Repeal the Second Amendment

February 24, 2018

Bret Stephens has this one right: Repeal the Second Amendment.

Americans who claim to be outraged by gun crimes should want to do something more than tinker at the margins of a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts. They should want to change it fundamentally and permanently.  There is only one way to do this: Repeal the Second Amendment.

He argued this on October 5, 2017, right after Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people in Las Vegas.  On February 16, 2018, after Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 schoolchildren in Parkland, Florida, Stephens wrote To Repeat: Repeal the Second Amendment.  It’s no good nibbling around with the regulation of firearms while trying to uphold a general right to keep and bear arms.  We have to start by denying any such general right and then ask what makes sense in a free country regarding the right to purchase and use firearms.

Today, on the Washington Monthly’s blog, Martin Longman provides a useful summary of how we came to have the Second Amendment and why it is an anachronism.  He says:

The rationale for the Second Amendment is an anachronism. This is true if you look at the narrow language they used (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary…”), and it’s also true if you look at the wider context and purposes of the amendment. Not only is a militia no longer necessary, but the whole scheme we use for our national defense is a gigantic violation of the principles the amendment sought to preserve and protect.

It is worth reading his account of why the Second Amendment made sense in the late 18th century as part of a scheme of national defense through militias, and why it no longer makes any sense at all.

If you want a fuller account, see Jack Rakove (Stanford Professor of History and Political Science, and my classmate 50 years ago at Haverford) on why the current Supreme Court reading of the Second Amendment is a serious misreading of what the Founders intended.

I’m for repealing the Second Amendment.

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February 20, 2018

So many stories this past week; it’s been another dizzying week trying to stay well informed: the Parkland (FL) school shootings, the Mueller indictment of Russian agents for meddling in the 2016 election, Ronan Farrow’s account of yet another Trump sexual liaison while married to Melania: with all these tumbling upon us, it’s hard to stay attuned to the Olympics or Syria/Iran or Scott Pruitt.

Here’s one linkage that struck me.

The most dramatic stuff in the Ronan Farrow account is not the affair itself but rather the depiction of how the National Enquirer’s publisher, David Pecker, purchased the story from Karen McDougal in order to bury it.  “Catch and kill” we learned was the name of this tactic.  Why would Pecker do this — something he apparently does frequently?  Perhaps out of friendship with Trump, but often his motive is to gain leverage.  If he has a bad story about someone he’s not printing, he can pressure them to give him other salacious stories.  Leverage: Pecker may have had leverage over Trump.

Meanwhile, remembering that Trump is (holysh*t!) the President, let’s wonder again why Trump is so desperate not to acknowledge any involvement with Russians or to make any move adverse to Putin.  Of course he doesn’t want to look bad, but he’s making himself look foolish with all his denials.  This leads Tom Friedman of the New York Times to open his Friday column with the following paragraph:

President Trump is either totally compromised by the Russians or is a towering fool, or both, but either way he has shown himself unwilling or unable to defend America against a Russian campaign to divide and undermine our democracy.

Wow!  That’s not Friedman’s normal tone of voice.  And he adds this: “In sum, Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief.”

One suspicion that is voiced in the infamous Steele dossier is this: “The document also claims that Russian operators possessed “kompromat” about Trump which could make him subject to blackmail.”  Again, the possibility of leverage.

From Dylan Farrow we get confirmation that domestically, someone (Pecker) has already achieved what could be leverage against Trump.   Trump acted recklessly, and not just with McDougal: we’ve only recently learned of Stormy Daniels.  If Trump has opened himself to leverage within the United States, should we not worry that he has exposed himself to leverage vis a vis the Russians?

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More on Fascism

February 12, 2018

One of my favorite correspondents — OK, my son Tommy — adds depth and corrective about fascism.  He writes:

On this topic, I find Robert Paxton’s slim (~220p) The Anatomy of Fascism to be extremely helpful. Paxton is a scholar of midcentury European fascism (he has also written the leading book on Vichy as well as lots of great essays in the NYRB on the fascism literature).
Here’s his definition:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
He also finds it important to create conceptual boundaries from related concepts. So, he argues, we must not confuse fascism with classical tyranny, military dictatorship, and authoritarianism (“Authoritarians would rather leave the population demobilized and passive, while fascists want to engage and excite the public.”).
Lastly, he theorizes fascism as proceeding in stages:
  1. The creation of movements;
  2. Their rooting in the political system;
  3. Their seizure of power;
  4. The exercise of power;
  5. The long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy.
Most of the time, in most places, fascism exists only in stage one. The clearest example of traditional fascism in the United States is probably the first (post-bellum) KKK, which was locally rooted in the political system and in some cases seized and exercised localized power. And of course, it challenged the legitimacy of the “liberal” Reconstruction regime. And every subsequent identifiable fascism candidate in the United States (from the second Klan to Father Coughlin to George Wallace) has been similarly rooted in white supremacy.
Usually, when people mislabel things as “fascism,” it’s because they’ve ignored the feature of fascism that it be backed by a mass movement. Such was the case with liberal over-reactions to George W. Bush. But today? I’m not so sure we aren’t closer to realized fascism than since the Jim Crow south.
My objection to Eco’s list of ur-fascistic criteria is that it focuses too much on intellectual tenets, which ignores the role of action, dynamism, and self-contradiction in fascism. “It doesn’t matter if none of this makes sense, at least we’re going to do something, and do it fast and violently.”
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What Is Fascism? Has It Bloomed in the U.S.?

February 7, 2018

fascismOver the past few days, James Fallows has been musing about “the challenge of calling the Trump era by its proper name.”  He is especially wrestling with whether “fascism” is the proper term as, he notes, Dutch writer Rob Riemen argues in his new book To Fight Against This Age.  

Yesterday, in a post that included a number of responses from readers one correspondent (who does think fascism is the proper term) urged reading an Umberto Eco essay titled Ur-Fascism.  It was published by the New York Review of Books in its issue of June 22, 1995.

It’s prescient and also chilling.  Eco argues that Fascism is a fuzzy term.  Nevertheless:

But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

The ensuing list of fourteen features capture Trump — as well as those who have fallen in step with him or been called out of the woodwork.  Worth reading.

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In a battle over basic norms, the press cannot be neutral

February 2, 2018

As we await the release of the Devin Nunes memo, my attention was drawn back to a piece Dave Roberts wrote on Vox back in May, 2017, titled “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.”  Very worth a read even/especially because it’s long and a great deal aligned with its core argument has happened in the past eight months.  He raises these questions:  “Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?  This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?”

Here’s a long section towards the end:

To understand the media’s dilemma, let’s revisit the classic liberal view of democracy, in which there is an area of normal politics bounded and structured by a set of shared rules and norms, enforced by institutions. This is still the view accepted, consciously or unconsciously, by most of the mainstream political press. It prides itself on being a neutral referee, enforcing shared standards of accuracy and honesty. (Yes, I am aware the reality falls painfully short.)

But what happens when political participants step out of bounds and violate shared norms? Is it the press’s role to defend those norms, to push back, or merely to report on what has happened?

It’s a dilemma. For one thing, no clear line separates legitimate subjects of political dispute from what is off limits or out of bounds. As circumstances change, those lines shift and warp at the margins. Collective values are always in flux. Things that were subject of dispute get put off limits (slavery, spousal rape), and things that were subject of consensus get opened back up to dispute (trans rights, marijuana legalization).

Instinctively, US journalists tend to see their role not as taking sides in those fights, but as accurately reporting on them.

They have faced the question again and again over the past few decades. From Gingrich’s rule changes in the House through Clinton’s impeachment through George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 election through adamantine GOP intransigence under Obama to widespread state-level efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, the US political media has watched the right traduce one norm after another.

Each time, it has simply taken a step back and adjusted. A major political party will simply reject the consensus of the world’s scientists on climate change? Okay. Senate Republicans will filibuster every bill now? Okay. House Republicans will routinely threaten the solvency of the country by refusing to raise the debt limit? Okay. The Senate will refuse to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of a presidency? Okay. The party will unite behind a serial swindler and self-confessed sexual predator? Okay.

It’s been one step back after another, adjusting and readjusting to a new normal in politics.

And it’s been the same with the profusion of right-wing media. One side of America’s two-party system will build a giant parallel information apparatus operating on tribal lines, pushing one nonsense conspiracy theory after another into the political mainstream? Okay.

It’s all been, to use a term much abused and misused lately, normalized.

With Trump — his candidacy and now his presidency — the trampling of norms has become a stampede. The offenses range from small to large, petty to sinister. ….

The norms are falling like dominoes. We’re bumping up against core principles. Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?

This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?

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Meanings: Nous

January 30, 2018

In a review of Martin Amis’s new collection of essays, The Rub of Time, Dwight Garner quotes Amis on the era of Donald Trump:

 “There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip and no nous.”

I think this is a very perceptive take.  It doesn’t emphasize what’s there with the Donald, it emphasizes the lacks, the not-theres.  That’s what really needs to be captured in describing Trump.  The wording of the list is quite something, too.

But what is ‘nous,’ that last item?  That’s a nearly unknown word to American ears, but not to British ones.  Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary on nous:


  • British informal:   Common sense; practical intelligence.  ‘if he had any nous at all, he’d sell the film rights’

  • Philosophy:  The mind or intellect.

It’s from Greek, a term found in Aristotle and in neo-Platonists in speaking of mind.

The impressively substantial Wikipedia entry on the term gives this:

In the Aristotelian scheme, nous is the basic understanding or awareness which allows human beings to think rationally. For Aristotle, this was distinct from the processing of sensory perception, including the use of imagination and memory, which other animals can do. This therefore connects discussion of nous, to discussion of how the human mind sets definitions in a consistent and communicable way, and whether people must be born with some innate potential to understand the same universal categories the same logical ways. Deriving from this it was also sometimes argued, especially in classical and medieval philosophy, that the individual nous must require help of a spiritual and divine type. By this type of account, it came to be argued that the human understanding (nous) somehow stems from this cosmic nous, which is however not just a recipient of order, but a creator of it. Such explanations were influential in the development of medieval accounts of God, the immortality of the soul, and even the motions of the stars, in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, amongst both eclectic philosophers and authors representing all the major faiths of their times.

But Amis means ‘nous’ in the first sense in speaking of one of the things that Trump lacks:  common sense, practical intelligence.

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Atlas of Redistricting

January 25, 2018

Here’s a marvelous resource from An Atlas of Redistricting.  (This is part of their Gerrymandering Project.)  It starts with the premise that gerrymandering is bad, but recognizes that drawing ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’ electoral districts isn’t as easy as you might think.  So it gives you an opportunity to see the consequences of several different ways of drawing electoral maps: what the districts look like, and what the likely consequences are for electoral results using several different kinds of maps.  The current map is below.  You can see the options across the top.  And you you can do this not just for the nation as a whole, but state by state.  Take a look!

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 12.27.47 PM

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