are no longer debating whether the U.S. should be promoting democracy abroad but we are debating how they should go about it.


How should the U.S. support foreign pro-democracy groups around the globe?

Roughly speaking there are two general approaches the U.S. can take on this question, one more practical and realistic and the other more principled and theoretical.

The realistic approach basically says the U.S. should pick and choose carefully the spots where it will decide to promote democracy. For example, the U.S. might decide to "promote democracy" in a generally non-democratic regime that assumes an anti-U.S. stance, while democracy might not be promoted in a regime already more favorable to U.S. interests. Such thinking is in many ways a product of the Cold War world. In a bipolar geopolitical situation "promoting democracy" wasn't a policy, it was a tool; a tool not wielded against those in the "friendly" column.

Even in a one super-power system there are still arguments to allow the same sort of distinctions. For example, there is the "devil you know" argument. We might not like a given regime's modus operandi, but, if they are friendly to us at this moment in time, the status quo might just be preferable to what might result after democratic reforms. (One can hear such arguments being made routinely about Saudi Arabia.)

An added benefit of such an approach is that the U.S. could minimize the risk of failure. There would be little chance for a loss of prestige in the world if you don't have to back democracy in tough situations. One cannot help but think of the situation in Hungary in 1956. In that case the inability of the U.S. to support the fledgling democratic movement in Budapest against Soviet aggression, despite the U.S.' democratic rhetoric of the day, resulted in a serious blow to American prestige.

Whatever can be said in favor of such an approach, it is obvious that it is prone to failing the criterion set out earlier of not seeming too intrusive. The capricious nature of choosing only some non-democratic regimes to pressure is enough to cast aspersions on American efforts. Additionally, such policies fail to take into account the democratic nature of American society. Think back to the 1980's. Whether someone in the U.S. wanted to promote democracy in El Salvador or Nicaragua had very little to do with actual conditions in those countries and everything to do with what party the someone belonged to, Democrat or Republican. When U.S. "pro-democracy" efforts can be seen as merely the extension of some American ideological debate or inter-party squabble, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that it isn't intrusive. Whatever our pro-democracy efforts are they have to seem more than mere pawns in a Washington D.C. power struggle.

Another fundamental difficulty with the realist approach is that it becomes nigh impossible for U.S. efforts to look anything other than hypocritical. At any given time the U.S. will be both supporting some pro-democratic forces and some anti-democratic regimes. This fact alone invalidates any principled claim we might wish to make in favor of democracy as being the most morally legitimate form of governance. In the end the realist approach would seem to be self defeating.

This leaves us with the principled or theoretical approach to promoting democracy. Such an approach would focus necessarily on democracy as a process. In such a view the goal is not to ensure that regimes we like will emerge from any given country. Indeed, the U.S. has to view the results of elections as irrelevant to the purpose of spreading democracy. The reason for this is clear. Any attempt to pre-determine who wins an election in another country would be an example of the U.S. being too intrusive in the internal affairs of other nations, and would in fact constitute a large incentive for such governments to become less democratic in the future. On one level the U.S. cannot care if the citizens of Iraq vote for a Shia inspired theocratic party, as long as future elections are still free and open. Indeed it is the continuing character of the election processes, including the workings of a free press and the rights of opposition being respected, that would be the only legitimate concern for the United States.

It becomes clear that the only legitimate help the U.S. can give to pro-democratic groups around the world is in helping to set up a democratic electoral process. Organizations set up to monitor elections would be key. Unfortunately, the United Nations is not an ideal partner for such activities. The U.N., as an organization, has not seem too concerned about the democratic process throughout its history. They will condemn instances of political violence, it is true, but the U.N. has no trouble recognizing governments that are maintained through the most brutal of methods in flagrant violation of the basic tenets of democracy. The U.N. simply does not see its role as that of fostering democratic reform around the world, and there seems to be little reason to think it can reinvent itself in that way in the future.

In many ways a U.S. foreign policy centered around democratic reforms would be akin to the Jimmy Carter initiative to center U.S. foreign policy around Human Rights. Carter's policies were never going to make a lot of headway against the Cold War era realists in Congress or in the State Department, but that doesn't mean they were completely wrong-headed. A foreign policy centered on democratic reforms is in many ways a better bet. For starters, it is less ambitious. Electoral reform is largely a technical exercise. It really doesn’t require a total re-ordering of society in order to implement it. A campaign for human rights is almost always an open-ended process that doesn't allow for the easy delineation of boundaries. Once questions of Human Rights are raised everything is on the table. (It will be argued that a democratic society will, eventually amount to the same thing. I agree, but by limiting the external pressure for reform to the more technical aspects of a democratic polity, you allow the internal political machinations of each country to bring up the larger questions of Human Rights, which, in the long run, is the best way to ensure that progress takes place. Attempting to impose Human Rights from without seems to me a recipe for disaster.)

In addition to supporting election monitoring, the U.S. must also support opposition parties that are being denied the right to operate freely. However, it is important that we support every single party facing such difficulties. We cannot choose a handful of U.S. friendly parties to give support to. In a similar vein we must also support the press rights for every persecuted news outlet, even those highly critical of the United States. Basically the U.S. should function something like the ACLU of thirty years ago: We support the principles upon which every democratic society is founded, even if we disagree with the content of your speech, and every person has the right to participate in the political life of his or her country without governmental interference.


In most respects, I'd argue that the United States is the only country on earth in a good position to advocate democratic reform, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom. I feel this way because the U.S. is really the only democratic country where the principles of a liberal democratic society are still widely embraced across the political spectrum. People on the left and the right in this country will go on and on about, for example, the Bill of Rights, or on the importance of our system of Checks & Balances. We have a rich and continuing history of intellectuals thinking about what it means to live in a liberal democratic state. That is something you just do not see in continental Europe. I'm not saying it isn't visible at all, but it is certainly less of a vital force there. (You can see something of the European attitude in American academics who have little patience with the thinkers of the American founding, but have no trouble spending their time in a quixotic effort to make of Nietzsche a closet democrat or Democrat.)

Considering the troubles we are having presently throughout the Middle East, it is somewhat ironic that I will also argue that the Middle Easterner who is interested in liberal democratic thought will probably get more out of the classic Western statements of liberal thought than would your average American. Someone in Iran who turns to Hobbes or Locke or Algernon Sidney will find lengthy discussions disputing theocratic principles of governance that will speak much more clearly to an Iranian than it ever would for a modern American. Most college educated Americans may have read Locke's Second Treatise on Government but very few have read Locke's First Treatise. We don't read Hooker's or Filmer's defenses of divine right so we just assume questions of theocracy were settled, but of course they weren't in 17th century England, just as they are not settled in 21st century Iran. In a very real sense this is an opportunity for every thinking American to learn something new about the ideas that underlie our society.

I know these thoughts will probably not sway your average American sophisticate, who assumes a certain incommensurability in the world (supported by what examples in history I will never know.) But really it is not the American sophisticate who is important in this process. It is amazing how easy it is to forget that fact.

Monday, June 13, 2005

I Thank God For Two Things...

1) That the Michael Jackson trial is finally over, and

2) That I don't live in California. It's a dangerous place and it's not getting any safer.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Sometimes I'm A Raving Lunatic

I don't think much of schools of education. It has always seemed to me we would all be better off if all of the education departments were closed and every education major forced to get a degree in another subject. I've never met a single teacher who didn't say their education degree program was largely a waste of their time. This is over and above the reputation most schools of education have garnered in academia as intellectual jokes, though well-tolerated jokes. The vacuous nature of these places is an open invitation to the sort of "post-modern neo-socialist social justice engineering" that some bloggers have noticed of late. (See here and here.)

But for the sheer inanity of it all you have to see what such folks are doing with mathematics. From Kathy over at Big Cat Chronicles: Teach math by the numbers and not the leftist agenda

I invested years of my life in learning a multitude of arithmetic and mathematics, much more so than most mortals because geophysics is my undergraduate degree which, as I describe it, is geology on math steroids. Thus, in addition to learning the basics all kids learn like multiplication tables and basic formulas, I've delved deeply into algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and rather weird math like Fourier theory (a fancy schmancy form of transformational calculus that jumps between frequency and time), and complex numbers (which I can't explain now because I couldn't in college either).

And do you know what? Never in all the years of classes and years of applying mathematical theory have I ever viewed math as a political field of study. Thus, color me with boiled blood too, like Barry Kearns at VekTor, over the crackpot theory to teach mathematics to school children by smothering learning in social justice theory...

To illustrate her point she posts a table of contents of a book promoting such "teaching." It includes:

  • Teaching Suggestions: Corporate Control of U.S. Media Line Graph
  • Sweatshop Accounting
  • Teaching Suggestions: The Global Capitalist Economy Cartoon
  • Globalization, Labor, and the Environment: A Linear Programming Unit
  • Teaching Suggestions: Map of Territory That Mexico Lost to the United States
  • Deconstructing Barbie: Math and Popular Culture
  • Fast Foods, Junk Foods, and Advertising: Analyzing the Barrage of Advertising Aimed at Children
  • Libraries, Books, and Bias: Using Math to Raise Issues of Representation

I'd like to think such nut jobs are few and far between; Very vocal, really loud, pretty damn obnoxious, but unlikely to be in your neighborhood school. However, they are in somebody's schools. I have serious reservations about subjecting any child of mine to such crapola. I'll hope to maybe avoid it by sending them to Catholic schools. But, if that isn't an option (based on where we are living at the time) I wouldn't rule out home-schooling if I felt the local public schools were too damn crazy.

Maybe some public schools can compete for students by mandating that their teachers be 100% free from Eductation School education. You'd have parents fighting to get their kids into those schools.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Still Playing Catch-Up

I realize it has been a little quiet around these parts. I've been back from England for over two weeks now, but I still feel like I'm not quite up to speed. It didn't help that we have had a sick cat over here, who is now feeling well enough to be ripping the hell out of my (still not put away) luggage with his claws.

There was a little break there while I was scolding my cat. I can't think of a bigger waste of time, but it makes me feel better....and he always likes the attention.

Anyway, I could have spent the last week or so giving my impressions of tidbits I missed while I was away. For example, I am pleased to see that on the day I left for London the Supreme Court did the right thing in Granholm v Heald and opened the way for a liberalization of wine shipping laws nationwide. I was a little suprised it was only a 5-4 decision. I didn't realize the "demon rum" faction of the Court was so strong. Had I been around to comment on the case in a more timely fashion I am sure I would have written something completely devastating that would have brought Justice Stevens to his knees. (I mean mentally of course. Physically, Stevens could be brought to his knees by a flight of stairs. He's ancient as hell.) Sadly, I wasn't here so that commentary is not to be.

Luckily, Kelo v. New London has not come down as of yet, so I will be fully prepared to bitch my head off when it does. (I hold little hope the court will do the right thing there.) Think of that as a screed in the making.

Friday, June 03, 2005

What I Learned From A Fish Called Wanda

"Apes don't read philosophy"

"Yes they do Otto, they just don't understand it."

No one should ever claim that the movies cannot be instructive for life. In case you don't remember, the above dialogue takes place between Kevin Kline (the ape in question) and Jamie Lee Curtis. In the film Kline's character is obviously not a bright man, but he likes to spend his free time reading Nietzsche. He believe this is a sign that he is an intelligent man. He is, of course, mistaken in that as in so many other things.

What is instructive about his character is it can make one question how we view intelligence in our everyday life. If you think about it there is more going on than a single continuum from Stupid to Intelligent. I'm not talking about things like "Emotional Intelligence" and the like, which strike me as being more of an operation in simple re-definition of terms than anything else. ("Let's call 'sensitivity,' 'intelligence'- Yeah!") What I mean is that it is clear that when we speak about how "Intelligent" or "Smart" someone is we really are talking about two unrelated things; A) How quick-witted someone is, and B) What they know.

It doesn't matter how much Nietzsche our good friend Otto reads, he will remain the dim-witted creature he is, but that doesn't mean that we won't have knowledge of Nietzsche. Even if he is completely unable to relate his knowledge to any other part of life (intellectual or otherwise) he still knows the work in some real sense. Anyone who reads voraciously, if they are quick witted or not, will gain knowledge of what they read. The only difference is that for the slower-witted the knowledge becomes an end in itself, it doesn't lead to anything else.

In this view there are two dichotomies at work: A) The Intelligent - Dumb dichotomy, i.e. how quick-witted one is, & B) The Smart - Stupid dichotomy, i.e. how much knowledge one has.

In a very real sense these two have nothing to do with one another. You can be super intelligent and be ignorant as they get (Intelligent and Stupid), or you can be a real dim bulb but be very knowledgeable about something (Dumb and Smart.)

Thinking about people in this way has allowed me to make sense of so very much that otherwise would have been inexplicable, especially among the ranks of academics I've known. 99.9% of academics you meet are going to be smart, at least about their speciality. Far fewer are going to be intelligent. There are real reasons why this is so. A lot of the work involved in graduate school is reading and developing a base of knowledge in the field, i.e. gaining smarts. The surest way to get out of grad school with your Ph.D. is to not be too clever about it. The people I know who had the easiest times with their dissertations basically did a variation of the work being done by their dissertation advisors, which has everything to do with smarts and very little to do with intelligence. Those that had interesting or novel ideas in their work had a much more difficult time of things. Most academics you meet are more technicians than thinkers, and this is as true of French Lit. profs as it is of Chemists.

I bring all this up in way of a long introduction to this article in Inside Higher Ed: Academic Freedom or Intolerance of Faith?

"Moral retards."

That's how a Brooklyn College sociologist described religious people a few years ago. And to some in New York City, that's reason enough why Timothy Shortell should not be allowed to assume the post to which his colleagues just elected him: chairman of the sociology department.


The essay, "Religion & Morality: A Contradiction Explained," critiqued the role of religion. "Modern religion is a fundamental belief in magic," he wrote. The essay also argued that religion had numerous negative consequences.

Of religions, he wrote: "They persist today because they are so effective at constructing group identities and at setting up conflict between the in- and out-groups. For all religions, there is an 'us' and a 'them.' All the ritual and the fellowship associated with religious practice is just a means of continually emphasizing group boundaries."

The essay also compared religious people to children. "It is no wonder, then, that those who are religious are incapable of moral action, just as children are. To be moral requires that one accept full responsibility for one's self.... Morality is a basis for making choices, in the context of a particular political economy."

And in the paragraph with the "moral retards" quotation, he argued as follows: "On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying - like bad taste. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot."

While much of the essay does not focus on particular faiths, Shortell specifically noted that his views do apply to Christians. "American Christians like to think that religious violence is a problem only for other faiths," he wrote. "In the heart of every Christian, though, is a tiny voice preaching self-righteousness, paranoia and hatred. Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they'll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course."

All of this would be completely inexplicable if you made the mistake in assuming that academics are of necessity intelligent.

Some, like Mr. Shortell, are dumb as a box of rocks.

And you can quote me on that.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Too Mundane

Is there anyone else like me who is a little saddened to find out that Deep Throat was just some guy?

In my mind his identity was always more interesting: like Ben Stein, or Chris Squire (the bass player in the rock group Yes), or Steve McQueen, or Elvis, or, best yet, SHAFT!

That way whenever Watergate was mentioned people could shake their heads and say "You don't mess with Shaft. He's a bad M..."