The Long View 2003-07-01: The Crisis Builds

In his book review on William Strauss and Neil Howe's The Fourth Turning, John noted that the generational model of that book predicted a crisis in America in about 2005 that would usher in two decades of chaos.

We certainly seem to have gotten the chaos. Strauss and Howe's model also predicted the subsequent course of the twenty-first century would depend on how well we handled the crisis. This is probably a little harder to assess. For one, what precisely, is the crisis? 9/11? The Iraq War? The refugee wave in Europe? Out of control American gun violence?

It is a little easier to predict that something will go awry than to correct identify what will go wrong. It is even harder to identify the correct solution in the moment. I suppose we will just have to wait and see.

The Crisis Builds

The argument that we recently entered an era of crisis like that of 1929-1945 (what Strauss & Howe call a Fourth Turning] continues to strengthen. The international situation is deteriorating, in a way reminiscent of the 1930s. The WMD threats from Iran and North Korea are just months away from the point where something radical will have to be done. Europe continues to refuse to face reality in any form, whether about demographics, economics (much the same questions, really), or its strategic vulnerability. More immediately, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown limited powers of self-organization, to put it politely. Reporters in Iraq keep talking about rumors of a general uprising. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that the Baathists would be any better at organizing an uprising than they are at organizing anything else. Their strategy of daily assassinations of US and British forces has served to keep the Coalition from relaxing and becoming more vulnerable. Still, the Baathists could, finally, produce the huge civilian casualties they have been hoping for, with all that would mean in terms of reaction in the US and internationally. The Year Zero of the last crisis was 1933. The early 21st-century analogue could still lie before us.

* * *

In the 1930s, while the world was going to hell in a handbasket, the US was preoccupied with gridlock between its legal and economic systems. Though New Deal economic policy was never very coherent, some policy is better than no policy. Nonetheless, the US Supreme Court took it upon itself to insist that the federal government, and indeed the state governments, had very little authority to regulate the economy. The Court struck down legislation about wages and prices, about working conditions and the hours of labor, generally without any warrant from the Constitution itself. The Court eventually repudiated the reasoning behind those decisions, but not its authority to make them.

This time around, the Court (and, to be fair, most of the law-school establishment) has a bee in its bonnet about sexual identity and gender. The theory under which it operates is even bolder, however. The New York Times put it fairly enough this morning:

[T]he most significant aspect of the term, Professor [Paul] Gewirtz [of Yale School] said in an interview, was the court's role in "consolidating cultural developments," legitimizing them and translating them into "binding legal principle."

The point of constitutional government is that some law should be beyond the power of the ordinary legislature to alter. The new doctrine is that the content of the constitution can change in response to opinion polls. That is pretty much what Justice Kennedy said in Lawrence v. Texas, the recent decision finding that the liberty interests implicit in the Constitution now include sodomy. Or that's what I think he meant; it's hard to tell. Of course, this principle is probably disingenuous. Opinion polls have been turning against the unrestricted right to abortion for years, but it is hard to imagine the present Court agreeing to reconsider the Casey decision on that basis.

* * *

The Lawrence decision is not the Dred Scot case. That was when the Supreme Court held that Congress had no power to restrict the spread of slavery, a holding that led quickly to the Civil War. Rather, Lawrence is like Griswald v. Connecticut, the opinion from the 1960s that created a constitutional right to buy and use contraceptives. In that case, too, the statute the Court struck down was unenforceable and had no defenders. Nobody much cared that the opinion made no sense. However, the holding was the basis for Roe v. Wade. (This was despite the claims by the proponents of Griswald that they sought to prevent abortion by promoting contraception.) Griswald is itself the ultimate basis of Lawrence, but Lawrence will be used to move the law in two other directions.

The obvious next step for Lawrence is to denormalize marriage. There are in fact gay people who believe that homosexual partnerships would have the same social prestige as marriage, if the same or closely analogous laws governed both. This is cargo-cult thinking. (Cargo cults, as you recall, were practiced in Melanesia; natives built models of runways and cargo planes in forest clearings, in the hope that their ancestors would send trade goods.) In reality, if the law were forbidden to take notice of the genders of couples seeking to be married, then the anthropological institution of marriage would simply decouple from the legal institution of the same name. One way and other, that would have grave consequences: one of the few bits of sociology we are clear about is that no institution does more than the nuclear family to promote health and prosperity.

Even more interesting, however, will be the revival of the campaign for a right to suicide. Two federal circuit courts found such a right in the 1990s, using essentially the same reasoning as Lawrence. The danger that the Supreme Court might extend the law in that direction caused otherwise well-behaved moderates (such as myself) to talk about the political structure of the United States as an alien "regime," one that might soon have to be opposed by civil disobedience. First Things even ran a symposium on the incident, called The End of Democracy?. The Supreme Court backed off in 1997, in Quill v. Vacco and State of Washington v. Glucksberg. However, as is increasingly its custom in these matters, it spoke in tongues. The flurry of separate opinions by the individual justices had no common rationale. Taken together, however, they made clear that, on different facts, in the fullness of time, given a shift in the cultural consensus, there was no reason to suppose that someday the Court would not hold otherwise.

* * *

The time is nearly full, one suspects. Much of the impetus in the 1990s for assisted suicide came from gay organizations; that was before palliatives for AIDS were discovered. We are, however, almost at the point were medicalized suicide will be economically attractive for a wider public. As the babyboomers age, they will find that the resources to fund their medical care will be in relatively short supply, since the working-age cohorts behind them are much smaller. It is easy to imagine HMOs waxing enthusiastic about euthanasia to the growing percentage of their patients with disabilities or chronic pain. Where assisted suicide is legal now, the early assurances that it would be available only to the terminally ill have proven chimerical. The stress on the Social Security and Medicare systems might finally be relieved by a judicial expansion of civil liberties.

This was much the state of things in the wonderful 1973 science fiction film, Soylent Green. That's the one in which Charlton Heston plays a detective in the year 2022. He investigates the murder of a public official, who knows what Soylent Green is really made of. (The movie stuck in my mind, perhaps, because we are told that character was born in the same year I was. I even went to the same law school he did, though not for that reason.) Edward G. Robertson played the detective's elderly research assistant. Despairing of his threadbare existence, he walks into a government suicide parlor and has himself euthanized. He asks for classical music to be played during the process: light classical, as I recall.

Since the film is set in 2022, it is premature to make fun of the future it posits. The story supposes an extreme greenhouse effect, with 90-degree Fahrenheit days in New York City in December. That is unlikely, but let us have patience. Something fragrantly off the mark, however, is the film's demographic premise, which was that birth rates would continue at the level of the 1950s and '60s. Euthanasia was encouraged as an antidote to overpopulation.

Here is irony for you. Already in Europe, and maybe soon in the US, euthanasia will be advocated because birthrates have been too low.

As Hegel used to say: history is a bitch.

* * *

Are these imaginary horribles really going to materialize? I think not, but there will be a test of strength that will break the judiciary. It could come about in connection with attempts by the Supreme Court to constitutionalize the status of homosexuals or women in the military; certainly there will be fireworks if conscription is ever reintroduced. Like its 1930s predecessor, the Court could strike down popular social legislation, this time legislation that specifically aimed at promoting the nuclear family. The most intriguing possibility, though, is that the Court will try to ignore a textual amendment to the Constitution.

Senator Frist, I see, is likely to introduce an amendment that would define marriage in heterosexual terms. I dislike very specific constitutional amendments, and this is not really the sort of thing the federal government should be dealing with anyway. In this case, however, the political branches have no choice, since the Supreme Court has already federalized the issue.

The point to keep in mind is that amendment may not be enough. There are arguments in the law schools to the effect that some aspects of constitutional law cannot be changed, even if the text of the constitution is amended to say otherwise. That is, courts would be within their rights to ignore certain new amendments, such as one that tried to limit Roe v. Wade. It is hard to imagine that the Court would simply ignore a marriage amendment, but it might well try to construe it so narrowly that it would not mean anything. Then, I think, something would snap.

* * *

Brain imaging shows that speaking Mandarin uses more areas of the brain than does English, according to a recent report. I do not purport to read or speak Mandarin, but I do study the language occasionally, at least to the extent of trying to learn some new characters now and again. A couple of things about the story are worth mentioning.

Chinese is the only foreign language I ever encountered that presented no conceptual challenges. The grammar is transparent for an English-speaker. You can express tense and number and mood if you are so inclined, but you do it through syntax. The language itself does not require those distinctions. So what was the brain-scan report all about? Perception. Spoken Chinese uses tones phonemically: the same syllable pronounced in a different tone is a different word. It takes an awfully long time to learn to hear those distinctions. You have to use the part of the brain that you normally use only to hear music. I never attempted to learn spoken Chinese; I just want to be able to read a newspaper.

As for Chinese characters, they take a long time to learn, too, but there's a surprise if you persevere. They are easier to read than alphabetic script. It's the different between "674" and "six hundred and seventy-four."

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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