Can the US Supreme Court be replaced with something honest?

elephantThe US Supreme Court has been much in the news lately, due to allegations of violence by its newest member against girls and women he knew in his youth.

Certainly Mr Kavanaugh is not someone I would like to see in a position of authority. But he is far from the only problem. Supreme Court Justices are accountable only to each other; the federal Code of Judicial Conduct does not apply to them, and Congress has never exercised its power to impeach and remove a Supreme Court Justice. Since they are a group of only nine people, who are thrown together for life, and their professional goal is to secure the agreement of a majority of their colleagues, it is hardly surprising that they are cozily tolerant of every kind of bad behavior on each others’ parts. The last time the New York Times checked, every Justice had taken fancy vacations paid for by private organizations. Those organizations, in their turn, were often funded by individuals and corporations with business before the Court. Justices also collect speaker’s fees that are sometimes out of proportion to the audiences they draw, and author’s fees that are sometimes out of proportion to the number of copies their books sell.

The beneficiaries of this largess include Justices associated with both political parties. Admirers of bipartisanship wax sentimental about the friendship between liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her late colleague, far-rightist Antonin Scalia. There is even a comic opera called Scalia/ Ginsburg.  Their friendship is often commemorated in the media with a 1994 photograph of the two of them riding an elephant on a trip to India. Lost in all the gush is the still-unanswered question of who paid for that trip and what they received in return. And why should the Justices feel obligated to answer such questions? No Republican member of Congress would dream of bringing articles of impeachment against their party’s idol Scalia, and no Democratic member of Congress would dream of bringing articles against their party’s hero, “the notorious RBG.” With no prospect of punishment, in time it becomes impossible for the Justices even to see that what they are doing is corrupt.

Even if the Justices weren’t all on the take, the Supreme Court would still be a catastrophically ill-designed institution. Jedidiah Purdy alluded to a few of its flaws some months back:

What would be better? I would suggest looking to the ancient Athenians for a model around which to design a replacement. Instead of nine people who serve for life, I would suggest a pool of 6000 people. Unlike the Athenian Council of 500, which had a one year term, each of our 6000 would have to remain in the pool for twenty years. They would need some measure of expertise in constitutional law and other topics of jurisprudence, and there simply are not that many people with such qualifications.  Indeed, it might only be with the creation of this system that the number of lawyers who would demonstrate such qualifications would rise to the figures necessary.

Each state would have a number of slots to fill proportionate to its share of the population. So, with 12.1% of the US population, California would fill 12.1% of the slots in the pool (726/6000); with 0.18% of the population, Wyoming would fill 0.18% of the slots in the pool (11/6000); and so on. The twenty-year terms for these slots would end on a staggered schedule, so that every year 300 seats would be filled. We would fill them as the Athenians filled slots on their councils and commissions, by a process of “selection from the elected.” The lawyers in each state would nominate, let’s say, half and again the number of people that the state was allotted slots for that year. So if, in a given year, California had 36 slots to fill, the names of 54 Californian lawyers would be sent forward by that state’s bar association. A random drawing would decide which 36 of these would be entered in the pool.

At the beginning of each year, 600 would be chosen by lot from the pool of 6000. These 600 would be divided by lot into twelve groups of 50 each.  At the beginning of each month, there would be a drawing of lots to determine which group of 50 would provide that month’s Supreme Court Justices. Once their month is over, the 50 will be discharged for the year. Throughout their month, the 50 would be sequestered at a campus where one of the buildings would house the Supreme Court. At the beginning of each week, the names of nine of the 50 would be chosen. For that week, these nine would sit as the Supreme Court. No one could serve on the Supreme Court more than twice in a lifetime.

Federal appeals courts could be staffed from the same pool of 6000, again with restrictions to ensure that no one person sits as a judge on any one court for more than two weeks in a lifetime. Trial courts are a different matter; trials often last for long periods, so that the judge cannot have a term of less than a year. In situations like that, the Athenians resorted to a method proper to oligarchy, but which democracy could tolerate if not indulged to excess: they had popular elections. So I suppose, if we can’t have a truly democratic way of staffing the federal district courts, we will just have to elect those judges.

Secret Agent Pope: An idea for a novel

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the scandals and controversies in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve never been a Roman Catholic myself; I was an agnostic from childhood until a few years ago, and am now a moderately progressive Anglican.

Not being Roman Catholic, it doesn’t matter to me who the pope is, who his friends are, or what policies they favor, not any more that it would matter to a Roman Catholic who is elected to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or what measures that Convention adopts. I’m against popes as such, even as Roman Catholics are unimpressed by the General Convention as such, and so no particular pope is going to change my position on the basic issue that divides us. Now, there are other concerns that justify paying attention to these matters. The Roman Catholic Church does command the allegiance of half the world’s Christians, and so all of the rest of us do have to take note of what happens to that institution. And I am a Latin teacher by occupation, so I hope that whoever comes out on top will revive the Vatican’s efforts to keep up interest in that language.  Also, in the 1980s I used to watch Insight, a TV show produced by the Paulist Fathers; I wish they’d make that show more widely available, maybe posting all of the episodes in some streaming format. It’s uneven in quality and very much a product of its time, but the best episodes hold up really well. I would also point out that a lot of popes give themselves funny names, and whenever they elect a new pope I hope he’ll hang a moniker on himself that will give the world a much needed belly laugh.

The most serious reason for a non-Roman Catholic to care what happens in the Vatican is that the four distinct but closely interrelated scandals now coming to light involve great evils that everyone should oppose. We are learning more about the the already long familiar epidemic of sexual abuse of children by priests. We have been introduced to the topic of sexual harassment of young clergymen by their superiors, initially in connection with ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who apparently treated the seminarians and young priests under his authority the way Harvey Weinstein treated actresses whose careers he could make or break. We’ve also started to hear solid information about blackmail as a means of advancement within the hierarchy.  Perhaps most serious of all these scandals is to be found in the concerted efforts by church authorities to conceal those misdeeds and to shield their perpetrators from punishment. So I want those four things to be stopped.

Not that scandal is unique to the Roman Catholics. We have our share of scandals in Anglicanism too; the Anglican Church of Canada had to declare bankruptcy in 2000 because so many survivors of sex abuse by priests had already proven their cases against it in court. I’ve mentioned that bankruptcy several times in discussions of what’s happening with the Roman Catholics. In 2000, the Anglican Church of Canada had never had a celibate clergy, it had been ordaining women for decades, and was notably friendly to sexual minority groups. So when my liberal Roman Catholic friends say that letting priests marry, ordaining women, and dropping the official anti-gay line will be sure to solve the problem, I have to caution that, while those actions may have good effects and they may be desirable in themselves, they may not accomplish what you think they will accomplish. Still, the sheer size of the Roman Catholic Church, its power and wealth, may have something to do with the scale to which these abuses have grown. It is natural to want to sweep problems under the rug, and when you have the world’s biggest rug whatever you sweep under there can grow to massive proportions.

One of the main things I’ve been looking at for news about the scandals has been Rod Dreher’s blog. He has something about it almost every day. His biases are very clear, but he is a professional journalist and does retract stories that have been proven false, which puts him in the top .0001% of people* who write about this topic on a regular basis. Yesterday I wrote a comment there which, as I think about it, includes the kernel for a novel someone might write. The novelist should be Roman Catholic, well-connected in the Vatican, an experienced journalist, and with some expertise regarding international espionage.  I am none of those things, so I shouldn’t write it myself. But here is the comment, for what it’s worth:

@Siarlys Jenkins: “I don’t include Argentina, because no American intervention was needed, and I’m not sure the CIA knew who they really wanted to support there.”

I often think of something by a CIA veteran (Philip Giraldi?) I read some years ago in the pages of the magazine that maintains this website. Reviewing the CIA’s policy of paying bonuses to officers who recruit local informants, the author argued that the policy produced a large number of agents whose main qualification was that they were easy to recruit. He summed his point up by saying, not only that there ought not be the same bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief as for recruiting an agent who is placed in a genuinely sensitive post, but that there ought to be no bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief.

What brings this to mind is that what is true of African police chiefs might very well be true of Latin American bishops. They are generally pretty cozy with the same elements of the local elites who are most comfortable with overt US intervention, most of them are hated by the same people who most worry the CIA, and, as we’ve seen from all these scandals, bishops are not, as a group, entirely averse to associating with people who are in a position to provide them with a pleasant life.

So, it may not be unreasonable to wonder whether the situation at the top of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America is altogether alien to the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church. If there is an analogy to be drawn there, even if Bergoglio was never a CIA agent himself, he would likely have been exposed to a great deal of information about his fellow bishops that he would find it more convenient to forget as completely as possible than to spend any time analyzing for its obvious implications.

Considering the ever-growing mountain of evidence that he and his henchmen have cultivated a habit of ignoring and forgetting information about the sexual proclivities of their fellow prelates, it would not be difficult to suppose that her and they have applied the same habit to other forms of compromising behavior they have reason to believe exists. Should it ever be proven that the CIA has deeply penetrated the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, it would raise a whole new dimension of doubt about Bergoglio’s motives.

This is an idea for a novel, not a proposal for an investigation, because I have no reason at all to suppose that it is true. As I put it in a follow-up comment, “there are these two secretive organizations that have, for their own reasons, created a vacuum of information that is big enough that a story like that could fit inside it without contradicting anything we do know.”

One sub-plot I would like to see in this novel would be a workplace sitcom set in the Oval Office of the President of the United States. The CIA is a headache for the president to deal with even when they are on a losing streak. One day in the early 2010’s he is informed that an asset of theirs has been elected pope. Ugh, thinks he. Now I’m in for it. And indeed the Director of Central Intelligence makes himself well-nigh intolerable around the uppermost echelons of the US national security state from that point on.

Perhaps the main character should be a liberal journalist who has been covering, let’s call him Cardinal Bocchini, for the several years he has been Archbishop of, let’s say Santiago de Chile. When Cardinal Bocchini is elected the first pope from the Western hemisphere (though his parents were born in Italy, and he has been an Italian citizen all his life, and he spoke Italian before he spoke Spanish, and his family has maintained such close connections to Italy that his sister settled there, his residence in Chile allows him to be presented to the press as a non-European pope,) she is apprehensive. He has made very harsh remarks about sexual minorities, leading a campaign identifying gender-neutral marriage with Satan. And he has made strongly nationalistic remarks supporting Chile’s territorial claims against its neighbors, remarks timed to heighten tensions between Chile and Peru and reflective of Bocchini’s connections with some rather dark elements of the Chilean military and security services. Bocchini also has a notably bad record on sex abuse; virtually alone among the world’s major archdioceses, Santiago has not publicized a single case of clerical sex abuse in the previous fifteen years. While some of Bocchini’s most fervent supporters say that this is because the Holy Spirit has protected Santiago to leave no doubt that Bocchini is the man to lead the Roman Catholic Church out of the era of scandal, the heroine’s investigations as a journalist reporting on the church have led her to believe that Bocchini is simply the most skilled of the hierarchy’s cover-up artists.

Bocchini is not only the first pope to have lived most of his life in the Western Hemisphere; he is also the first Jesuit pope. He takes the name Ignatius to honor both the founder of his order and Saint Ignatius of Antioch.  The heroine is assigned to Rome to cover Pope Ignatius.

At first, she is pleasantly surprised by his apparently relaxed attitude toward sexual minorities and relieved that, having become a world figure, he has backed off his Chilean irredentism. She is swept up in the new pope’s popularity, and emerges as a favorite of his, frequently among the first reporters recognized in the impromptu press conferences he gives aboard airplanes. She allows herself to be drawn in sufficiently that she cleans up some of the remarks he makes in these notoriously freewheeling sessions. With every favorable story she sends out, she gains more and more access to the pope and his inner circle.

As time goes on, she notices more and more things that don’t fit with the benevolent image she has been helping to project. Five years into his papacy, scandals begin breaking all around Pope Ignatius.  The pope’s inner circle turns to the heroine in the first rush of these scandals, hoping that she will spin them as effectively as she has spun so many of the pope’s indiscreet airborne comments. They are quickly disappointed in her, however. From her vantage point, she had seen all those scandals brewing, and had reached the conclusion that the pope was not committed to correcting the abuses at the heart of them. What’s more, her proximity to the pope and his top advisers has led her to suspect that he has a relationship with the CIA.

She presses her investigations as far as she can within the Vatican. She loses favor with the pope and his men, and finds herself called back to Santiago. Her paper assigns her to cover farm news. In between trips to chicken farms and agricultural board hearings, she continues to look into the pope’s past, and turns up information that is far more explosive than she had thought possible.

So, that might make a fat little paperback that will induce a lot of frequent flyers to part with their money in the bookstores at the airports.

*A rough estimate.

Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!!!

Here is the cartoon Matt Bors posted at Daily Kos today, under the heading “Choose Your Own Conspiracy“:


I don’t believe that it is necessary to accept any of the items on this menu.

Unlike the speaker in the panel on the reader’s upper left, I think we ought to accept the possibility that there is something worth investigating in the Trump/ Russia stuff. Russia, like virtually every other country in the world, wants to have an influence on the US electoral process. While countries like China and Saudi Arabia were able to have massive influence on the 2016 presidential election, by means including but not limited to large cash gifts to the leading candidates, Russia is a poor country that has few friends among the US elite, a country which is stigmatized in US public opinion by the memory of the Cold War, and which is a traditional adversary of several countries which are extremely well-connected in the USA.  Therefore, it is to be expected that Russia’s attempts to advance its interests in the US political arena will tend to appear on a small scale and to proceed through unusual channels, many of them illegal.

Moreover, Don John of Astoria’s 2016 presidential campaign was conducted on the cheap, with a budget less than half that of his leading rival. Among the expenses which he spared were the hiring of experts. This suits his character, as he is a remarkably lazy and incurious man who famously refuses to read the briefing papers prepared for him. Don John was in 2016 a newcomer to the political stage, without the background that had taught other candidates to be wary of the intricate body of laws which delineate acceptable from unacceptable contacts between US officials and representatives of foreign powers. It would therefore be no surprise if his campaign had stumbled into violations of election laws regarding contacts with Russians.

The speakers in the panel on the reader’s lower left do make a good point- where investigative agencies are corrupt, it really is difficult to know anything about any particular crime. That is certainly the case in the current matter, where the Shitlord-in-Chief of Russiagate (“Actually, it’s about ethics in campaign communications”) is Robert Mueller, who was as brazen a liar as any of the high officials who peddled false stories in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps Mr Mueller has turned over a new leaf, and his recent untestable claims about Russian military intelligence activities deserve more credence than did his sworn testimony to the US Senate. People can change, after all. On the other hand, they can also remain the same, especially when they have paid no penalty of any kind for their prior misconduct. As long as Mr Mueller and men of his ilk are in charge of the investigation, therefore, it behooves us to be deeply skeptical of it.

Deep skepticism, however, need not preclude eventual agreement. Each proposition the investigators put forward will have to be tested severely by independent observers if it is to be regarded as credible. Any propositions that can pass such tests, even though they come from so unreliable a source as Mr Mueller, may ultimately be accepted. After all, in his day Saddam Hussein was no more credible a source than Mr Mueller is now, yet we now know that Saddam was telling the truth when he said in 2002 that he had dismantled his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and that he had no association with al Qaeda, even as we know that Mr Mueller was deliberately lying when he contradicted those statements at the time. If history could vindicate some of Saddam’s statements, perhaps it will someday vindicate some of Mr Mueller’s.

The “Agent Drumpf” theory advanced by the speaker in the upper right panel is so obviously insane that I cannot believe it is necessary to say anything at all about it. Don John has made occasional public remarks calling for world peace, expressing reluctance to believe unsubstantiated claims from the USA’s clownishly inept spy agencies, and acknowledging the absurdity of responding to events of recent centuries by maintaining an eternal and indissoluble military alliance with Germany against Russia. Even if one were to believe, as it seemed from what I saw on social media yesterday a great many Americans and Britons do believe, that such remarks constitute “treason,” one would still have to face the fact that Don John has made no substantive policy initiatives consonant with the view of world affairs that they reflect.  Indeed, to the extent that he has done anything to change the policies he inherited from his predecessors, he has joined in even more wars, yielded even more power to the spies, and actually expanded the membership of NATO.

The hypothesis dramatized in the lower right panel, that the outcome of the election was a surprise even to Don John himself, also seems unlikely to cover the whole truth. True, Don John spent very little of his own money on the campaign and spared himself most of the pains presidential candidates usually take to ensure that they are prepared to take office. As I noted above, however, he still spares himself those pains even now that he is in office. He is a man whose attention can be aroused only by narcissism and cruelty. The only actions to which he can be stirred are those which bring glory to him or suffering to someone else, and which bring them without delay. So, whether he expected to win or not, it is not likely that Don John would have devoted more of his time and money than he in fact did in 2016 to assembling a shadow government and establishing himself as its leader. Nor is it likely, given his sensitivity to humiliation, that he would actively have preferred defeat. Besides, while Don John may not have maintained a policy shop or paid for much of a ground organization or spent any money running up his popular vote totals in non-competitive states, his campaign did indirectly involve him in one great financial expense. His principal source of income since the 1980s has been licensing the use of his name, and the controversial public profile he had acquired by the end of the campaign reduced the value of that asset to the point where he would likely have found himself in a gravely straitened condition had he lost.

So, what is the point of the Russiagate story, a.k.a. “Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!”?  It does advance many interests. The same people who wanted Mr Mueller to lie to the Senate in 2002 to facilitate the invasion of Iraq today want to ensure the smooth running of the gravy train of military spending that has enriched them for several decades. That the Soviet Union has not existed for more than a quarter of a century and today’s Russia is an impoverished country with no allies, a barely functional military, and an official ideology that cannot be explained to foreigners, let alone exported overseas, is in their eyes no reason why the USA should not spend trillions of dollars and build an ever-more rigid network of alliances to contain the Kremlin’s power. Russiagate gives such people a stick to beat their opponents with, and draws people who in the past might have opposed their agenda into making public statements equating love of country with willingness to swallow whatever tales the CIA, FBI, and other such outfits choose to spin.

It also advances the interests of Don John himself. In among the shrieks of “treason!” that I saw from otherwise reasonable people online yesterday were a few stories about conversations involving people who are not Extremely Online, and who regarded claims that the US president is a traitor as evidence that the person making the claim is having a psychotic break. I saw enough shrieking from enough people to be sure that everyone who is in touch online with more than a handful of supporters of the Democratic Party or of the British Labour Party will also have seen it from people whom they had previously regarded as more or less all right. Unless Mr Mueller comes up with something pretty extraordinary, that impression is going to hamper the opposition to Don John for quite some time to come. When the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest next year, Democratic candidates will have a very tricky job simultaneously placating the sizable fraction of their primary electorate who will still be devout Russiagaters and avoiding the sound of General Jack D. Ripper talking about the need to keep the Russkies from corrupting our precious bodily fluids.

The greatest beneficiary of them all is doubtless Vladimir Putin himself. Mr Putin’s public support rests largely on the idea that Russia is surrounded by hostile powers and that he is uniquely suited to leading its opposition to those powers. Every time major media outlets and high public officials in the West spend hour upon hour assuring the public that Mr Putin is a supreme grandmaster of geopolitics who decided the results of a US presidential election and imply that the US is or ought to be at war with Russia, this idea receives overwhelmingly powerful reinforcement. It is difficult to imagine a more generous gift US elites could possibly have given Mr Putin than this story. He can be expected to do everything in his power to keep it alive for as long as possible.

What is the point of having political opinions?

The other day, I saw a rather stinging tweet:

To which I responded:

What I was thinking of there were the op-ed pieces I’ve read in major newspapers focused on one or another high official, with speculation as to what options that official was likely to be considering in the face of some event in the news. Those pieces might be interesting if you are that guy, or if you are likely to succeed that guy in his post, or if that guy is likely to seek your advice. If none of those descriptions applies to you, an interest in pieces like that may expose something embarrassing about your fantasy life. Strangely, not only do papers keep publishing those pieces, but lots of people whom I know personally and regard as otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted avidly share them and enjoy talking about them, both on social media and face-to-face. It makes those conversations more bearable to think of them as “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy,” so that’s one reason I’m grateful to B. D. Mathews for posting this.

Another reason I’m grateful for the tweet is that it has prompted me to think of ways of having political opinions that do not reduce to the moral equivalent of such a comment. Today I saw something good in the Weekly Standard, if you can imagine such a thing. Ian Marcus Corbin, in an essay prompted by a recent book on Nietzsche and Heidegger, argues that our social-media-driven age has prompted many of us to obsess over political  opinion-having. He concludes: “Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.”

The phenomenon Mr Corbin discusses is not morally equivalent to a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy; it is much worse. While the existence of pornography as an industry does represent a threat to human dignity, no one comment on such a site is particularly likely to lead anyone to hurt another person, or to degrade anyone, or to lead anyone to betray a trust.  Obsessive political partisanship routinely does lead people to do all of those things, and it makes it harder to repair the damage that follows doing them.

Nietzsche himself gave a good reason for having political opinions. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that a population which takes liberal institutions for granted will distinguish itself among the peoples of the world in its uncommon stupidity, a stupidity that no amount of schooling will cure. However!

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

As usual, Nietzsche expresses himself in an idiom which some will find ridiculous and others will find terrifying. But his point is not so very different from that which a self-consciously civilized man like James Madison makes in that classic of liberal political theory, the tenth Federalist paper. For Madison, it is the adversarial structure of civic life and the mutual jealousies of competing factions within it that make it possible for a community to thrive:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

In a society where governments are formed and dismissed as a result of popular elections, the clash of interests cannot balance itself sufficiently to regulate the state unless large numbers of people attach themselves passionately to political opinions. These opinions may not rest on any very firm rational basis; think for example of the dispute between advocates of the Gold Standard and advocates of Bimetallism that dominated US politics in the late 19th century, a dispute in which neither side espoused a view that can stand up to one moment’s scrutiny from modern economic analysis, but which did as much to revitalize American civic life as did any of the more intelligible debates of other years. It pulled Americans out of an era of backward-looking regionalism to engage with politics on a frank basis of economic class interest. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that as a step towards reality.

I read Mr Corbin’s article, then turned immediately to Counterpunch. While the Weekly Standard is the most reliably pro-war rightist of major US publications, Counterpunch has long been the most reliably anti-war leftist of the same group. These publications are opposites of each other in those ways, and fittingly enough Counterpunch today features an article that is the converse of Mr Corbin’s.  Bruce Levine’s “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed” argues, not that too many people are too focused on political expression, but that too many people are effectively prevented from expressing or even forming political opinions.

The article picks up on an earlier piece of Mr Levine’s called “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back.” Fight back, that is, against elites who are cheating them of their future. In today’s piece, Mr Levine argues that the internet has given young Americans several more reasons to disengage from politics. First, young people fear that an online indiscretion will haunt them forever, and so refrain from saying anything controversial in any public forum. Rather than quote Mr Levine’s discussion of this fear, I will insert a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon making the same point:


Second, they are debilitated by the low self-esteem which their peers inculcate in them by their own relentless self-advertising:

For other young people, their greatest fear is “FoMo”—the fear of missing out—which is intensified on social media where they are constantly bombarded with images of others doing “cool” stuff. One young woman recently told me, “You don’t know how crazy we are. I saw a party on Instagram that looked really cool, and I had FoMo over it, even though I know the guy who posted it always makes parties look cooler than they really are.”

Many young people tell me that the constant barrage of their peers’ self-promotions on social media makes them feel inferior; and low self-esteem—like fear—debilitates the strength to resist. One young man recently explained to me that millennials are always aware of their “digital selves” which can be measured in metrics such as “likes”; and that comparing themselves to others routinely results in low self-esteem. Of course, some young people do attempt rebellion, but effective rebellion, they tell me, requires completely extricating from social media, which would be an extremely radical action.

Third, online political discussion tends to be dominated by the loudest voices, those of self-righteous extremists on each side. Disengaged from everything but the sound of their own voices, these extremists make the internet a space where there is no exchange of ideas or building of community, “only mutual venom.”

Mr Levine thinks that his generation can help to solve these problems:

The Internet technology need not necessarily be a pacifying force as, for example, the Internet was effectively utilized during the Arab spring to foment rebellion and organize resistance. Similarly, some of the other pacifying forces that I originally detailed need not be pacifying. Teachers could inspire resistance against illegitimate authorities rather than indoctrinate compliance to any and all authorities. And my fellow mental health professionals could embrace liberation psychology rather than pathologize and medicate rebellion.

My experience is that young people, in general, are becoming increasingly pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces, and older people who give a damn about them can help. The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.” However, if technicians, teachers, mental health professionals, and other guards never even admit to ourselves our societal role—as guards who maintain the status quo—then we guards will never consider a revolt. Many older people are guards, and they can choose to revolt and help young people gain the strength necessary to resist injustices.

What Mr Levine envisions is at the opposite extreme from “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy.”  While the current relationship of young Americans to the internet is all too aptly illustrated with the image of the socially isolated figure whose only offering to the world are the thoughts he has while masturbating, the relationship that Mr Levine imagines they might construct if their elders would stop enforcing that isolation and take the lead in opposing it is one that would bring people together to form new communities.

If political opinion-having in the online era is not a community-building activity of the sort Mr Levine has in mind, what purpose does it serve?  Daniel McCarthy makes a case that the appeal of ideologies in not in the quality of their ideas, but in the starkness of the contrast they make with rival groups.

Much of the political discussion I see on social media reminds me of what one might hear listening in on a therapy session.  For example, this photo was much circulated a couple of days ago:



I saw this posted both by Trump supporters, who exulted that their man was the rock on which the waves of Western decline break, and by Trump opponents, who expressed dismay that the US president was behaving like a petulant child. I put it another way in response to a contrast between this photo and another taken a few seconds before made by a right-wing news outlet:

The photo that is valuable is the one that will enable people on each side to see what they want to see.

This almost literal political Rorschach test is not unique. Here is another such, occasioned by reports that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was about to be arrested on charges of sexual assault:

The photo of Mr Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow with Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have been taken in 1999, a year when the phrase “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” was much in the air among Democrats exasperated with the apparent willingness of a certain percentage of the US public to believe absolutely any story, no matter how far-fetched that put the then-president and his family in a negative light. Shortly after Mr Clinton left office, Republicans began shaking their heads about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”; since then we’ve heard about “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” These are real things, and they are complemented by equally delusional behavior from people determined to regard the incumbent US president as somehow good.

That’s where the image of a therapy session comes in. The US presidency is a powerfully evocative symbol. That’s part of the point of it. For example, in 2008 many supporters of Barack Obama hoped that the election of an African-American president would call forth a version of the USA free of the old racial tensions; in 2016, many supporters of Donald Trump hoped, as many of his opponents feared, that his election would call American men to a more assertive masculinity. But as time wears on and those cultural transformations fail to take place, what the symbol actually calls up are the feelings individuals have about male authority figures in their lives. A president of your own party merges with all the images you carry of what might have been or what might yet be in your relationships with powerful men, while a president of the opposing party merges with all the men who’ve let you down. Discussions of presidents therefore rarely maintain any connection to questions of national policy for any length of time.  I suppose those discussions serve a therapeutic purpose for those who engage in them.




Presidential line of succession

Today’s xkcd:

Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.

I agree that the 1947 Presidential Succession Act is a disaster waiting to happen, and that at times it has waited rather impatiently.  In the case of the first vacancy to occur in the presidency while the act was in effect, it might very well have triggered a world war.

Before dawn on 23 November 1963, Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine was assigned to guard President Lyndon Johnson, who had a few hours before been sworn in as successor to the assassinated John F. Kennedy. In his 2010 memoir, Mr Blaine admitted that he came within a fraction of a second of killing President Johnson that night. As a member of President Kennedy’s security detail, Mr Blaine had grown accustomed to that president’s scrupulous habit of notifying his guards every time he was about to go outdoors. When Mr Blaine saw a figure roaming about in the darkness on the grounds of President Johnson’s Washington-area home that night, therefore, he assumed it must be an intruder, and being as he was on highest alert he prepared to shoot the figure on sight. His finger was on the trigger of his submachine gun, about to squeeze, when a beam of light fell across the familiar features of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Had Mr Blaine squeezed that trigger, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts. Here is a photograph from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, showing John McCormack in conference with President Kennedy:

mccormack jfk

In November of 1963, John McCormack was a 71 year old man with no national following, who was known on the world stage solely for his family’s longstanding and often bitter feud with the Kennedys. For example, in 1962 John McCormack’s nephew Eddie McCormack had been Edward M. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic primary for the US Senate from Massachusetts, a race in which Eddie McCormack had said some rather hard words about the president’s kid brother.  Had a man with that profile succeeded to the presidency as the result of two shootings within hours of each other, the first committed by a person or persons at that point still unknown, the other committed by a member of the late president’s own bodyguard, it would have been natural for the world to assume that the shootings were part of a bloody power struggle in Washington. Some people, particularly the people in charge of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, would have been required to take substantive action based on that assumption. Because the early 1960s were the most perilous phase of the Cold War, it would have been dereliction of duty for the leaders in the Kremlin to have regarded them as anything else.

The USA had gone through many peaceful transfers of power by 1963. Foreign observers, operating under the assumption that a violent coup was in place, would therefore have to make the further assumption that the coup-makers were acting from desperation. If the USA were a country where groups routinely succeeded each other in the seats of power by means of assassination, the motive might have been relatively humdrum. Since the USA was in fact at the opposite pole, where a bloody power struggle was a radical departure from the norm, the motive must itself have been radical.

What could that motive have been? Starting in the early 1950s, a powerful faction within the US military, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had been advocating a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, a preemptive strike known to its advocates as the “Sunday Punch.”  General LeMay’s idea was widely enough known to the Washington press corps that when he emerged as a candidate for vice president a few years later, they were ready with questions about it, questions which he answered in a rather terrifying way. Surely Soviet intelligence must have been aware in 1963 that there was a faction in the Pentagon that had long been making this proposal, and that its leaders included Curtis Lemay, who at that time was the Air Force Chief of Staff. If a group were so hardened to violence as to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR, killing hundreds of millions of people, perhaps that same group would reconcile itself to adding two more murders to their scheme. Seeing John McCormack emerging from the bloodstained chaos, the Soviets might well have concluded that he was a stooge of the victorious Lemay faction, and that their only chance of survival lay in hitting the US and its nuclear arsenal with all the forces they could muster.

Now, rerun the scenario without the 1947 act. Before that law was passed, the 1886 Presidential Succession Act had placed the Secretary of State second in line of succession behind the Vice President. Under no circumstances would it have been easy to believe that the shooting deaths of two presidents within 24 hours had resulted from the actions of a lone gunman and a panicked security man, but at least with the advent of President Dean Rusk the prospect of world war would not have been greatly heightened. Though he was not a particular favorite of President Kennedy’s, Secretary of State Rusk was an appointee of his, had represented his administration faithfully, and had been a familiar figure in world capitals since the early months of the Second World War. Though the Kremlin would still have assumed that the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were part of a violent power struggle, Rusk’s ascension would have been evidence that the faction loyal to President Kennedy had won that struggle and prevented an immediate nuclear attack on the USSR. Certainly it would have been rational for the Soviets to approach a Rusk administration cautiously and to refrain from any irrevocable actions.

In the other situation when the provisions of the 1947 act might have come into effect, the stakes were less desperate, but still considerable.  That was in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after he was caught taking bribes. In an unrelated scandal coming to light at the same time, the so-called “Watergate” affair, President Richard Nixon was facing the ever-increasing likelihood of removal from office for his own criminal exploits. Congress was reluctant to act against President Nixon for many reasons, not least that removing him while the Vice Presidency was vacant would have meant that after an election in which over 60% of the people had voted for a Republican president, the 1947 act would then have elevated a Democratic Speaker of the House to the presidency. Indeed, the selection of Congressman Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew paid a sort of homage to the 1947 act, since Ford was the man the Republicans would have installed as Speaker had they held the majority in the House of Representatives.

As for Randall Munroe’s suggestions in the comic above, slots 1-6 look pretty good to me.  I would suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury should be on the list, no lower than right behind the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury is the only official who is a first-rank player in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and is certainly as familiar to policymakers around the world as is any appointed official other than the Secretary of State.

Number 7, “Five people who do not live in Washington, DC, nominated at the start of the President’s term and confirmed by the Senate” sounds logical, though I’d need some specifics before I endorsed the idea. Would these be people who already hold office under the federal government? If not, how would they be paid, how would they be kept informed of the things a president ought to know, and how would they be kept from involving themselves in matters with which a president ought to have nothing to do?

Number 8, Tom Hanks. Well, I remember Bosom Buddies as fondly as the next person (assuming that the next person didn’t like the show either,) but I don’t think he’s quite the person I’d like to see taking charge in a crisis so extreme that all those senior officials had died or otherwise become unavailable. I used to mistake Tom Hanks for Tim Robbins, and Tim Robbins used to be partnered with Susan Sarandon. So I’d suggest putting Susan Sarandon in that spot.

Number 9, “State governors in descending order of population at the last census,” is no good. One of the problems of the 1947 Act is that many legal experts believe that the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches may well preclude members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, from being listed in the line of succession. No less important to the constitutional order than the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government is the division of powers between the federal government and the states. Including governors would violate this principle as surely as including members of Congress violates the other.  Moreover, sorting them by the population of their states would revive a contention between large states and small ones, a contention which the Constitution did so much to resolve.

Number 10, “Anyone who won an Oscar for playing a governor,” might encourage Hollywood to make prestige movies about state government.  That’s a cause I can get behind, so I’ll endorse that.

Number 11, “Anyone who won a Governor’s Award for playing someone named Oscar,” will only encourage remakes of The Odd Couple, an intolerable prospect.

Number 12, “Kate McKinnon, if available.” I assume that means that Mr Munroe hopes that, in the dark day when the country finds itself going so far down the line of succession, Ms McKinnon would stop trying to be funny. I can think of any number of comedians whose efforts are far more tedious than hers, so I would put them ahead of her.

Number 13, the Billboard Hot 100 artists. Sure, why not? Considering the current president’s show-biz background, it’s probably just a matter of time before that population starts to dominate the presidential sweepstakes on its own.

Number 14, US astronauts, no. I’ve always loved astronauts, but they are strongly biased against sending robot probes into space to do actual science. We don’t need more studies about the damage gravity deprivation does to the human body, but we do need multiple rovers on the Moon and other instruments that can answer serious questions in astronomy and planetary science.

Number 15, Serena Williams, and Number 16, champions of the biggest ticket team sports. That’s a juicy idea…

Number 17, Bill Pullman and his descendants. That would require a legal method for distinguishing between Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. Since descendants are involved, Bill Paxton’s death does nothing to surmount this impossible challenge.

Number 18, the entire line of succession to the British throne. Judging by the percentage of the US population that swoons when British royals are in the news, this might be a popular idea. And it does make since that there should be a sense of kinship there, since many Americans are proud to trace their lineage back to hardworking families of German immigrants who made good.

Number 19, the current champion of the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest. This one should rank much higher, behind the Secretary of the Treasury and ahead of the Secretary of Defense.

Number 20, “All other US citizens, chosen by a 29 round single elimination jousting tournament,” would leave the winner free of most of the usual problems of political leadership, since virtually all of the surviving population would be severely incapacitated by its wounds. After issuing urgent appeals to the other countries of the world to send medical assistance, s/he would have plenty of time to work on his or her hot-dog eating skills.

November 2016 Was a Coup d’Etat, and the Rightwing Liars Made It Happen

[I thought this was interesting, so I figured I’d post it here.]

“None are more deeply enslaved than those who believe themselves truly free.”

There’s nothing new about calling DJT an illegitimate head of state. And plenty of basis for doing so. Weird stuff happened that shouldn’t have happened in the leadup to the election. Comey made questionable choices, and there was evident foreign tampering. These factors arguably shifted the vote just enough to yield a razor-narrow margin across 3 states and tip the electoral college in Trump’s favor. And to top it off – for heaven’s sake – the winner got FEWER votes than the loser. All of this has the stench of democracy gone off the rails.

But I want to shine a light on the prime mover behind Trump’s victory. He never could’ve gotten where he is, and managed to stay there this long, without a truly maniacal rightwing media apparatus pulling for him.

This apparatus functions to amplify, cheerlead for, and legitimize a whole swath of reprehensible attitudes and positions. Day by day, this juggernaut of stupidity sputters forth its endless spume of toxic nonsense. Distortions and lies dressed as truth. Fabrications, fantasies, and justifications for the unjustifiable.

These broadcasters spawn in the mind of their audience almost a mythological landscape, on which a manichaean struggle plays out. They depict the disadvantaged and the oppressed as “takers,” who fiendishly strive to undermine “America and its greatness.” And they extol the noble Corporate Capitalists, benevolent benefactors of the plebeian common folk.

The rightwingers’ economic “philosophy” is as simpleminded as it is vicious. Give big business a few more tax loopholes, and some easing of regulation. These measures, they proclaim, will inevitably redound to the benefit of all. The opulent wealth pouring into corporate coffers will, in time, “trickle down.” (Reagan was saying stuff like this back in the 80s, and it was ridiculous then.) Further, these pundits insist there can be no valid economic grievance in the “land of opportunity.” And economic justice, as a concept, is laughable.

But if one isn’t going to fight on the economic front, what else is there to get heated about? How about a manufactured, non-existent “culture war” between the regular folk of “flyover country” versus the “coastal elites”? This ugly contrivance is a distraction and a diversion, as well as a nonsensical phantasm. It has the obvious function of turning the population against itself using a classic divide-and-conquer strategy.

What sense does it make to say there is no elitism or wealth in the interior of the country? And no forgotten poor in the metro centers on the coasts? Of course it’s true there are differences in regional culture. Contrast rural Arkansas and Sunset Boulevard. And to some degree, these regional differences of culture can be seen to overlap with disparity in wealth distribution.

Yet this alleged correlation does more to obscure than to clarify. If rough-hewn working men opt for a cultural style which entails denim, flannel, and heavy work boots, is THAT STYLE really the essential issue? If these same workers had the means and the wherewithal to attend law school and become successful attorneys, they could still wear jeans and John Deere caps at their law practice.

The name of the game is generate an artificial cultural rift in the country and make THAT – not economics – the burning issue. And inasmuch as economics can’t be entirely ignored, you blame the have-nots, champion the haves, and sow overall confusion as to what is going on. And what is going on, make no mistake, is economic class warfare.

Trump has his cleverness and his cunning, his knack for creating simple, stupid, yet resonant names and slogans. Not to mention a flair for being the victim of non-existent conspiracies and scandals. But these dubious talents would get him noplace without the enthusiastic complicity of the rightwing lying industry.

That industry does more than just enable Trump; it makes him possible. It’s unthinkable there could be any substantial social consensus surrounding Trump without there existing this rhetorical universe designed to validate him, literally every day, in every way.

And the final piece we must confront is that this is a big-money industry. Its influence is so widespread, because it is financed by titanic resources. Limbaugh as a leading AM pundit rakes in, for ONE DAY of broadcasting, an amount most Americans could only dream of earning in A YEAR. And almost unbelievably, his legions of dittohead followers accept it when he postures as an “average Joe” or “regular guy.” There is nothing average or regular about a man wallowing in oceanic sums of cash as recompense for his stream-of-consciousness ramblings on a radio show.

Yet money, in large enough sums, has always been sufficient to get individuals to surrender any personal integrity or scruples. We need to think about where all that dough is streaming in from. And you’re not going to tell me, in this age of globalism, that it’s all originating within the US. And if other national interests are involved in formulating our domestic propaganda consumption, that should really give us pause.

And I want to clarify: This is not a “conspiracy theory” alleging that e.g. Limbaugh is receiving direction from shadowy contacts in China or Russia. Rather, I’m suggesting that tools know, instinctively and intuitively, what kinds of messages their paymasters want to see them spin out. And in this case, the paymasters ultimately have global designs, in which the specific national interest of the US may be expendable or incidental.

Therefore, when FOX and AM radio sing their incessant praise of Trump and cloak him in the garb of red-white-and-blue patriotism, it should always be remembered what a bitter charade that is.

Trump and the psychotic lying industry have no compunction about steamrolling US national interest on the world stage. Trump might not be fully cognizant of that. (But he would not care, even if he did realize the full ramifications of his careening presidency.) Thus, DJT is, in the final analysis, a sort of puppet. It is the lying apparatus that made him, maintains him, and – in the form of Hannity – sometimes even formulates his own messages for him.

So, to circle back to the beginning: There’s nothing new about calling DJT an illegitimate head of state. But at the deepest level, it was not Comey who made him. Or Russian tampering. Or a flawed electoral system. It was an out-of-control apparatus of mass indoctrination, belching out messaging that does not square with our interests as Americans, and does not align with our national wellbeing.

And it scored a successful coup d’etat in November 2016.

Dumb people on your own side

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter lately. This tweet does a lot to explain why:

I’ve found a number of people on Twitter with whom I agree on one issue or another. While I don’t intentionally follow any “dumb people,” most people who tweet more than a few times a day will occasionally say dumb things, and virtually all of them sometimes link to deeply ill-considered articles by others. So that site gives me a regular dose of bad versions of things I believe.

Restrictionist/ Relaxationist

In a widely discussed column in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks said that he’d like to be a moderate on immigration policy, but that he can’t find any good arguments for the restrictionist position. I find myself in something of the opposite position. I’m basically a relaxationist, but the arguments for relaxing immigration policy never stand up very well to any sort of rational scrutiny.

Take the main argument Mr Brooks sets forth in his column, that native born Americans show an increasing disdain for the sorts of activities necessary to keep capitalism growing:

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote. They start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants express confidence in the American dream, compared with only 50 percent of the native-born.

Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.

Rod Dreher amplified this point in a blog post about Mr Brooks’ column. Mr Dreher focuses specifically on anecdotes suggesting that native born American youth show an increasing disdain for physical labor:

Around 2007, I think it was, my late father, who lived in rural Louisiana, had some brush he needed clearing in a field he owned. He usually did this himself — or, when I was a kid, with me — but by then he was long retired, and was physically unable to do it. I was living far away.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find high school kids to do this kind of work. Our parish was 50 percent black, and 50 percent white. We had almost no Asians or Latinos. White kids, black kids, you could hire kids to do this work. As I said, I did this kind of work for my dad. I hated it. It was hot, and it was demanding. But this is what you did.

Not by 2007. No white teenage boys wanted to do that kind of hard physical labor. My father drove into a black neighborhood and found groups of young men — men in their 20s — sitting around with nothing to do. He offered them several times the minimum wage to come clear brush for him for a day. They all declined. They were all out of work and doing nothing that day, but it wasn’t worth it to them. He was a retiree on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay anything more than that. But when I was a teenager, any number of young men would have jumped at the opportunity. Not anymore. Neither whites nor blacks would do physical labor.

(That’s not strictly true — I know a handful of both white men and black men there today who do exactly this kind of work, but at the time my dad needed it, they either weren’t in business, or were too booked up.)

Anyway, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of his friends said that a few Guatemalans had moved into the parish recently. If I recall correctly, they had come with a large contingent of Central Americans who had moved to New Orleans to work on post-Katrina reconstruction. My dad’s friend put him in touch with one of them. They were eager to work. My dad hired the three Guatemalan men who were in town. They cleared the brush in a day, and did a great job of it.

My father was grateful, and he ended up hiring them on more occasions when he needed that kind of work done. My dad was an old white Southern man, and though we never talked about immigration, I imagine he held the usual prejudices about outsiders from Latin America. But I know for a fact he was impressed by those Guatemalan men, and came away with a very positive impression of them. As I’ve mentioned here on other posts, my dad grew up poor, and had a very, very strong work ethic. He judged men based on their willingness to work. As far as he was concerned, those Guatemalan men proved to him their worth that day.

Here’s the thing. In that time, and in that place, there was physical labor to be done. My father, who was very conservative, tried to hire native-born Americans, both black and white, to do the work. He struck out. Over the past 40 years, the cultural attitude towards hard physical labor has changed, for both blacks and whites in our parish. The only men he could find who were willing to do the work were Latino immigrants. Ours is a relatively poor part of America, so the wages he offered them for a day’s labor were standard.

Now, you could say that the immigrants were undercutting the locals by being willing to work for less. You might be right about that. But in my recollection, the locally born young men, white or black, would not even name a price. They simply didn’t want to do the work, even though they had no work otherwise. My pensioner father, being a rural man of the Depression generation, read that as moral decline.

I offered this comment in response to Mr Dreher’s post:

If native-born youth are coming to regard physical labor with disdain, delegating physical labor to a foreign-born underclass will surely do nothing but accelerate that process.

Which, the more I think about it, seems to be entirely sufficient to explode Mr Brooks’ case. If the native born population were going to compete directly with new arrivals, then the new arrivals might remake them in their image. We could then decide that we prefer that image to what native have been showing us, and consider that a point in favor of a relaxationist policy. But everything Mr Brooks and Mr Dreher have said indicates that this will not happen, that the natives will respond to immigrant industriousness by priding themselves ever more intensely on sloth.  Friends of mine who have spent time in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf have told me that a dynamic like this can produce a singularly unattractive sort of young man. So Mr Brooks’ column and Mr Dreher’s post, while they may not make a case for any particular form of restrictionism, certainly do make it more difficult for those of us who would like to make a case for a relaxationist position.

I should mention that Mr Brooks’ case has been systematically dismantled by the hated Steve Sailer. Say what you will about Mr Sailer, there isn’t much he hasn’t heard when it comes to immigration, and he is very well-prepared to defend his position.

Going to press before Mr Brooks’ column appeared were a piece by Damon Linker complaining that the American center-left is having some kind of collective nervous breakdown over immigration at precisely the moment when the public most needs them to think about the issue calmly.

Also appearing before Mr Brooks’ column was a piece by Ishmael Reed, “Using Immigrants to Shame American Blacks.” Mr Reed comments on the high rate of educational attainment among Nigerian and other African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the USA. This comes with a downside for African Americans, not only because whites use the success that some immigrants from those countries enjoy in the USA to justify their denial that African Americans face unfair burdens, but also because many people from those countries are themselves prejudiced against African Americans. Mr Reed writes that “for some Black Americans, immigration means the arrival of more racists to add to the ones already here.”

A point Mr Reed does not make is that Nigeria, Haiti, and other countries he mentions as sources for highly educated, highly capable immigrants to the USA are themselves in need of the services of such people, and the brain drain to the already-developed world is one of the major obstacles to starting the process of rapid economic development.

For this reason, it is an act of war for a rich country to maintain an open border with a poor one, and such economic warfare can be justified only in extraordinary circumstances. For example, when Daesh was in control of much of Syria many people in the West proposed lifting all restrictions on immigration from Syria to Europe and North America. If Daesh were going to win its war and become the permanent regime in that country, such a policy might have been justified. It would have stripped Syria of its educated professional class and of its most industrious entrepreneurs, thereby reducing the country to extreme poverty and limiting the ability of that extremist sect to pose a long-term threat to the peace of the world. As long as there was a chance that Daesh would be defeated, as it now seems to have been, such a policy would have been unconscionable. Since neither Nigeria, nor Haiti, nor indeed any country anywhere in the world is in the position that Syria would have occupied under the firmly established control of Daesh, it would be equally unconscionable for the USA to adopt a policy of open borders towards any of them.

Anyway, that isn’t something Mr Reed talks about.  However, the fact that so many on the center-left are so utterly oblivious to the impact on sending countries of the brain drain that high levels of immigration of highly-skilled workers implies can be explained only if Mr Reed is right and the boosters of ultra-relaxationism have derived their ideas from racism.

Who can punish a country? Who would try?

Relations among countries are different from relations among individuals in several ways. A country is a great deal more complex, more dynamic, more resilient, and less predictable than any individual. That has implications for those who see foreign policy as an appropriate venue for moralistic cruelty.  Methods that might reliably break the will of an individual and reduce that individual to an object lesson to deter others from following their example might not be at all predictable in their effect when applied in the international sphere.

This may seem obvious, but has apparently escaped the notice of the political leaders of the continent of Europe. Two recent pieces, from Matthew Lynn in The Spectator and from Clive Crook on Bloomberg, make this point quite effectively.

Mr Lynn argues that, as time goes by without any progress towards a deal between Britain and the remainder of the European Union to reduce the economic costs of Britain’s exit from the Union, an ever-increasing number of economic actors assume that there will be no such deal and prepare for the worst-case. If in 2019 that worst-case comes to pass, virtually all of the costs will have been baked into the markets. While the costs will be considerable and may trigger a steep recession, most of them will be one-time costs. Therefore, that steep recession may well be followed by a steep recovery.

It is a near-certainty that at least some of the remaining members of the EU will be in recession while Britain is undergoing its post-Brexit recovery. If there is a strong anti-EU movement in any such country, Britain will indeed be a potent example to encourage that movement. That encouragement will be potent even if Britain’s post-Brexit recovery peters out before returning the country to its pre-Brexit levels of prosperity. The more flagrantly unco-operative the rest of the EU has been with Britain during this period, the deadlier any sign of life in the British economy after 2019 will be to advocates of ever-closer Union.

Mr Crook, an opponent of Leave in last year’s referendum, says that the very difficulty of the exit process is causing him to rethink his position. Mr Crook writes:

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.’s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe’s system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union’s “democratic deficit” seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it’s portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. “Ever closer union” remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It’s happening — haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design — which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe’s chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve “sufficient progress” on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention — not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It’s taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking — but it doesn’t advance the EU’s larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don’t build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

In closing, Mr Crook asks if the rest of the EU truly thinks that it would be better off with a “beaten and resentful enemy” than with a “prosperous friend, trading partner, and military ally just off its coast.”

Considering the EU’s behavior in, to take only two examples, Italy in November 2011 and in Greece in the summer of 2015, I’d say it is rather clear that the EU is led by people for whom popular legitimacy is not a first-order practical concern. So a country in which the majority of the general public sees itself as a “beaten and resentful enemy” of the EU might not be a problem for the people who set EU policy, so long as that majority is incapable of translating its resentment into action that might impose costs on the interests the EU serves.

A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.