Archive for June, 2010

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I still am. The New York Times unsigned editorial opposing the Supreme Court decision overturning the Chicago gun ban is one of the most poorly reasoned editorials I’ve ever read. Two excerpts:

Once again, the court’s conservative majority imposed its selective reading of American history, citing the country’s violent separation from Britain and the battles over slavery as proof that the authors of the Constitution and its later amendments considered gun ownership a fundamental right. The court’s members ignored the present-day reality of Chicago, where 258 public school students were shot last school year — 32 fatally.

Mayors and state lawmakers will have to use all of that room and keep adopting the most restrictive possible gun laws — to protect the lives of Americans and aid the work of law enforcement officials. [emphasis added]

Really? Are liberals still arguing that because the U.S. has a lot of gun violence, gun bans work? How about one shred of peer-reviewed social science showing that any of the myriad state and local regulations of firearms have actually had a robust negative influence on violent crime rates? Is the NYT stuck in a 1994 time warp?

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One hears periodically that our culture, the Western or American culture, is “exhausted.” This is alleged to be an indicator that it is on its way out. Symptoms of cultural exhaustion disease include the inability or unwillingness (or both) of the culture’s members to defend it, to take pride in it, or even bother to understand it; the tendency to make excuses for it or to feel embarrassed for it; and the tendency to focus on its shortcomings, even to experience Schadenfreude when it suffers a comeuppance.

A lot of that has been going on for some time with respect to Western culture and American culture. Jacques Barzun, for example, argued a few years ago that our culture has completed its cycle “from dawn to decadence.” That might be one factor explaining the “culture wars” that pit the defenders of the culture against its perceived enemies—some of which are active, but most of which are merely passive and apathetic. It is also part of the Marc Steyn-esque narrative that has the West finally succumbing, from lethargy and ennervation if not exhaustion, to more robust cultures like Islam.

But there is another phenomenon that is related but distinct: cultural confusion. Cultural confusion results from a growing lack of consensus about what is proper or appropriate in given circumstances. If people get the idea that there are no society-wide or community-wide standards of behavior and comportment that one really ought to follow, not because one might otherwise be punished but because it is simply the right thing to do, cultural confusion can result: There seems to be no answer to many of life’s daily questions of manners, etiquette, and propriety. People might come to conclude that more or less anything goes in the service of people’s individual preferences—as a former professor of mine put it, “you should do whatever you can get away with.” Although this kind of freedom may gratify and serve the individual in the moment, it threatens social order in the long run.

Let me give an example. I recently attended the commencement of my son from middle school. It was held in the school gymnasium; the principal, the superintendant, and lots of family and friends were there. The students were there too, of course, all in their gowns, and the entire ceremony was videotaped for posterity. One striking feature was the attire of the people who attended. For the adult men, the range went from some wearing suits and ties to others wearing shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops—and everything in between.

My own preference runs rather more toward the former end of the spectrum, on the view that important and formal occasions require formal dress. But put my, and your, preference aside for the moment, and consider that the sheer size of the range of acceptability means, in effect, that there is no consensus, no joint or shared culture, bringing people into community on this issue. We were all there for the same general purpose, but our widely disparate views about what was appropriate indicates, I think, a kind of cultural confusion.

A second example. Consider people’s complete uncertainty about what children should call adults. Everyone from my college-aged students to high school students to middle-school students: they have no idea whether they should call me by my first name, by “Mr. —,” by “Dr. —,” or by “Professor —.” This confusion besets the adults as well. I have been introduced by parents to their children by my first name and by various honorifics. Often parents and young people feel a latent sense of guilt at their uncertainty—as if they somehow think they should know what to do in this case, and maybe they think they the more formal is appropriate, but it’s uncomfortable and they lack the confidence to assert themselves. The result is often that they call me nothing. They say simply “hey” when they see me, or they do not address me at all.

Perhaps these are trifling examples, but they may be indicative of a more pervasive uncertainty and diffidence in what our culture is and in what we are. Principles of propriety are the scaffolding that give the edifice of society its shape and its strength. Because they are given and because people can rely on them, it gives people a feeling of social unity and a calming confidence that they are part of a sympathetic group.

Adam Smith and Edmund Burke articulated the importance of consensus about these “trifling” matters. In many ways it is not the big moral issues that matter to common life. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty may occupy our attention in philosophy class, but the daily graces of life are what we experience, and when we meet with harmony, concord, and sympathy about these graces, it enables both community and a comforting assurance of some solidity in an otherwise turbulent world. When, by contrast, we meet with every reaction under the sun, with little hope or expectation of agreement, then we have cultural confusion and the low-level but real anxiety, and thus detachment, this can cause.

There is no policy recommendation that follows from this. If I am right, the joy of shared community and the pleasure of mutual sympathy of sentiments (to coin a phrase) that make life so much more humane and pleasant, can come only from concerted widespread individual action. No top-down policy can succeed. But there might be a hypothetical imperative here: If you care about contributing to and maintaining a mutually sustaining and vivifying community, then be confident in its culture. You have little lose, but potentially a great deal to gain. Everyone else stands to gain too.

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I just returned from the seventh annual Porcupine Freedom Festival in Lancaster, N.H. (see the Daily Caller profile here). PorcFest is the annual summer event of the Free State Project (the New Hampshire Liberty Forum is the FSP’s winter event). Unlike the Liberty Forum, the emphasis at PorcFest is on community building and socializing rather than speakers and formal discussions, but there are a few speakers every year. This year, Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and founder of the Our America Initiative, was the concluding speaker. For the anti-political anarchists, there were also speakers like podcaster-author Stefan Molyneux and tax rebel Larken Rose. Radio host Ernie Hancock, who invented the “Ron Paul Revolution” logo, was also there.

PorcFest 2010 ComicThere’s a good bit of speculation around Gary Johnson as the possible “Ron Paul of 2012.” A libertarian-leaning Republican, Johnson vetoed 750 bills as governor (not counting line-item vetoes), never raised taxes, favors withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and advocates the legalization of marijuana. Unfortunately, his name recognition in the general population is very low, and he hasn’t cultivated as many constituencies as Paul, such as the John Birch Society. However, he does not suffer from some of the drawbacks that Paul did, such as the quirky advocacy of the gold standard and the “blowback” theory of 9/11 that gave him such trouble in the debates. (For what it’s worth, I agree with both Paul’s position that the government should withdraw more or less entirely from currency and banking markets and the argument that U.S. foreign policy was one of the causes of bin Laden’s attacks on the U.S.) As a speaker, Johnson might not be considered “dynamic,” but he is more direct and to-the-point than Paul, who tends to wax philosophical (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His personality is easy-going and straightforward, unlike most politicians I’ve met, who as a class lean rather toward “blowhard.”

I also spoke with a reporter from The New Republic, who asked me mostly about Johnson’s fanbase in the libertarian campoutgroup and chances in New Hampshire should he decide to run in 2012. If Johnson were to run, I think he would enjoy near-unanimous support among Free Staters who engage the political process, just as Paul did. Now, Paul has been around a lot longer, and it’s difficult to imagine that Johnson would enjoy quite the sheer enthusiasm and cult following that Paul did – but with Ron Paul’s blessing and full-throated support, he should be able to do just as well in raising money. If, as I suspect, he also does better among mainstream Republicans, he could do pretty well in terms of vote share. He has two terms of executive experience, unlike Paul and many other potential candidates for the nomination, and the party should be in a relatively libertarian mood by then. Tea Party types are politically homeless right now; while they tend to support either Sarah Palin or Ron Paul, there’s also a consensus among conservatives that neither of these would be an effective candidate in the general election. Johnson could expect to receive vociferous attacks from neoconservatives and hawks in general, but my sense is that their standing in the Republican base has declined. By 2012, Afghanistan and Iraq will be firmly Obama’s wars, and if both wars are still ongoing then (a fairly good bet), then many more libertarians who initially supported Afghanistan (like myself), will turn quite a bit more skeptical.

Turning to the title of this post, I’ll mention a few things about the state of play in New Hampshire. By reports that I’ve gotten, 27 or 2821-28 Free Staters are running for state office this year, including the four who won last time. (By “Free Staters” I’m referring purely to people who have moved to New Hampshire from elsewhere; there are many more local allies in and seeking office.) Most of them are running as Republicans, but several as Democrats. The feeling among most political observers is that Republicans are favored to take back both houses of the legislature. The conservative Democratic governor, John Lynch, is also looking vulnerable for the first time since his election in 2004. Republican candidate Jack Kimball (one of several) gave a short speech at PorcFest; he seems to be a down-the-line conservative, but the issues he emphasized were 10th Amendment state sovereignty and strong support for the 2nd Amendment. Lynch has also been primaried by a very strongly liberal representative, Tim Robertson (several people of sober mind have characterized Robertson as “virtually a communist”), who is upset at Lynch’s veto of medical marijuana. Robertson has no chance in the primary, but his candidacy points up the cracks in the NH Dems’ base.

One interesting story cropped up on the newswires this past week that relates in more ways than one to the FSP. A husband and wife who are Houston Libertarian Party activists were harassed by police, in part because of a pill that dropped onto the seat (a prescription medication). In most states, you can be prosecuted for having any prescription medicine outside its original container unless a registered physician or nurse put it there (including those pill boxes!), and in some states it’s a felony. The linked story reports that the victims are considering moving to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project. It turns out that this plan of theirs would make sense for more reasons than one. Representative Joel Winters, who moved from Florida, authored a bill that removed such penalties in New Hampshire, and it was passed by the legislature and signed into law. Just one example among many of policy changes that have happened in New Hampshire due to the work of Free Staters…


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For a Realist in international relations (folks who stress structural variables like relative power as the most important causes of outcomes in the international system), Stephen Walt spends a lot of time worrying about how the rest of the world views the United States.  Here is his most recent example: 

I was disappointed when the United States got eliminated in the soccer World Cup, but also relieved. Having the world’s most powerful country eliminate the last team from the host continent would not have endeared the United States to anyone.

The tendency of Realists to get all concerned about the U.S.’s standing abroad has diminished significantly since Bush left the White House.  But it is perplexing why they cared all that much in the first place given their general view of what makes the world go around (which suggests it was actually caused by partisanship/Bush-hatred rather than flowing from a serious, integrated, and theoretically-grounded position).

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The memorials for Byrd are proliferating. My favorite—and in my estimate—the only one worth reading, comes from  Andrew Sullivan, who simply notes:

Speak no ill of the dead? Well, let me simply say that the racist, populist, larcenous bigot of a Senator – a man who robbed the American tax-payer to pave his state with baubles and bribes – is not going to be much mourned in these parts.

Nicely stated!

While Mr. Sullivan is both succinct and accurate, the  “Conscience of the Senate” is nonetheless being mourned, one suspects, because of his opposition to the Bush administration.

Witness the DailyKos:

With a career that spanned more than half a century, there is much to be said about Byrd’s actions and accomplishments—both good and bad—but  what many most appreciate about him was his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq

Yes…I recall some “bad” in there somewhere. What might it have been?

As one might expect, other memorials begin with Byrd’s youthful indiscretions (ah yes, when he rose to be a recruiter in the WV KKK…an “Exalted Cyclops”) but then quickly make the case for redemption.

Paul Begala at the Daily Beast not only dismisses the early indiscretions but finds an opportunity to take a shot at Reagan:

Yes, there was the one-year flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940’s—a stain that marked him for life—and his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Critics on the right properly excoriate him for those historic mistakes. But they ignore Ronald Reagan’s youthful support of one-world government and the Gipper’s strong opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, too.

Just checking, but I don’t remember the Gipper as framing his opposition with terms like “race mongrels” and referring (post-youthful indiscretion) to African Americans as being “a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

In the end, I fear I should have ended with the quote from Andrew Sullivan. What more can be said?

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One of my guns - Smith and Wesson M&P 9mm


I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but today’s Supreme Court decision in McDonald v. Chicago sounds like a big deal in the history of jurisprudence.  In short, it incorporates the 2nd Amendment via the 14th Amendment so that it applies to the states.  Without having had a chance to read all the way through the case, this should be a big victory for gun-rights advocates.  My worry, though, is that the Court has allowed some wiggle room for states and localities to operate against what the decision affirms: individuals have “a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.” 

Update: A very measured take from the libgressive Lawyers, Guns, & Money blog.  And I think this is the most interesting part of the post: “another data point for the [sic] my belief that whatever the conventional wisdom Thomas is a more principled and substantively interesting justice than Scalia.” 

Update II: Damon Root at Reason on Thomas and the privileges or immunities aspect of the decision.

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"Sen. Byrd has set a new standard for taxpayer-funded narcissism by convincing the West Virginia Legislature to erect a statue of himself in the state Capitol. The statue's completion violates state law prohibiting statues of government officials until they have been dead for half a century." Citizens Against Government Waste

The nation has lost a great statesman and parliamentarian. Senator Byrd was the  longest-serving Senator in US history.   No one knows where Robert Byrd first discovered his leadership skills (likely it was during the halcyon days of old when he rose in the ranks to serve as Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan). Of course, it would be unfair to tar and feather the “Soul of the Senate” based on his youthful indiscretions in the KKK.  As he clearly noted in his autobiography (Robert Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields), he renounced the KKK at the tender age of 25. As Michael Grunwald notes in a review of Byrd’s autobiography, he fails to account for subsequent statements on things like the desegregated military (e.g., correspondence where he declared that he would never fight “with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels”). Ah yes…a man of principles.

If Robert C. Byrd stood for any principle, it was the principle of pork (as the Soul of the Senate once stated so eloquently: “you might as well slap my wife as take away my highway money”).  Citizens Against Government Waste has some interesting statistics on Byrd’s achievements (e.g., between 1991 and 2008, Senator Byrd delivered $3.3 billion in pork to West Virginia).  Fortunately, we do not have to worry about finding a suitable memorial for Senator Byrd. We can simply visit those he created for himself. An incomplete list (thanks to Citizens Against Public Waste) includes:

  • Robert C. Byrd Locks and Damn
  • Robert C. Byrd  Green Bank Telescope
  • Robert C. Byrd Drive, from Beckley to Sophia (Byrd’s hometown)
  • Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University
  • Robert C. Byrd Highway
  • Robert C. Byrd Federal Correctional Institution
  • Robert C. Byrd High School
  • Robert C. Byrd Freeway
  • Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism
  • Robert C. Byrd Science Center
  • Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia
  • Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Center
  • Robert C. Byrd Technology Center at Alderson-Broaddus College
  • Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center, near Princeton
  • Robert C. Byrd Bridge between Huntington and Chesapeake, Ohio
  • Robert C. Byrd addition to the lodge at Oglebay Park, Wheeling
  • Robert C. Byrd Community Center, Pine Grove
  • Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarships
  • Robert C. Byrd Expressway, U.S. 52 near Weirton
  • Robert C. Byrd Institute in Charleston
  • Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing
  • Robert C. Byrd Visitor Center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
  • Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse
  • Robert C. Byrd Academic and Technology Center
  • Robert C. Byrd United Technical Center
  • Robert C. Byrd Federal Building (there are two)
  • Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex
  • Robert C. Byrd Library and Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center
  • Robert C. Byrd Rural Health Center
  • Robert C. Byrd Clinical Addition to the veteran’s hospital in Huntington
  • Robert C. Byrd Industrial Park, Hardy County
  • Robert C. Byrd Scholastic Recognition Award
  • Robert C. Byrd Community Center in the naval station, Sugar Grove
  • Robert C. Byrd Clinic at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center at Marshall University

R.I.P., Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd (November 20, 1917 – June 28, 2010)

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