The Long View 2007-04-20: Gonzales, Bering Tunnel, Mass Murder Today

John J. Reilly’s idea that managing demographics is a pre-constitutional power of government is one my favorites.

Gonzales, Bering Tunnel, Mass Murder Today

Regarding Gonzales v. Carhart, the United States Supreme Court decision upholding the federal law banning partial-birth abortion, the first thing to note is that the law itself was the least that the late Republican congressional majority could do for its pro-life constituents. I mean "least" in the sense that Ambrose Bierce implied in this insufficiently well known rhyme: "If there were less you could have done, that's what you would have done, my son." The law was supposed to symbolize the Republican establishment's engagement with pro-life issues without in any way undermining Roe v. Wade and the related decisions. The fact that the law was upheld may actually remove abortion as an issue for this electoral cycle: the Democrats would be foolish to promise to repeal a widely popular statute that actually does nearly nothing, and the Republicans can claim a symbolic success that will satisfy their electorate.

In the decision itself, there were really just two important points, neither of which was in the majority opinion. One was made in Justice Ginsburg's dissent:

[T]he Court upholds an Act that surely would not survive under the close scrutiny that previously attended state-decreed limitations on a woman's reproductive choices.

When the court does not like some public policy, it applies "strict scrutiny" to any law that seeks to enact it, which essentially means second-guessing the legislature (including Congress) that enacted the statute. When the court puts a policy in the strict-scrutiny category, that means that it is, in effect, constitutionally proscribed. Other statutes are subjected to a "rational basis" test, which means that if the legislature goes through the motions of explaining itself and makes legislative findings, however implausible, to support the need for the law, the court will not interfere. In the 20th century up until the second term of Franklin Roosevelt, the court applied strict scrutiny to most economic regulation with a social welfare dimension. They realized they would be impeached or worse if they kept that up, so they moved that sort of statute to the "rational basis" category. Similarly, for most of American history, the court was willing to accept any reason or unreason that the states gave for laws that had the effect of segregating their populations by race. Then, in the 1950s, such laws began to meet with strict scrutiny. This practice of categorization is neither good nor bad; it just is not obviously law in any meaningful sense.

So, except as a study of rhetoric, there is no point in parsing at length what Justice Kennedy's majority opinion had to say about why the statute in question is constitutional while the substantially identical laws that the court has struck down in the past were not. We are told that this law defines partial-birth abortion more precisely, and that Congress made findings that this procedure was never necessary. Therefore, according to the opinion, the court's rule that such laws must provide an exception "for the health of the mother" did not apply. Actually, that was just another way of saying that the matter had been moved out of the "strict scrutiny" category; "health," in the sense that the Supreme Court had been accustomed to use it in this area, was an infinitely expandable concept, one that everyone understood meant that the court would never allow any abortion restriction at all to stand.

This is a degenerate and, frankly, disgusting mode of jurisprudence, even if you like the result. It runs right through all the autonomy-reproductive-sexual-orientation cases, from Griswold to Roe to Casey to Lawrence. In Gonzales, the only difference is that the result runs the other way.

The other interesting point was in Justice Thomas's concurrence:

I also note that whether the Act constitutes a permissible exercise of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause is not before the Court.

He has a point. Roe v. Wade said that legislatures might restrict abortions in the second trimester or even ban them in the third. The right to an abortion, such as it is, could be said to be the right of the woman, a legal person under the 14th Amendment, whose Due Process rights could be protected by statute. But by what constitutional warrant does the state enact a statute to protect a fetus, a legal nullity?

As I have suggested before, the chief misconception underlying this whole area of law is that it is a civil-liberties matter. In fact, what the court (and the elected branches of government, too) have been doing since Griswold is managing demographics, something government has always done, though historically public policy has sought to promote fertility rather than to restrict it. It would greatly simplify matters is the court would recognize that the statutes dealing with these matters are exercises of a pre-constitutional power of government, a power that any government must have simply by the fact of being a government.

* * *

Here's an obvious notion that is not self-evidently a good idea:

April 18 (Bloomberg) -- Russia plans to build the world's longest tunnel, a transport and pipeline link under the Bering Strait to Alaska, as part of a $65 billion project to supply the U.S. with oil, natural gas and electricity from Siberia...

A 6,000-kilometer (3,700-mile) transport corridor from Siberia into the U.S. will feed into the tunnel, which at 64 miles will be more than twice as long as the underwater section of the Channel Tunnel between the U.K. and France, according to the plan. The tunnel would run in three sections to link the two islands in the Bering Strait between Russia and the U.S...

``It's cheaper to transport electricity east, and with our unique tidal resources, the potential is real,'' [Vasily Zubakin, deputy chief executive officer of OAO Hydro OGK] said. Hydro OGK plans by 2020 to build the Tugurskaya and Pendzhinskaya tidal plants, each with capacity of as much as 10 gigawatts, in the Okhotsk Sea, close to Sakhalin Island.

The project envisions building high-voltage power lines with capacity of up to 15 gigawatts to supply the new rail links and also export to northern America.

I like the idea of being able to take a train from New York to Paris, but we must wonder about the utility of linking one resource-rich wilderness to another. You would have to carry the stuff that travels through those tunnels an awfully long way before you would find someone with a use for it.

* * *

Mark Steyn's thoughts about the Virginia Tech Massacre mischaracterize the event:

On Monday night, Geraldo was all over Fox News saying we have to accept that, in this horrible world we live in, our “children” need to be “protected.”...

Point one: They’re not “children.” The students at Virginia Tech were grown women and — if you’ll forgive the expression — men. They would be regarded as adults by any other society in the history of our planet. Granted, we live in a selectively infantilized culture where twentysomethings are “children” if they’re serving in the Third Infantry Division in Ramadi but grown-ups making rational choices if they drop to the broadloom in President Clinton’s Oval Office. Nonetheless, it’s deeply damaging to portray fit, fully formed adults as children who need to be protected. We should be raising them to understand that there will be moments in life when you need to protect yourself — and, in a “horrible” world, there may come moments when you have to choose between protecting yourself or others.

Professor Liviu Librescu, who died protecting his classroom from the shooter, will rightly be remembered as the hero of the incident, but he was not the only person who responded quickly and intelligently to the attack. In other classroons, the students succeeded in barricading their doors. Some students, pinned to the floor by gunfire, prevented others from panicking and so calling attention to themselves. The victims were not a population infantalized by the nanny-state.

No more helpful was Steyn's libertarian reflex of blaming the local police for failing to publicize across the campus the murder of two students earlier in the morning. The idea was that the students could have decided for themselves what security measures to take. Does anyone refrain from going out in public because a murder has been committed a quarter-mile away? To propose more "choice" as the solution is fatuous.

Objectively speaking (and speaking as someone whose one encounter with gunfire many years ago was to run away as fast as possible), the most life-saving solution would have been for a dozens students to have rushed the shooter and overwhelm him. Several might have been killed, but the casualty rate would not then have reached double digits. Okay, but that's the kind of collective, disinterested action that libertarianism makes almost unimaginable.

* * *

Peggy Noonan's assessment is understandable, but, I think anachronistic:

When Columbine happened, it was weird and terrible, and now there have been some incidents since, and now it's not weird anymore. And that is what's so terrible. It's the difference between "That doesn't happen!" and "That happens."...In terms of school shootings, we are now familiar with the principle...

With all the therapy in our great therapized nation, with all our devotion to emotions and feelings, one senses we are becoming a colder culture, and a colder country. We purport to be compassionate--we must respect Mr. Cho's privacy rights and personal autonomy--but of course it is cold not to have protected others from him. It is cold not to have protected him from himself.

Since the Columbine shootings, suicidal mass murder has become common. There are pictures of it every day from Iraq. When it happens in Israel, it's usually by a student. Therapy does not have a nickel's worth to do with it.

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The Long View 2006-01-13: After Roe; Predators; Indigos; Pigs; Panspermia

Lots of fun little bits in this one. There are reasonable protections to extended to protect wilderness, and then there is the Wildlands Project, a scheme to return vast areas of the United States to howling wilderness. This goal isn't particularly hidden, but you can find references to it in the project materials linked in Wikipedia.

I like natural landscapes too, but this is all a little nutty.

There is also a reference to Arthur C. Clarke's creepy book Childhood's End. Many of the mid-twentieth century sci fi authors had really weird streaks, and Childhood's End displays Clarke's. Gnosticism is always lurking somewhere.

Also. Glowing pigs.

After Roe; Predators; Indigos; Pigs; Panspermia


Plausible deniability: this was all the Alito hearings were about. There was never much hope that the nomination could be stopped. The Democratic senators were chiefly concerned to ensure that the cultural left does not strike at them when Roe v. Wade is overturned. As I have remarked, the party will greatly benefit from that event, because the party will be able to field pro-life candidates, or at least candidates who do not have to take a pro-choice position. The opportunities in the Red States are for the future, however. In the near term, the senators had to placate the interest groups that made their election possible.

The hearings were yet more evidence that Roe would have to be repudiated even if it were about double parking. (I know I have said that before; it's a good line.) The cultural left has adopted the position that there is an invisible ham sandwich in the Liberty Clause of the Constitution. Since the existence of this sandwich cannot be demonstrated by text or history, constitutional jurisprudence has become the art of selecting those very special judges who can see it.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that it will not be enough for the Supreme Court to repudiate the holding in Roe (it might be possible to justify the holding in Griswald, the case that found a right to use contraceptives, but with far narrower reasoning). The Court has to repudiate the style of constitutional interpretation that made the decision possible. If the decision that overturns Roe simply declares that the Court, of its goodness, has determined to exercise its discretion in the opposite direction, then we will just be waiting for the next constitutional explosion.

* * *

But foreign courts are worse, as we see in this outrage from Sweden:

A Swedish farmer sentenced to six months in prison for shooting a wolf on his farm in Dalsland, central Sweden, is appealing to the government for a pardon...The man was found not by the district court not to have broken the law, but he was convicted in the court of appeal. It was decided that although the man had reason to believe that the wolf would attack, as the wolf had attacked his neighbour's sheep an hour earlier, too much time has passed between the attack on the sheep and the farmer shooting the wolf.

I am at a loss to understand the fondness of the environmental lobby for dangerous predators. The reasons for keeping dangerous creatures away from farms and homes are primordial:

A South African anthropologist said Thursday his research into the death nearly 2 million years ago of an ape-man shows human ancestors were hunted by birds...[An] Ohio State study determined that eagles would swoop down, pierce monkey skulls with their thumb-like back talons, then hover while their prey died before returning to tear at the skull. Examination of thousands of monkey remains produced a pattern of damage done by birds, including holes and ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets...Berger went back to the [australopithecus child's] skull, and found traces of the ragged cuts behind the eye sockets.

The dangerous animals don't need to be extinct. Because developed countries are rapidly becoming reforested, there should be no lack of places for them to live. That's why they should be shot on sight when they enter inhabited areas.

Tough, but fair.

* * *

Speaking of impending extinction, this lifestyle piece from the New York Times is extremely sinister:

If you have not been in an alternative bookstore lately, it is possible that you have missed the news about indigo children. They represent "perhaps the most exciting, albeit odd, change in basic human nature that has ever been observed and documented," Lee Carroll and Jan Tober write in "The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived" (Hay House). The book has sold 250,000 copies since 1999 and has spawned a cottage industry of books about indigo children.

More prosaically, "indigo children" seem to be intelligent tykes with attention deficit disorders whose mothers prefer to believe that their offspring are the next stage in human evolution than that these kids need either drugs or no-nonsense discipline. "Indigo" is supposed to describe the auras of these prodigies. The term "indigo" is sometimes used these days to mean a young, creative person. There are some links here

I knew from my studies of esoteric fascism that this notion of a mutant generation was the sort of thing that Madame Blavatsky used to go on on about. I quickly discovered that I was not the first to make the connection:

We are the last generation of the 5th root race. Our soul color is violet. Since about 1975 the first generation of the 6th root race has been coming in. Since the year 2000, 100% of the children being born are of the 6th root race. Their soul color is indigo. These are the "new and improved" spiritually evolved humans. Every Indigo Child has a " creative genius" within them waiting to be discovered and expressed. They have something new, something advanced, to bring to the world to evolve humanity, be it in the field of art, science, technology, philosophy, religion, and so on.

We went through all this in the 1960s, you know. Remember Consciousness III in The Greening of America? Now the question is whether sales of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End are picking up again.

* * *

Indigo children may be imaginary, but fluorescent pigs are a fact, according to the BBC:

Scientists in Taiwan say they have bred three pigs that glow in the dark...They claim that while other researchers have bred partly fluorescent pigs, theirs are the only pigs in the world which are green through and through...The pigs are transgenic, created by adding genetic material from jellyfish into a normal pig embryo....In the dark, shine a blue light on them and they glow torch-light bright.

The scientists did not just do this on a bet: it's easier to work with genetic material if it fluoresces. If they begin to work on flying pigs, however, we will know they are not serious.

* * *

The term panspermia does not appear in the NASA pages about the Stardust mission. Stardust is the space probe that collected dust from the comet Wild 2; Stardust is supposed to land in the Mojave Desert this weekend. "Panspermia," of course, is the notion that life spreads through space in the form of living or nearly living spores. If that is the case, then we are relieved of the embarrassment of figuring out how microorganisms appeared so quickly after the Earth formed.

Stardust was dispatched in part to answer questions about proto-biology, but I have not seen any speculation about whether the probe might bring back something living. When samples were brought back from the moon, both the samples and the astronauts were quarantined against the possibility that they might carry an infectious lunar organism. In connection with a comet, though, such precautions would make little sense. Cometary material is always raining into Earth's atmosphere: if Wild 2 carries spores from deep space, they would be here already.

Actually, I seem to recall that an Indian scientist proposed that novel infectious diseases do in fact drift down from space. Better not to think about it.

* * *

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Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-10-30: Libby, Noonan, & Scalia

John was broadly on the same side as Antonin Scalia on most subjects, but he didn't think textualism was accurate in the American legal system.

Libby, Noonan, & Scalia


The interesting point about the indictment of Lewis Libby is the political nature of the process. This is not to say that the special prosecutor who sought the indictment, Patrick Fitzgerald, is corrupt or partisan. Far from it: done honestly and correctly, this sort of investigation almost invariably generates an indictable offense on the part of the parties being investigated. The offense almost never has anything to do with the ostensible reason for the investigation. It’s not supposed to. The process is a mechanism for staging show-trials. That seems to be what will happen in this instance.

Two irrelevancies can be expected to dominate public discussion of the affair.

The First Irrelevancy is favored by the mainstream media and editorial opinion. This will attempt to use the show trial as an occasion to argue that, just as Lewis Libby perjured himself when he spoke to Fitzgerald’s grand jury, so George Bush perjured himself when he made the argument for the Iraq War. The Irrelevancy is not very coherent, but it has been made repeatedly in all the media since the Libby indictment was handed up. The second irrelevancy is rather more interesting: the credibility of Joseph Wilson. I understand the matter thus, having received the Party Line from The Weekly Standard:

In early 2002, Wilson was sent to investigate rumors that Niger had agreed to sell uranium to the Baathist government of Iraq. Such a sale would have been an important violation of the disarmament strictures imposed on Iraq by the UN at the end of the Kuwait War. After the invasion, Wilson had claimed, among other things, that he was sent to Niger on the direction of the Office of the Vice President, and that he had found no evidence of a sale of uranium. However, Wilson’s actual report said a former Nigerien prime minister told him that Iraqi trade representatives had in fact been in Niger in the late 1990s, and that it was the former prime minister’s belief that the Iraqi’s were interested in buying uranium.

No sale was agreed to and no documents were signed. That trade mission would probably not have constituted a breach of the UN resolutions. On the other hand, such information would only enhance the belief in the world’s intelligence services that Iraq planned to resume a vigorous nuclear weapons program as soon as the UN sanctions were lifted. The report of the weapons inspectors in the wake of the Iraq War actually supported that surmise. However, the Coalition that invaded Iraq had believed that the invasion would reveal an active, covert WMD program. That would have clinched the argument that the Baathist regime could not be allowed to survive the removal of sanctions. That was the evidence the Administration had promised, and it was not forthcoming.

As soon as the absence of physical evidence became clear, Wilson began speaking to journalists, at first covertly. He originally conflated the findings of his report with the discrediting of a set of documents that surfaced in October of 2002, long after his mission, which purported to memorialize a uranium sale between Niger and Iraq. They were obvious forgeries, and soon recognized as such. Wilson took credit for refuting them in detail, though in fact he had never seen them. When he went public with an account of his mission to Iraq, which he did in an Op Ed in the New York Times in the summer of 2003, he no longer mentioned the forged documents directly, but he did claim that his visit to Niger had been a matter of great interest and urgency to the Administration.

The White House, for its part, especially wanted to emphasize that Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA, which was known to be hostile to the argument for war. Additionally, his wife worked for the agency in some classified capacity; it was she who recommended him for the Niger assignment, a point that Wilson at one point strenuously denied. It was, perhaps, the Administration’s attempts to surreptitiously publicize these points that occasioned the current unpleasantness.

During the Watergate Scandal, there would have been no way for a story like the Second Irrelevancy to shape the public consensus on the matter. In those days, freedom of the press was enjoyed only by those who owned a press. Today, of course, we know from the defenestration of Dan Rather what the engaged Internet can do, even when the major papers refuse to print a word of the online version. Will the president be left to a fate worse than Spiro Agnew's, or will the blogosphere arise as a single geek to smite his enemies?

* * *

Peggy Noonan, in her column of October 27, provides this perspective on the troubles of the Republic:

It is not so hard and can be a pleasure to tell people what you see. It's harder to speak of what you think you see, what you think is going on and can't prove or defend with data or numbers. That can get tricky. It involves hunches. But here goes...I'm not talking about "Plamegate." As I write no indictments have come up. I'm not talking about "Miers." I mean . . the whole ball of wax...I mean I believe there's a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.

Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us....they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

On the other hand, one could argue that any political system that could devote so much energy to something as fatuous as the Libby prosecution must feel invulnerable, as if its members believed it made no difference what they did with their time.

* * *

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has a long review in First Things (November 2005) of Law’s Quandary, by Steven D. Smith. The book attempts to explain the philosophical issues that attend contemporary jurisprudence, particularly the question of just what “law” is. The review is remarkable for setting out Scalia’s theory of textualism.

Scalia’s argument is that, in a democracy, the people are the source of the law, but the substance of the law is the text. We cannot look to the intent of the law makers; legislators generally intend several things, not all of them consistent. Scalia argues that texts can be meaningful without looking to the intent of an author. He does not allude to chatterbots, unfortunately.

Neither should judges try to make law. That, of course, was exactly what they did during the great age of the common law, when most law consisted of a floating consensus. However, that is completely unjustified in an era in which almost all law is codified. It is most emphatically not justified in a constitutional regime in which there is a written constitution.

One point in particular struck me: under a textualist regime, stare decisis would count for very little. Prior decisions would be recorded simply as a convenience, so that people will have some idea how the courts will react when asked to apply a law again in the future.

For myself, I take an optimistic view of the ascertainability of textual meaning; some of my best friends are chatterbots. However, Scalia’s model just does not describe how courts in the Anglo-American system deal with statutory texts. Even the most conservative judge, interpreting the clearest text, looks first to the opinions of other judges to find what the text means. That is how the common law system works. The suggestion that the common law system ceased to exist when the old common law rules were codified is mere nonsense.

There is an ancient legal system in which stare decisis counts for very little. It’s called the civil law, based ultimately on Roman law, and represented in the world today chiefly in the form of the Napoleonic Code. That system has its merits, but it’s not the one we have.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-10-21: Imagine World Peace

I've got a lot of mileage over the years from A Perfect Circle's cover of Imagine. I still think it is the perfect ballad of late republican America. I find Lennon's original unbearably dippy, but Keenan's version [especially as a music video] pays homage to America's overwhelming military might, and the genuinely grassroots radical resistance to that.

Imagine World Peace


Why should we use Google Earth? (A hat tip to Penkill for bringing it to my attention.) For one thing, you can use it to spot the black helicopters. On a philosophical level, there is something very Faustian about a tool (and a free one at that) that lets you view any spot on the surface of the Earth, even if it does not yet allow you to do this real time, and even if the software is not quite as useful as Streets & Trips. Spengler remarks somewhere that the Faustian style of politics achieved its natural scope in the 18th century, when the whole globe became the object of statecraft. From most of the time since then, however, genuinely global consciousness was actually pretty rare. A few hours playing with Google Earth will go a long way toward generating it in just about anybody.

* * *

Adam Bellow has an explanation of modern dynastic politics in this Comment at National ReviewCronyism, nepotism, and the current President Bush:

You cannot understand George W. Bush without an understanding of his family, and dynastic families in general. Indeed, it might be said that Bush’s familial approach to politics has been his greatest strength and greatest weakness — his Achilles heel. Like Bonaparte, the same dynastic habits that brought him to power may bring him down again. They don't teach a course in patronage and nepotism at Harvard Business School — but they should. Instead they pretend that it doesn't exist. That does us all a disservice.

Dynastic families are not like yours and mine (unless your name is Bush or Kennedy). They are self-conscious, multigenerational enterprises displaying strong collective discipline and an innate, untutored grasp of certain perennial modes and orders that advance the family’s interest....Which brings us to the Bushes. People have been trying to figure out what kind of bubble the Bushes live in for a long time. But it is not the cocoon of wealth that insulates them from reality and explains their frequent missteps and tone-deaf remarks, but that of family itself. The problem for W is that the ethic of friendship and loyalty that the Bushes cultivate and that brought him to power is threatening now to bring him down. He has made the common dynastic mistake of confusing loyalty and merit.

If you will forgive me for citing Spengler twice in the same blog entry, here is what he had to say about the return of the dynastic principle after the evaporation of ideological politics (though he speaks here of a time that would still be over a century in our future):

But the world was now the theater of tragic family-histories into which state-histories were dissolved ; the Julian-Claudian house destroyed Roman history, and the house of Shi-wng-ti (even from 206 BC) destroyed Chinese, and we darkly discern something of the same in the destinies of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut and her brothers (1501--1447). It is the last step to the definitive. With world-peace -- the peace of high policies -- the "sword side" of being retreats and the "spindle side" rules again; henceforth there are only private histories, private destinies, private ambitions, from top to bottom, from the miserable troubles of the fellaheen to the dreary feuds of Caesars for the private possession of the world. The wars of the age of world-peace or private wars, more fearful that any State wars because they are formless. 
(The Decline of the West, Volume II, Page 434 (Atkinson translation))

There have always been American political families. However, America as a whole has never been particularly friendly to dynasties, chiefly because there are so many opportunities (and distractions) that young dynasts often pursue a career outside their family's web of connections and patronage. Even if the family maintains its cohesion, the people will tire of hearing about it. Still, we can be certain that the people will never tire of at least one venerable old family.

* * *

Anyone with the need to refresh their anti-religious paranoia should certainly take a look at Theocracy Watch. The sort answer to the site is that, yes, there is such a thing as Reconstructionism, but that it is like Libertarianism in that it almost never occurs in pure form, but unlike Libertarianism in that you rarely encounter it at all unless you look for it.

Besides, people should be more concerned about a far graver threat.

* * *

Astrobiology Magazine has a useful piece by Steven Soter on SETI and the Cosmic Quarantine Hypothesis. Some of his points rather resemble the ones that Isaac Asimov made in "The Gentle Vultures," but I was particularly struck by this clarification of one of the terms of the Drake Equation:

The proper value of L is not the average duration of a single episode of civilization on a planet, which for Earth is about 400 years. Rather, L is much larger, being the sum of recurrent episodes of civilization, and constitutes a substantial fraction of the biological lifetime of the intelligent species.

What he is talking about here is "unlosables," a concept developed in the middle of the 20th century by William Ernest Hocking.

* * *

Fr. Neuhaus at First Things has made bold to question the legal basis for the current trial of Saddam Hussein and his confederates:

John Keegan, the eminent historian of warfare, writes that the trial of Saddam Hussein poses difficult questions of law and morality. Saddam may be responsible, as seems to be the case, for as many as a million deaths. He ordered mass killings of Iraqis, and hundreds of thousands were killed in the war with Iran under his direction. But, Keegan asks, cannot such actions be legally covered as undertaken for “reasons of state”? ...The problems of prosecuting a legitimate head of state, no matter how odious his deeds, goes way back. Among a few Anglo-Catholics, Charles I of England is revered as a saint. Charles put the matter nicely a few days before he was deprived of his head: “I would know by what power I am called hither..."

I may misunderstand the posture of the trial, but I think there are short answers to all these points:

(1) In this trial, at least, Hussein is being tried under Iraqi law for illegally killing Iraqis in Iraq. Thus, the matter does not present the difficulties of trials under international law.

(2)Hussein constructively resigned his office when he abandoned the capital and, in effect, ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi state.

(3) Charles I enjoyed full sovereign immunity; so, for that matter, does Elizabeth II. However, George Bush does not; neither do other heads of state in modern governments with respect to domestic law, though they enjoy sovereign immunity with respect to the law of other countries.

So that's that.

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The Long View 2005-09-16: Supreme Job Search; GOZland

What political opportunity looks like

What political opportunity looks like

John often argued that the Republican party needed to learn how to raise taxes. He may have intuited that there was an open opportunity for a party that was socially conservative and willing to spend money on welfare.

Supreme Job Search; GOZland


How does one become a US Supreme Court Justice? By far the easiest way is by answering this Monster ad (the search firm is Accola). If the position is not already taken, there you will see this: description:

Title: United States Supreme Court Justice - Apply your Serenity, Courage and Wisdom

All applications for this position are accepted via our online interview system, managed by Accolo. You can begin the interview process or REFER someone you know by going to this Link.

Remember: when reviewing your cover letter before submitting your application, a simple spell-check just will not do.

* * *

If you must do it the hard way, then you will have to listen to several days of rhetoric like this, which was part (a small part) of the opening statement of Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, at the recent confirmation hearings for John Roberts:

In the hands of the Supreme Court, the Constitution has established a right to equal education regardless of race. It's guaranteed an attorney and a fair trial to all Americans, rich and poor alike. It has allowed women to keep private medical decisions private. It has allowed Americans to speak, vote and worship without interference from their government.

You will lead the court in its most solemn duty to interpret the Constitution and the rights it grants to all Americans.

The court has the last say in what will be the scope of our rights and the breadth of our freedoms. The court even has power over which constitutional questions it will hear and which cases the court will decide.

That is why the Supreme Court is so vital to our lives. And who decides these issues, Judge Roberts, is therefore of unsurpassed importance.

Senator Kohl was not the only participant to emphasize that the power with which John Roberts might be invested is unanswerable and with no real limitation of scope; that is why the Senate could entrust the post of Chief Justice to no one less than a saint and sage. The ascription of omnipotence to the Supreme Court is an exaggeration, but not by much. We have to remind ourselves that this was not always the case. In fact, it is only in the past few decades that the Senate routinely held confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees. The senators traditionally did not regard the Court as unimportant, but they understood its power to be limited and predictable; they could be satisfied with a conformation process that did not require the nominee to pull a sword out of a stone.

The irony is that the senators who most emphasized the unbounded powers of the Court were also the ones who were keenest to make sure that no one was appointed to the Court who might limit those powers. The privacy right in the Griswald-Roe-Casey decisions can be maintained only by essentially abolishing the principle of constitutional government. Under this system, divorced from text and history, the law becomes nothing more than the will of the members of the Court. The Democratic senators, for the most part, insist on maintaining this system, even though it makes consequences of each nomination incalculable. This situation is unstable and ephemeral. If, as seems, likely, John Roberts is confirmed, it will implode on his watch, pretty much no matter what he does.

* * *

The Land of GOZ: I looked for this phrase on Google after reading press accounts this morning of the address that President Bush gave on Thursday night from Jackson Square. He spoke in the silent, eldritch, and mephitic city of New Orleans; surely that was the spookiest speech a president has ever delivered. I noted that the term "Gulf Opportunity Zone" occurred in the reports, but not in the published text of the address. In any case, it seemed to me that phrases like "Wizard of GOZ" and "Land of GOZ" might reasonably be expected to appear in commentary about the area of the Gulf of Mexico on which the president now proposes to spend all the money in the world, plus $50. But no: can it be that no one knows how to coin a phrase any longer?

Note that there would be legal problems if any organization tries to use the acronym GOZ; there is not only GOZ, but GOZ® (there should be an "R" with a circle around it after the "Z"). That stands for "Goal Oriented Zoning®," which is explained on the site of Planning Partners in this fashion:

The GOZ® Model is a GIS-based program that calculates zoning yield (build-out) and associated development impacts for existing zoning and alternative zoning scenarios.

So not only is the acronym already taken, but it is taken by an enterprise that may be interested in the rebuilding of the Gulf. Real confusion would be a possibility. These people should be sharpening their lawyers.

As for the speech itself, I thought it did everything it had to do. The plan the president outlined is unobjectionable. This really is a situation where throwing money at the problem will make it better. For once, the term "Marshall Plan" is apposite, though I do not believe the White House used it.

Nowadays, a proposal to quickly develop an underdeveloped country from scratch is often called a Marshall Plan, but that is quite different from repairing a region where people already know how to maintain an advanced society. The Marshall Plan was largely a rebuilding plan, the most important part of which was making credit available, either directly or through loan guarantees.

The problem is that it has become impossible even for the Republicans in Congress to ignore the fiscal consequences of the program the president has in mind, or indeed of the money the federal government has already spent on immediate disaster relief. Again, I can only repeat: yes, it is possible to lose an election by refusing to raise taxes.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-23: The Perfection of the Species

The image in the header is the image John referenced in his joke about contributing to the state of perpetual surveillance. The man in the image is Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, scourge of the Boers and one of the few generals who thought the Great War would be long.

I appreciate John's simple computation of the average tenure of each Supreme Court Justice in groups of ten. It is a simple thing in now, and in 2005, to look up such information to double-check something like now Chief Justice John Robert's 34-year old speculation that the framers of the Constitution hadn't anticipated how long people live now.

Justice Roberts made a common mistake, which is thinking increasing average lifespans means that adults live 20 or 30 years longer than they used to. There is some increase for adults, but almost all of the change in the average was driven by changes in deaths under the age of 5. 

Something that struck me just now is that I've seen a lot of things on the subject of average human lifespans that assumes that childhood mortality was as high in Classical times or earlier as it was in early modern Europe. However, we know that what we now call childhood diseases are mostly recent things, largely within the last 2000 years or so. The human disease burden has slowly been getting worse, which might mean that childhood was somewhat less dangerous before the arrival of measles and smallpox.

The Perfection of the Species


Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts had some thoughts many years ago about limiting the terms of federal judges, and was foolish enough to put them on paper:

The Constitution "adopted life tenure at a time when people simply did not live as long as they do now,'' Roberts wrote in an Oct. 3, 1983, memo to White House Counsel Fred Fielding that is now on file at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library..."A judge insulated from the normal currents of life for 25 or 30 years was a rarity then but is becoming commonplace today,'' Roberts wrote. "Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence.''

Term limits for judges may or may not be a good idea, but I had my doubts about the premise of Roberts' critique. The great increases in life expectancy we have seen over the past two centuries chiefly relate to infant mortality; the older you get, the less dramatic the increases become. Certainly it is not the case that maximum human longevity is increasing. How does this relate to the Supreme Court?

On Wikipedia, I found a list of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in chronological order of appointment. Then I took the average of the terms of service of each group of ten. In the list of these averages set out below, the date is the end of the period in which each group of ten was appointed:

8.9 yrs

(John Marshall appointed)
20.9 yrs

19.2 yrs

19 yrs

14.3 yrs

13 yrs

15.4 yrs

13.3 yrs

17.3 yrs

20.6 yrs

20.6 yrs

The average tenure for the first ten justices was indeed short, but that had little to do with longevity. The Supreme Court was new and not very prestigious in the early days of the Republic. The justices tended to quit in order to move on to better things. It was only during the tenure of John Marshall as Chief Justice that the Court acquired an authority comparable to that of Congress and the President. There then followed a long period during which justices stayed on the court for about as long as they have since the beginning of the final quarter of the 20th century. The composition of the current Court is uniquely old, but again, that's not biology: the continuing Roe v. Wade controversy has blocked the normal turnover of the Court.

John Roberts was probably correct if he thought that the current, long tenure of Supreme Court justices is contrary to the expectation of the Founders, but not for the reason he cited. The Founders probably did not expect that justices, once appointed to the Court, would cling to their office for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Recently I saw Gattaca, a film released in 1997 about a near-future world (though not quite so near as our own, evidently) in which pre-natal genetic enhancements and genetic testing in general put people who are conceived naturally at a considerable disadvantage. The story is about one such Invalid (accent on the second syllable) who steals the genetic profile of a supernormal in order to qualify to pilot the first manned spaceship to Titan.

Gattaca has a reputation as an underappreciated minor film. I can only agree. It comes close to the ideal of science fiction played on a bare stage. The sets are subdued Modern; there are no special effects. As for the cast, no less a person than Gore Vidal has a bit part as Director Josef of the Gattaca organization. He even turns out to be the murderer, though the murder is a red herring. There were several real actors, too.

Since I saw this film, I have been trying to track down a quotation that I am almost sure comes from Tolkien. It runs something like this:

No, I have never much liked the idea of spaceflight. It seems to be promoted mostly by people who want to turn the whole world into a big train station, and then to establish similar stations on other planets.

The journey to Titan (which we do not see) is just a Maguffin, like the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, but it leaves the film hollow, intentionally so. It is not at all clear why the impeccably dressed and immaculately clean personnel of Gattaca would want to do something as crudely industrial as explore another planet. As for the colonization of Titan, we must ask whether the universe really needs another planet covered with office parks and Ikea furniture. Indeed, does it really need any?

The character of the hero is defined by his determination to belie the projection for a mediocre future that his real genetic profile suggested, including a high probability of an early death from heart failure. Though fraud was necessary to allow him to compete for his ambitions, he fought against his fate chiefly through study and exercise. A friend of mine in high school received a similar prognosis. He became the first fitness fanatic I ever met. He died at 28.

* * *

Incidentally, Gattaca is available in Esperanto. So are 14 other films: look here.

* * *

Speaking of near-future paranoia, I have done my bit to bring about a world in which no public moment goes unrecorded; my condominium now has security cameras. To ensure that no one forgets this fact, I made this poster [BIE I put this in the header] to remind everyone to be good.

Speaking of graphics, the Latin Mass folks at Holy Rosary Church asked me to do a simple webpage for them. So, I did this[BIE link removed, since Holy Rosary Church isn't really the point here. A fine chapel though, as I verified]. The sound file of the Magnificat is surprisingly good, considering the microphone we were using; the church has wonderful acoustics.

That page is supposed to be uploaded to the parish website. No doubt it will be, eventually, but getting the authorization is harder than authorizing that expedition to Titan.

* * *

"Nothing Burger" is a good characterization of the whole embryonic stem-cell controversy. Even if omni-potent stem cells turn out to have clinical applications, it is hard to imagine a goofier way to get them than by harvesting them from embryos, cloned or otherwise. In any case, new techniques should soon return the subject to its deserved obscurity, as we see in The Washington Post:

Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.

So are we done with the subject? Not quite:

Because it involves the fusion of a stem cell and a person's ordinary skin cell, the process leads to the creation of a hybrid cell. While that cell has all the characteristics of a new embryonic stem cell, it contains the DNA of the person who donated the skin cell and also the DNA that was in the initial embryonic stem cell.

The Post notes this, however:

They do not mention that several teams, including ones in Illinois and Australia, have said in recent interviews that they are making progress removing stem cell DNA from such hybrid cells...Some even suspect that the new technique for making personalized stem cells would still work even if the "starter" stem cells' DNA were removed before those cells were fused to the skin cells.

Nonetheless, embryonic stem cells have become like ethanol fuels to some people: it's something they want the government to subsidize whether it does any good or not:

"I think we have to keep our eye on the ball here," [John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions] said. "If this stuff proves to work, that's wonderful. But we're just not there yet, and it's going to take a long time to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, other techniques already work well. So let's get on with it."

By all means; but the useful research has little to do with the public polemic.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-07-31: Proselytizing; Bad Reviews; Kuiper Belt Trash

I grew up reading Charles Schulz' Peanuts, so any reference to Bulwer-Lytton's famous line immediately brings to mind Snoopy.

Proselytizing; Bad Reviews; Kuiper Belt Trash


Hillaire Belloc is not my favorite Catholic writer. Nonetheless, much of his work remains interesting, not least those pages in Great Heresies in which he prophesies a threat to Christendom from a resurgent Islam: strange thoughts when the book appeared in 1938.

Less strange was this remark:

And here is another point in connection with this power of Islam. Islam is apparently unconvertible.

The missionary efforts made by great Catholic orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual Mohammedans save perhaps to some small amount in Southern Spain 500 years ago; and even that was rather an example of political than of religious change.

From all quarters in recent years, however, we hear that the unconvertibility of Islam no longer holds:

July 28, 2005: The [Indonesian] government continues to investigate, arrest and prosecute Islamic terrorists. But religious conflicts continue as well. More moderate Moslem leaders, while helping the government by preaching against the Islamic radicals, also want government help to stem the growth of Christianity. Missionaries, both Indonesian and foreign, have been successful in converting an increasing number of Moslem Indonesians. The Islamic clergy want the government to intervene. By law, only five religions are allowed in Indonesia, and the government has a tradition of getting involved in religious affairs. While 85 percent of Indonesians are Moslem, most of the remainder are Christian. On some islands, the population is half, or more, Christian. On those islands, many Moslems see Christianity as a more "modern" religion. Christian clergy and missionaries are generally better educated than their Moslem counterparts, and the Christians tend to be more successful economically as well.

Only a fool deploys religion as a geostrategic weapon (which perhaps is why that has been tried so often), but there are lessons that Western governments should draw from this novel development. The most important is that they should do nothing to inhibit proselytism, even if, in the short run, that seems to favor Islam in the West. The real argument against laws that prohibit religious invective is that they interfere with Christian missionary enterprise.

* * *

The current flight of the Discovery is the most depressing manned expedition in space that did not actually include a fatality. Let us leave to one side the fact that NASA still has not yet figured out a way to make that great incubus of a fuel tank safe enough to use, which may put paid to the whole shuttle fleet. The embarrassing thing is that Discovery's primary mission was to examine itself. It's a little like the Clinton Administration's intervention in Haiti, the chief task of which was force protection, not to affect the state of things in Haiti. It's all terribly self-referential.

The space shuttle is said to be the most complicated machine ever built. Did it never occur to NASA that complexity is a bad thing, and that superlative complexity is the worst possible design? There should be a rule for engineering, the Musical Chairs Rule: any engineer who proposes the most complicated machine in the world has to become an accountant.

* * *

Speaking of bad reviews, here is the site of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing Award. To tell you the truth, I always thought that the Bulwer-Lytton's famous opening phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night," was pretty good.

Of course, artists might prefer to forgo some examples of critical acclaim, such as this remark from an otherwise glowing review in the New York Times of New Jersey's Ozzfest:

This year's version of Ozzfest came to the arena and parking lot of the PNC Bank Arts Center on July 26...And Mr. Osbourne? Well, he certainly deserves all the applause he gets, though he would scarcely deserve it less if he stayed home.

Not content with that stiletto wit, the Times Book Review section had a pan by Joe Queenan of Edward Klein's The Truth about Hillary that was one of those reviews you have to analyze with paper and pencil to figure out how much the reviewer disliked the book:

What I am saying is that if Klein purposely set out to write the sleaziest, most derivative, most despicable political biography ever, he has failed both himself and his readers miserably. ''The Truth About Hillary'' is only about the 16th sleaziest book I have ever read. Though, in fairness to the author, reading creepy, cut-and-paste books is my hobby.

This overloads my nuance processor, but it looks like an attempt to dissuade people from reading the book.

* * *

There is more to life than nuance; there is also mere error. William Safire notes this textual anomaly in the United States Constitution:

Section 4 of the 25th Amendment reads, ''Whenever the Vice President and a majority of . . . the principal officers of the executive departments'' -- note the plural ''departments,'' meaning members of the cabinet -- declare in writing to Congress that the president cannot discharge his duties, the vice president becomes acting president.

But in the next paragraph, arranging for the ousted president to seek to reclaim his office, Congress's power to block his return can be triggered by ''a majority of the principal officers of the executive department'' -- with no s after ''department.'' Why the difference?

There is no reason. The error slipped into a late draft of the text. One of the principals involved in passing the amendment discovered the mistake, but too late to correct the text that was sent to the states for ratification.

When I worked for West Publishing, I ran into problems like this every couple of weeks. The company had the contract to edit the United States Code, but the contract did not gives us the authority to correct the language of statutes, even for the most obvious error. The drill was that the editors would note these anomalies and send a message about them to, I believe, the Office of the Congressional Legislative Counsel. That body would collect this information and incorporate it into the reenactments of the titles of the Code, something Congress did once in a while to eliminate contradictions and redundancies. I myself once sent a note pointing out that the government of Italy was still being styled "the Kingdom of Italy" in the title of the Code that dealt with foreign relations.

I have always loved donkey work; hence my preference for HTML editing,

* * *

A final mistake: it has become clear that the status of "planet" was improvidently granted to Pluto. Look where it leads:

Astronomical detective work led to the stunning discovery of a large new world beyond Pluto -- and hiding in plain sight. The object could be the biggest in the Kuiper belt of rocky objects that orbit the outer reaches of the solar system.

There are now subversive astronomers who say that there are at least 20 planets in the Solar System, a dignity that they are willing to grant to any object massive enough for gravity to shape into a sphere. And that's only a provisional number; they are willing to expand the class to include any amount of Kuiper Belt trash, a species to which Pluto clearly belongs.

Enough of this: There are eight planets in the Solar System. Eight. No more: not now, not ever.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-07-04: Supreme Invalidations; Churchill

The mention of Churchill myths in this post sent me to look and make sure that Winston Churchill's short story, "The Dream", was in fact real. I see no mention of it on the myths page. Whew.

Supreme Invalidations; Churchill


Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has played an almost uniquely important role in the evolution of the Court. Any justice can make the Court contemptible to its enemies; she made it contemptible to its friends.

During her long tenure, O'Connor treated cases dealing with fundamental principles of constitutional jurisprudence as if they were disputes before a commercial arbitrator. Her famous swing-vote opinions give a little to one side, a little to the other, always refusing to be swayed by mere consistency: this at the one point in the judiciary where every ruling is supposed to have some systemic significance. Decisions in the O'Connor style are not law, because they turn on tiny matters of fact, and they depend on majorities with no claim to be anything more than political coalitions. The judges on the lower courts stopped expecting the Court to make sense, at least in certain areas, some time ago. Law professors now treat the Court like a retarded ward.

Even Justice O'Connor's resignation was in character. She did not actually resign: she promised to resign once a successor is chosen. Maybe if the nomination fight goes on long enough, she will finally have to issue a real resignation. The irony is that whoever does succeed her will inherit a place in an institution that Justice O'Connor herself has wounded, perhaps fatally. When she arrived on the Court, it still had something of the glow of legitimacy it had grained from Brown v. The Board of Education, the case that made the Court popular among elites for the first time in a very long while. As she leaves it, the Court has become a dangerous anachronism: it continues to deploy a power of judicial review that was predicated on textual and historical understanding of the Constitution that the Court, and indeed the legal academy, have largely repudiated. The Court is clearly fated for some test of strength with the political branches of government. It will lose.

* * *

One should note that the Court might come to grief over some decision that is not a systemic outrage. The recent eminent domain case, Kelo v. New London, which held that governments may take property from private parties, with adequate compensation, and transfer it to other private parties, has generated a remarkable degree of public hostility. To me, it seemed that the case was wrongly decided, but unlike the Casey decision, or the dueling decisions about the Ten Commandments the Court just issued, it was not the kind of mistake that undermines the law as such. Still, the Court's behavior in other areas has left it vulnerable.

Of course, things could be worse, as we see in China:

Up to 7,000 farmers are being evicted from the land, in a murky process that began when several of the village leaders were bribed into signing blank contracts with the local land administrative office in 1992, the institute said.

Land prices in Guangdong, the shop floor of China's booming export-oriented industry, have sky-rocketed in the past two decades as thousands of factories have sprung up to take advantage of the region's cheap labor resources.

Farmer's protests are becoming increasingly frequent in China, with most of the unrest stemming to heavy-handed government land requisition polices or the abuse of power by officials.

This is not going to happen in the US, but the Court has found a way to annoy a whole new class of people.

* * *

Here is a minor mystery that I wonder whether readers of this blog can help me with.

I am a long-time subscriber to The National Interest, the foreign-policy quarterly published by the Nixon Center. Imagine my surprise, if not quite my shock, to discover in the Summer issue that John O'Sullivan had been replaced as Editor by former Executive Editor, Nikolas Gvosdev. O'Sullivan had edited National Review for many years. He had taken charge of The National Interest only recently. The notice of Gvosdev's appointment in the Summer issue does not mention O'Sullivan, and does not thank him. The latter is also true of the online notice at the Nixon Center site.

I have nothing against Gvosdev (with whom I think I corresponded once or twice). The new issue does have a be-nice-to-Putin piece, and another that endorses a de facto alliance with India, the USSR's non-aligned ally, but these views are not new to the journal.

So, does anyone know what is happening?

* * *

Speaking of mysterious disappearances from public view, I find that I have been ontologically invalidated by evil robots. In recent days, all my content pages have disappeared from the Google index. A search for the Long View, for instance, will not find this blog. The top page of my site will still turn up in a search for "John Reilly," but only after a link to an obscure photographer. Searches for books I have reviewed no longer generate results for my reviews on this site, even those reviews that have been the first result for certain items for years.

I am inclined to blame RealPlayer for this, but then I always am.

* * *

Before I became an unperson, The Churchill Centre emailed to ask to quote something I wrote about an allusion that Dan Brown made in Angels and Demons to Winston Churchill being a Roman Catholic. He wasn't, but his book has apparently started an urban legend to that effect, which the Centre (not "Center," partner) has been trying to correct.

The website merits browsing. There is a whole section devoted to Churchill Myths. Some of those myths I think are defensible, but it is instructive to find that facts I thought were certain are in fact controversial. And of course, the Centre has lots of other good stuff, including appraisals of the principal biographies. Their print journal looks like a history-buff's dream.

Happy Fourth!

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The Long View: Neocons, Theocons and the Cycles of American History

Neocons go back to James Q. Wilson or possibly the Coleman Report. They represented the wing of American liberalism appalled by the Sixties and the radial Left of that era.

Neocons, Theocons and the Cycles of American History


“...[T]he full story of [the generation that came of age around 1900] cannot possibly be told recalling the steel-willed leaders of the 1940s...[T]he full story must include very different images--of youthful indulgence, coming-of-age fury, rising-adult introspection, and midlife pomposity and intolerance. What finally emerged late in life, the austere and resolute persona, was largely self-created by a generation determined (in Edith Wharton’s phrase) ‘to build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we’d smashed to atoms without knowing it.’”

--from “Generations,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, page 237


In November of 1996, the Manhattan-based magazine First Things published the first installment of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” It was occasioned by the possibility that the Supreme Court might uphold two lower court decisions that had found a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Among the original contributors, Robert Bork and Charles Colson were the best known, though Russell Hittinger’s essay, “A Crisis of Legitimacy,” perhaps best addressed the specific issues suggested by the symposium’s title. Considering that First Things is a respectable monthly read mostly by clergy and conservative academics, the Introduction by the editors was breathtaking. They posed the matter thus:

“The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”


Before going any further, let me first make some personal admissions. I write occasionally for First Things. I was not part of the symposium, but I wrote an essay that appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars dealing with much the same topic. The piece was entitled “How to Prevent a Civil War.” My argument was not so different from that of Robert Bork’s contribution to the symposium, in which he suggested various mechanisms for limiting the scope of constitutional judicial review. I too used the term “regime” to describe the current jurisprudential system, though I picked up the usage not from the right, but from Michael Lind’s “The Next America.” I too think that contemporary constitutional theory is damned and doomed. If I differ from the symposium’s participants, it is only in believing that the current jurisprudential regime is not just wicked but rotten, and that it will collapse under very little pressure in a fashion not at all dissimilar to Soviet Communism. I am thus not a wholly impartial observer.

Objectivity notwithstanding, the reaction in the weeks that followed the symposium was manifestly explosive. Several prominent members of First Things’ own editorial advisory board resigned. Just about all the conservative magazines chimed in. The Weekly Standard, for instance, ran a piece called “The Anti-American Temptation,” which accused the editors of First Things of running off the rails of ordinary politics, in a way analogous to the “pick up the gun” radicals of the 1960s. The New Republic (not a particularly conservative magazine) ran a piece by Jacob Heilbrunn entitled “Neocon v. Theocon: The New Fault Line on the Right.,” that is worth considering in some detail.

Heilbrunn’s thesis is that the neoconservatives (the neocons) are mostly New York-based Jewish intellectuals who broke with leftist politics in the 1970s. They remade conservatism by articulating serious intellectual critiques of liberalism and the welfare state. When the conservative revival began about 25 years ago, the concerns of cultural conservatives were not much represented among this group. Therefore, they were not much represented in government or the academy, despite the fact it was cultural conservatives, mostly evangelicals and ethnic Catholics, who provided the growing electoral muscle of the Republican Party. Latterly, however, the neocons have been joined by a new breed of conservative intellectual, for whom Heilbrunn has coined the nifty term “theocon.” The theocons, by his account, are predominantly Catholic, and unlike their Jewish colleagues have a tendency to frame political questions with a theological twist. The theocons, in fact, are seeking to restructure American society in accordance with Thomistic natural law. Their efforts are intellectually sophisticated, far more so than anything conservative populists from George Wallace to Pat Buchanan have been able to formulate. However, according to Heilbrunn, “Thomism is an ideology to which only the faithful can subscribe. It is not so much anti-American as un-American.”

Well, so much for John Courtney Murray and the decades-long attempt to establish the compatibility of Thomism with the American enterprise. For that matter, so much for the more recent debate about the natural-law assumptions of the Founding Fathers. The only kind of natural law Heilbrunn seems to feel to be appropriate for American political discourse is the post-Kantian theories of Leo Strauss, who did indeed influence many neoconservatives.

I for one find Heilbrunn’s assessment more odd than offensive. Whatever else you may think about Thomism, it is difficult to think of it as a subversive political ideology. Images rise up of a Senate Subcommittee on Neo-Scholastic Activities. Could its jurisdiction be challenged on the ground that subcommittees offend against Occam’s Razor? C-Span is not ready for this.

For that matter, it is misleading to characterize First Things as a hotbed of Thomism. The editor in chief, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is indeed a Catholic priest, but before that he was a Lutheran pastor. Much of his social thinking is informed by the Lutheran model of the “orders of creation,” which is analogous to natural law but by design non-theological. The magazine’s editor, James Nuechterlein, remains a Lutheran and delivers himself of a no-popery declaration every few months to make sure that no one forgets. The Managing editor, Matthew Berke, is Jewish. The contributors to the magazine are all over the lot in terms of denominational affiliation. First Things is perhaps most noted for its “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative, announced in its May 1994 issue, which went far toward providing a common roof for all cultural conservatives. St. Thomas is indeed much quoted and praised in the pages of First Things, but then it defines itself as a “Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.” One thing it is not is a Catholic magazine, much less an organ of creeping international Thomism.

Of course, there is no lack of prominent proponents of natural law on the national scene, many of whom are Thomists. The most prominent, no doubt, is Justice Anthony Scalia, who often makes himself unpopular with his Supreme Court colleagues by critiquing their more incoherent decisions from the bench. There is former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, a brilliant speaker who would have transformed the 1996 election campaign if he had been featured at the Republican convention. (Keyes, by the way, is a former student of Allan Bloom, who was in turn a student of the influential Leo Strauss. In Keyes’ mind, at least, Aquinas proved more persuasive.)

On the other hand, the ranks of Thomists do not include people such as Robert Bork, whose objections to judicial activism arise from a historically-based interpretation of the powers of the courts. “Theocon” might not be a bad term for describing many cultural conservatives. It might not even be a bad term for describing me. However, it is misleading to suggest that all or even most theocons are Thomists, or that opposition to the current state of constitutional law is a crank enthusiasm of religious sectarians, Catholic or otherwise. (For that matter, with all due respect to the Prodhoretz and Kristol clans, neoconservatism is not a Jewish monopoly, even if you confine the term to subscribers of little magazines.)

Granted that Heilbrunn’s criticisms are misdirected, nevertheless it seems to me that all sides to this debate, neocons, theocons and the liberals who mock them, are overlooking some important things about it. What we are seeing now is a drama that has been played out more than once before in American history, when the chaos created by a radical episode was repaired a generation later by much the same people who caused the commotion in the first place. We have all heard that the 1990s are the 1960s turned upside down. In the neocon-theocon flap, perhaps we see an instance of 1960s style turned against the institutionalized vestiges of 1960s substance.

The short explanation for the radical tone of the First Things symposium is that the Supreme Court does bad work in important areas of the law and will not admit its mistakes. It does not help that in such ill-reasoned decisions as Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for instance, we find such language as, “If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals.” What nonsense. The country can see its constitutional ideals in the constitution. The court’s “legitimacy” (perhaps Justice O’Connor meant “credibility”?) stands or falls by the court’s competence, the lack of which has been the problem.

This explains the exasperation, but why does the exasperation take the form of a bunch of parsons and college professors making noises like students circa 1968 threatening to storm the math building? Partly it’s because the parsons and college professors came through the 1960s themselves, though they were for the most part too old to be students at the time. The style of some generations, as Strauss and Howe argue in the book cited at the beginning of this article, dominates cultural and political life for decades. The substance may change, but the manner is tenacious. Fr. Neuhaus, for instance, once famously marched into Henry Kissinger’s office with other prominent opponents of the Vietnam War and read him the Riot Act. The First Things symposium is not quite as dramatic, but the spirit is the same.

These remarks apply even more to neocons than they do to theocons. The neoconservatives became neoconservatives, after all, because they were appalled by the extremism of the language and behavior of the far left of 20 or 30 years ago. The theocons of today, or at least the ones at First Things, have few violent tendencies, but once again the neocons are put off by language that seems to suggest that questions of civil order are at issue.

The difference this time around is that the “radicals” have a better chance of winning. The radicals of the 1960s had no prospect of success. On the other side of the victory of, say, the Weathermen there was a world of re-education camps and political dictatorship that few Americans could imagine. Of course, the Kids of the 1960s have “won” in the sense of outliving their elders. One of them is actually in the White House as I write this. However, he got there by abandoning some of his youthful beliefs and dissimulating about the rest.

The task of today’s conservatives is the relatively modest proposition of repairing the damage many of them did themselves 20 or 30 years ago. On the other side of the victory of today’s cultural conservatives, there is a world sort of like the Eisenhower Administration but without racial discrimination. Many people might not like this outcome, but it is not hard to visualize and few people find it actually repulsive. Thus, we may be in for a larger than average historical irony. The very attitudes and rhetorical style that did so much to institutionalize the ‘60s in our law and popular culture may also be among the chief instruments by which that era is finally dismantled.



Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

This article originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. An edited version was included in the book:


The End of Democracy?
"The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"

The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy"' by Richard John Neuhaus"


The publisher is The Spence Publishing Company (Dallas, Texas). Their telephone number is 1-888-SPENPUB.

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The Long View 2005-06-07: The New Jersey Primary, and Worse



This is a great quote:

When I was young, I was quite a prig about not using drugs, and I have not mellowed over time. On the other hand, I often shock people who know me with the argument that most drugs should be legalized, even for recreational purposes, simply because prohibition causes more trouble than it is worth. I have no opinion about the efficacy of medical marijuana, but I think it could never do as much harm as prescription blood-pressure medicine.

The problems with rofecoxib [trade name Vioxx] had hit shortly before John wrote this. I'm not sure that legalizing recreational drugs is a good idea, but I am at least willing to consider it, given the way in which prescription drugs overseen by otherwise responsible doctors have harmed the public too. With the ever increasing opioid overdoses in the US, we enjoy the worst of both worlds: legal and illegal drugs working together to really mess people up. 

The New Jersey Primary, and Worse


The party primary elections in New Jersey are today. Registered Republicans who have listed telephone numbers have been bombarded day and night, and sometimes in our dreams, by political telemarketing calls for one or another of the gaggle of people who are seeking the Party's nomination for the gubernatorial election in November. Many of the calls are from a roster of Formerly Famous People, such as Jack Kemp, Tom Keane, and Steve Forbes. Actually, I soon developed the habit of hanging up before I was told whom these people were endorsing, but most of them seem to be partial to Bret Schundler. Doug Forrester's ads tend to feature Ordinary Citizens and doting family members. The other five often endorse themselves. I am not sure that all their calls are recordings.

Walking to the polling place to vote this morning, I was interviewed by WPIX, the local television affiliate of UPN. Taken by surprise, I was quite unable make an apt allusion to Julius Evola, or even James Madison. I did mention property taxes, which seemed to be what the news lady wanted to hear.

When I voted, the polls had already been open for two hours, on as fine a late-spring day as you could ask for. I was voter number 6. The people are disenthused, I fear.

* * *

Meanwhile, I see that the United States Supreme Court, in Gonzales v. Raich, has held that the federal Controlled Substances Act does allow the federal government to prosecute the users of medical marijuana, even if the users have a valid prescription issued under state law.

The chief curiosity here is that the Controlled Substances Act is based largely on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to control the distribution of goods in interstate commerce. The Court held that power also justified the application of the Act to this situation, where the marijuana was homegrown and had not moved in commerce at all. This reasoning is not a novelty: the courts have long held that the federal government could regulate what farmers grow on their own land for their own use, on the theory that local production displaces goods from outside the state. That principle is probably necessary, but it still looks like an instance of coaxing a camel through the eye of a needle.

When I was young, I was quite a prig about not using drugs, and I have not mellowed over time. On the other hand, I often shock people who know me with the argument that most drugs should be legalized, even for recreational purposes, simply because prohibition causes more trouble than it is worth. I have no opinion about the efficacy of medical marijuana, but I think it could never do as much harm as prescription blood-pressure medicine.

Still, I have to say the Supreme Court majority was right: both the Controlled Substances Act and its application here are necessarily valid. Whatever doubts I might have had about the matter were dispelled by this bit of incoherence from Justice O'Connor's dissent from Justice Steven's majority opinion:

There is simply no evidence that homegrown medicinal marijuana users constitute, in the aggregate, a sizable enough class to have a discernable, let alone substantial, impact on the national illicit drug market --or otherwise to threaten the CSA regime.

If Congress has to present "evidence" to Justice O'Connor's satisfaction every time it passes a law, the Republic is doomed.

* * *

Speaking of formerly famous people, Mark Steyn has taken to prophesying that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton may well win the presidential election in 2008. In a column entitled Last Man Standing, he issues these oracles:

If the Democrats ever want to take back the White House, 2008 is their best shot. After the 2010 census, the electoral college apportionment for the 2012 Presidential campaign will reflect the population shifts to the south and west ...

Frankly, that sounds a little like the belief in the British Labour Party in the 1920s that the rise of the Party to the status of permanent governing party could be calculated with arithmetical certainty. After all, the electorate could grow only more working class over time, couldn't it? But let the point pass.

Bill Clinton was about as good a Democrat as you could get: he liked to tell friends he governed as an "Eisenhower Republican"...

Wasn't that how John Kerry during last year's election promised to govern? The leading sentiment within the Democratic Party now might be: "Let's give the real Left a chance."

As a rule, Governors make the best Presidential candidates...The Republicans do have a popular governor of a large state, but his name's Jeb Bush, and even loyal Baathists might have drawn the line at Saddam being succeeded by both Uday and Qusay. On the other hand, if Jeb wants to avoid being penalised by American distaste for dynastic succession, the 43rd President's brother running against the 42nd President's wife may be the most favourable conditions he'll ever get.

Jeb has said he will not run in 2008, and I see no reason to doubt him. Still, that is a good point: a Hillary candidacy would shortcircuit the nepotism issue.

You see that were are already well into the next election cycle? The presidency is becoming Ixion's Wheel.

* * *

Once again, let me repeat that I am attending the annual conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations later this week, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in Minnesota, USA. The conference topic is Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival. I will post comments when I get back about the conference. My paper, "The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century," will appear online eventually, but the ISCSC might want first-publication rights for their journal, the Comparative Civilizations Review.

Finally, you are again invited to send money here to support this study of metahistory. That, and the Heineken Brewing Company, green jewel of the Dutch Empire.


Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: How to Prevent a Civil War

This post by John Reilly is again relevant with the recent 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court to allow part of President Trump's travel ban to take effect. If you believe John's analysis from 21 years ago, this is to be expected from a Court that is seeking to retain its power intact.

How to Prevent a Civil War

At this writing, one can only speculate about whether the Supreme Court will affirm the recent decisions of the Ninth and Second federal circuit courts creating a right to physician-assisted suicide. My suspicion is that the current Supreme Court will not do so, though in fact the euthanasia cases are almost inevitable extensions of its reproductive rights cases. In this as in other areas of the law dealing with civil liberties, the court has long ago stopped even trying to make sense. Its behavior now is that of a prudent sovereign, concerned primarily with maintaining its own authority. "Roe v. Wade" survived the "Casey" decision because some of the justices were afraid of the blow the court's prestige would suffer if the court reversed such a prominent precedent. The prudent thing for the court to do, when the euthanasia cases come before it, would simply be to decline to make more trouble for itself. The question would then be left for a more enlightened panel to answer correctly. There is, of course, only one answer that enlightened opinion will accept to this question.

The sickness in our system of constitutional law goes far deeper than the competence or honesty of the appointed judges. The fact is that the consensus of jurisprudential theory can no longer support the idea of constitutional law, because it accepts contemporary philosophical assumptions about the impossibility of objective truth and the indeterminacy of language. The judges and scholars who practice this form of skepticism do not seem to realize their peril. Maybe the traditional idea of a constitution is naive, and it is epistemologically impossible for a constitution to be a bill of specifics with a single correct meaning which is accessible to all competent readers. It may be merely a reflection of biblicist superstition to think that a text can stand guard over the actions of government from generation to generation. Nevertheless, these things are what the U.S. Constitution means to America. This view made it reasonable for the Marshall court in the early years of the republic to assume the power of constitutional review, despite the lack of any such authority for the Supreme Court in the constitution itself. Constitutional judicial review makes sense if the constitution is treated with the caution and ingenuity that a common law court brings to the text of a statute. Constitutional judicial review is hypocrisy if the constitution is regarded as simply a grant of unlimited power to judges, embedded in a text of contentless exhortation. In a growing number of areas of law, the latter is the state of things in the United States today.

This regime is intolerable. It rests on a fraud, on authority assumed under false pretenses, and it cannot stand for much longer. The problem is not whether particular issues, such as affirmative action or euthanasia or the separation of church and state, are being resolved correctly. The courts would be capable of error under any imaginable legal system, errors that law-abiding people would be obligated to obey for the sake of public order. The problem is that the issues are being resolved lawlessly. With each exercise of arbitrary power, the courts hemorrhage a little more legitimacy. Some decision by the Supreme Court in the not too distant future will finally snap the reins of judicial authority. The matter at issue may be euthanasia or some other question; it really does not make much difference what the issue is. The crisis is implicit in the structure of the system. It is inevitable that on some matter of ferocious public debate, the court will someday reach a decision that will not be accepted as the law of the land by the rest of the political system. We will then be faced with a threat to the rule of law and to the legitimacy of the federal government unparalleled since the overture years to the Civil War. It is not too early to consider how to prevent this threat from causing yet another national catastrophe.

Most democracies have reasonably independent judiciaries, but few if any give the courts the breadth of power enjoyed by American courts to strike down legislation which they find to be incompatible with their national constitution. Judicial review in Great Britain, for instance, is quite limited. It extends to little more than reviewing the procedural regularity with which a law is passed. In Germany, it is tightly bound to specific constitutional prohibitions. In the United States, the power is amplified by the near impossibility of amending the text of the federal constitution. Even more important, though, is the peculiar authority given to precedent, an authority called "stare decisis," in America's variant of the common law tradition. The decisions of the higher courts in the United States have a binding power over the actions of lower courts, and even on their own later decisions, that is unknown to countries with judicial systems based on Roman law. It is even extreme by the standards of other common law countries.

A country with limited judicial review can still be a "Rechtstaat," a state governed by law rather than arbitrary executive authority. Most of the nicer places in the world, in fact, manage to maintain honest police, freedom of expression and fair elections quite without a judiciary as powerful as that in the United States. Perhaps more to the point, they also manage to maintain regular constitutional government primarily through the responsible cooperation of the political branches of government. (What an odd expression "political branch of government" is: how can the federal courts be considered "nonpolitical" simply because the judges are not elected to office?) Such a system must be our model when the current regime becomes untenable. What we are looking for is the restoration of truly constitutional government, indeed of constitutional government in its specifically American form.

* * *

It would be the beginning of catastrophe if the final folly by the Supreme Court occasioned a new Constitutional Convention. Even worse would a slew of gimcrack amendments to the current constitution. The twentieth century has been the great age of constitution writing because of the proliferation of new states and the instability of the old ones. With a few exceptions, the documents have been long, unworkable, and held in deserved contempt. If you want to see what a third American Constitution might be like (after the Articles of Confederation and the present Constitution of 1787), you need look no further than the grotesque document that now governs Canada. It is as detailed and special-interest friendly as an annual appropriations bill. It also commands about as much affection. For better or worse, though I believe largely for the better, loyalty to the constitution is one of the constituent elements of American patriotism. It is the historically specific form that respect for the rule of law has taken in America. It is essential that we not try to replace the constitution, or deface it with amendments dealing with matters better left to the discretion of congress.

The text of the constitution itself has always contained the mechanism for controlling the Supreme Court. Article III, Section 2 provides, among other things, that the "judicial Power shall extend to all Cases...arising under this Constitution.." The appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is established "...with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make." (Section 2 also gives the Supreme Court original jurisdiction in, roughly, cases where foreign powers are involved or a state of the United States is a party.) The text says that congress has the power to remove certain kinds of cases from the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court entirely. (If congress can do that, then congress can also presumably remove the same types of cases from the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts, since otherwise you would have a situation where contradictory decisions by lower courts could never be reconciled on appeal.)

There is, of course, a literature dealing with the question of just how broad the power of congress to define the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court really is. Most scholars today would probably say that there is some constitutional minimum of jurisdiction. What discussions of this kind overlook, however, is that the opinions of scholars or of the Supreme Court itself on this matter can only be consultative. If congress and the president decide that the Supreme Court may not address a certain question, then the Supreme Court cannot. Any decision it might choose to issue would be beyond its jurisdiction because it would be unenforceable on a practical matter. Such a decision might even be refused inclusion in the Supreme Court reports by the simple mechanism of refusing to appropriate funds to disseminate decisions defined by statute to be beyond the court's purview. There might be a brief, confused period in the initial aftermath of such a decision in which district court judges issued injunctions to unresponsive federal officials to implement the Supreme Court's will. However, the outcome of such a test of power could not be in doubt.

One can easily imagine how such a new understanding of the separation of powers could degenerate into farce. Congress could start passing exceptions to the Supreme Court's jurisdiction in cases involving euthanasia, flag burning, the possession of assault rifles, free speech rights on the Internet, an interminable laundry list of passing popular enthusiasms. The courts would fall into contempt as congress simply usurped the role of forum of final appeal on all politically sensitive issues. That would be a situation of lawlessness nearly as complete as that under which we now labor.

The goal of any legislation defining the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court should not be to correct specific abuses. Rather, it must seek to define a jurisprudential theory of constitutional law under which such abuses cannot occur. (The text of Section 2 certainly suggests such an approach, since it speaks not just of "Exceptions" but also of "Regulations.") The language I am about to propose is not a masterpiece of drafting, and other changes would have to be made to various provisions of the statutes defining the jurisdiction and administration of the federal courts. For that matter, even the theory of constitutional law I seek to require is not the only possible one for the purpose. I present this model statute merely to illustrate how modest the necessary rules for the Supreme Court could be:

"Section 1. Popular Name "This Act shall be known as 'The Justice under Law Act.'

"Section. 2. Constitutional Judicial Review

"(a) General Power.
Except as provided in subsection (b), the Supreme Court shall have jurisdiction to nullify in whole or in part any provision of the laws of the United States or of any State or territory that is clearly repugnant to one or more specific provision of the Constitution of the United States.

"(b) Exclusion
The Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to nullify this Act.

"(c) Rules of Interpretation
The Supreme Court shall interpret any provision of the Constitution of the United States for the purposes of subsection (a) as narrowly as is consistent with giving force to the provision's purpose, as that purpose was understood at the time of the provision's enactment. The Court shall interpret the purpose of any such provision with reasonable regard to changes in technology, language, and the nature of economic activity since the time of the enactment of the provision.

"Section 3. Transition

(a) Reforming Prior Law
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Supreme Court of the United States shall grant review to cases properly before the lower courts in which:

(1) It is reasonably alleged by one of the parties that its interests have been or foreseeably will be damaged by a decision of the Court inconsistent with the interpretive requirements of section 2; and

(2) The decision complained of was reached before the effective date of this Act.

"(b) Prospective Effect
Any relief granted to a party because of the reconsideration of a point of law under this section shall be prospective only."

An important point about this statute is how little it would change things. It would leave "Brown v. The Board of Education" intact, for instance, because government-sponsored racial discrimination is smack within the Supreme Court's jurisdiction under the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. It would leave "Miranda" intact because the police warnings required by that decision are a reasonable procedure to implement rights reasonably clear from the text of the constitution. It might even leave a great deal of the law regarding separation of church and state intact, although it would almost certainly increase the ability of government to support the secular activities of religious institutions.

The definition of the court's jurisdiction would not prevent the court from developing constitutional law over time. In the common law tradition, the interpretation of any statutory text is supposed to evolve. What it would do is ensure that this evolution is organic, entelechal, that it expresses something that is really implicit in the text. This approach means that the implications of any constitutional text are limited. Organic entelechies reach maturity and then they are finished. The power of judicial review ought to incorporate this reality into the development of the provisions of the constitution. The alternative is a constitution that is not a healthy "living" document, but a cancerous one.

On the other hand, the statute proposed would also close down a very large fraction of what passes for the study of American constitutional law. Most of the rights-industry would disappear overnight. Law professors could, if it amused them, continue to speculate about the relationship of civil rights to pregnancy trimesters or whether marriage can be defined in terms of gender or whether parochial schools are a menace to the republic. However, these speculations will no longer be susceptible to enactment by judicial fiat. If the professors want them enacted, they must apply to the legislatures. I wish them luck.

* * *

What I have proposed here is an approach toward a durable solution to a crisis that has not happened yet. The more immediate problem would be the time of transition. I have assumed that the political branches of the federal government already know what they have to do when some intolerable usurpation by the Supreme Court finally forces them to act. However, the odds are that they will not know, at least not at first. The speed with which a proper response can be mounted is likely to be directly proportional to the magnitude of the court's arrogance.

Ironically, the best scenario might be for the Supreme Court to announce, in a 5 to 4 decision, that the constitution does indeed contain a right to doctor-assisted suicide. Even now, I can picture the president saying, "I don't approve of this decision, but it is the law of the land, which I am obligated to enforce." In congress, half-a-dozen constitutional amendments to overturn the proposal are introduced. Some are voted for by large majorities, none by the two-thirds needed to send the proposals to the states for ratification. "The New York Times" declares another victory for the cause of human rights. Medicare starts issuing much more rosy budget estimates in anticipation of fewer malingering old people to care for. The stock of healthcare providers goes through the roof. This is all pretty much what happened after "Roe v. Wade" was handed down, but I don't think it would work this time, not for long. The moving parts of the machinery which is implementing this particular coup are too easy to see. The fact that conscious adults will be the victims this time will give the issue a hair-raising immediacy that has been largely absent from the somewhat metaphysical debate about abortion. Thus, even if the reaction to a decision establishing a right-to-suicide got off to a slow start, it would probably build quite quickly toward a decisive response.

The same might not be true of a lawless decision on some other issue with less far-reaching consequences. If the court found, for instance, that the death penalty was unconstitutional per se, the response might not be coherent enough to provoke radical reform. After all, though it is as clear as any constitutional issue can be that the death penalty is not precluded by the constitution, still many people want it abolished on perfectly respectable moral grounds. They would raise little objection to circumventing the legislature one more time, even though they have seen how this procedure has worked against other causes of which they approve, notably the right-to-life movement. In such a case, the court's authority with regard to the other branches of government could remain intact while the legitimacy of the federal government as a whole is reduced.

The longer the current regime continues unreformed, the greater will grow the number of citizens of the United States who are persuaded that their national government is an alien institution under the control of people with alien concerns. The effectiveness of the United States for every purpose of war and peace will continue to wither. We have seen the results of similar phenomena in too many former countries in recent years to have doubts as to the stakes. Even if we avoid civil strife, we must remember that the era of catastrophe in world history is by no means over. We will pay dearly in the century to come if we are needlessly divided.

We have been stymied because we have been misled about what is essential and what is alterable in the American constitutional system. Returning the courts to the rule of law does not require amending the laws of physics, or even amending the constitution. The necessary changes are actually easily manageable. Simply making this fact known would help to defuse the situation, and might even prevent the crisis.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-25: Good Friday

This quote is remarkable, and has colored my view of government and constitutions ever since:

Someday, a prominent person involved in the Social Security debate is going to say, in public, that the only remedy for a demographic problem is a demographic solution. There will be an immediate response from several points of the political compass, to the effect that the birthrate is no concern of government. To that, others will reply that the Griswald-Roe-Casey regime is already a demographic policy. A full response, which may be a while in coming, would be that oversight of demographics is one of the pre-constitutional functions of government. Like the police powers, or the power to acquire national territory, it is one of those things that every sovereign has to be able to do. That is true even if the sovereign's constitution gives no such power, and even if the constitution says the sovereign has no such power.

Pre-constitutional functions of government is a great turn of phrase.

Good Friday


Terri Schiavo does not have long now, unless some official decides to act without color of law. Lots of people are calling on the president, or the governor of Florida, or maybe the local sheriff, to do just that. Readers of this blog will also be aware that I have long been predicting, even advocating, the restriction of judicial review. Let me therefore repeat that this would not be the case to do it. The courts did not manufacture a right to euthanasia for Terri Schiavo, or perhaps for the convenience of her husband. The courts have been applying reasonable statutes in a reasonable manner. If the governor had sent Florida state troopers to take custody, he would not be defying the courts, but the legislature.

Remember the old saying, "A government that can do anything for you can do anything to you"? Do you really want to live in a country where the law can be suspended with respect to popularly designated individuals?

* * *

Meanwhile, at the other end of the sinking Roe v. Wade superliner, we have this uncomfortable truth from Mark Steyn: The strange death of the liberal West:

I am, as Tony Blair might say, deeply passionately personally deeply personally opposed to abortion. But, unlike him, I think it ought to be an election issue...the point about abortion is not that it's a "matter of conscience" for individuals to "wrestle with", but that it's a crucial part of the central political challenge of our time...The 19th-century Shaker communities were forbidden from breeding and could increase their number only by conversion. The Euro-Canadian-Democratic Party welfare secularists seem to have chosen the same predicament voluntarily, and are likely to meet the same fate. The martyrdom culture of radical Islam is a literal dead end. But so is the slyer death culture of post-Christian radical narcissism. This is the political issue that will determine all the others: it's the demography, stupid.

Someday, a prominent person involved in the Social Security debate is going to say, in public, that the only remedy for a demographic problem is a demographic solution. There will be an immediate response from several points of the political compass, to the effect that the birthrate is no concern of government. To that, others will reply that the Griswald-Roe-Casey regime is already a demographic policy. A full response, which may be a while in coming, would be that oversight of demographics is one of the pre-constitutional functions of government. Like the police powers, or the power to acquire national territory, it is one of those things that every sovereign has to be able to do. That is true even if the sovereign's constitution gives no such power, and even if the constitution says the sovereign has no such power.

You see: I am starting to sound like Carl Schmitt. Or perhaps like John Marshall.

* * *

And as if things were not bad enough, that Incorrigible Spengler at Asia Times has taken to writing light opera. To wit: The Jihadis of Penzance: Or, The Slave of Democracy. Just look:

Much of what US President George W Bush and his representatives have said lately might have been extracted from a W S Gilbert libretto. To put the matter in context, I have sketched the sort of libretto that Gilbert might have prepared for Arthur Sullivan were the pair alive today, and embedded in it some of these utterances. Links to MIDI files for the songs are provided in footnotes, and readers are encouraged to sing along with Spengler. Direct quotations from US officials are indicated by italics.

He shall bear a heavier burden in the Latter Day; particularly because he thought of this first.

* * *

About political acrimony, I am pretty thickskinned. It's stories like this that knock the wind out of me:

In a startling discovery, geneticists at Purdue University say they have found plants that possess a corrected version of a defective gene inherited from both their parents, as if some handy backup copy with the right version had been made in the grandparents' generation or earlier...If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.

Actually, the suspicion has been growing for several years that DNA may be only one factor in heredity. Polymer chemistry, for instance, determines how proteins twist and bend, which has more to do with the structure of living things than does the information in nuclear DNA. And even regarding the nucleus: if information is not being stored in the DNA, then the obvious place to look is the RNA. However, that hypothesis has problems:

Dr. Haig, the evolutionary biologist, said that the finding was fascinating but that it was too early to try to interpret it. He noted that if there was a cryptic template, it ought to be more resistant to mutation than the DNA it helps correct. Yet it is hard to make this case for RNA, which accumulates many more errors than DNA when it is copied by the cell.

And if all else fails, there is always Morphic Resonance.

I jest. Mostly.

* * *

Waxing even more obscure, here is an item that will make sense only to readers of The Weekly Standard:

It is unlikely I will rent the new film, The Upside of Anger, much less that I will go to see it in a theater. Nonetheless, I found a certain fascination in John Podhoretz's review in The Weekly Standard of March 28. The film stars Kevin Costner and Joan Allen, and Podhoretz praises them to the skies (especially Costner, who is due for a little luck). The film is about the relationship between an apparently deserted wife and a gone-to-seed baseball player. It ends with a plot twist that seems plausible enough for a movie. The reviewer, however, goes ballistic, for reasons I find mysterious:

There is one upside to the anger I experienced as the closing credits rolled. It convinced me to blow the surprise ending so that you could leave the theater after about an hour and 50 minutes. When you see Kevin Costner starting to walk into the backyard with a couple of contractors, get your coat and leave. You'll think better of The Upside of Anger and not have the pleasure of seeing it damaged by the well-deserved contempt you'll feel if you stay until the bitter end.

Well, I will not give the ending away. Bad reviews are the most fun to read, whether or not you have the details. I quote it here chiefly because I find Podhoretz's reaction mysterious. Can anyone enlighten me?

* * *

Be that as it may, The Upside of Anger sounds like a chick-flick. If you want to see a real movie, or at least a real trailer, visit the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The UFA has risen from its moldy grave and shambles amongst us.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-04: Secret Writings

H. P. Lovecraft's place in the American canon is assured.

Secret Writings


As a matter of policy, I cannot say that I was ever very keen on the practice of executing people who committed murders as juveniles, so I am not altogether displeased with this week's US Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, which held the practice unconstitutional. The interesting aspect of the decision is the general acceptance of the degenerate jurisprudential technique of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion. This was not the first case in which the Court tried to ascertain the national consensus on an issue by taking a poll of state laws on the subject, but I think we have yet to appreciate how remarkable this procedure is. Essentially, the court is inviting the states to amend the Constitution by a simple majority vote, contrary to that document's explicit terms.

This is worse than having an invisible constitution that exists only as a conversation among judges and law professors. At least the law professors publish learned articles and the judges issue formal opinions. The Kennedy Constitution is a dumb poll of the sentiments of the political class. The Supreme Court still claims the authority to decide when this "logic" will apply, but the Court's claims to clear and uncontestable powers of review are increasingly incompatible with its embrace of fuzzy logic in other areas.

Justice Scalia's dissent therefore misses an important point. Despite what he says, there is nothing wrong, or even novel, about US courts looking to foreign practice to settle domestic questions. He is also wrong to criticize the Missouri Supreme Court for, in effect, overturning the US Supreme Court's prior holding in this area. The broader the power of judicial review becomes, the weaker the power of stare decisis must become. That is inevitable. He would be better advised to think of ways to turn this development to the advantage of the causes he favors.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will have noted that I have done a review of On Tyranny, an anthology of the famous debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève about philosophy, politics, and, incidentally, the fate of the world. Very smart people have been urging me for some time to get started on Strauss. Well, honor is satisfied.

Frankly, the underlying question about the relationship of philosophers (broadly defined) to government is not something that it would ever occur to me to ask. That is far from saying it is not a real issue; I am just pointing out that it rarely comes up in my time and place. The closest I come to it is the question: what duties do technical experts owe to the public when they advise their clients? When does advice from a lawyer constitute aiding a client to commit a crime? How responsible are scientists and engineers for the uses to which governments and private enterprises put new inventions? At least in some forms, these circumstances present analogies to what Strauss and Kojève were talking about.

The big difference is that S&K are talking about the effect that the advice of "experts" can have on the fate of the world. My problem with On Tyranny is that, for a book with such a cosmic theme, the conceptual space in which the authors maneuver is so claustrophobic. When they were mature scholars, and when they were students, lots of people were discussing the "end state" of the historical process. Spengler, Hesse, Toynbee, H.G. Wells; I would have given a great deal to know what Strauss thought of the cult of the Ultimate Socratics in the First World State described in Olaf Stapledon's novel, Last and First Men. Allusions like this are precisely the kind of breath of fresh air that never enters the windowless world of On Tyranny, not even in the extensive private correspondence the book includes.

It is foolish to criticize an author for failing to write the book you would have written; it is even more foolish to criticize very learned writers for failing to have read one's own undirected reading. Still, it seems to me that On Tyranny is not a classic, but a period-piece.

* * *

Speaking of the end of history, we know it is near, because H.P. Lovecraft has entered the American canon. That, at least, is the thesis of Michael Dirda's review ("The Horror, the Horror!") in The Weekly Standard of March 7. The review is of a new anthology from the Library of America, H. P. Lovecraft : Tales. (The review is edited by Peter Straub, who you figure would know about these things.) The review tells us:

But it now seems beyond dispute that H.P. Lovecraft is the most important American writer of weird fiction in the 20th century---and one of the century's most influential writers of any kind of fiction...Lovecraft created a province of the imagination as vivid as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County--and he did so in prose as distinctive and powerful as Ernest Hemingway's or Raymond Chandler's

For better or worse, I am in no position to quarrel with this. I have a Misketonic University tee-shirt in my closet. And a Hellboy baseball cap.

Thanks again, Ihor!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-09-24: Jurisdiction, Under God; Niall's Little England; Kerry Defended

I still think John is right that it wouldn't be possible at present for Congress to use it's theoretical authority to define the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In another generation, who knows?

Jurisdiction, Under God; Niall's Little England; Kerry Defended


I see that more legislation is in the works to limit judicial review by restricting the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The latest effort along these lines was the passage by the House yesterday of the Pledge Protection Act of 2004, which says in relevant part:

'No court created by Act of Congress shall have any jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court shall have no appellate jurisdiction, to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, the Pledge of Allegiance, as defined in section 4 of title 4, or its recitation.'. The limitation in this section shall not apply to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Why that exclusion of the District of Columbia courts? Probably because Congress is the supreme legislature for the District, and the drafters of the bill want to be able to handle the matter locally.

Bills like this are introduced so that legislators will have something to put on their campaign literature. In this case, the bill lets congressmen say that they have done their bit to control run-away courts. Actually, as readers to this blog know, I fully agree that the practice of judicial review has become untethered, but not in this context. The courts really are authorized by the Constitution to hear cases like this, and a Supreme Court decision that found the Pledge unconstitutional could at least be plausible. In any case, we need not consider the matter again here: the Senate is very unlikely to take up the bill.

By far the more interesting point is this business about limiting review by the courts. The Constitution gives Congress the power to define the jurisdiction of the Courts, but the scope of that power is one of those things that mankind was not meant to know. It's like the Commerce Clause: sane people don't ask the Supreme Court what its limits are. Nonetheless, non-sane people often draft legislation and then vote for it. Many persons of the same sort sit on the federal bench. So, what happens when legislation like this is put to the test in a culture-war context?

Assume, as is likely, that the courts find that the limitation of jurisdiction falls short of some constitutionally mandated minimum. It makes no difference whether that minimum is visible only to the judges; their decision would then be the last word on the books. The legislative and the executive branches would then have to acquiesce, or ignore the most recent interpretation of the law. The latter would be politically impossible.

Some proposed legislation of this sort have bite-back clauses: any judge who tries to pass judgment on a matter that the legislature says is beyond his jurisdiction would be considered to have committed an impeachable offense. That's not good enough, frankly. It is nearly impossible to impeach a federal judge even for ordinary crimes; there is small likelihood of impeaching one on a policy dispute.

No: something must happen automatically if a judge tries to exceed this sort of jurisdictional limitation, and it must not happen to the judge. The law limiting jurisdiction must contain a provision that would require Congress and the president to decide whether a court has exceeded its authority. The sequence might run like this:

A court finds the definition of jurisdiction unconstitutional;

The president is automatically notified;

He has 30 days in which he may decide whether to issue the an executive order declaring the decision a nullity. If he does, it cannot then be published in the official compilations of federal court decisions that can be cited as precedents;

Congress has a further 60 days to overturn the executive order by a simple majority vote;

Any further judicial decisions in derogation of the executive order would be subject to the same review process.

As I said, only non-sane people think about this sort of thing.

* * *

Meanwhile, I see that Niall Ferguson has grown too grand for NYU to be his American connection; he is now a professor of history at Harvard, though still quite a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. I learn these things from the byline to his recent piece in The SpectatorBritain First, in which he advises Great Britain to throw off the special relationship with the United States, and take up with the Scarlet Woman of Brussels:

Whatever else has gone wrong in Iraq, then, the decision these two men took to overthrow Saddam Hussein has not fatally weakened them at home. It may even have strengthened Mr Bush. Yet the question that continues to trouble me, 18 months after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, remains: What was in it for us? To put it more precisely: in what respect, if any, was and is Britain's support for American policy in our national interest?....

The interests of the United States and the United Kingdom have in fact been divergent for many decades. They were perhaps most perfectly complementary a century ago, when Joseph Chamberlain and others discerned the impossibility of maintaining Britain's Far Eastern empire without American support, and the United States still considered itself a hemispheric power. There was another good reason for Anglo-American partnership by 1917, when it seemed that Britain could not defeat Germany without American financial and military support.....

Mr Blair's fervid Atlanticism therefore marks a discontinuity — a break in the longer-term deterioration of Anglo-American relations....

Mr Bush's tacit imperialism -- so much more resolute than that of his predecessor -- has found its staunchest support in Mr Blair's private faith. On they march, these two Christian soldiers, each with a Bible in one hand and a bazooka in the other...The trouble is that while a majority of Americans are receptive to what might be called a faith-based foreign policy, very few Britons are.

I am a great fan of Niall Ferguson, but sometimes I think that he writes things on a bet. ("You don't believe I'd really go on the BBC and advocate cannibalism for overpopulated countries? A case of Guinness Stout says your wrong!") Quite aside from the fact that the "special relationship" is one of those things that seem to take forever to die, the premise of his argument is wrong.

If it were actually the case that Bush's foreign policy is just an example of forthright imperialism, then it would be true that Britain would have no special reason to support it. Imperialism is just exported nationalism; no country has an interest in supporting another's nationalism. However, the point does not apply here. The world has evolved in such a way that the United States has become a cosmopolitan utility, like the UN, except that the US works. What the US has been doing since 911 is a little like a man manually working the pump on a small boat with a hull breach. Strictly speaking, he is working in his own interests, but he can't save himself without saving the other passengers. Some of the brighter passengers will realize that the relationship is mutual.

Britain could freeload off of this service, as Canada and Germany are content to do. The price of that, of course, is that such countries will be less and less consulted on matters of the first moment.

* * *

Speaking of French delusions, let me first make a defense of John Kerry. Swiftvet John O'Neill recently said about antiwar activist John Kerry's meeting over 30 years ago with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates to the Paris Peace Talks:

"It would be like an American today meeting with the heads of al Qaeda," said O'Neill.

By no means. Talking with al Qaeda would be like doing a face-to-face interview with the Unabomber when he was still at large. Some people should not be talked to, but shot on sight. (Well, arrested.) If you do not try to help bring them to justice, you are an accomplice. In contrast, the US government found the Communist delegations to the Paris talks fit to treat with. If Kerry was trying to some negotiating on his own, he was arguably committing a felony, but that's another matter.

That said, though, the way that Kerry continues to follow the Vietnam script is becoming eerie. Consider this headline, about the recent visit of the Iraqi prime minister, which I will not trouble to link to:

Kerry: Allawi Abets Bush in Putting on 'Best Face'

Allawi "abets" Bush in making an argument for his own government, does he? It's exactly like the antiwar movement in 1971: nothing but defeat will do.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-09-10: Fraud, Prudence, & Treason

Lt. George W. Bush, Texas Air National Guard

Lt. George W. Bush, Texas Air National Guard

Oh for the controversies of only thirteen years ago. W received political favoritism in his National Guard service? I'll take that over the present.

John made a prediction here that became a counterfactual: if Roe v. Wade had been overturned in W's second term, the parties would have exploded and reassembled into new coalitions because the culture war would have been over. We now see the obverse of that; the Left won the Culture War, all the way up to euthanasia in at least some states, and now the coalitions of the last forty years are breaking up and reassembling. To what end, we do not yet know.

Fraud, Prudence, & Treason


Does the rapid implosion of CBS's story about President Bush's National Guard Service count as yet another victory for the blogosphere? Maybe, but not in the sense of calling attention to a story that the major media would otherwise have ignored. The allegations that the documents in question might have been forged would have received some attention from competing networks in any event. On the other hand, even The New York Times gave the critiques relatively fair coverage this morning. More interesting was the fact the paper's treatment of the original report, which purported to prove that Bush received political favoritism in connection with his admission to and exit from the Guard, was conspicuous by its understatement: mention on the first page yesterday, but below the fold and on the lower left. Perhaps the editors believed the paper had been burned too often to invest much of its dwindling credibility in these reports.

The real argument against the initial reports is that it is hard to believe any commanding officer would put such things on paper. That's just a presumption, though. It could be overcome by the discovery of an actual document. None of the critiques I have seen of the documents conclusively disprove their authenticity. They do, however, turn the burden of proof back on the documents' proponents. As a matter of psychology if not logic, that burden now includes the documents' initial implausibility.

The wonderful thing about this turn of events for the White House is that the official campaign is spared the indignity of debating the matter at all. That is the work of the blogosphere. The blogosphere makes the documents useless as the basis of a whispering campaign. The Administration's luck goes beyond that: the fact that George Bush obviously received political preference getting into the Guard is now almost undiscussable.

PS: The subject was not worth discussing in the first place, if you ask me. However, if people must discuss it, they should make a distinction between Bush's admission to the National Guard and his discharge. Both the Guard and the active-service military were downsizing when Bush completed his service. I know that, in those days, the military was willing enough to just dispense with ROTC obligations; they did not need the manpower, and could not afford to pay for it. Quite likely the service of many guardsmen just petered out in the way that Bush's apparently did.

* * *

One notes that abortion proponents are making preparations for the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the next four years. Consider this report from LifeNews:

Sponsored by a Planned Parenthood abortion business in San Jose, California, local pro-abortion leaders have put together a task force to monitor the situation and figure out how to respond...Linda Williams, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Mar Monte, has been meeting with a dozen pro-abortion colleagues. Williams says her task force found that abortion would remain legal in only nine states, including California, if Roe v. Wade fell.

But LifeNews assures us:

While most states banned abortion prior to Roe, many repealed their anti-abortion laws after the Supreme Court's 1973 decision. In about ten others, state Supreme Courts have interpreted privacy provisions in state constitutions to guarantee a sweeping right to abortion.

Would that pro-lifers would make comparable preparations. Let me repeat: in order to defang the argument that repeal would cause national chaos, Congress needs to put a law of repose in place before Roe comes before the Supreme Court again. The law should redefine the matter in terms of medical ethics. The law should specify a few, narrow situations in which abortions will be tolerated, and then require that the licenses of doctors who go beyond these limits will be lifted until they undergo a medical ethics course. That's all that the law can be asked to do, and it's the sort of solution the American people want.

The significance of repeal will extend far beyond the abortion issue. Roe is the centerpiece decision in the line of personal-autonomy cases that underlie the arguments for rights to suicide, sodomy, polygamy, gay marriage, commercial sale of transplant-organs, prostitution, recreational drug use, and other enormities yet unhatched. If Roe goes, that whole line of development simply ends.

Almost as interesting is what repeal would (I'll say "will") do to the political system. The Republican Party remains politically competitive because it has monopolized the defensive side of the culture war. If you don't want to read in the paper some Tuesday morning that the Supreme Court has discovered a right to euthanasia, then you pretty much have to vote Republican. The funding and the key pressure groups that hold the Democratic Party together, on the other hand, ensure that party remains the party of aggression. The cultural left engages in politics with the conscious aim of pushing the right of personal autonomy beyond the limits of human nature. When Roe goes, its organizing power will go with it, and the parties will explode like splitting atoms.

The fragments will be free, for the first time in over thirty years, to seek new combinations. Evangelicals could discover they have more in common with organized labor than either has with the National Organization of Women. Finance capitalists in the Northeast could renew old acquaintance with the extraction entrepreneurs of the Southwest. The recombinations are beyond prediction. Still, almost any outcome would be an improvement on the preceding generation of sullen blockage.

* * *

In its continuing drive to become the Fortean Times of the Catholic press, The New Oxford Review's September issue contains a disturbing critique of George Weigel's column of March 20 in Catholic San FranciscoThe New Oxford Review[NOR] began, as is increasingly its wont, by picking a gratuitous fight:

"'The two great questions before the Republic [Weigel wrote] are, what is freedom...and how shall we defend it'..According to Weigel [said NOR], freedom is not 'a means to satisfy personal ''needs''; rather it is the freedom to do 'the right thing for the right reasons in the right way, as a matter of habit, which is another name for 'virtue'.'"

The link between virtue and habit is, of course, a commonplace of Catholic moral theory. For reasons clearest to NOR's editors, however, NOR chose to read the quotation in this way:

...The problem with Weigel's case is that freedom is not another name for virtue."

After several paragraphs of meaningless invective, however, we find out why the journal launched this latest piece of unpleasantness:

"In 'America, the Beautiful,' there are noble lines saying 'Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.' Unfortunately, those lines are now obsolete. Now America confirms her soul in debauchery..then Weigel asks, how shall we defend freedom? He says that because of 9/11, freedom is under attack. He wants 'war' against the radical muslims. Now, it just so happens that the radical Muslims do not permit abortion or homosexuality. If we bring freedom to the Muslim world, which is what Weigel wants, we will bring with it the freedom to abort, to practice homosexuality, to view pornography...If Weigel really wants virtue, he ought to lighten up on the Muslims. Osama didn't attack the World Trade center just for the fun of it. He did it because of America's financial and military support of Israel..."

As an aside, we may note that everyone who has studied the matter knows that al-Qaeda is much more interested in the control of Saudi Arabia than of Palestine, but let that pass. A more important point is that, whatever radical Muslims think about abortion and homosexuality (and one should not be too sure about the latter), one of the things we know they discountenance in the areas they control is Christianity. This is new, by the way. Islam has a tradition of tolerating Christianity and Judaism in subservient positions. In contrast, in recent years the Arab population of the United States has rapidly expanded precisely because the Arab Christians of the Middle East have had to flee the region.

NOR, and some other religious publications with a pacifist background, seem to entertain just two possibilities when they talk about international affairs. The first is that the United States is God's empire on Earth, with a soteriological role in world history. That idea has few takers. Having rejected their strawman, NOR then proceeds to the alternative that all nations are equally under judgment in this age, and Christians should not identify with their policies.

In reality, there is a middle position. The great issues of history cannot command our ultimate loyalty, but they do present us with situations where we must choose, and give some less than perfect cause our ordinate allegiance. The defense of the West against the Death Cult rightfully requires that allegiance today; to refuse it would be the deepest treason possible in our lifetimes.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-04: Art Imitates Death

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

John references C. P. Snow's famous essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in this post. While much has changed in the last sixty-seven years, much has also stayed the same.

Most politicians in the English-speaking world continue to come from law, poli sci, and the social sciences, although some exceptions, such as Margaret Thatcher, exist. For the most part, scientists and engineers do not have easy access to the levers of power. This isn't true everywhere, however. The nomenklatura of the USSR often had technical backgrounds, and the current government of Mexico, heavily dependent on the oil revenues from PEMEX, is largely composed of engineers.

Oddly, the support base of Communism in the West largely came from the same literary classes as the rest of the politicians, despite the more scientific bent of the Soviets. Maybe that explains why the Soviets held their Western fellow-travelers in such contempt.

Also, look at this paragraph written by Mark Steyn in 2004:

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.
America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

You can't say you weren't warned.

Art Imitates Death


The custom of referring to death as a "final journey" is so common that the expression has lost power as a metaphor. So why do we keep using it? Perhaps because it is also a common experience.

That may be one way to take the observations by Valerie Reitman, which recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times in a piece entitled Taking Life's Final Exit. She was not talking about "near-death experiences," which is what people report who have been clinically dead but then revived, but "nearing death awareness," which is what terminally ill people dream or imagine or just talk about. According to Reitman:

[T]hose dying slowly often talk of preparing for a trip or of trying to finish something, Kelley and Callanan found, perhaps using language pertaining to their professions or hobbies. One dying man who liked to sail, for instance, talked about the ebbing of the tides; a watchmaker mentioned that the clock was not ticking fast enough; a carpenter described details of completing an imaginary house...Why dying people speak of taking journeys is anyone's guess. Drugs don't seem to play much of a role, hospice workers say, because the phenomenon occurs both in those who are taking painkillers and those who aren't. If anything, they say, the more drugs one takes, the less likely any conversations.

Reitman cautions that this behavior should not be confused with the desire many dying people express in their last days to go home or to be transferred to another facility; I have seen that, but this final-journey business is new to me. I wonder: does this also have something to do with the motif of the Quest?

* * *

Speaking of near-death experiences and the Quest, there are several things that might be said about the decision by the US Supreme Court earlier this week to throw out the Newdow case. That was, of course, the suit by the noncustodial biological father of a girl in the California school system to have the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional, at least for use in the public schools. The Supreme Court said the father did not have standing to bring the suit; the surprising thing was that any of the lower courts had held otherwise. On the other hand, it was also surprising that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. It was surprising that the Court heard oral arguments in a case decided on a technicality. It was surprising that three of the justices wrote separately, giving their views on the merits of a case they had voted not to decide.

Perhaps what happened here is that the Court realized there was a majority for overturning "under God" in an election year, and understood it was looking into the abyss. They met this challenge in a way recalling Sir Robin's Song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Brave Sir Robin,
He ran away,
He ran away,
He turned his tail
And he scuppered off
And he hit the road;
And brave Sir Robin,
He bravely, bravely
Ran away!

Monty Python was not as good as the Simpsons, but they were close.

* * *

Before there was Monty Python, there was the scientist-turned-novelist, C.P. Snow. A collection of his lectures, published in 1959 as the book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was also once a reference that all sophisticated people were supposed to recognize. His argument was that, particularly in Britain, the elites were divided between those with a literary education and those with a scientific education. Though sometimes exasperated by the cultural illiteracy of scientists, his argued that only people who understand science and engineering would be able to direct public policy intelligently. He contrasts the British political class, populated by a raft of Oxbridge graduates who read Classics or Modern Literature at school, to the nomenclatura in the USSR, most of whom have been trained as engineers, or in the useful humanities, such as foreign languages. Surely, he says, the West will be able to hold its own in the Cold War only if its educational system can be brought up to Soviet standards.

Now comes social-science-fiction writer David Brooks, with a structurally similar model of a cultural divide among American elites. In a column in The New York Times entitled Bitter at the Top, Brooks puts the matter thus:

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates — from Clinton to Kerry — often run late...Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Note the declension here. Snow's Classicists, who at least knew Latin and Greek, have been replaced by people who studied political science and sociology, and so know nothing. Similarly, the physicists and chemists have been replaced by "managers," who in my experience are people who never, under any circumstances, learn the substance of what the organization they manage is supposed to do.


* * *

On the other hand, if you believe Mark Steyn, the problem in the United Kingdom, and in Europe as a whole, is that the elites have arrived at a consensus that their electorates find increasingly repulsive. Speaking with reference to the recent elections, in which euroskeptics embarrassed the establishment throughout the EU:

[T]he real problem in Britain would seem to be a lunatic mainstream, set on a course of profound change for which there is no popular mandate whatsoever.

In the late 20th century sur le Continent, politics evolved to the point where almost any issue worth talking about was ruled beneath discussion, beyond the bounds of polite society.

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.

Most of these alternatives are unrespectable only in the sense that the establishment refuses to give their ideas a hearing. Others, of course, should be hanged or arrested.

* * *

Here's a final instance of the widespread sense that something is missing: 'Faux mitzvahs' a rising trend with non-Jews. As the headline suggests, the story deals with the rising demand among young American teens of all religious affiliations for the sort of initiation rite that bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs provide for Jews. Actually, the belief that something has to be done to civilize 13-year-olds is universal. East Germany devised a secular coming-of-age ceremony like this, and I believe it survived the Wende of 1989.

The wonder is that the report does not mention the term confirmation. What can the churches that maintain this rite be thinking of?   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2015-09-30

Wow, it has been a long time since I did a LinkFest, so here is one delayed 7 weeks.

48 Hours on the Dark Side of Vegas

This reminds me of the hidden desperation in Tim Power's Last Call.

Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?

Not as newsworthy as it used to be, but a very interesting take from a Turk living in the US.

Why Trump Supporters Think He'll Win

Still very newsworthy.

Could Trump Be the 'Man's Man' America Wants?

After the popularity of the above article, David Frum wrote another on the same subject. Part of the appeal of Trump is that he hasn't got even a hint of the Ned Flanders vibe that turns many people away from other Republican candidates.

Surprises of the Faraday Cage

It turns out a famous explanation of the phenomenon may not be correct. Which hasn't stopped the engineers who design them.

Internaut day: The world's first public website went online 25 years ago today

Also out of date. I fondly remember the early days of the internet. Everything was more innocent then. No, really.

No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, The ‘Deep State’ Will Run Things

I'm not sure I believe this, but I think the argument is interesting.

America's birth rate is now a national emergency

PEG says there is no good reason the US, an empty country that grows lots of food and exports oil, should have a birth rate below replacement. I am inclined to agree with him.

Terry v. Ohio. Happy 50th Anniverary, Detective McFadden!

I enjoyed learning the history of the 'frisk'. 

The Tesla Effect: How the cutting edge company became the most powerful engine in Bay Area manufacturing

People forget how much of the money any company pulls in as revenue goes to its suppliers, which go to its suppliers, and so on. 

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

In my opinion, the current trend of crank amateur physicists is entirely the fault of the direction that physics as a whole has taken. Lots of great progress has been made by applying mathematical theories in elegant ways, but the data that support those theories comes from a messy reality that is often obscured in the tales told about science [usually by science journalists and popularizers]. This is the story of a physicist who tried to bring a little reality to the amateurs.

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink

The author seems like she lives in world that I've heard about, but never experienced. Getting sloshed sounds like an entirely human response to living that kind of life, but the bigger question is why would you want to? A good companion piece to the Jezebel article about binge drinking and how it contributes to women's dissatisfaction with their sex lives. There is a common thread here, and it isn't alcohol.


Psychologists have been trying to devoodoofy psychology for a long time.

What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About

Trigger warnings are grossly overused, but this is a sympathetic look at the environment in an actual elite school. I still think Neal Stephenson got this all right thirty years ago.

In Defense of Prince Hans

I said the same thing the first time I watched Frozen.

Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

A breath of fresh air after all the nastiness from the atheist community before and during the canonization of Mother Theresa.


A brilliant series of Tweets from Ross Douthat on why Trumpism matters, no matter how much you hate Trump.

And of course, the essay that occasioned that Tweetstorm.

The Long View 2004-05-17: Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment

I always enjoy John's articles on law. He was a lawyer by education and trade, he mostly worked as a legal editor, helping to compile the vast tomes in which our laws are codified. I enjoy them, but I try not to have too firm of an opinion about them; I have learned at least some of my limits.

In principle, legal reasoning makes sense to me, I simply lack the appropriate subject matter knowledge. Given that common law is a development of the Scholastic tradition, I don't find this too surprising: the methodology shows. But, this is a field where amateurs are punished, so I mind my business.

While I am also an amateur regarding sacred architecture, I feel more free to voice my opinions. Much of the current inventory of Catholic chapels in the United States is probably has harmful to the soul as it is offensive to the eyes, but I do note that the Diocese of Orange bought the much maligned Crystal Cathedral, and is in the process of turning it into an actual cathedral.

Los Angeles Cathedral

Los Angeles Cathedral

The current trend is toward far-more traditional styles, although modern materials and engineering make the spaces in chapels far more vast than anything you can find in any older style. This is a trend to encourage.

Sloppy Justice; Crystal Chapel; Reenchantment


Today is the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which forbade the states from operating racially segregated school systems. That case was well within the Court's power to decide, and the decision was correct on the merits. However, as Stephen Carter noted in The Dissent of the Governed (I have a discussion of the book here, but you have to scroll down), Brown began the long deformation of constitutional jurisprudence. After that decision, the Supreme Court began to believe that, quite literally, it could do no wrong. This belief has had many bad consequences. The Court today is not just arrogant; it's sloppy.

Consider, for instance, the Op Ed piece by Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which appeared in today's New York Times, under the title Brown v. Board of Education A Decision That Changed America Also Changed the Court. The piece is quite short, but dense with error.

Maybe I am picking a historical nit, but it is dismaying to see a member of the Court write this for publication:

As a member of the Supreme Court, I am going to Topeka today to represent that court; not nine individual justices, but the institution itself -- an institution as old as the Republic, charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution of the United States.

The republic began in 1776. The Supreme Court is a feature of the Constitution drafted in 1787; it started functioning several years after that. More important is the justice's misstatement of constitutional theory:

Before May 17, the court read the 14th Amendment's words "equal protection of the laws," as if they protected only the members of the majority race.

The Brown decision was about whether the interests of minorities could be secured through maintaining parallel institutions for them. The 14th Amendment was drafted to protect minorities. The suggestion that the Court ever read it not to apply to minorities is breathtaking. The Court never said any such thing; it often said the opposite.

Then we get to the part where faulty syntax dovetails with faulty thought:

[Brown] forced Americans to ask themselves whether they believed in a rule of law -- a rule of law that President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced in 1957 when he sent federal paratroopers to Arkansas to take black schoolchildren by the hand and walk them safely through that schoolhouse door. We now accept that rule of law...

The justice was probably trying to say "the rule of law," which in this case means the duty of citizens to obey the decisions of courts acting under color of law. That is quite different from whether citizens may disagree with a judicial decision and seek to change it. As I remarked, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown is almost certainly correct, but good-faith arguments can be made on the other side; in fact, in recent years the Court has moved away from the principle of strict racial neutrality that Brown was once thought to represent. The disturbing thing about these few sentences in the editorial is that the justice seems to conflate the duty to follow peaceful legal procedures with a duty to accept whatever the Supreme Court says. That's not just un-American. That's stupid.

I hesitated to make these harsh points about a mere anniversary editorial, especially since many members of the Court are elderly and should have retired years ago. However, when I checked, I found that Breyer was born in 1938. He's young enough to know better.

* * *

People familiar with Catholic traditionalism will have run across the name "Michael Rose." He is the author, among other books, of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. I have not read that one, but I'm in sympathy with its thesis. "Gutted" is not too strong a word for the condition of old Catholic church buildings after the liturgists get a hold of them; the new layouts seem designed by people who are terrified of the thought that someome who enters the buildings might be tempted to pray. As for the newer buildings, I would say that too many of them look like Darth Vader's helmet, except I liked Star Wars.

Despite my sympathy for the principle, I have to take issue with critique Rose published in the April-May issue of Adoremus Bulletin about the chapel that the new Ave Maria University plans to build at its Florida campus. Cannon Design of New York is doing the chapel along with the rest of the campus. The chapel will be huge, laid out like a traditional basilica. It will be 150 feet tall, 60k square feet, with seating for 3,300; that will make it the largest Roman Catholic church building in the United States.

One can argue that this is substantially more than Ave Maria needs at this point, but Rose's objections go chiefly to the materials. The chapel will be glass and steel, like the Crystal Cathedral, but laid out with the orthodox Catholic liturgy in mind. The experiment may turn out badly, but I say "go for it." Just such a structure, built all of glass and light, was the ideal toward which the Gothic and some forms of Romanesque strove. That trajectory was abandoned, however, in part because stone and leaded glass were just not up to the demands of the vision. The 20th century provided the materials; now let us get on with it.

This is what I mean by "The Perfection of the West." I also mean this, of course.


* * *

Speaking of old ideas in new guises, I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again when it appeared on network television last week. I like that movie, though I have not been following the series. I suspect that, had I been of the prime demographic for the book when it appeared, I would have made a point of despising it. My tolerance for pure fantasy was very low when I was a child. Tolkien's books broke through that prejudice only by being impure fantasy, by pretending to be history. Maybe if I had read The Hobbit first I would not have troubled with The Lord of the Rings.

In any case, a few things struck me about Hogwart's School when I saw the film again. The kids have no computers. They did, however, use magic to do what computers do: find information, create illusions, animate non-living things and make them talk. There are no magical computers at Hogwart's, because the term "magical computer" is redundant.

What would a magical computer look like, anyway? Probably like the computers in Brazil (the movie, not the country). Certainly they would run on steam.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-01

The Long View

The Long View

Another year of John's blog down. In many ways, this is a journey of self-discovery, as well as remembrance. It is painful to read the things John wrote about Iraq in 2003, but if we are honest with ourselves, many of us said or thought the same things at the time. Forgetfulness does us no favors here. It is best to acknowledge our sins and move on.

Since this post in particular is all about predictions, let us see how John did in hindsight.

  • Shooting Wars — All wrong. We got in more wars in the Middle East, failed in our occupation of Iraq, and North Korea is still sticking it to everyone with abandon.
  • Culture War — Much better. The big swing of American politics over the next ten years was indeed a return to the Culture Wars. John guessed in July of 2002 that Newdow would be overturned at the Supreme Court. Then he modified his guess in October of 2002. He ended up being right, insofar as the Court punted on this one, to my non-legal eye. John also correctly noted that the Republican Party mostly pays lip service to Culture War ideas. He guessed wrong on how gay marriage would end though.
  • Election 2004 — John guessed that Howard Dean would face off against W, and lose. This was fairly close to what happened, until Dean self-destructed and Kerry was nominated. Fairly good.
  • The Economy — John guessed that the Euro would strain the EU considerably, and that turned out to be very right. However, Gordon Chang is still wrong.

Surmises for 2004


The perfect prediction was made many years ago by a fellow who called himself "The Great Kreskin." He said that, in the future, people would remember that he had once made a prediction. That forecast works a little like how the Ontological Proof of the existence of God is supposed to work; simply to state it is to verify it. Unfortunately, such perfection is far beyond my feeble powers. I will confine myself, therefore, to timid speculation:

Shooting Wars: We are universally assured that the Iraq War is going to be the last of the wars against the Axis of Evil, at least for some time to come. The argument is that the US military is already fully deployed, and its stocks of munitions are depleted. This is less true than is often asserted. If General Shinseki had had his way, of course, an army of half-a-million would have gone to Iraq, which was roughly what happened in the Gulf War. However, Donald Rumsfeld has used Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate that such huge deployments are unnecessary to win a conventional war.

They are not necessary for a successful occupation, either, as should be apparent by spring.

That said, of course, no other engagements on the scale of Iraq are in the hopper politically. (Iraq itself had been in the "sooner or later" category since at least 1998.) A type of maneuver for the next few years that seems obvious to me, if not to the Pentagon, might be called "Osiraq Plus." The name refers to the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq by the Israelis over 20 years ago. What the world needs now is a way to not just blow up, but briefly seize suspected WMD sites. Locations in Syria are candidates. So are some in Iran, though the partially democratic nature of the political system there makes intervention more problematical. The big issue, however, is nuclear-armed Pakistan. The nominally pro-Western government lives in hourly peril of assassination and overthrow. The next time that happens, it would be irresponsible to simply hope that the nukes are safe and secure.

As for the People's Looney Bin of North Korea, I begin to suspect that it may be closed soon for lack of interest. Would this happen in 2004? I have no idea.

* * *

Culture War The big deal in American history for at least the next ten years will be the segue from the Terror War to the Cultural Reconquista. This is not to say that Americans will simply lose interest in foreign affairs and turn toward domestic ones: quite the opposite, in fact. Transnational progressives have, in recent years, opened many international channels to address what had traditionally been domestic questions. Eventually, they will receive blowback in the form of answers they will not welcome.

All well and good, but what about 2004 in particular?

Over the summer, I said that Newdow, the decision holding that the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, would be overturned when it comes before the Supreme Court. By the fall I had begun to hedge, however, and now it seems likely to me that the Supreme Court will in fact agree that the words are unconstitutional, at least in a public-school context. Such a decision would be defensible, though hardly inevitable. It would be a blow to the Supreme Court's legitimacy, but the Court has withstood worse embarrassments in the past. The problem this time around will be the presence of the various incarnations of the gay issue. Polygamy; gays in the military; statutory rape: the list is quite extensive. Even when these questions are not on the Court's docket, there is a lively popular awareness that many of them are of the Court's manufacture. History shows that the political system routinely grants constitutional judicial review a great deal of deference. Still, there are limits, as the Court's collapse under the pressure from the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s illustrates. "Under God" could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The Republican political establishment does not seem to have taken on board just how strongly its social-conservative base feels about these things. Of course they want a constitutional amendment to circumvent the courts on gay marriage, for instance. They want it today rather than tomorrow. The party leadership's dithering is alienating. They forget that theirs is the God & Mammon Party. God is quite capable of staying home on Election Day.

As for the gay thing in general: if it were a stock, you should sell it. Look for the beginning of a move to re-medicalize the whole subject. (I have no information about such a project, but it seems inevitable.)

* * *

The Election of 2004 William Safire has just gone on record to predict an October Surprise, in the form of a terror attack in the US just before the election. I suspect his prediction is just a surmise, so what you read here is a surmise about a surmise.

Would such an attack at that time discredit the Bush Administration? I rather doubt it. People are surprised that there has been no follow-up to 911. With what justice I cannot say, the Administration has received some popular credit for domestic security. Actually, since some people have begun to doubt that the danger persists, another attack might serve simply to persuade them of its reality. The greater danger of discredit, in my opinion, would be posed by an attack early in the year. That would allow time for any mistakes and gaps in the security system to come to light, thus creating an issue that could be used against the Administration in November.

Actually, the danger to the Administration might not be merely political. Suppose the president is assassinated, or gravely injured? Republicans who take delight in highlighting the many follies of the Democratic leadership don't notice how small their national team is. Too many people are running for the Democratic nomination, but five of them (Lieberman, Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, and Clark) are serious candidates. Aside from George W. Bush, the only plausible Republican alternative is John McCain, but the party establishment is quite capable of backing George's brother, Jeb. (Dick Cheney would make a comforting stand-in for the remainder of Bush's term, but he is old, he has a bad heart, and he has been tainted, unjustly in my estimation, by his stint as CEO of Haliburton.)

Barring these grotesque hypothetical disasters, however, I fully expect that race will be Bush versus Dean, and that Bush will win. George Bush often says things badly. Howard Dean says too much he has to unsay.

* * *

The Economy Northcote Parkinson once remarked that economists are equally at ease thinking about a thousand and a million dollars, because they have no personal experience of either sum. That does not quite apply to me, but then I am not an economist, either. I have just two points, mostly about exchange rates.

Regarding the euro, it is contrary to nature for a currency to maintain value indefinitely without a state attached to it. The European Constitutional process has adjourned in confusion. That might be just a temporary setback, were it not that the confusion showed that eastern and southern Europe have no intention of letting the French and Germans run the Union. Particularly the French. Paul Johnson has prophesied that France will break the EU as soon as the Union makes a decision that France regards as contrary to France's interests. He's probably right; if so, the money will fall apart first.

Gordon Chang has suggested that the Chinese economy will collapse around 2006, when its banking system implodes on contact with WTO rules. That's a bit of a stretch. Still, one can't help but notice that the value of the People's Republic's currency is politically distorted, just as the currencies of Japan and the East Asian tigers were before reality set in. Whether or not there is a general collapse, the time for making adjustments grows short.

* * *

Enough predictions have already collected on this site to make it possible to assess their quality. Oh my.

I merely note the piece about the prospects for 2001. The bit in it about "The Big Terrible Thing" happening in Lower Manhattan actually comes from Peggy Noonan. The item for 2003 has at least one plausible line:

The hard part in the Middle East would come after the occupation of Iraq.

However, that is in the context of a discussion of possible follow-on wars. They may occur yet occur, despite what I said above, but they showed no sign of happening last year. The rest of the item was too general to allow of disconfirmation. I did do a single-column column for 2002, by the way, but it appeared only in print, in the January 2002 issue of Business Travel Executive. It contains one of the very few references anywhere to the possibility of a baby-boom starting in that year.

Then there's Reilly's Folly. The section of Spengler's Future that covers the period 1992-2022 is called Imperial Populism. The book itself was written in 1992 and published in 1993. I find some of the prose really cringe-making at this point. I am not bothered that some sentences say things that are clearly wrong; that is only to be expected. The problem is that some don't say anything at all. Others do appear to say something significant, at least at first sight:

Note that this [decay of political institutions] occurs precisely at what seems to be the moment of maximum international security, because internal business need no longer be deferred in the face of a hostile world. In the next period, policies based on this misplaced confidence in the safety of the international system have predictable results.

If 911 is taken to be the Predictable Result, then that was a lucky shot-in-the-dark. However, the text can be read to imply that the Predictable Result would occur no earlier than the second decade of the 21st century. And what did I actually mean when I wrote it? Nothing in particular, or at least nothing more particular than what it says. The text is a medley of comparative historical possibilities.

Events interpret the text. John Cardinal Newman said that, and it's good enough for me.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-24: The War of Ideas

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

I'm not sure what it was about the Soviet Union that inspired so many bright people to love it, but are no lack of examples. At least Duranty didn't have to live in USSR like Kim Philby did.

The War of Ideas

Donald Rumsfeld has been thinking about the need to deepen the war on terror by giving increasing attention to the ideological dimension. It is interesting to see this point raised while the furor continues over the remarks of General William Boykin. As readers will recall, General Boykin said to a church audience that the war on terror is a war against Satan, which he did not clearly distinguish from a war against Islam. Am I the only person to suspect that maybe the general's take on the subject would be more effective against Islamists than, say, Richard Rorty's?

There is one thing Boykin was quite wrong about. The Islamists did not launch the war against the United States because they think the United States is a Christian nation. They launched the war because they think the United States is a secular and hedonistic nation. That is why they hope for so much from their tactic of terrorist suicide: the utilitarian calculus of modernity has no answer to an opponent with no interest in his own self-preservation. If the Islamists really thought they were up against Crusaders, however, they would think twice.

Here's a puzzle about the reception of General Boykin's remarks: why can't I find anything about them on MEMRI?

* * *

Speaking of applied theology, there is an illuminating piece by James Pierson in the Weekly Standard (October 27) on the origins of the phrase, "Under God." The constitutionality of that phrase, at least in the version of the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children, is now under review by the Supreme Court.

In the Pledge, the phrase is a bit cryptic: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." By tracing the phrase to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to Parson Weems's biography of George Washington, and indeed to Washington himself, Pierson shows that "under God" was once a reference to the sovereignty of God. For instance, on July 2, 1776, Washington issued a General Order with this sentence:

The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.

Washington was using "under God" in the way that Muslims use "inshallah," to mean "God willing," or "understanding that God is the final cause of everything." Lincoln used the phrase is much the same sense at Gettysburg, when he expressed the hope that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Pierson suggests that Lincoln was consciously promoting a civil religion, one that would give the Union a transcendent dimension that is not apparent in the text of the Constitution.

Here's a puzzler for you. Everyone knows that the Constitution forbids the government to establish a religion, but here is what the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Nowhere does the Constitution give the chief executive the authority to establish a church, but is it irrelevant that the drafters of the Bill of Rights specifically forbade power in this area only to Congress? Might there be more leeway for the president to promote religion? As we see with Lincoln, this has in fact been the practice: God is more likely to be alluded to in a presidential proclamation than in a statute. I am not aware that anyone has tried to formulate a principle about this. In any case, however, such a principle would not help the "under God" in the Pledge, which was inserted by an act of Congress.

Here is a distinction that might be more helpful to the defenders of the Pledge: a metaphysics is not a religion. It is entirely possible to have a theory of knowledge, and even of politics, that has theistic implications, and yet be in no way religious. (Indeed, we know this from scripture: James 2:19.) One could make a compelling argument that the Constitution does in fact assume just such a frame of reference. This is particularly true of the First Amendment, whose religion clauses make no sense outside the context of a theistic regard for the private conscience.

Were the Supreme Court to hold otherwise, it would nullify its own metaphysical underpinnings. The clock would strike midnight, and there would be nothing left but a pumpkin and six white mice.

* * *

Walter Duranty is in danger of being postumously stripped of his 1932 Pulitzer prize. Long before Jayson Blair or Steven Glass, Duranty's reporting for the New York Times from the Soviet Union set a standard for journalistic turpitude that has yet to be equaled. He systematically deceived the West about the government-engineered famine, one of the most appalling events in a century notable for appalling events, and about the nature of the Soviet Union in general. And he got a prize for it. It was like something Bertold Brecht might have made up.

One of the most interesting books in this connection is Malcolm Muggeridge's lightly fictionalized memoir, Winter in Moscow, first published in 1934. Readers may be put off by Muggeridge's pukka-sahib muttering about "all these beastly Jews," but the book remains valuable because he does not try to interpret the Soviet Union through an antisemitic lens. In any case, here is what he has to say about an American reporter named "Jefferson":

He'd been asked to write something about the food shortage, and was trying to put together a thousand words which, if the famine got worse and known outside Russia, would suggest that he'd foreseen and foretold it, but which, if it got better and wasn't known outside Russia, would suggest that all along he'd pooh-poohed the possibility of there being a famine. He was a little gymnast, always balancing himself between two extremes -- English gentleman and American newsman; scholar and smart guy. He trod his tightrope daintily and charmingly. At the very core of his nature there was something fresh and uncorrupt and sensitive; an original goodness that kept him innocent despite the trials and tribulations of his circus life.


His mind turned back to life in Paris during [World War I]. It was there that he had formed his basic impression of the world -- a place where men, in their unutterable folly, tore each other's hearts and probed cruelly into each other's souls; but where an intelligent minority, standing apart, directing, controlling, orating, buying and selling, writing, was able, not merely to be immune from, but even to profit from, these disasters. He had made up his mind that he must belong to this minority, and so, when the war was over, he had attached himself to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which was composed of big boys with big ideas and a big army. He felt safer attached to the skirts of big boys. The bigger they were the better. If one or the other for any reason got liquidated or bumped off, disappeared, Jefferson skillfully detached himself. The big boy of today was not necessarily the big boy of tomorrow. He kept up-to-date in his allegiances. When Bukharin was in favor he was one of the great intellects of the age; when he fell into disgrace he was an opportunistic humbug. The first sign of the final collapse of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat will be Jefferson's quietly transferring himself to other skirts, browsing in other pastures.

We know that Muggeridge was too cynical. The remarkable thing about the collapse of the Soviet Union was the number of people who never ceased to believe that it was a good idea gone wrong.

* * *

Speaking of pukka sahibs, the invaluable Mark Steyn has some apt things to say about the role of Arnold Schwazenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, in her husband's victory in the California gubernatorial recall election. The Shrivers, of course, married into the Kennedy family: (Robert) Sargent Shriver, Maria's father, was President Kennedy's brother-in-law. Words like "dutiful" were often applied to Sargent Shriver, as the Kennedys repeatedly persuaded him to forego public offices for which he was eminently qualified, so that some hapless Kennedy could have it for himself. But now:

Forty years on, the Shrivers are having the last laugh. The third generation of Kennedys is mostly a disaster.

One wonders, though, whether the Shriver connection might yet serve the Kennedys. Surely some of the younger cousins could have their records expunged and try their luck in Schwarzenegger's California. Perhaps, as with the Roosevelts, we might see a Republican and Democratic wing of the family. Picture them forming a colony, like the British expatriate screenwriters who congregated in Hollywood in the 1930s. I can see the lawn parties now.

* * *

On the subject of writing in search of an outlet, for many years now I have been writing a column called "The Federal Papers," for a magazine called Business Travel Executive. Most of it had to do with the federal regulation of the travel industry, but I did an occasional speculative piece: that January 2001 column I keep linking to is an example.

Anyway, the column is about to be canceled. The problem is not the writing, apparently: it's that no product or service dovetails with the subject matter, so it's hard to sell advertising space on the opposite page. Trade magazines are as driven by their advertisers as are fashion magazines.

So, there's a hole in my time. If you know of anyone who needs a columnist or editor, please let me know. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


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