The Long View 2005-05-20: To be Observed Is to Be Annoyed

Russia 1991

Russia 1991

The fascinating post-script to Larry Summers resignation from Harvard seems to be that he really took the fall for his involvement in the rape of Russia post-communism.

To be Observed Is to Be Annoyed


A film premiered in 1997, The End of Violence, whose premise was that a principle of quantum mechanics applied to social interaction: the routine surveillance of everyday life would change the way people behave. Now comes Mark Steyn to argue, though without citing the movie, that this is actually happening:

[T]here seems to be some indication that the United Kingdom is becoming a world leader in hooded teenagers...[I]f you're an adolescent, far more of your social rituals take place in public - meeting friends at the bus stop, enjoying a romantic moment by the non-operative ornamental fountain outside the KwikkiJunk Centre, etc - and it seems entirely reasonable that adolescent garb has artfully evolved to provide its wearers with such privacy as can be found under the constant whirr of the Big Blairite Brother's telly cameras...[T]he Government is now toying with bans on headgear and hooded garb. Not all hooded garb, of course. Burqas, chadors, hejabs and so forth will be more than welcome. But more provocative clothing, such as baseball caps and Lord Irvine's old full-bottomed wig, will be out.

I can just remember when it was normal for men to wear hats in public, just like it was normal for adults to smoke in restaurants. I have seen one custom become illegal, and I may yet see the same happen to the other.

* * *

Donald Trump has proposed rebuilding the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, with only such modifications as may be necessary to ensure that a collapse like that of 911 cannot happen again. The plan that had been in place for the Freedom Tower had to be abandoned for safety reasons, which is all to the good: nobody really wanted to see that twisted piece of architectural irony every time they looked at Lower Manhattan. The plan to simply rebuild the Towers needs a little work, though. Look at this excerpt from the specifications for Twin Towers II:

The North Tower (Tower 1) would be at least 1,475-feet tall and would feature a 383-foot mast for communication transmissions, which is a 135-foot increase in height. At 1,858 feet, the North Tower would qualify as the World's Tallest Building. Windows on the World would be featured near its uppermost floors.

That radio mast was an afterthought to the original design for the World Trade Center: it was tacked on at the last minute, when the builders realized that the Towers would interfere with transmissions from the Empire State Building. It always made the Towers look provisional. On the other hand, we can dismiss the argument that the Towers should not be rebuilt in any form, because the Manhattan commercial real-estate market is already overburdened with floorspace. The original Towers opened into a real-estate glut, too, but they eventually became prime properties.

As I have remarked before, the dignity of the city requires that some superlative structure rise at the World Trade Center, even if it is full of houseplants. And in fact, enclosed gardens on the unused floors would be a good idea for while the building is gradually being rented. Think "farmers' market."

* * *

The Supreme Court decided a very technical case earlier this week, Granholm v. Heald. It illustrates how the court treats constitutional amendments it does not like.

The question at issue was whether a state could pass laws discriminating against out-of-state wineries; particularly, whether a state could forbid out-of-state wineries from selling directly to the state's residents, while allowing in-state wineries to do so.

Under the general principles of the Commerce Clause, the answer is clearly "no": the federal constitution was enacted in large part to prevent the states from discriminating against each other's products. However, Congress does have the power to delegate to the states some control over interstate commerce. Beginning in the 19th century, it did just that in the case of alcoholic beverages. A few decades later, the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale of liquor nationally. Later still, the 21st Amendment repealed the national prohibition, but in its second section it granted the states authority over the matter:

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

This is not an open-and-shut case, but I think a fair reading of the legislative history and text of the Constitution leads to the result that, in passing the 21st Amendment, the people had decided to create a major exception to the Commerce Clause. A majority on the Supreme Court held against the states, however: the states can prevent direct sales of wine to consumers, the Court held, but only if they forbade wine from all sources to be sold this way, not just out-of-state wine. The majority opinion did address the legislative and constitutional history in detail, but the opinion is chiefly a prose-poem to the Commerce Clause and its importance to national unity.

There were two dissents. The one by Stevens & O'Connor read thus:

Today's decision may represent sound economic policy and may be consistent with the policy choices of the contemporaries of Adam Smith who drafted our original Constitution; it is not, however,consistent with the policy choices made by those who amended our Constitution in 1919 and 1933.

Every so often, just for future reference, you will see a comment to the effect that a constitutional amendment that overturned Roe v. Wade, for instance, would be a nullity, because it would be inconsistent with the deeper principles of the Constitution. The same method of interpretation would also apply to an amendment that excluded the possibility of gay marriage. Using logic like that in Granholm v. Heald, a court could easily conclude that the effect of such an amendment would be to abolish marriage as a legal institution, since it could not be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis.

It's a good bet that someone will at least make this argument.

* * *

Readers will recall that Harvard President Lawrence Summers got into a lot of trouble recently for suggesting that discussion of the role of women in the sciences would have to consider whether there might be differences between the aptitudes and the interests of the sexes. The controversy seems to have been settled with this result:

In the wake of a firestorm over his controversial comments about the ability of women to excel in science, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers yesterday pledged $50 million over the next decade to increase diversity at the school...Summers later apologized for his remarks in January contending that innate differences in ability between the genders may partly explain why fewer women are in the pipeline for top science jobs.

$50 million over 10 years is not a lot for Harvard. We may hope that nothing worse is going on than a payment of protection money to some senior faculty. Still, there is an important principle here. We know from several decades of experience that the effect of affirmative action on every institution it touches is to narrow the range of tolerable opinion. Eventually, the institution becomes a mere patronage device and is bracketed as intellectually irrelevant. It made no difference when literature departments became Grievance Therapy Centers; people continued to write good literature. The same may not be true with the sciences, however.

* * *

I had recorded the most recent episode of the ABC series Lost and viewed it last night. I missed a few minutes. Did I make a mistake, or did the network programmers time the show to run a few minutes after 9:00 PM, so that viewers would settle down and watch the next show rather than switch to a program already in progress? The last I saw was the raft pulling away from the island, with its small crew waving to the people on the shore.

Since the survivors did not know where they were, and the raft had to follow the ocean current anyway, why not sent out a series of unmanned rafts? The rafts could be small but conspicuous, and each carry a written account of the plight of the survivors. If a series of rafts was released over a period of weeks, surely one be spotted. The whole sequence might even lead searchers back to the island.

Thoughts like these are why I could never write for television.

* * *

If you are interested in news from isolated places that are far away, you might look in on the Antarctic blog, 75 Degrees South. I am not inclined to pester this guy with unsolicited email, however. I suspect he's busy.

* * *

Thomas Friedman, writing about the Koran-desecration riots in Afghanistan, laments that US propaganda does not ethically challenge its intended audience:

It must never involve us asking who they are and why they are behaving in ways that don't live up to the values they profess.

I have some sympathy with that position, but then he goes on to suggest the president's spokesman should have said this about the rumors that Korans had been desecrated at Guantanamo:

I don't understand a concept of the sacred that says a book is more sacred than a human life. A holy book, whether the Bible or the Koran, is only holy to the extent that it shapes human life and behavior.

Actually, in the case of the Koran, it is holy because it is considered part of God's substance, not just one of his creatures. The Christian analogy would be the desecration of a consecrated host. I don't think that should be a hanging offense, either, but it is sort of scary that someone in Thomas Friedman's position has not yet grasped that the Koran is not a "Muslim Bible."

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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