Thursday, July 2, 2015

Same-sex marriage and Southern heritage

Most people seeing the title of this piece likely already have an idea as to what it's going to be about. And maybe they're right, maybe they're not. I guess they'll know soon enough, if they read on.

But before diving in to the deep end of this particular double-wide pool however, I want to make a couple of things clear, crystal clear:

1) I fully support the idea of gay marriage, insofar as I think people should get to choose how to live their lives, with whom they wish to live them, based on how they understand themselves and their desires. I think the government should get out of the marriage business, by and large. It shouldn't be up to the government--or anyone else--to decide whose marriage is valid and whose is not (apart from when such things involve breaking other laws like, say, statutory rape). If two people want to live together, share their lives and resources, raise a family or not, and refer to their relationship as a marriage, what do I care? It doesn't matter a whit to me if they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. I'll see them the way they want to be seen, I'll accept their relationship in the way that they define it. That's just common courtesy.

2) I know, without a shadow of a doubt, why the Southern States seceded and started the U.S. Civil War. It was to preserve that most heinous of American institutions, race-based slavery. And in that regard, I fully recognize that all symbols used by Confederate forces during the period cannot help but carry that linkage to some extent. Glorifying a Confederate symbol means--on some level--glorifying the Confederacy. Thus, it is just and proper for States to remove such symbols from flags and other devices of state.

Are we clear? I said, ARE WE CLEAR? Good...

Now, two recent articles have appeared at WaPo that really frost my ass, pardon my language. The first is Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? by James W. Loewen. The second is Why you should stop waving the rainbow flag on Facebook by Peter Moskowitz. Obviously, the subject matter of each is drastically different. Still, there is an element of sameness within both, at least in the way I read them and with regard to why they both anger me.

The first, by James W. Loewen, is about how the Civil War is--supposedly--understood in our current era, i.e. how it is wrongly understood as being about states' rights when it was only ever about slavery. To this end, the author--who is apparently some sort of top-drawer sociologist (which should be a big warning sign right there)--cites the number of Confederate monuments in Southern States and some snippets from textbooks. He infers that these things represent some sort of nefarious attempt to rewrite history:
As soon as Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done, and why. Their resulting mythology went national a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest that slavery was somehow pro-family, and the public believes that the war was mainly fought over states’ rights.

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.
This is what David Hackett Fischer would refer to as "furtive history." It assumes a conspiracy as the cause of an outcome, as a matter of course. In this case, the proliferation of monuments and other propaganda are presented as a part of a master plan to misrepresent the Civil War, a plan that allowed the rise of a Southern culture which appropriated elements of the Confederacy without having to admit to the fundamental reason for the Civil War (slavery).

And it's all hogwash.

Loewen completely ignores the actual course of the War, the consequences for Southern communities in particular and the nation in general. He ignores what went on during Reconstruction and what the South endured because of its failed rebellion (and to be clear, I'm not suggesting all this was unfair). Look, for instance, at his portrayal of Kentucky:
Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
Loewen's idea here is that this nefarious plan of rewriting history by Southern apologists is the cause. But Kentucky, a border State and a slave State, experienced a number of battles, and was put under martial law by President Lincoln in 1864, despite having never seceded from the Union. The Union general in charge of Kentucky--Burbridge--was fairly ruthless, ordering the execution and imprisonment of numerous people for, at best, questionable reasons. Moreover, since Kentucky was never in open rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation was never enforced in the State. In fact. Kentucky was one of the few States to actually reject the 13th Amendment, as there were still more than 50,000 people living in slavery in Kentucky after the Civil War had ended.

During the Reconstruction era, events in Kentucky were tumultuous, to say the least. Since it was never in open rebellion, Kentucky was not subject to the Reconstruction Acts. But nonetheless, the Federal Government involved itself in Kentucky by imposing a Freedmen's Bureau there and stepping in with armed forces when it felt such was necessary (including trying to stamp out the Klan). All this heavy involvement in local affairs by the Federal government soured much of the populace against the same. Supposedly, Kentucky governor Happy Chandler said that Kentucky was "the only state to join the Confederacy after the Civil War was over." And looking at some actual realities, it's not hard to understand why he would say this.

The point is, Loewen's analysis of Kentucky is superficial and largely meaningless. The number of Confederate monuments in Kentucky isn't evidence of some sort of concerted effort on the part of white supremacists to rewrite history. The monuments are reflective of a changing mood in the State that has a number of causes, not the least of which is the conduct of Union forces during the Civil War and the Federal government after the Civil War. True enough, there remains some racist overtones in much of this and the proliferation of such monuments cannot be divorced from this reality, but their existence just doesn't mean what Loewen is claiming.

In my opinion, Loewen's position is entirely grounded in self-righteousness. He sacrifices truth and scholarship for polemical pseudo-analysis in order to justify his perceived superiority to any who would disagree with his thesis. It's an ugly circle to be sure and, beyond anything else, such an approach represents the death of understanding.

Now on to article number two, the one by Peter Moskowitz. In essence, it's an extended complaint about people who added a rainbow flag overlay to their Facebook profile as a means of showing support for the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentially legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Is Moskowitz upset because he thinks homosexuality is the work of Lucifer? No. Is he upset because he thinks the Supreme Court ruling was wrong? No. He's upset because he's gay and supports the ruling, but all these flags make him "uncomfortable." Seriously. From the article:
I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.

That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. It didn’t feel like they were understanding my struggle; it felt like they were cheapening it, celebrating a victory they had no part in winning.
Now look, there's a valid point in this cesspool of narcissism: people do co-opt symbols and causes for self-congratulatory purposes (for instance, see the uproar over the Confederate flag), particularly political people. And later in the piece, Moskowitz fairly notes how Hillary Clinton was not in favor of same-sex marriage just a few years ago, but now is waving the rainbow flag like there's no tomorrow. But here's the thing, aside from such concrete examples--which are few--Moskowitz doesn't know dick about the people who have adopted the rainbow flag on their Facebook page, who are out waving it in public, or wearing it on a shirt.

What Moskowitz does is assume not only his own right to a symbol but also the authority to judge others who are employing it, sans any actual evidence as to why they are doing so. He claims he has "earned" the right (and apparently the accompanying authority) because of his experiences, but in fact knows next to nothing about anyone else's experiences (full disclosure: I have not used the rainbow overlay on my Facebook profile). And even worse than this, he assumes only a particular kind of experience is valid, when it comes to this right.

While the Supreme Court decision is certainly a watershed event for same-sex couples in the United States, it can also be viewed in general as yet another moment wherein the idea of equality was expanded in both this country and the world at large. Why should other peoples who have suffered discrimination or oppression for various reasons not celebrate the moment, not find some measure of solidarity with the gay community in the United States, proper? And why should anyone who is related to or is friends with such people not do the same? Moskowitz's standard here is ridiculous and counter-productive, to say the least. His conclusion:
Allies are important to the LGBT community. They’re necessary for progress. But holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.
Moskowitz isn't speaking from a position of knowledge, but only from his own limited experiences. And supposing those experiences are sufficient justification for his far-reaching conclusion is both arrogant and logically flawed. So why does he go there? Just as is the case for Loewen's flawed historical narrative above, the answer is clear: self-righteousness.

Both Loewen and Moskowitz want the ability to look down their noses at others, to assume their positions carry the weight of historical and/or moral authority. Both feel secure that their fundamental positions are on the "right side of history" (and look, they probably are), then use that security as a basis for claiming the authority judge the motives of everyone else.

One can be right, yet still be very, very wrong.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stars, Bars, and Symbols of the Past

For me, history is fun. I love reading about history, watching documentaries, and going to historical sites. When it comes to the history of the United States of America, my knowledge base in this regard is pretty broad and pretty deep, owing to both my love of history and my personal background, having been born and raised in Virginia and being able to trace my family's history in America back to the 1600's. And as a true Son of Virginia, both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War loom large in my mind, have impacted my world view in ways I can identify and in ways I most assuredly cannot.

Before getting into the meat of the matter here, namely the current furor surrounding South Carolina's continued use of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, I think it's apropos to note the relationship of the Revolutionary War to the Civil War in the Southern mind. The Revolutionary War was sold--and accepted--as a war against tyranny, a war for freedom from oppression (the irony of slave-owners going to war for their freedom is not lost on me, nor was it lost on many of the Founding Fathers). After the conclusion of that war and the adoption of the Constitution, the United States of America, the Union, walked a tightrope as it were, because of the very different natures of society in the Northern States and the Southern ones (a difference that predated the Revolutionary War and extends back to who was settling each region, i.e. Pilgrims versus Crown charters, aggrieved Englishmen versus Loyalists and Scots).

The Civil War was, historically speaking, an over-determined event. It was always coming; it could easily have come decades early (the Nullification Crisis). And slavery, economically speaking, was a dead end. It was, in a very really sense, limiting the economic potential of the South. Plus, the outrage over the institution was growing, England and many other countries having already outlawed the slave trade. Despite all the bluster over slave States and non-slave States in Congress that led to Fort Sumter, slavery was bound to fail, certain to end, sooner or later (and the sooner, the better, in the minds of many).

Still, the backdrop of the Revolution remained; it was a recent event. As the Federal Government grew and exerted more and more influence, there was pushback, especially from people who were used to doing things their way. Such things included, of course, slavery and a basic idea of "white supremacy," i.e. the idea that the European settlers of America were naturally superior to the imported African slaves and the Native American Indians. Naturally, such pushback was more pronounced in the South and in frontier regions (which tended to be in the South and West).

I'm not going to go into the specifics of the conduct of the Civil War here, but rather just note the operative mindset in the South: it was truly a war of Northern Aggression that threatened both the liberty and the way of life of people in the Southern States, for better or worse.

But it was such for two very disparate reasons. First, there was the history and divergent natures of the North and South that I just detailed. And second, there was the concerted effort to propagandize the War on the part of the Southern leadership and elites. This is something that began well before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and something that continued as the War progressed. There was no internet in those days, nor television, no radio. The typical Southern citizen got his or her news from local sources, alone. And primary control over those sources was in the hands of those in power, in one way or another.

Thus, the Civil War was sold to the common man as a war against tyranny, since before day one. And the typical confederate soldier went to war to protect his perceived homeland from invasion, plain and simple, not to protect slavery. The typical soldier wasn't a slaveholder at all (the typical officer probably was, though). At the time of the Civil War, States like Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina had much larger free populations than slave populations and had much lower percentages of slave-owning families as compared to States like Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. And while all of the South supplied soldiers to the war, it was Virginia and North Carolina who supplied the most. And lost the most.

As the war progressed, the propagandizing by the Southern leadership became even easier, due to the conduct of Union forces and the destruction of the war in the Southern States. I can even relate an anecdote in this regard: my father's family lived in an area outside Richmond--called Sparta--on a number of farms. At the time, they no longer owned slaves (but previous generations had, to be sure) My great great grandmother was a child during the war and told tales of how the Union forces took over their farmhouse for quartering officers, how they took what they wanted for food and supplies. She, her sisters, and mother were relegated to one room on the second floor. And they would peer out the window and sometimes try to spit on the Union officers coming into the house, they hated them so much. Can one blame them? Their farm was practically destroyed, their home was looted, and they were treated shabbily to say the least.

The point of this brief history lesson is to note that the issue of what the Civil War was about is not so simplistic as some would try to argue. But there needs to be some clarity in this regard: for the Southern leadership, for the elites in the South, the Civil War was about slavery, end of story. It was about maintaining the power and wealth the institution of slavery had given them and their families. Yet, this was not necessarily the case for the common foot soldier (in fact, it usually wasn't). That common foot soldier might still have believed that blacks were lesser peoples (something no less true for the common foot soldier from the North) to be sure, but that is not why they took up arms. So when someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates says this:
The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history.
Know that they are wrong. Many of those who "bore the Confederate flag" thought they were carrying on a tradition of resisting tyranny, were defending their homes and families, nothing more. They were most assuredly misguided in that regard, had in fact been duped by a power structure concerned only with maintaining the status quo, which of course included maintaining the institution of slavery. And it is a fascinating thing in my mind, how this reality, the actual history of the common man, so often championed by leftist and progressive historians (like Howard Zinn) is minimized in this particular case. But I digress.

The current backlash against the Confederate flag is understandable and justifiable to some extent. South Carolina--and Mississippi--would do well to purge the symbol from official devices of state, like flags. Because there is more to this tale. There is Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, and the "rebirth" of Southern pride. But first, let's be clear about something. This is not the Stars and Bars:

This--the first official flag of the Confederate States of America--is:

The first is actually a take-off on the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. True enough, it found its way into subsequent versions of the flag of the Confederacy, but as given, it was never an official flag of the Confederacy.

So why is it now the "rebel flag," the Confederate flag" in the minds of so many? Well again, there is what came after the Civil War. The flag, being the one flown by the forces of Robert E. Lee and being simple yet quite distinct from the U.S flag, was initially adopted by people who identified with times gone by, who were unhappy with the changes wrought by the Civil War. There was a racist bent for some of this, no doubt. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan used the flag throughout its history. Still, for many it was just a symbol of heritage.

That's a pretty common thing for many, many people, using symbols like flags and coats of arms to relate to their perceived past. And sometimes, the actual history of such symbols can involve less-than-noble events. It is, in my opinion, difficult and pointless to purge all symbols that might give offense from society at large. From government use? Sure. That makes sense, especially when the offense is widespread among the populace a government supposedly represents. But in general?

I can't say I'm impressed by all of the bandwagon jumping going on with regard to the Confederate flag, with regard to stores like Wal-Mart opting to not carry any merchandise that uses the image in some fashion. I don't know that even all of the symbols of Nazi Germany have received such a treatment, much less the symbols of the Catholic Church and of European powers who engaged in colonialism.

We seemed to be overly fixated on the moment, though, and the current moment involves a flag with a varied history--some of it a very ugly history--but which nonetheless has been a component of Americana for a long, long time. And it's tough to withstand massive waves of change, waves that have no time for the consideration of varied points of view.

To the Confederate flag flying from the statehouse of South Carolina, I say good riddance. To the Confederate flag being waved by racists I say you might as well be waving a Swastika. To the Confederate flag that represents a particular culture and heritage, is neither noble nor base, I say I'll miss you.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Papal warming: strange bedfellows

After ascending the Throne of Saint Peter, one of Pope Francis' first papal communications was an apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). In it, Pope Francis demonstrates something about himself, his ideology, and his ideological roots. For in this work, Pope Francis argues for a more ethical approach to economics and the redistribution of wealth. As I explained previously, this approach is nothing more than the 19th century ideology of corporatism, wherein it is supposed that society is an organic whole that should be divided into different parts, according to the function served. The long and short of this point of view is not wealth redistribution--which is how many on the Left wrongly saw it--but rather wealth stagnation. It is an ideology, an economic and political system, then necessarily limits economic mobility (again, exactly contrary to where those applauding it think it leads).

For more details, readers are free to follow the above link and see my analysis in full. But I need to note one element of the Evangelii Gaudium and corporatism that I really did not address. Namely, that both assume an expertise on all matters economic on the part of the state in general. In other words, there is a strong technocratic thread running throughout the piece, though almost always just below the surface. Note that the idea of technocratic control is explicitly at odds with the fundamental assumption of corporatism, the idea of an organic whole that functions as it should naturally. Of course, this is one of the reasons why corporatism is both antiquated and unworkable: no one actually has the knowledge base for total economic planning and control, a reality that the old Soviet Union learned the hard way, to put it mildly (it was communist, not corporatist of course, but a centrally planned economy is a feature of both). This same kind of conflict, between ideology and the means of achieving a goal of that ideology, appears in the latest papal communication from Pope Francis, his papal encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be To You).

The difference between an encyclical and an apostolic exhortation is technical, really. Suffice it to say that the former carries slightly more weight than the latter, insofar as Church doctrine is concerned. The subject matter of this latest encyclical is global warming/climate change and in it, Pope Francis stakes out a very clear position for the Church: climate change needs to be taken seriously and addressed fully by the Faithful and everyone else. He quotes a letter from the bishops of South Africa in this regard:
Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.
The encyclical is very long, and in it Pope Francis delves into other things, like pollution and waste. But the central thrust of it is that climate change needs to be addressed immediately because it's very real, it's been caused by man's activities, and it's very dangerous. That and the fact that the poor will be the ones who suffer the most if we fail to act (thus bringing the discussion back to inequality). There is also a rather pathetic attempt to justify (for obvious reasons) unfettered population growth.

Through it all, Pope Francis speaks with a fair amount of certainty, with regard to the climate, scientific aspects of processes, and economic/social consequences of climate change. In this regard, I want to focus on two passages in the piece:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.
Again, it is important to note the certainty here. While I could go into the fact that both the global climate and the global economy are open, complex systems and that we lack the capabilities and knowledge to actually model either in full (especially if one takes it as a given than man's activities can have a significant impact on the global climate), that's not really where I want to go. Rather, I want to note that what we see here is Pope Francis assuming certainty because of the supposed expertise of others, because of a "very solid scientific consensus." This from the Vicar of Christ who supposedly speaks with infallibility on matters of doctrine.

In a very real sense, Pope Francis has subordinated Church doctrine to the current crop of technocrats. Think about it. Pope Francis is not recommending that the Faithful simply be better stewards of the Earth for the sake of the Earth itself (which I think would be completely fair and even laudable). Instead, he is trying to direct everyone--not even just the Faithful--to accept the scientific consensus and to follow its prescriptions, not by virtue of his understanding but by virtue of their supposed expertise. To me, that is a simply amazing thing for the Pope to do in an official communication. Pope Francis started down this road in Evangelii Gaudium, but he never went all the way, he never completely surrendered his own perceived authority to powers beyond the control of the Church, to a cadre of twenty-first century technocrats.

While many are congratulating the Pope and the Church on this communication, part of me can't help but wonder if this sounded the death knell for the power of the Church. For instance, how will Pope Francis--or any member of the clergy--be able to maintain the Church's position on the sanctity of life if the consensus of expert opinions is at odds with that position? I submit that he will not be able to, not if he wants to be consistent.

Pope Francis, in his eagerness to curry world favor, enhance the image of the Church, and justify its role in the current world, is demonstrating why the power structures of the Church are outmoded, and why the fundamental ideology he imagines for the Church is hopelessly anachronistic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I struggle with Race

If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!

So goes a traditional Zen kōan. Kōans are used to provoke students of Zen into some sort of response, as a means of testing their understanding of the principles of Zen. Now in theory, there is no set meaning to a kōan: different people can understand it--correctly--in different ways. But there most assuredly are wrong ways to understand them. And in that regard, some kōans do have generally accepted meanings, or impart a specific and agreed-upon understanding. The one above is such a kōan.

It's meaning is easily understand, once one realizes it is all metaphoric. There is no road and there is no Buddha. There is nothing to actually kill. The road is the journey, the path to enlightenment. For a practitioner of Zen, it is a never ending journey. True enlightenment means recognizing this; knowing oneself and the relationship of that self to the universe is a goal that cannot ever be truly reached. If one on that journey believes that they have in fact reached the end, that they have reached the state of the Buddha--i.e. have met the Buddha--they are wrong. The solution? Recognize the mistake, wipe away the false conclusion to the journey, kill the Buddha.

What does any of this have to do with Race? Simply put, every time I think I understand the concept, I discover that I don't. It seems to be something impossible for me to pin down, no matter how hard I try.
Meyers b11 s0476a" by Hermann Rudi Julius, son of Joseph Meyer

One can examine any number of supposedly authoritative tracts on the issue and find just as many definitions of Race. Ask someone "what is Race?" and you will get all manner of responses. Race is presented as a consequence of genetics, of lineage, of culture, of ethnicity, of geography, or as combination of some or all of these. As is the case with many kōans, however, there is some truth in here, insofar as some of the answers one hears are wrong. For instance Race is not genetically determined, with regard to the racial groupings generally in use.

And like the concept of Race itself, there is no set answer for the number of races, of racial groupings. For the sake of simplicity, let's use the groupings of the U.S. Census. When identifying one's Race, there are twelve specific options, along with "other Asian," "other Pacific Islander," and "some other race." Looking at these options relative to the entire world, it's blindingly clear that the entire populations of Europe and Africa--and the diaspora of each--have each been assigned one basic Race: White and Black. In contrast, Asia and the Pacific islands have been divided up according to geography and/or nationality:

If ever there was proof positive that Race isn't generally being used with genetics in mind, this is it. Why do I say that? Simple, from a genetic standpoint there is more variation in the peoples of Africa than there is in the remainder of the world. In other words, two people born in different regions in Africa are likely to share fewer genetic traits than are, say a White European and a Korean.

Of course, most demographic questions on Race aren't this extensive. For instance, the public schools in my neck of the woods have just six options: White non-Hispanic, White Hispanic, Black/African American, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islander. For the sake of even more simplicity, let's just stick to these as the Races of the World. Again, genetics has little to do with these distinctions. They are, first and foremost, geographical, but actually with respect to one's heritage, where one's more distant ancestors come from.

And as a standard, that's somewhat workable. Though it becomes problematic when any sort of limit on the heritage is suggested or imposed. For instance, I can trace my lineage--by my surname--back to the 1600's in North America. Prior to that, the tree goes to Scotland. Prior to that, I don't really know. The Caucasus region? Northern India (the Indo-Aryans of the Vedic period)? East Africa (the birthplace of homo sapiens)? The point is, people have been moving across the globe for millennium. At what moment can it be said that they were separated into independent Races? Geography cannot answer this question.

Which brings us to culture as a determinant of Race. One could argue that a sufficiently homogeneous (in appearance) population that develops its own unique culture constitutes a Race. Many, in fact, do argue this. But of course culture is a changing thing; with non-sedentary populations, cultures mix, as do Races within such a paradigm. The consequence? Appearance becomes the determining factor. Thus, someone who appears Black is Black, someone who appears White is White. Culture, though the basis for Race with regard to the parent, becomes the secondary determinant. Thus, President Obama is Black because he looks Black, because his father was Black by virtue of his culture.

It is, to me, a strange and difficult standard. In fact, I would call it a toxic standard as well, because it goes from an assumption of cultural ownership to what is essentially racial profiling without missing a beat. A person's Race is determined by how others see them, nothing more. If given the opportunity to correct this, they can of course, provided they have parents of different Races. They can say they are of a "mixed" Race (often an option on some demographic questionnaires) or even pick one over the other, though many will not accept the latter, if they don't look like they are members of the race they have picked (in the eyes of others).

And as a consequence of the above, the shortcomings of the various determinants of Race, a new standard seems to be emerging: that of self-identification, as evidenced in the current topic du jour, Rachel Dolezal. Born to White (as is commonly understood) parents, with typically White features, Ms. Dolezal reinvented herself and presented herself as a Black woman, having fully immersed herself in "Black" culture, including altering her appearance, teaching African American studies, and heading a local chapter of the NAACP.

The essential questions arising from her situation: can this be done? Can someone actually change their Race? When is Race determined? And if so, what is the basis for determining Race? She modified her appearance, but was that even necessary? If one can choose to self-identify as any Race (which is what the defenders of her actions are claiming), how could it be? Ditto for the issue of cultural immersion. If Race is a matter of self-identification, culture cannot be a determining factor, since culture is not static in the least, temporally or geographically.

From this, the only conclusion I can logically draw--if what Ms. Dolezal has done is legitimate--is that Race is a wholly arbitrary label. And frankly, from my personal perspective, that's okay. I don't like talking about Race. It's not that it makes me uncomfortable, it's that I don't like using it to divide people up into groups, for one reason or another.

I don't have White friends, or Black friends, or Asian friends (granted, I don't have a lot of friends), I just have friends. I don't care what color they are, what Race they are, I never have. And I've raised my children--or at least tried to--the same way. They don't say "so and so is my Black friend," or "my Asian friend said this," at least not around me. I want them to treat people as individuals, I want to treat people as individuals. Always.

This doesn't mean I don't recognize and appreciate different cultures. I do. Nor does it mean I ignore or want my children to ignore the history of Race and Race relations in the United States and the world. We don't. Understanding those histories is a vital part of understanding the human condition, of learning acceptance and combating racism and discrimination.

But I often find myself on an island in this regard. No one seems to want to let go of Race as a means of labeling and judging others. Some are doing so with the best of intentions, some are doing so with the worst, most are just not really willing to think deeply on the matter at all. And because of all of this, I struggle. Daily.

If you see a White/Black/Asian person on the road, kill them!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Bond Films: Worst to Best

My teenaged daughter and I share a love of movies. And we spend a lot of time talking about them, especially with regards to the ideas of "classic" films, "cult classics," and "must-watch" films. And she often comes to me to talk about such things after becoming exasperated by the opinions (or lack of opinions) of her friends or becoming intrigued by articles she's read on the 'net. Most recently, she discovered this piece--from 2012--by Peter Travers at Rolling Stone. In it, Travers does what I'm about to do: rank the Bond movies from worst to best. My daughter enjoyed the piece very much, as it has a number of funny takes on some of the lamer parts of the various films. Still, she didn't agree with it and was pretty sure that I wouldn't either. And she suggested that I should do my own list, since she knew I'd get it right.

Travers lists Quantum of Solace at the bottom and Goldfinger as the top, choices which I can understand and are defensible, but are quite wrong. There's another list at Rotten Tomatoes, as well, based on some formula using the "Tomatometer," the number of reviews available, and the year of release. It comes off okay, spitting out the 1967 Casino Royale at the bottom (which Travers didn't include in his list), followed by A View to a Kill (which Travers has at number seventeen). At the top, Rotten Tomatoes has Dr. No (which Travers has at number six). Again, these are defensible choices; I understand how one could make them. And they're still wrong.

Incidentally, Rotten Tomatoes has Goldfinger--Travers' number one--at number three, and Quantum of Solace--Travers' number twenty-four--at number sixteen. So the two lists are obviously quite different. Both tend to put some of the same movies near the top or bottom, as the case may be, but there are a few that receive vastly different places in the lists. Read them both through, See which one you agree with the most. See where your favorites Bond films are in each.

Done? Okay, now here's my list, the quintessential one. But first, a few housekeeping items. Like Travers, I'm not including 1967's David Niven farce, Casino Royale. It's not a Bond Film. It just isn't. Also, I'm including both the Travers ranking (PT #) and Rotten tomatoes (RT #) ranking for comparison purposes. The methodology of my list is simple: I've watched them all, multiple times (and I've read all of the original books), and I've determined the rankings based on how good each movie is as a Bond movie. So...Here. We. Go.

24. Octopussy (PT #16, RT #23)
Look, the problem with this movie is that it's stupid. Also, both the villain and the love interest are weak. It's overly campy as well, but then tries to switch to overly serious. Moore should have called it quits before going here. And even worse, the title of the movie is from an Ian Fleming short story on Bond, but the movie itself has nothing to do with that story. Ridiculous. For the life of me, I can't see how Travers rates this movie higher than eight others.

23. Quantum of Solace (PT #24, RT #14)
Travers is right on this one. The problem with this move is that it's not a Bond movie. Not even close. As he says, it's more of a Jason Borne movie, but not a good one. It's hard to watch, it doesn't flow at all, and there just isn't any Bond in it.

22. Tomorrow Never Dies (PT #21, RT #20)
Everyone is close to the same place on this one. While the exact ranking may be in dispute, there's agreement that this is one of the worst Bond films. Once again, there's a weak villain, Even worse, Michelle Yeoh is wasted in this movie. She could have done so much more.

21. License To Kill (PT #23, RT #11)
Tough call here. There are some serious positives in this movie, from Robert Davi to Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto. And of course Wayne Newton. But like Octopussy, this one tries too hard to flip from serious to silly and it fails, largely because Timothy Dalton's Bond can't exist in such a world.

20. A View To A Kill (PT #17, RT #24)
The flaws of this entry into the franchise have been heavily explored. Moore himself thought he was too old for the role, given what he had to do. Plus, there's the psychotic rage of Walken's character, out of place in a Bond film. But I have to admit, I find it watchable, which is why I have it at the top of the bottom five.

19. The Man With The Golden Gun (PT #14, RT #22)
There's just not enough here. Not enough of anything. Yes, Christopher Lee is awesome, but Britt Eckland is completly forgettable. Ask me to name all the Bond girls and I will almost always forget her. Plus, the fight scenes really are lame. It tries to evoke an Enter the Dragon feel and fails miserably. Still, it is Bond.

18. Die Another Day (PT #10, RT #19)
For the life of me, I don't know how Travers gets this one in the top ten. He complains about product placement in Tomorrow Never Dies, but it's worse in this one. Yes, that's partially offset by Halle Berry and by some great action sequences, but the plot is all over the place.

17. Diamonds Are Forever (PT #18, RT #16)
Once again, general agreement. Connery's last Eon film as James Bond and also his worst. But remember, that's relative. The movie is completely watchable, even with a rather predictable plot and rather typical (for a Bond film) characters.

16. For Your Eyes Only (PT #12, RT #12)
This movie and the ones that follow indicate why I am right and the other lists are wrong. We're getting into completely acceptable Bond movies now, movies that are fun and have what we expect in a Bond move. This one fits that bill, but just barely. The ending is not satisfactory at all and Lynn-Holly Johnson as apparent jailbait is just wrong for a Bond film. Still, not a bad flick.

15. Never Say Never Again (PT #13, RT #18)
Travers has this one a little too high, Rotten Tomatoes has it a little too low. Connery returns as Bond in a non-Eon film, a little older but still very much Bond. The villain is strong, as are the Bond girls (Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera).

14. The Living Daylights (PT #22, RT #10)
This is not a top ten Bond movie. But it's also not from the bottom of the barrel. Dalton's first appearance as Bond is strong, evoking the original, more serious archetype. The plot is fine here, as are the actors, especially Art Malik. If Dalton is the worst Bond, this movie is not evidence of that.

13. You Only Live Twice (PT #7, RT #13)
Once again, Travers is out in left field. While this is most definitely a decent Bond film, it's nowhere near one of the best. The plot is full of pointless elements, like Bond's surgery to look Asian, and the movie itself is exceedingly loose. But again, it's Bond.

12. The World Is Not Enough (PT #20, RT #21)
Sorry, but no way is this one of the worst. It's most certainly better than what's above. The plot is outrageous (in a good way), the women are memorable, and Brosnan plays Bond the right way. Okay, yes, having Denise Richards play a nuclear physicist is beyond the pale and the villain's inability to feel pain is overdone, but beyond that the movie works. It's easy on the eyes, has great action sequences and some truly Bond moments.

11. Goldeneye (PT #19, RT #8)
Like The World Is Not Enough. this one works. And it works especially because of Famke Janssen and Sean Bean. Brosnan's first and best Bond film, hands down. Also, the best video game based on a Bond film, hands down.

10. Moonraker (PT #15, RT #17)
"This is in the top ten? Are you crazy?" I can hear people saying that as they read this. Yes, it has some campy moments. Yes, it has a weak--though still memorable--lead Bond girl. But be honest. This is, without a doubt, one of the easiest Bond films to watch and enjoy. It's never slow and Moore is in great form, never missing a beat, as he moves effortlessly around the world and into space. When this film came out, many critics actually thought it ranked right near the top. In today's world, it's over-the-top-ness is muted, but that's no less true of some of the older Bond films, like Goldfinger. This one needs to be better appreciated for what it is.

9. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (PT #3, RT #7)
Number three? Are you kidding me? Regardless, George Lazenby's lone role as Bond is a good one. The movie itself is full-bore Bond and doesn't disappoint. The only quibble I have is with some of the fight scenes, obviously sped up to make them look more impressive. They don't.

8. Skyfall (PT #5, RT #5)
It's a helluva flick, made for a helluva lot of money (though a helluva lot less than was its failure of a predecessor, Quantum of Solace). I don't have any complaints. It's just not as good as the ones that follow.

7. Thunderball (PT #9, RT #6)
More vintage Bond. Again, a movie without any real problems. The villain here--Emilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celi--is one of the best in the franchise. And Claudine Auger as Domino is just about perfect.

6. The Spy Who Loved Me (PT #8, RT #9)
Okay, we all have this one in the top ten. I have it higher. Why? Well, compare it to the three above. It's villain is right there with the others, Barbara Bach leaves a trail of smoke across the screen (come on, you know it, be honest), the locales are great, it has the best car of the franchise (the Lotus that turns into a submarine), and it has the first appearance of Richard Kiehl's Jaws. This is where it belongs.

5. From Russia With Love (PT #2, RT #4)
The second Bond movie is undoubtedly one of the best. In it, Connery really developed the Bond character, not only for purposes of the movie, but as a starting point for the franchise. Bond was just a one-off hero after Dr. No. In this film he was defined as an archetype.

4. Casino Royale (PT #4, RT #2)
Daniel Craig's first Bond film was a masterstroke, insofar as it brought the franchise back to it's roots. It tries hard to follow the original novel, with spectacular results. The opening sequences are frenetic and fun, but the casino sequences are vintage Bond to the nth degree.

3. Goldfinger (PT #1, RT #3)
Sorry Pete. I know you know your stuff, but you're just wrong here. This is not the best Bond film...but it's close! Hey, Pussy Galore, naked women painted gold, and a plot to rob Fort Knox. There's nothing missing here and Connery is never better.

2. Dr. No (PT #6, RT #1)
It was the first and I know some would say the best. There is no doubt, Ursula Andress set a standard for all future Bond girls, a standard that only Honor Blackman and Barbara Bach can even approach. Then there's the villain himself, Dr. No, and his lair. These are the stars all Bond villains try to reach. Few succeed.

1. Live And Let Die (PT #11, RT #15)
Let me very clear about this. I don't want any misunderstandings. Live And Let Die is the best Bond film of all time, it's top-o-the-heap, cream of the crop, end of story. Is Roger Moore the best Bond? No. He's probably number three, if not number four. Is Jane Seymour--as Solitaire--the best Bond girl? No. She's in the top five, though. Is Yaphet Kotto the best Bond villain? No. He's in the middle of the list, no doubt. None of that matters. Live And Let Die is the best because it perfectly encapsulates all the things that make Bond films so great. The attitude, the action. the villains, the unexpected twists, it's all there. And it's never done better, across the board. Plus, there is no Bond film that is more entertaining from start to finish than this one. That's why it's number one. Oh, and it also has the best title song of the franchise...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Three words: Dubai Ports World

Back in early 2006, a controversy broke out that eventually "united" both Democrats and Republicans. That controversy was the impending sale of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O for short) to UAE-based Dubai Ports World (DP World or just DPW).

P&O had, for many decades, operated six seaports in the United States, specifically the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Philadelphia, the Port of Baltimore,  the Port of New Orleans, and the Port of Miami. What this means is that P&O was responsible for port logistics, for handling port traffic, cargo, storage, and the like. And as such it was also required to adhere to U.S. Customs protocols. So, when DPW moved to acquire P&O, one of the many hurdles it needed to overcome was the approval of the U.S. government.

This approval ran through (and would still run through) the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a Ford-era creation strengthened by Reagan's executive order in 1988 (permanently delegating the ability to review impending deals to the Committee). The Committee gave DPW the go ahead to proceed with the deal, so it did. And when the impending deal became public knowledge, well that's when all hell broke loose.

Essentially, the deal was questioned initially by Democratic lawmakers (like Chuck Schumer) because it appeared--to the poorly informed--that U.S.control of ports was being sold off to an Arab country, not a good thing in the post-9/11 world and more grist for the "Bush family is in the pockets of the Saudis" mill. But make no mistake, Republican lawmakers were quick to follow suit. And eventually, the House Appropriations Committee moved to block the deal in a bipartisan vote, while Schumer used his position in the Senate to achieve a similar result.

President Obama--then Senator Obama--weighed in on the issue:
Over four years after the worst terrorist attack in our history, not only are we failing to inspect 95% of the cargo that arrives at U.S. ports, but now we’re allowing our port security to be outsourced to foreign governments. Clearly, more time should have been spent investigating this deal and consulting with homeland security experts and local officials. I support my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are seeking a full review of this deal.
So did then-Senator Hillary Clinton:
In the post-9/11 world, we cannot afford to surrender our port operations to foreign governments. Port security is national security and national security is port security. Our legislation will stop foreign governments from managing, controlling, or owning U.S. port operations.
Now, one can say they have a fair point to some degree, if not for the fact that--again--port operations had been outsourced to foreign concerns, already. And for the fact that operational control of a port does not mean control over security and customs. The U.S. government still retains authority in this regard and can mandate all sorts of things, from access to specific security protocols. Still, there's something to be said for a country based on free market capitalism--like the United States--doing business with a company controlled by an autocratic regime, i.e DPW being a state-owned (the UEA being the state) company.

Of course, DPW is far from alone in this regard. The United States allows all sorts of state-owned and state-controlled companies to do business with and in the United Sates, proper. And really, companies like P&O achieved their wealth and power because their governments treated them differently (better) than other companies, something that remains true of many large U.S.-based companies, as well.

But I digress.

The point is, there was major pushback against the DPW deal coming from people like Obama and Hillary Clinton. And that pushback was supposedly rooted in issues of national security. I say "supposedly" because really their concerns were all fabricated/imaginary in my opinion. And while they were bilking the issue for all it was worth, other political heavyweights like Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Bush senior, and Bill Clinton were supporting the DPW bid!

Fast forward to the here and now.

Much is being made of the linkages running from the Russian nuclear industry to the Clinton Foundation to Hillary and Bill Clinton, themselves:
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.  
And shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.
And that's all good and well. It's completely fair to worry about possible quid pro quos in all of this, because frankly it just seems so obvious, especially given the fact that the Clinton Foundation failed to make public--something it had promised to do--any donations that overlapped with State Department business while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

But I think that the potential for graft here is overshadowing something else: the obvious lack of consistency on the part of Hillary Clinton and President Obama, when it comes to foreign-owned businesses and national security. Look at this WaPo piece, which is at pains to demonstrate that this scandal is really nothing of the sort. It buries the lead and misses the real issue (like almost everyone else, to be fair):
This story is about the sale of a controlling stake in a Canadian company called Uranium One to Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency. Because Uranium One controlled uranium mines in the United States, the sale had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment In the United States (CFIUS), part of the executive branch.
The above little tidbit contains all the clues for the real takeaway from all of this. As was the case for the DPW deal, CFIUS approval was required.  And as was the case for the DPW deal, we are not talking about selling U.S. interests to a private concern, but rather to a state-owned agency: Rosatom is controlled by the Russian government. And--again, as was the case for the DPW deal--what is involved here directly concerns national security: uranium production and sales.

So what's different here? Why was the DPW deal something that had to be nipped in the bud, while Rosatom's purchase of Uranium One was just fine and dandy. Obama's and Clinton's concerns over the former should be mirrored in the latter. But they weren't. CFIUS approved the deal and nary a word was said beyond that, not by Obama, not by Clinton, not by Schumer, not by anyone.


Simple, they don't really care. The DPW deal was just a convenient tool with which to batter the Bush Administration. If it had been the Gore Administration, DPW would be running ports all across the country to this day. And while I don't think we should forbid companies from certain regions from doing business with or in the United States, I have to agree with Hillary Clinton's position, as staked out in 2006: we shouldn't be in bed with companies controlled by foreign governments, period. Of course, as we now know, that wasn't really her position...

Cheers, all.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Internet doesn't serve enough crow

If you've been online in the past week or so, have checked out any online news sites, social media sites, or messageboards of any sort, you are no doubt aware of the the name Patrick McLaw. The name is that of a Maryland teacher who also happens to be a self-published author. About ten days ago, this teacher--who had been at Mace's Lane Middle School for a year--was apparently spirited away by armed men in black helicopters in the middle of the night. Why? Apparently for writing a book about a school shooting. That's it, nothing more.

Think I'm overstating things? Well, go back and check your Twitter feed from a few days ago. Look at some of the comments about this incident on Facebook or Google+. Hell, look at the coverage of it in the media. Here's the original story--from WBOC16 in Delmarva--that seems to have ignited the firestorm. From it:
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.

Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace's Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
The accusation--that the authorities (or "the Man") took this teacher into custody and were holding him at some undisclosed location for simply writing stories, works of fiction, struck a chord. Big time. The tale spread like wildfire through the 'net, passed on breathlessly by all sorts of people from the far left to the far right, many of whom summoned up terms like "thought crime" and "thought police" to describe this horrible situation, this shameful example of the government putting its jackboot down on the neck of Freedom. Hard.

And make no mistake, the tale worked it's way up the food chain, even finding purchase in the upper echelon of thought-provoking journalism. Here it is at The Atlantic. In this piece of questionable journalism, Jeffrey Goldberg (that's right, I'm not redacting all of the names in this tale) opens with the following:
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting.
The title of the piece even compares the actions of the authorities here to the Soviets of the not-so-distant-past. And based on what? Well, the same assumption that was presented as fact in the WBOC piece (which Goldberg actually calls "law enforcement-friendly"), that the teacher was taken in to custody because of what was in a novel he wrote (by the way, that novel was published in 2011).

And of course, the story also found its way to, that bastion of dimwitted activism, in the form of a petition demanding a "full and public apology" to the teacher for the way he was treated. As of now, the petition has 1,963 supporters. Here is the description of the incident given there:
Patrick McLaw, a Maryland teacher recently nominated for First Class Teacher of the Year, has been suspended and banned from school property, has had his home searched, and has been prohibited from traveling, simply because he wrote a science fiction story set 900 years in the future in which there happens to be a school shooting.

This superstitious demonizing of literature strikes at the heart of our most fundamental liberties - the freedom to exercise our imaginations to explore the very things we fear.
Now maybe some of you--reading this--are out of the loop, are wondering why I am mocking these stories and the people who shared them. Well, it turns out that these stories are all wrong, wholly and completely. The teacher was not put on leave and taken into custody for what was in his book at all. Rather, there were other specific issues that lead to these actions. From the LA Times yesterday:
Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities. 
McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.
From MyEasternShoreMD:
The prosecutor explained the sequence of events that led to the Aug. 19 meeting: 
Officials received a harassment complaint Aug. 15 from a teacher in the Delmar school district; two days later, an administrator informed the Delmar police chief of a possible inappropriate relationship between McLaw and a minor, who was not McLaw’s student, Maciarello said. Both complaints remain under investigation; in the latter case, police are trying to determine if the minor was 15 or 16 years old when the relationship began (the age of consent is 16). A subsequent report that McLaw was building models of Wicomico County school buildings also was received, the prosecutor said, and McLaw sent a letter to a Dorchester County school administrator that raised concerns. As a result, Maciarello brought the law enforcement and health officials together to share information and discuss the case. 
Health officials were brought in because of concerns that it was more a “mental health matter,” Maciarello said. “Nobody was overreacting,” the prosecutor said of that meeting. “Everyone was acting calmly,” with safety and due process for McLaw the primary concerns.
Oops. A big oops, in fact. The actions of authorities here were based on a number of things. And some of those things--like an harassment complaint and the potential inappropriate relationship with a student--don't make the teacher look so good. Yet, the authorities in Cambridge clearly believed there was a mental health issue to consider and rather than going public with accusations, they acted in what can only be seen as the best interests of the teacher, a point that the teacher's lawyer seems to recognize and agree with in full. The teacher's secondary career as a novelist is ultimately insignificant here, as is the content of the novels he has published.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A unanimous SCOTUS smackdown on Presidential power-grabbing...or is it?

Back in January of 2013, the DC Circuit (the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia) ruled against the Obama Administration with regard to the question of whether or not the President had the authority to make three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. The Administration had argued that these were properly made recess appointments, but the DC Circuit's ruling held that they were not, as the Senate was technically still in session--what is termed a "pro forma" session--thereby preventing any recess appointments (as there was no actual recess).

The fundamental issue here is when recess appointments should be allowed, with respect to the status of the Senate. In this regard, there are two kinds of Senate recesses: intrasession periods and intersession periods. After the DC Circuit's ruling, I explored and explained these concepts, what they mean and the history behind the general understanding of what they mean. What the DC Circuit essentially said in that ruling was that only intersession recess appointments were constitutional; intrasession recess appointments couldn't be because the language in the Constitution proper is clear: the power to make recess appointments is one that can only be exercised between full sessions of Congress (intersession periods), not during breaks of a single session (intrasession periods).

And such an understanding was nothing new under the Sun. As I explained, everyone in the halls of power understood the issue. What had happened occasionally in the past is that some Presidents had taken a few liberties here, had made recess appointments in unusually long intrasession periods. Of course, when you give people an inch, they tend to take a mile. So, the length of this intrasession period kept getting shorter and shorter. Various Administrations--including this one--commissioned legal opinions on the matter, in hopes of justifying their very clear unconstitutional actions (in making intrasession recess appointments). Of course, there was always pushback from the other side, pushback that culminated with Senator's Reid's use of pro-forma sessions to prevent the Bush Administration from making intrasession recess appointments, a practice repeated by Republicans under the current Administration.

The big difference, the reason why this case went to the DC Circuit? The Obama Administration decided it would simply ignore the pro-forma sessions and go ahead with recess appointments anyway. And for that very clear overreach of assumed executive power, the DC Circuit brought the hammer down, not only invalidating appointments made during pro-forma sessions--like Obama's--but also declaring all intrasession recess appointments to be unconstitutional.

The response from the Administration and much of the Left to the DC Circuit's very correct ruling was predictable: outrage and hyperbole, ludicrous claims about judicial activism and a judiciary overstepping its authority. But as I noted in the previous piece, such a response required the legal geniuses on the Left--and the constitutional scholar in the White House--to ignore past opinions on the matter from people like Ted Kennedy and Lawrence Tribe, who very much understood the reality of all of this, who recognized the simple fact that recess appointments are far mote limited in their potential application than various denizens of the White House would like us to believe.

Though I have to say, I think most of the people--including the President--on the left who aren't card-carrying morons get this: they know the DC Circuit was completely correct (as was Ted Kennedy), but they are unwilling to admit this in the moment for purely political reasons. Rest assured, if this ruling had come down during the previous Administration, most of those supposedly outraged by it would be applauding it, while most of those now applauding it would be feigning outrage. So it goes.

But the DC Circuit's ruling was appealed, and the case--National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning--moved on to the Supreme Court of the United States. And today, that body issued a ruling on the case. That ruling addressed four issues related to recess apppintments: 1) whether or not they can be made during intrasession periods, 2) if so, whether or not there a limit in this regard based on the length of the intrasession period, 4) whether or not such appointments can be made for positions that were not vacated during the recess (the Constitution indicates they cannot, in my opinion), and 3) whether or not pro-forma sessions serve to block the ability of the President to make recess appointments.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's still June 27th, 1914

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, 1914
On June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand the Archduke of Austria-Este and his wife Sophie the Duchess of Hohenburg were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of Young Bosnia (a youth movement affiliated with the Serbian Black Hand). Despite the relative unpopularity of Archduke Ferdinand in Austria proper--he was still the heir presumptive to the throne on Austria-Hungary and would have taken the throne in 1916 had he not been killed--the assassination became a huge international incident, involving a number of countries aside from Austria and Serbia. It is widely viewed as the touchstone for World War I, as Austria-Hungary used it as a pretext for declaring war with Serbia. Russia immediately responded by mobilizing its forces in preparation of supporting its ally Serbia, a move which led Germany to do the same, then simply declare war on Russia outright.

It can be argued that larger political events were at play, that the assassination itself was not so critical, that war was in fact imminent. But history is as it was; the death of Ferdinand at the hand of a Serbian assassin clearly set the table, leading to World War I occurring as it occurred, not at some other moment for some other reason.

The larger picture here is that of European powers trying to establish, maintain, or expand their empires, their spheres of influence. That and the impact of liberalism--classical liberalism--against the ideologies of the aristocratic and authoritarian old guard who still controlled many European states, an impact that was not only political but also social and economic. Within this general paradigm--which included a matter-of-fact distinction between the "civilized" and the "uncivilized"--atrocities were committed around the world before the death of Franz Ferdinand. People died in war and other conflicts--many, many, many people--in the time before 1914. And horrible things were done after the assassin struck in Sarajevo; millions more died in the course of the Great War and the basic foundations were laid to both define the borders of nation-states and to usher in both World War II (and of course the Holocaust) and the Cold War in the decades ahead.

On June 28th, 1914 the world was a dangerous place, not just in obscure backwater regions that had not succumbed to the "civilizing" influence of Western Europe, but in European--and American--cities and countrysides, towns and villages. In short, everywhere there was danger or potential danger. This was because the status quo, the current "world order" was not so stable and steadfast as people believed in the moment. Violent change, or just widespread violence, was far more likely in some regions than others, it is true, but risk existed for all, everywhere.

This is no small point to grasp. For if we could go back to 1914 or a few years earlier, we would find a mindset seemingly incapable of seeing beyond the immediate horizon, especially in those nations with the most power and wealth. I noted some of this previously in a piece last August in a discussion on the various periods of extended (apparent) peace in history, the Pax Romana (and Pax Sinica), the Pax Britannica, and the (current) Pax Americana. But as I made clear then, these periods of peace were still filled with violence, violent conflicts and violent people. Yet again, a typical man-on-the-street in London, New York, Paris, or other "civilized" region did not live in fear of war in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, of the worldwide sort or otherwise. For him (or her), daily life was the whole ball of wax and there just were no siginificant threats to this day-to-day existence.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Angry Birds and Dreamers

The Oath of Office for members of Congress, taken by all newly elected members in an open session of each House:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
The Oath of Office for the President of the United States, taken by the President-elect, before he or she can officially take office:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
At tonight's State of the Union Address, there will be a number of guests in attendance--as there always are--invited by various politicians for various reasons, from simple friendship to political patronage to making a statement of one sort or another. And with regard to the last, the guest list will include at least two undocumented immigrants, people who are here illegally, who are in violation of the law, criminals as a matter of definition.

Our elected leaders in Washington, D.C, all of them, have sworn to defend the Constitution, that fundamental document establishing our government and defining how our laws are made. It's really no great leap to allow that our elected leaders, in defending the Constitution, should not be openly defying federal law, nor should they be assisting in or otherwise sanctioning such defiance. That's really not too much to ask, is it?

At the same time, new information has surfaced indicating that the NSA has been using smartphone apps--like the ever-popular Angry Birds--to track people and to compile personal information about them, information like sex, age, buddy lists, address book entries, and, of course, phone call logs. And our elected officials aren't really doing anything about the NSA's transgressions. Oh sure, some are spouting off on cable news about these things, calling the NSA's actions "outrageous" and the like. But it's just bluster, just talk. Similarly, the President promised change, but basically left things exactly as they are now, left it up to the NSA to police themselves, to decide what they can and can't do.

And make no mistake here, on the issue of NSA overreach: this is not a Democrat/Republican thing at all. The previous Administration was no better then the current one. Indeed, it set many of these things in motion. Still, it's a Democrat in charge right now. And its Democrats who are showing total disdain for the law by inviting criminals to accompany them to the State of the Union Address.

On the one hand, they--led by the President--are willing to ignore the law in the supposed name of justice and humanity. On the other, they--again, led by the President--pretend that the law really matters, that they are actually concerned about government agencies being properly limited in their power, even as they actually do nothing in this regard, allow the continued abuse of power to the detriment of actual U.S. citizens. Who do they work for, again?

But I don't mean to sound unduly harsh, with regard to undocumented immigrants. In fact, I recognize that many--probably most--would be happy to just be citizens themselves, are trying to just live their lives, support themselves and their families, and are not engaged in criminal activity, per se. Apart from the fact that they are in this country illegally, of course. And let's be clear on this, too: their status as illegals is a consequence of an overt criminal act on their part (or their parents' or relatives' in the case of minors). So while I do sympathize with their plight, I'm not going to pretend they are not what they are, unlike our elected leaders, who apparently think they can personally choose which laws they get to follow, which laws they are supposed to defend and uphold.

Of course, we're often told--by those in charge--that there are just far too many undocumented immigrants now, that the government doesn't have the resources to identify all of them, much less take any kind of specific action against them. Yet, there are apparently enough resources to track the people who play Angry Birds, to compile information on them. At last count, that number was in excess of 40 million.

So again, our elected leaders ignore their duties, ignore the oath they took when they assumed office, in order to allow a massive illegal surveillance program of U.S. citizens and to score some political points by glad-handing people in open violation of the law. And tonight, they'll all get together and hear how the last is important, how it matters, while the first is really no big deal. Sure.

The State of the Union is, itself, a Constitutionally mandated event. It's a solemn occasion, or at least it used to be. Now it's apparently just a big show. With far too many clowns.

Cheers, all.