March 13, 2008

Today / 03.13.08

Today in History (1862) - The U.S. government forbids all Union army officers from returning fugitive slaves, thus effectively annulling the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and setting the stage for the Emancipation Proclamation. On the same day in 1865, the Confederate Congress voted to enlist 300,000 black troops, granting them freedom with the consent of their owners. Lee surrendered a few weeks later.

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Good Movies About the War in Iraq

Judging by the Vietnam precedent, wherein the first significant movies like Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were released after the last American had left (1975), I'm guessing we have a while to wait. In contrast to A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964), To the Shores of Hell (1965) and of course The Green Berets (1968), however, the mediocre films that have been made in the first five years of the current conflict are not pro-war.

UPDATE: At least there are brave filmmakers, including Ben "Bad to the Bone" Stein, to demand tenure and funding for professors who consider themselves competent to declare that evolution didn't occur. The movie's blog refers to PZ Myers as "atheist blogger and fabulist," neglecting to mention that he is an actual biologist. Pity that the filmmakers took a hostile attitude toward Christian intellectual Dr. Francis Collins.

Mr. Ruloff also cited Dr. Francis S. Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and whose book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Simon & Schuster, 2006), explains how he came to embrace his Christian faith. Dr. Collins separates his religious beliefs from his scientific work only because "he is toeing the party line," Mr. Ruloff said.

That’s "just ludicrous," Dr. Collins said in a telephone interview. While many of his scientific colleagues are not religious and some are "a bit puzzled" by his faith, he said, "they are generally very respectful." He said that if the problem Mr. Ruloff describes existed, he is certain he would know about it.
Dr. Collins was not asked to participate in the film.

Dr. Collins gave the commencement speech at UVa's 2001 graduation, and Mr. Ruloff probably would be confounded by how someone could gently exhort in favor of religion without getting run off a public university's campus.
Decision number two: Well, this is the one that makes people squirm. What are you going to do about faith? Uh oh, not that one. But can there be any more important questions than these: How did we all get here? What is the meaning of life? How is it that we know deep-down inside what is right and wrong and yet rarely succeed in doing what is right for more than about thirty minutes? What happens to us after we die?

Surely these are among the most critical questions in life. And ones which a university should carefully consider. But how much time have you spent on them? Perhaps you, like I, grew up in a home where faith played a significant role, but you never made it your own. Or you concluded it was a fuzzy area that made you uncomfortable. Or even concluded that it was all superstition, like Mark Twain's schoolboy, who when requested to define faith said, 'It is believing what you know ain't so.' Or perhaps you simply assumed that as you grew in knowledge of science that faith was incompatible with a rigorous intellect and that God was irrelevant and obsolete. Well, I am here to tell you that this is not so.

All of those half-truths against the possibility of God have holes in them big enough to drive a truck through, as I learned by reading C.S. Lewis. In my view, there is no conflict between being a 'rigorous, show me the data' physician-scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us and whose domain is in the spiritual world. A domain not possible to explore by the tools and language and science, but with the heart, the mind and the soul.

Yet, it is remarkable how many of us fail to consider those questions of eternal significance until some personal crisis or advancing age forces us to face our own spiritual impoverishment. Don't make that mistake.

Although I found his speech thoughtful, entertaining, and even musical, the Collinses of the world sadly are not the ones who end up making movies. Despite publicly debating Richard Dawkins and calling Dawkins on his "embittered manifesto of dogmatic atheist fundamentalism," Collins, by virtue of his high stature among biologists, is not an appropriate person to include in a documentary of how Big Science is keeping out smart new ideas.

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March 12, 2008

Here We Go Again

Geraldine Ferraro has taken up Ramesh Ponnuru's cry that one can't criticize Barack Obama without being called a racist. Like Ponnuru, she cheerfully ignores that one only opens oneself to the accusation by bringing up race at all. For example, McCain's attacks on Obama for being ignorant about Al Qaeda in Iraq have not been countered by saying they are racist. Obviously they're not, because McCain never mentioned race in this criticism, nor at any other time.

Perhaps the one good thing about Republicans' insistence that we should all be color-blind is that their candidates have thus far been quite good about not seeing race in this campaign. Both their praise and criticism of Obama have been for non-racial qualities: his charisma in the plus column, his inexperience and liberalism as minuses. If the Republican nominee can make cutting, sarcastic remarks about Obama without getting into race, I begin to wonder why Obama's opponents within the Democratic Party can't do the same. Obama's campaign is well aware that he needs to win a large percentage of white votes, so they don't bring up race much themselves, because it's not a winning issue for him with undecided white voters. However, if someone else makes any reference to race in a criticism of Obama, then the campaign's asking why race is being raised is logical, because the criticizer did it first.

Thus far, the only significant commentator who I have heard make a wrongful claim of racism has been Orlando Patterson, of whom Ferraro also complained. In a NYTimes op-ed, he questioned why there weren't any black kids in Clinton's 3 AM ad and said, "In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within." While Patterson may be right that the Clinton campaign along with conservatives is trying to portray Obama as an outsider to America, especially white America -- supported only by blacks, unpatriotic, possibly Muslim, etc. -- this specific ad was at most an unconscious attempt to do so. As we've seen over and over with Republicans' amusement that Democrats would run two, TWO minority candidates, many whites' default idea of America is that it's white, and of power is that it's male. Presidential candidates' race and sex only become an "issue" if they're not white males. Even assuming Patterson is correct that none of the children are black (they're so dimly lighted, I couldn't tell), it probably just didn't occur to anyone in the Clinton campaign that it would be nice to show a black kid to communicate that the danger against which Clinton will protect us is a danger to all Americans, regardless of race. It was not an intentional effort to exclude African Americans.

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March 05, 2008

How Willingness Became Weakness

Michael Gerson in today's Washington Post engages in a thought experiment in order to conclude that Obama cannot stand by his campaign pledges without becoming a foreign policy failure. Gerson declares that Obama will make an "inaugural pledge to 'pay any price, bear any burden, fly any distance to meet with our enemies,'" and that Obama has "made Iranian talks 'without precondition' his major foreign policy goal." Gerson evidently didn't trouble himself to listen to Obama's speeches or even skim the Foreign Policy section of his website. At the top of that page is a quote from the speech that David Brooks recently called the defining moment of Obama's candidacy:

I will end the war in Iraq… I will close Guantanamo. I will restore habeas corpus. I will finish the fight against Al Qaeda. And I will lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century: nuclear weapons and terrorism; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. And I will send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says, "You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now."
And after that quote, there's the first part of Obama's plan: Ending the War in Iraq. Part of this program is that "Obama will launch the most aggressive diplomatic effort in recent American history to reach a new compact on the stability of Iraq and the Middle East. This effort will include all of Iraq's neighbors – including Iran and Syria. This compact will aim to secure Iraq's borders; keep neighboring countries from meddling inside Iraq; isolate al Qaeda; support reconciliation among Iraq's sectarian groups; and provide financial support for Iraq's reconstruction."

I'm unclear on how any president thinks he will stem the problem of foreign fighters and arms coming over the Iraqi border, unless he plans either to increase troop levels even further to the point that they can secure the 900 mile border with Iran and the 300 mile border with Syria, or makes an agreement with Iraq and Syria that includes penalties for their non-compliance. Even an erstwhile ally like Turkey has taken to bombing northern Iraq in order to deter rebels' hopes for a Kurdish state. Moreover, Iraq's own leadership appears quite willing to sit down with Ahmadinejad.

Gerson says with regard to Iraq (oddly*, the last topic discussed in his op-ed), "American troops will no longer be embedded in Iraqi combat units or used to combat Iranian influence (all pledges made during his campaign). ... Armed groups of Sunnis and Shiites within Iraq begin preparing for a resumption of sectarian conflict." Yet this was hardly a "no new taxes" type of promise on Obama's part -- he has said he would adjust it if necessary after discussions with senior military leaders:

"As commander in chief, I’m not going to leave trainers unprotected," he said. "In our counterterrorism efforts, I'm not going to have a situation where our efforts can't be successful. If the commanders tell me that they need X, Y and Z, in order to accomplish the very narrow mission that I've laid out, then I will take that into consideration."
This is contrary to Bush's tendency to ignore what his experienced advisers tell him when it doesn't fit with his pre-conception, as with his preference for the Rumsfeld plan, based on the assumption that the Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and immediately set about building Iraq into a well-functioning ally of America, to the State Department's warnings about sectarian conflict and the need to secure infrastructure.

Gerson's implication that Obama would leave Iraqis to sectarian genocide is particularly bizarre given that he cites Samantha Power's influence on Obama. Indeed, an actual unconditional pledge Obama has made is, "Yet as we drawdown, we must declare our readiness to intervene with allies to stop genocidal violence."

* I say oddly because Gerson himself is a former Bush speechwriter who was part of the White House Iraq Group that marketed the war to Americans. One might think that he would attack Obama on the Iraq issue first even if Gerson does fantasize that Iran is actually a higher priority than Iraq for Obama.

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March 03, 2008

The Spreading Confusion About Child Pornography

Echoing the theme of a 2006 lawsuit against Google (which the plaintiff rapidly moved to dismiss), Sen. McCain seems to conflate two distinct problems in the threat posed to human dignity by internet pornography.

... However, there is a darker side to the Internet. Along with the access and anonymity of the Internet have come those who would use it to peddle child pornography and other sexually explicit material and to prey upon children.
John McCain has been a leader in pushing legislation through Congress that requires all schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies for Internet connectivity to utilize technology to restrict access to sexually explicit material by children using such computers. While the first line of defense for children will always be strong and involved parents, when they send their child to school or drop their child off at the library, parents have the right to feel safe that someone is going to be looking out for their children.

McCain did introduce the bill that eventually became the Children's Internet Protection Act, and CIPA has survived constitutional challenge. However, I am puzzled as to why McCain's campaign site mentions child pornography and child predation under the heading "Protecting Children from Internet Pornography." Child predators tend to find victims through social sites and applications (MySpace, AIM), not by somehow finding and contacting other users of sexually explicit sites.

The harm that legislators prevent through severe penalties for possession of child pornography is not that other children will see such images, but that children will be used to make the pornography. The Supreme Court struck down the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 for outlawing sexual images that appeared to be of children but were made using adults or through digital manipulation. Even the dissenters in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition premised their argument on the difficulty for prosecutors of distinguishing between real instead of fake child pornography, not on the inherent evil of the latter.

Moreover, CIPA was controversial less for its restrictions on schools than on libraries. The Court managed to uphold the law by getting Kennedy's vote, and his concurrence relied on the government's claim that libraries would remove the filter upon request of any adult user. The idea that "parents have the right to feel safe that someone is going to be looking out for their children" when they "drop their child off at the library" makes little sense. Schools may stand in loco parentis (though only Thomas believes they are not simultaneously state actors), but libraries and other public facilities have no such status. Library staff lack any special relationship to children who enter the premises. Unlike teachers, they have no statutory obligation to report suspected abuse, and expressly disclaim responsibility for any harms children encounter while at the library. Some parents might like to think they can shuffle off responsibility for their children by dropping them at a library -- that, in McCain's words, they have a "right" to do so -- but they cannot.

Child pornography and predation are matters of governmental concern and proper for regulation because they entail obvious harms. "Peddl[ing] ... other sexually explicit material," in contrast, is protected activity no matter how much Republicans may dislike it. McCain cleverly cloaks the conservative antagonism to freedom of sexualized speech in the irreproachable justification of doing it For the Children. He probably realizes that given Americans' level of consumption of online sexual material, he would lose lots of independents' votes by actually stating that pornography in general is inimical to human dignity.

BY THE WAY: For the in-country, non-environmentalist, non-veteran, irreligious straight white male who feels left out by the People categories on Obama's website, the Republican candidate's site offers another option: Lawyers for McCain. McCain is the remaining candidate who isn't a lawyer, and was unusual even within the plausible Republican field (Romney, Giuliani, Thompson) for lacking a law degree.

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March 02, 2008

After Hiatus, Back to Con Law

I encountered Erwin Chemerinsky in his professorial (as opposed to author/ litigator/ talking head) capacity for the first time in his videotaped BarBri lecture on constitutional law, one of a few subjects in which none of the lecture felt like it was introducing brand new material, and the first subject in which I could remember the names of the relevant cases as I went through the outline. The lecture helpfully tipped us off to how to apply con law to multiple choice questions; for example, Chemerinsky noted that when the question asks who is the "best plaintiff" out of a group in which no one seems to have standing for certain, the answer is the plaintiff who suffered personal economic loss. Because it's probably the area of bar-tested law that I know best, however, some of the summaries puzzled me.

For example, with regard to third party standing Chemerinsky said that such standing is allowed if there is a close relationship between the plaintiff and the injured third party. His example was the doctor-patient relationship that permitted abortionists to assert their patients' rights to challenge restrictions on abortion. Hence the line of abortion cases that followed Roe mostly have plaintiffs like Planned Parenthood, Dr. Franklin, Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Dr. Simopoulos, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr. Carhart.

But these abortion providers were themselves at risk of criminal prosecution for violating the abortion restrictions, which violations could entail losing one's medical license and serving prison time, as Dr. Simopoulos did. So it was actually the physician plaintiff's liberty or property that was at risk from enforcement, while it was the third party's -- the aborting woman's -- right that was at issue. Similarly, it was the beer vendor in Craig v. Boren whom the Court found to suffer "injury in fact," because she would be punished by the state if she sold to men under 21.

Thus a "close relationship" between the parties is not sufficient. There must be a close relationship between the right sought to be vindicated, and the inability to exercise the right if someone (physician, beer-seller, et al.) will be legally sanctioned for violating the statute. If we flipped the proposals of people like Fred Thompson and punished the abortion-seeker rather than the abortionist, the latter would cease to have standing to bring suit, because he no longer would face any penalties under the law.

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Truth and Reconciliation

From Freeman Dyson's excellent NYRB review of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, by Michael J. Neufeld:

The author of this book condemns von Braun for his collaboration with the SS, and condemns the United States government for covering up the evidence of his collaboration. Here I beg to differ with the author. War is an inherently immoral activity. Even the best of wars involves crimes and atrocities, and every citizen who takes part in war is to some extent collaborating with criminals. I should here declare my own interest in this debate. In my work for the RAF Bomber Command, I was collaborating with people who planned the destruction of Dresden in February 1945, a notorious calamity in which many thousands of innocent civilians were burned to death. If we had lost the war, those responsible might have been condemned as war criminals, and I might have been found guilty of collaborating with them.

After this declaration of personal involvement, let me state my conclusion. In my opinion, the moral imperative at the end of every war is reconciliation. Without reconciliation there can be no real peace. Reconciliation means amnesty. It is allowable to execute the worst war criminals, with or without a legal trial, provided that this is done quickly, while the passions of war are still raging. After the executions are done, there should be no more hunting for criminals and collaborators. In order to make a lasting peace, we must learn to live with our enemies and forgive their crimes. Amnesty means that we are all equal before the law. Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity, because the alternative is an unending cycle of hatred and revenge. South Africa has set us a good example, showing how it can be done.

In the end, I admire von Braun for using his God-given talents to achieve his visions, even when this required him to make a pact with the devil. He bent Hitler and Himmler to his purposes more than they bent him to theirs. And I admire the United States Army for giving him a second chance to pursue his dreams. In the end, the amnesty given to him by the United States did far more than a strict accounting of his misdeeds could have done to redeem his soul and to fulfill his destiny.

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March 01, 2008

Remembering Buckley Accurately

1. Writing in the New York Times (not National Review, so never mind those who claim to have read it in their subscription) in 1986, he composed a kind of dialogue between School A, the protectors of civil liberties and privacy, and School B, the protectors of public health (he being in the latter category):

But if the time has not come, and may never come, for public identification, what then of private identification?
Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.
You have got to be kidding! That's exactly what we suspected all along! You are calling for the return of the Scarlet Letter, but only for homosexuals!
Answer: The Scarlet Letter was designed to stimulate public obloquy. The AIDS tattoo is designed for private protection. And the whole point of this is that we are not talking about a kidding matter. Our society is generally threatened, and in order to fight AIDS, we need the civil equivalent of universal military training.
What is good about this column is that the conservative Catholic Buckley acknowledged that "School B does in fact tend to disapprove forcefully of homosexuality." As a public health proposal, it's not worth so much.

The CDC currently estimates that a little over 1 million of the 300 million population of the U.S. has HIV/AIDS, but that a quarter of those do not know they carry it. Buckley still thought his proposal a good idea to put into practice in 2005, when we were quite clear on how HIV is transmitted. Oddly enough, it is an idea that has a better chance of working practically today than it did at the time of Buckley's first suggestion, when HIV was simply a death sentence. in March 1986, GlaxoSmithKline's AZT cocktail would not be submitted for FDA approval for another 8 months -- why would anyone submit to HIV testing that would mark him and provide no benefit?

In his 2005 column, Buckley smugly noted that gay men themselves were calling for more intervention to prevent transmission, yet neglected to mention that the very article he was citing said that this new willingness was born of gay men's trust in the law, which instead of putting them in camps has protected them from discrimination. 1986 Gay Man had Bowers and Buckley's tattoos; 2005 Gay Man had Lawrence and AIDS listed in the ADA. One also might think from Buckley's writings that few measures were taken to stem transmission, yet in 1985, NYC and other cities were closing down establishments identified as permitting sodomy on the premises.

2. One might think, on hearing that the National Review in the 1950s defended Southern states' rights, that this was a high-minded Constitutional position: Buckley simply did not agree with Brown v. Board's claim that the 14th Amendment forbade segregation. Alas, it does not appear to have been that kind of intellectually respectable federalism, but something that reminds one more of the WWII Japanese attitude toward other Asian races -- here are some inferior beings that ought not be in charge of anything until we have raised them to a level more approximating our own.

The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own.

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

The reference to British imperialism reinforces my impression, one shared by David Brooks, that Buckley's soul was Tory.

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