Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prospects for Conservatives

The author of an article in Pajamas Media asks "Will things get better for conservatives in 2009?" This is a fine and hopeful question, since he obviously views himself as one of the embattled band of conservatives battered by the Obama election. A couple of things need to be said about the analysis with which he finds hope for the conservative cause in the coming year.

First, we have the conflation of "conservatives" with "Republicans." If, in fact, the Republican Party has been diminished to the hard core of self-described conservatives, those driven by fear of change and hatred of modernity, the answer to the author's question will be a resounding "No!" The only hope for the Republican Party is to expand its constituency, and that, in turn, means abandoning some positions that are dear to the hearts of conservatives. An improvement in the fortunes of the Republicans may actually mean a diminution in the influence of the conservative movement.

Second, the author's imagination doesn't seem to extend to the possibility that the conservative movement, or the Republican Party might actually come up with any positive ideas that could win over voters. His hopes lie in the failure of Mr. Obama's program to promote economic recovery or financial sanity. I don't see how it can be good for the conservatives to root for an extended recession, higher unemployment, and failing financial institutions, just in order to be able to portray the Democrats as failures. Not only would they reinforce their identification as the party of Herbert Hoover, their schadenfreude would repulse many Americans. After all, putting party ahead of country is supposed to be a bad thing. So, in sum, things might get better for conservatives, according to this author, at the cost of extended suffering for the people of the country, and more self-destructive behavior on the part of the Republican Party. What I'm not clear on is just what are these so-called conservatives trying to conserve.

Note: I posted this item to Cafe Third Edition first, although I intended to post it here. I'm happy it's out on Cafe Third Edition, but I wanted those who might visit this site to see it, as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Causes of Terrorism

In the accompanying article, Michael Ledeen takes issue with President Bush's characterization of terrorism as arising from hopelessness. Without necessarily agreeing with Mr. Bush's opinion that hopelessness is the only basis of terrorism, I think Mr. Ledeen misses the point by finding that some famous terrorists have, like Osama bin Laden, been well off.

Terrorism is famously a method of the weak. If the Palestinians had a real army and air force that could compete with the Israeli Defense Forces on an equal footing, you wouldn't see suicide bombings in Netanya. If the insurgent forces in Iraq had fully equipped and trained military forces, with secure bases, and all the trappings of a real army, they wouldn't be using improvised explosive devices. Anyone who has read Mao Tse-tung on guerrilla warfare, or, for that matter, any good history of the Civil War, knows that the weaker side, if it acknowledges that it is unlikely to lose by conventional means, but is unwilling to concede defeat, may resort to the guerrilla or terrorist tactics.

On the other hand, terrorism is also the weapon of the politically weak. If the Iraqi Sunnis believe that they are going to lose benefits, status, and power under any conceivable political settlement, and are unwilling to accept that loss, they may return to terrorist and guerrilla methods.

So, we can say that terrorists have no hope of victory through conventional military means, or through democratic political means. To that degree, Mr. Bush is right to associate terrorism with hopelessness. The terrorists, however, wouldn't be acting at all if they were entirely without hope of affecting the outcome. Terrorism is the only method that holds out hope, however remote, of winning without the means to obtain a conventional victory. In fact, hope may be all that terrorists have, because the odds of duplicating the successes of Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro are very remote indeed.

One of the problems this analysis raised for policy-makers is that, to remove terrorism from the table, one much offer either some realistic hope of achieving political goals through other means, or some absolutely incontrovertible demonstration that they have no hope of achieving those goals at all. Perhaps, then, it is unfortunate that the old saying "Where there's life, there's hope" has such a large share of truth.

Reading Lists: Foreign Affairs

One of the features of the journal Foreign Affairs is found on the last page of each issue: a list of best-selling books in international affairs. Trying to bring a little system to my reading, I copied that page out of a recent issue, and took it with me to the library. I didn't find all of the books on the list, and I didn't entirely confine myself to that list, but I did take out several books which appeared on it.

One of the problems with the old Great Books Cafe, as well as with this blog, is that everyone is reading different books. There's no uniformity in the reading, so there's seldom a basis for direct dialogue. I'm certainly not trying to impose any kind of common reading list, but I think it might be useful for others to consider the books on a list that's available to all of us.

I have attached the link to the Foreign Affairs bestsellers list to the title of this post, and I'll show it again here.

I'm working on some books from an older list, but I suggest that you consider some of the books on this list for your future reading, and I'll do the same.

By the way, I just finished reading A Choice of Enemies, by Freedman. I'm working on Algeria: The Anger of the Dispossessed. I have also Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism, by George Weigel, and Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, by Robin Wright.

Let me emphasize that anyone who wishes to contribute a review, or just personal comments, on a book you've recently read, is encouraged to do so. Let me know if you'd like to contribute in that way.

Possibilities for Democracy in Iraq

My wife and I are traveling this week, and we spent much of yesterday talking with old friends in North Carolina. Along with Representative Brooks's caning of Senator Sumner, gardening, and birds, we spoke of the American adventure in Iraq. I asserted that the goal of democracy in Iraq was wrong-headed, because a democracy is based upon the ability of a political minority to become a majority, thus causing the government to change hands. When the parties are all based on ethnicity, language, tribe, or religion, the voters cannot shift freely from one to another, and so the minority parties have no realistic chance of ever becoming a majority. At that point, there is no longer much incentive for them to play the democratic game, and they might as well turn to violent insurgency, subverting the military, and other games of violence and intrigue.

This topic relates, by the way, to my post earlier this month on the purpose of political parties. A political party with minority support should, as a matter of principle, as well as of practical necessity, make every effort to obtain the support of a majority of voters. A party which is more interested in expressing some principle, or sending some message, than in winning a majority, is no longer a real political party.

The bare statement that democracy is impossible in Iraq, because the parties are not based upon voters' opinions of policy position, is, I now think, inadequate. We might better ask: Under what conditions could democracy become possible in Iraq?

The key here is a principle of games theory, one used (perhaps to excess) by President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress of his day. It is pointless, and costly, to seek more than a bare majority of support. If 50% + 1 vote is all the support one needs to carry a position, then spending more effort, money, or other resources to attract more votes is wasteful. In practice, this means that parties which have achieved super-majorities - the Democratic Party under Jackson after 1828, the Democratic Party under Roosevelt after 1932, the Democratic Party under Johnson after 1964 - break up. That is, a majority having been attained, the party no long finds it necessary to spend its capital to continue to attract some portion of its coalition which is now surplus to needs. One way to look at the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party, is to note that the Democrats, holding a good majority in Congress without the support of the Deep South, were no long willing to offer the Southerners what they would have demanded to remain with the Democratic party: Therefore, the Southerners became eligible to join the Republican coalition.

Similarly, one can look at the Shi'ite majority of the population, and note that there are divisions among them. At some point, some portion of the Shi'ite coalition won't get what they want, and they may, then, make common cause with some Sunnis and some Kurds to form a new coalition. The critical point, in my opinion, is that the issue around which the new coalition forms, or around which the Shi'ite majority splits, must be a non-religious issue - division of oil money among the provinces, tax policy, farm subsidies, or location of new industrial development, for example. In other words, the hope for democracy in Iraq depends upon the increasing salience of non-religious, non-ethnic issues in the country's politics.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Purpose of Political Parties

The author of the attached article, Pam Meister, says one thing that I found of interest. She states that the purpose of political parties is to "act in a partisan manner to advance their own interests." (She says a lot of other things about Senator McCain, Governor Palin, and the Republican fiasco of 2008, but I'll let those pass.) I would like to take issue with that statement, and to point out that this kind of thinking about political parties leads to some bad consequences.

The purpose of an interest group - whether it is the National Rifle Association or the United Auto Workers, the National Association of Manufacturers or NARAL Pro-Choice America, is to promote the interests of that group and its members. It is only natural for an interest group to be very single-minded; its raison d'etre is to espouse a single position. Interest groups aren't out there to tell us both sides of the story, to be "fair," or to point out the weaknesses in their own arguments. They are there to maximize the benefits their members derive from government action or inaction. There is a fundamental difference between this single-minded pursuit of one goal and the purpose of a political party.

Ms. Meister talks as if a political party were an interest group, whose only job was to promote its own interests. The real purpose of a political party is to win elections, to win elections which will enable its representatives to govern, to win elections which will result in its platform and principles being translated into law and policy for the next term of years. In order to win elections, a party and its candidates need to gain the support of a plurality of voters (in some cases, a majority). In this sense, such organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Green Party, the Prohibition Party, and so on are not political parties at all. They not only have no realistic chance of winning elections and gaining the right to govern - they are not really trying to win elections; they are trying to "send a message." In other words, they are interest groups using electoral politics as a means to influence the people who do get elected, not to gain election themselves.

In order to gain the support of a plurality of voters, political parties gather together members of many interest groups, reconciling or ignoring the contradictions among their positions, as well as unaffiliated voters, who may respond to any number of issues. Real political parties perform an integrative function in society. In American history, the classic example of a political party performing this role was the Democratic Party from 1829 until 1860. The Democrats lost some presidential elections, and the Whigs had their share of Senators and Representatives, but the Democratic party held together for thirty years a coalition of Southern (pro-slavery) planters and Northern farmers and mechanics. When the Democrats were unable to contain the stresses between their pro-slavery and anti-slavery wings, at the Charleston convention in 1860, they failed of their integrative function, and a civil war resulted.

The Republican Party has always contained a number of elements: pro-business interests, anti-immigrant groups, religious reformers, pro-growth elements, and conservatives of various stripes. When they party is able to pull enough of these groups into its electoral coalition, it tends to earn the chance to govern by winning elections. When one or more of these groups drop out, the party tends to lose. It is also the case that individual voters often belong to more than one interest group, i.e., they have more than one interest. The question then becomes one of finding out which interest is determinative, and then appealing to it.

There are four basic reasons that electoral coalitions are not stable, why parties lose an election one year on the same platform that won in the past. First, there is demographic change. If your appeal is to voters of a certain generation - people who remembered World War II, for example, then natural mortality is going to reduce your number of voters. Young people come into their politically active years with a different set of experiences and expectation than their elders. Second, there are outside events. The Great Depression broke up the Republican coalition and gave the Democrats the opportunity to pick up a lot of voters. The Democrats exploited that opportunity and have been the default party in this country since 1930. Third, your opponents come up with new appeals, new candidates, new techniques, to which you must respond or lose ground. Fourth, your period of governance actually ameliorates some of the problems you exploited to win elections. It has been pointed out that the Republicans' hold on crime as an issue was weakened by President Clinton's policies, but the issue itself has been devalued as crime has been perceived to be diminishing. This is the political equivalent of the law of diminishing returns.

All four of these factors are now operating to ensure that, if the Republicans continue to appeal to the same interests in the same manner, they will continue to lose. Again and again I see conservatives urging the party to stick to the low-taxes message. Because the Republicans have succeeded in lowering taxes at various levels, this issue doesn't have as much traction with voters as it once did. When an economic crisis has people worrying about keeping their jobs, they will be less concerned about how much of their income goes to pay taxes. When the credit crunch has people worried about keeping their houses, how high their property taxes are may be less important than having a program to forestall foreclosure. The lower taxes message has, in my opinion, reached the point of diminishing returns; the more effort the Republicans put into pushing this message, the less payoff they'll see at the ballot box.

This is not the time for the Republicans to act in a partisan manner, or to pursue the same interests they have been since 1964. This is the time for the Republicans to look outside their shrinking tent and reach out to a larger audience.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The First Assumption

James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible is a really enjoyable book, and a wise one. A major theme running through the book is that traditional Biblical interpretation shared four assumptions. Part of Kugel's point is that the Bible was always interpreted. That is, no account of the Bible, no edition of the Bible, and none of the work in the Talmud approaches the Bible without a layer of interpretation affecting the writer's perception of what the text says. For one example, when New Testament authors refer to Old Testament texts, they do so with an interpretation in mind, and that interpretation shares these four assumptions.

The first assumption, as I quotedit in my post "Knight's Reading List XIV: February 2008," is:

“1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B. …"

To take one example from Kugel, Genesis quotes God as saying to Adam, "You may eat from any tree in the garden. But you shall not eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, because on the day that you eat from it, you shall die." Genesis 2:15-17. That's pretty clear, but, as the story goes on, Adam did eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, and he did not die. At least, he didn't die for another 900 years, as the Bible says that he lived to the age of 930. So the phrase "on the day that you eat from it, you shall die," cannot be taken literally. This passage was interpreted as meaning that, in the sight of God, a thousand years was as a day.

"But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." 2 Peter 3:8.

There are lots of interesting consequences of this interpretation. For one thing, it means that the Creation might have taken 7,000 years, or even more, instead of a literal seven days. For another, it has allowed Christian churches to continue to operate, when it is quite apparent that the New Testament writers expected Christ to return in their lifetimes. Why didn't everybody decide that the New Testament prophecies were wrong and go back to worshipping Zeus in, say, 150 CE? Because a thousand years could be as one day. This concept certainly builds a lot of flexibility into your interpretation of time in the Bible.

Let us note, however, that the Bible itself, so far as Genesis is concerned, doesn't say that a day is as one thousand years. Through the Torah, a year is a year, a day is a day, and time is pretty inflexible. So the elasticity of time is an interpretation of what the Bible says, based on the assumption that the Bible is cryptic, that its meanings are mysterious.

This is an enjoyable assumption. It has led to such exercises as finding codes in the Bible by reading every seventh word, or by numerology, or by other methods of "decoding." You see, the assumption is that it is coded, and so it needs decoding. That gives people who like puzzles, and who want to find hidden information in the Bible, lots of ways to go about their business. But it is also a dangerous assumption. If the Bible might not mean what it says, it might mean anything. How is one to separate a valid interpretation from an invalid one, if the words don't mean what they say in plain speaking? This gets into interpretation such as Leo Strauss telling us what Machiavelli meant by what wasn't written in The Prince. In fact, there is a whole line of thought holding that the works of Plato are fundamentally cryptic, so that they can only be understood by the "elect" who can decode and interpret them correctly.

My question is, how would one read the Bible if one eliminated this assumption from one's interpretation of the text?

Knight’s Reading List XV: March 2008


This, my fifteenth reading list on this blog, is evenly divided between works of fiction and non-fiction; there are five books in each category. The most interesting of the works of fiction is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The most rewarding of the non-fiction books is The Best American Essays 2004. The Elements of Style, a book with which I’ve been familiar since college days, is the most useful to writers – including writers who wish to post to Knight’s Castle. Also on the list is another of David A. Drake’s Lord of the Isles novels, the fifth of that ilk. The seventeenth book featuring Elizabeth Peters’ irritating Egyptologist and sleuth, Amelia Peabody, is here, too, along with another travel book from Bill Bryson, and several Best American books. I have not provided reviews or comments on all ten books.

Reading List:

Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island.
Carroll, James. House of War.
Drake, David. Goddess of the Ice Realm.
Ellroy, James, editor. The Best American Mystery Stories 2002.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Menand, Louis, editor. The Best American Essays 2004.
Miller, Sue, editor. The Best American Short Stories 2002.
Mladjenovic, Paul. Stock Investing for Dummies, 2nd edition.
Peters, Elizabeth. The Serpent on the Crown.
Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style.


Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Copyright 1995. 324 pages. Glossary.

Bill Bryson worked and lived for twenty years in England. This book was his farewell to the island, chronicling his farewell tour. There are many flashbacks to his earlier encounters with the places and people of his “small island.” Bryson’s tales are humorous, but his affection for England and the English shines through, however irritating he finds some of their incomprehensible habits. For those thinking of a trip to England, this book includes some less well-known corners of that “sceptered isle.”

Carroll, James. House of War. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. xiv + 657 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Carroll was involved with the Pentagon and its doings both personally and politically since his birth at the time the building was dedicated. His father, a former FBI official, was brought in to create the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. Carroll himself was in the anti-war movement, Catholic sub-division, and has much to say about the evils of the building. This ought to have been a fascinating book, but Carroll’s deep personal attachments, and conflicts, get in the way of his writing skills. For one thing, his obvious affection for the Berrigan brothers leads him to exaggerate their importance in American political life. For another, he apparently took those elementary school air raid drills a little too seriously; his terror and abhorrence of nuclear war carries him away into flights of fancy about the cloud of fear looming over America.

Perhaps most damaging to this book is that, due in large part to his conflicted relationship with his father, Carroll takes the whole of American defense policy as a personal affront to him. Reversing the same coin, he imagines that his personal feelings matter because his teen-age angst was about nuclear war, rather than acne. This would have been a better book, and a much shorter one, if Carroll had written a history instead of a memoir.

Menand, Louis, editor. The Best American Essays 2004. New York: Scribners, 2004. xviii + 323 pages.

If you’d like to write better essays, one of your best options is to read some good ones. Even if you don’t want to write, a well-written essay is a real pleasure to read. I’ve enjoyed the essays of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and others, but The Best American Essays 2004 (or any other year) has the advantage of collecting essays by a number of different authors, published in different markets (though The New Yorker is a popular venue), on widely varied topics. A terrific sampling of good writers writing well.

Mladjenovic, Paul. Stock Investing for Dummies, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006. xx + 336 pages. Index.

Now might be a good time to read up on when you might want to start investing again. We might be near the bottom of this market! And we might be near the beginning of a great bear market. At the very least, this book may help you to decide that you don’t know nearly enough to risk your money on Wall Street.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979. xvii + 92 pages. Index.

The little book is still going strong! I got my first copy when I was a freshman at Macalester College, and I picked up my current copy at the bookstore at Pikes Peak Community College. For the writer, the aspiring writer, and particularly for the writer whose education has left him unsure of the proper usage of the objective case, The Elements of Style is a great, short guide.


Drake, David. Goddess of the Ice Realm. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2003. A Tor Book. 496 pages. The sequel to Mistress of the Catacombs.

Ellroy, James, editor. The Best American Mystery Stories 2002. New York: Scribner’s, 2002. xv + 405 pages.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 2007. 184 pages.

This is an odd little book, and very affecting. It is in the form of a one-sided conversation between a Pakistani intellectual, who may or may not be a terrorist, and an American, who may or may not be an intelligence agent. That is, we read everything the Pakistani says, but we must surmise the content of the American’s comments and questions that lead our “reluctant fundamentalist” to give the responses he does. This is a portrait of a man who knows America well and feels that America has rejected him because of his religion and his culture. This is not an explanation of anti-Americanism so much as an explanation of why many Muslims find that America reacts to them as an individual might react to a foreign body – a mutual rejection, damaging to both participants.

Miller, Sue, editor. The Best American Short Stories 2002. New York: Scribner’s, 2002. xviii + 375 pages.

Peters, Elizabeth. The Serpent on the Crown. New York: William Morrow, 2005. 350 pages.

My wife really enjoys Elizabeth Peters, whose Amelia Peabody novels are set in Egypt in the days of British domination. The seventeenth in the series brings us up to 1922, but Amelia is still overbearing, opinionated, nosy, and humorless. Oddly enough, I don’t find her a sympathetic narrator, or a trustworthy one.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Knight's Reading List XIV: February 2008

Reading List:

Bodian, Stephen. Meditation for Dummies, 2nd edition.
Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants.
Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible.
Rich, Adrienne, editor. The Best American Poetry 1996.


Bodian, Stephen. Meditation for Dummies, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006. xxii + 360 pages. Index. If you’re considering taking up meditation, this is a good place to start. Bodian comes across as credulous, and I tended to ignore the more “spritual” aspects of the book. The techniques are well-described, and the attached CD is a helpful aide to a variety of meditative procedures. The main problem with a book on meditation is that looking over at the book to see what to do next interrupts the rhythm of meditating. Still, Bodian does know what he’s talking about, even if he does attribute more meaning to it than the subject will support.

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2007. xiv + 819 pages. Picture Credits. A Note to the Reader. Notes. Subject Index. Verses Cited. James Kugel, in contrast to Stephen Bodian, has taken up a subject that has plenty of meaning to support a variety of interpretative superstructures. And that is, in fact, Kugel’s subject: The Bible, as it has come down to us, has come down with a body of interpretation and interpolation that stands between us and the plain text. Thus, anyone who tries to derive the meaning of the text will be at odds with any of the existing religious traditions.

In particular, Kugel formulates four assumptions which were common to all of the ancient interpretations of the Bible. One will see immediately that some Christians and Jews still hold these assumptions about the Bible, and that much of the conflict over religious thought in our time is between those who make these assumptions, and those who do not. One of the difficulties is that these are assumptions, and are often not made explicit by those who hold them. The assumptions are:

“1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B. …
“2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. …
“3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. …
“4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.” (Pages 14-15, et seq.)

Most of the book consists of Kugel retelling stories from the Bible, providing an interpretation of each story according to the ancient assumptions, and then re-interpreting the story in accordance with modern Biblical scholarship. This is a fascinating and informative book. One thing that struck me was how apt these interpretative assumptions are for explaining how the ancient Greeks saw the Iliad and the Odyssey as sacred texts.

One of the funniest episodes in the book is when Kugel, in talking about interpretations of the Song of Songs, applies traditional Biblical interpretation to that other fine old song, "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain When She Comes." See pages 514-518 for this tour de force. On the other hand, Kugel's conclusion is rather touching. If you keep to this method of interpretation, you know that you're putting meaning into the Bible that wasn't there initially. But if, after all, you don't share at least part of this traditional way of interpreting the Bible, why would you want to read it?

Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006. 335 pages. Author’s Note.

This is a comic and touching novel about a young man who, having lost his family and position, takes up the duties of caring for the animals in a traveling circus. One of the nice touches are the illustrative photographs from real circuses. I could recommend this one to almost anyone.


Rich, Adrienne, editor. The Best American Poetry 1996. New York: Scribner’s, 1996. 318 pages.

The folks who put out the various volumes of The Best American … have stopped doing a volume of the best American poetry. This book amply demonstrates why that was a good decision. Adrienne Rich, a well-known Lesbian poet and editor, makes a sincere effort to find poems by as diverse a population as possible. I suppose it’s nice to know that African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, gays, and revolutionaries write poetry, but most of the poems in this collection that are actually readable are by white, college-educated, middle-class poets like Reynolds Price. Selecting poems according to the ethnicity of the poet isn’t the best way to obtain a lot of excellent poems. In my personal opinion, when your criteria for collection are not related to the qualities of the object being collected, your have corrupted the selection process. But, then, I don’t think diversity is a good enough reason to let unqualified students into universities, either.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Knight's Reading List XIII: January 2008

Reading List:

Buhler, Patricia. Streetwise Human Resources Management.
Church, Forrest. So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Keegan, John, editor. The Book of War.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.
Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain.


Buhler, Patricia. Streetwise Human Resources Management. 2002. xiii + 367 pages. I read this book as part of an effort to expand my project management skills. Buhler is sensitive to the legal environment of human resources work in this “politically correct” age, so her practical tips on interviewing and selecting candidates are particularly helpful. While she exaggerates the importance of the personnel function in management, it is a matter of importance, and one which too many managers neglect at their peril.

Church, Forrest. So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State. New York: Harcourt, 2007. 530 pages. Index.
I really liked this book by the son of the late Idaho Senator Frank Church. For one thing, a book on religion by a man named “Church” is just irresistible, isn’t it? For another, Church is the pastor of a large church, of a mainstream denomination, in Manhattan, and he knows something about the content of the religious positions he describes.

This book covers church-state relations during the first five presidential administrations in the United States, 1789-1825. Washington’s term was largely uncontroversial. Adams, who believed himself to be a man of broad tolerance, was, in fact, constrained by his Puritan upbringing to offend people in this area, as he did in so many others. Jefferson, who was mistrusted, even hated, by the religious establishment, especially in New England, maintained enough of an appearance of respect for religion to deprive his enemies of ammunition. By the administrations of Madison and Monroe, the religious establishment was passing from the scene, and institutional interference in politics was a thing of the past. This is one reason why the Monroe administration was known as the “Era of Good Feelings.”

The most interesting theme, for me, was that the more the churches, as churches, tried to interfere directly in politics, the less influential they were, in politics and in society at large. Thus, the Congregational Church in New England was explicitly political, especially in opposing Jefferson, but Jefferson had a successful presidency, and the church was eventually disestablished. In fact, Church makes a good case that, once churches stopped trying to be the “second estate,” they became much more successful as churches, and their indirect influence on politics became stronger than their direct influence had ever been.

It has been noted that one reason for low church attendance in Europe is that the churches are supported by the several governments. Therefore, the ministers don’t need to fill the pews in order to feed their families and fix their roofs. The origins of churches in the United States as marketing organizations lies in the end of their status as government bureaucracies. Church tells that story, and he tells it well.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2005. vii + 277 pages. Gladwell investigates the manner in which we come to know things without knowing that we are learning them. This provides a basis for what is loosely known as “intuition.” Gladwell is also concerned with the cases in which such immediate impressions turn out to be wrong. What I see as most interesting is the possibility that one could train oneself, or be trained, to make accurate, intuitive judgments, by-passing a lot of reflection and calculation. The point is that intuitive judgments are often reached in five or six seconds, while a reasoned justification of them could take days, if it were possible at all. (See the novel Tactics of Mistake (1971), by Gordon R. Dickson, for a speculative exploration of intuition and the possibility for its development and training.)

Keegan, John, editor. The Book of War. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Copyright 1999. xix + 492 pages. Sources and Acknowledgements. Index of Authors. Index. This is a large collection of writings about war, from excerpts of Thucydides and Xenophon, to accounts of the Gulf War in 1990. The “Sources and Acknowledgements” provides one with a splendid bibliography of first-person accounts and original sources on the history of warfare.

Alexander Stahlberg gives a unique account of the Prussian cavalry before and during the Hitler years. Lieutenant-Colonel Fremantle’s diary describes the Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of an English observer. One of the most interesting documents collected here is the obituary of David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), the model for special forces units in various countries, including the United States.

Keegan’s book does what a really good anthology ought to do; it makes you want to go out and read more of the works of these authors, and others, on the subject at hand.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000. xxiv + 467 pages. Notes. Index. A good and thorough academic study of the expansion, and occasional contraction, of the right to vote in America. Keyssar’s main point is that the right to vote has not expanded steadily and inexorably since about 2.5% of the population elected George Washington. Rather, there has always been a tension between groups wanting to expand the right to vote, and groups wanting to restrict it. The current battle between Republicans who see voter fraud in every polling place, and Democrats who see any attempt to validate a voter’s credentials as “voter suppression,” is typical, not unusual, in American politics.

One of the four components of the Republican Party at its founding was the Know-Nothing bloc, the old American Party, which was anti-immigrant, and which sponsored laws to prevent non-citizens from voting. (Yes, at one time, and in some states, citizenship was not a requirement for voting in the United States.) That strain, as well as forces opposed to the enfranchisement of non-whites, women, migrants, and many other groups, has been around since 1800, and, after 208 years, is still going strong.

A good corrective for anyone who thinks that such rights as voting “naturally” or “inevitably” expand their reach.


Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. Translated from the German by John E. Woods. New York: Vintage Books, 1995 [1924]. xii + 706 pages. Someone has certainly published a list of the 100 best novels ever written. I suspect that there are many such lists. One short list I saw included The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Madame Bovary, From Here to Eternity, The Pearl, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Tom Jones. One list I found online had Pride and Prejudice at the top. Another featured Don Quixote and included The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve read those, as well as Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Hugo. I would place The Magic Mountain near the top of the list. It isn’t very popular these days, and the only “action sequence” is at the very end. But it explores profound questions of the health of men and nations, and the relations among people, individually and collectively. Taking tuberculosis as a metaphor for the political sickness of Europe that resulted in the First World War, Mann constructs a masterpiece around the story of Hans Castorp, whose life has just come to mean something when it is thrown away.

The Prospects for Robert Gates at Defense

Fred Kaplan, in the linked story from, thinks Bob Gates is a great choice for Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Kaplan reviews Gates's resume in some detail, and I don't think anyone doubts that he has the credentials for the job. Moreover, Kaplan makes the very good point that a new secretary would spend about a year, with the White House nipping at his heels about possible spending cuts, just figuring out where the problems might be. Gates has some ideas for changing the Pentagon, and Obama might just provide him the tools to make those changes.

The other thing I like about Bob Gates is his essential humility. I'm not kidding myself that anyone who has run the CIA and the Department of Defense is without a healthy dose of ego, but Gates does not seem to be carried away with himself. He knows he has a job to do, and he knows that someone else defines the overall goals and objectives of that job. Bob Gates may, because of that, put his personal stamp on the U.S. military to a greater degree than some of his predecessors who had that as an explicit goal.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Se Habla Espanol?

Here is how Ruben Navarette, Jr., sees the Republican loss of Hispanic support in 2008.

Specifically, there are five things that Republicans did which cost them Hispanic support.

They made language and culture the issue rather than illegality, which irked U.S.-born Hispanics who might otherwise have stayed out of the fray;

They didn’t condemn the racism in their ranks on the part of those who believe that Hispanic immigrants are inferior to the immigrants of old;

They let the debate digress from one that was anti-illegal immigration to one that was anti-immigrant to, finally, one that was anti-Hispanic;

They fell into the trap of offering simple solutions to what remains a complicated problem; and

They either assumed that Hispanics were not in play or that they could win some of those votes on the cheap with a spattering of Spanish ads.

Yes, indeed, Ruben, the Republican Party needs to be more open and welcoming. But as long as they think that nominating people like Sarah Palin is a good idea, I'm not holding my breath. I don't associate a pit bull with lipstick with a big, sincere, welcome sign. More like, "Beware of Dog!"

But Mr. Navarette makes one important point. In 2004, John Kerry did as badly among Hispanics as any Democrat since they started tracking these figures. It would be unwise of any party to take the Hispanic vote for granted. Moreover, it would be unwise for any party or candidate to treat the Hispanic vote as a unitary bloc. As this country's largest minority, Hispanics are going to swing elections for years to come. But they don't all swing the same way.

Did the Right Do Itself In?

John Hawkins asserts that conservatives are largely to blame for the defeat of their positions, and their candidates, in the November elections. His take is that conservatives didn't stand up and complain soon enough, or effectively enough, when President Bush and the Republican Congress went for non-conservative programs. In fine, he says, liberals are more passionate about their causes than conservatives are about theirs. Conservatives need to take to heart the old slogan: We work harder.

I'll agree with part of that diagnosis. Certainly conservatives were not all fired up for John McCain, and the Republicans in Congress took a beating, too. Hawkins also notes that tax cuts don't play well when about a third of the electorate are already exempt from Federal income taxes. He mentions that sniping at Democratic health care plans is insufficient. These examples make a different, more important point, than lack of conservative verve. As I have often said, "enthusiasm is no substitute for competence."

I think there are lots of passionate conservatives out there. The problem is that their passions blind them to the fact that no one shares their concerns. Take abortion - please. The five people in the United States who think that abortion is a very important issue are as passionate as all hell about it, but very few other people are willing to vote for or against a candidate solely on the basis of his or her views on abortion. Similarly, the people who think that the Second Amendment is the sole bulwark against our government in Washington painting the capitol red and becoming the second Kremlin are really excited about that issue, especially when they're off their meds. But who else cares?

The real problem with the conservative "movement" is that it isn't a movement at all; it's an agglomeration of little groups of people who are very concerned about these niche issues. They're passionate, all right, but they're too much like the man who leapt upon his horse and rode off in all directions. The reason a lot of people miss the old Republican party, the party of Dwight Eisenhower, is that it focussed on issues of real importance and broad interest. Sound fiscal policy, a strong national defense, development of the national infrastructure, and a rational tax policy benefit everyone, even those who don't support those things at a given time. That party was capable of turning into a majority whenever its prime issues gained some salience with the electorate. The current edition is drifting off into membership in the tin-hat league.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Knight’s Reading List XII: December 2007

Reading List:

Arnot, Bob. The Prostate Cancer Protection Plan.
Drake, David. Mistress of the Catacombs.
Edmonds, David, and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein’s Poker.
McGraw, Phil. The Ultimate Weight Solution.


Arnot, Robert, M.D. The Prostate Cancer Protection Plan: The Powerful Foods, Supplements, and Drugs That Could Save Your Life. Boston, New York and London: Little Brown and Company, 2000. xiii + 338 pages. Endnotes. Index. There are a few comments I’d like to make about Bob Arnot’s little book: 1) It contains a nice example of how careful one needs to be when the state of the art is in flux; 2) the title of Part One – A Nutritional Disease, gives away a lot about Arnot’s predispositions; 3) the lifestyle and diet changes recommended here (following Dean Ornish to a large degree) are probably good for your heart, your vascular system, and your digestion, but I wouldn’t count on them to prevent prostate cancer, let alone cure it. (Not that Arnot claims that they will; his book could, however, leave one with that impression.)

At the time Arnot wrote there was a vogue for PC-SPES, a natural supplement that was supposed to reduce PSA (prostate-specific antigen) scores. Unfortunately, PC-SPES had some nasty side effects, and, in the end, it was demonstrated that PC-SPES only worked when it was contaminated with a drug that had known problems – like causing uncontrolled bleeding from every orifice. There are a lot of fads in the prostate cancer world, partly because the legitimate treatments (surgery and radiation) have their own side effects, and one should be careful about any claims for miraculous success.

Yes, I believe that diet and lifestyle can, perhaps, slow down the progress of prostate cancer, and quite probably help to prevent a recurrence. But a disease that affects one in every six human males is just too widespread to be entirely environmental. It may be that those with a genetic predisposition start incubating abnormal cells as soon as puberty kicks in. Again, be wary of easy ways out.

Finally, I’m glad I eat one of Dr. Arnot’s soy protein shakes every day, and that I’ve lost some weight on the low-fat, vegetable-intensive diet I’ve followed for the past year and more. I think I’m less likely to have a heart attack or a stroke than I was a year ago. But I’m really glad I chose to have a course of intensive high-density radiation for the prostate cancer. Now I view the diet as supportive of the other treatments I have going on to make sure the cancer is permanently knocked down.

Edmonds, David, and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein’s Poker. 2001. x + 340 pages. Index.

Terrific book! I wrote a review after I read it, and that review is posted on this blog.

McGraw, Phil. The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Lost Freedom. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore: The Free Press, 2003. xiv + 320 pages. Index.

Yes, that Dr. Phil. If you’re looking for originality, this ain’t it, kid. But I would prefer tried-and-true methods to a brand-new miracle cure for obesity. Don’t buy the potato chips in the first place, and then you can’t eat them when you get the yen. Don’t go on a diet so monotonous you can’t stick with it, and it might be compromising your general nutrition. Choose lower-fat and lower-calorie alternatives. That’s the kind of common-sense advice you get from The Ultimate Weight Solution.

On the one hand, this is the kind of book that you might think you don’t need if you’re ready to lose some weight. I mean, we all know this stuff. But I found the book useful because it pulled together a lot of information in a coherent format, and because Dr. Phil makes it easy to apply his recommendations.


Drake, David. Mistress of the Catacombs. New York: Tor, 2001. A Tom Doherty Associates book. 464 pages. Sequel to Servant of the Dragon.

Two Republican Issues

Jennifer Rubin, in the linked article, asserts that there are two big issues of which the Republicans can take advantage: school choice and union elections.

First, attempts by Chancellor Michelle Rhee to clean up and improve the District of Columbia schools may be blocked by the teachers' union. As far as I can tell, the DC teachers' union has gone along with most of Rhee's moves, including closing schools, firing principals, and reducing central office staff. Rubin asserts that the union intends to stop Rhee from firing bad teachers, and she may be right - this is a critical issue for unions. Rubin thinks Republicans in Congress should support a move to declare a "state of emergency" in the DC schools, so that the union could be overridden.

Second, unions are engaged in a campaign to eliminate the secret ballot from representation elections. There was a measure on the Colorado ballot this year to that effect, but it was soundly defeated. During the presidential campaign, the Obama campaign indicated it would support this kind of measure. Rubin thinks congressional Republicans should make this a key issue in 2009, fighting for the American right to a secret ballot.

I think Rubin may be right on one of these issues, but wrong on the the other. First, voting for a "state of emergency" in the nation's capital because the DC schools are really, really bad is just going to make everyone look ridiculous. The DC schools were bad in 1954, when they were desegregated; they were bad in 1968, when the town was torched; they have been wrong through administrations both Republican and Democrat - so where's the emergency? On the other hand, every time Congress interferes in the District's affairs, the "home rule" advocates get all upset, and people start talking about "plantations."

Sure, I think the DC schools need serious reform, and I think Rhee should have a pretty free hand to do it. But just firing teachers won't do it; the District needs a major teacher re-training program, and forcing bad teachers to go back to school might just get them to quit. The biggest problem with the DC schools is the same for most bad school systems: too many of the teachers came up through the same system they now work in. There isn't any basis for comparison, and most DC teachers have never seen a good school. So something has to be done to let in the fresh air of comparison.

Second, I think Congress should oppose the elimination of the secret ballot in union elections. If the Democrats are so close to the unions that they're ready to allow intimidation to decide elections, the Republicans will lose this one. But it's an issue that resonates with all of us who treasure the secret ballot, and it will place a really bad light on criticisms of the Bush administration's attitude to civil liberties. Finally, of course, the reason for the secret ballot was to prevent employers from intimidating their workers. What makes the unions think that they can out-intimidate the man who signs the workers' paychecks?

But criticizing the Democrats and nibbling at the margins of union power isn't going to bring the Republicans back from the wilderness. They need a new John the Baptist, heralding the coming of a full-scale program of government. So far, they don't have anyone with shoulders that broad.

Gauging Success of Failure in Iraq

To decide whether something was successful or not, one needs to understand the objectives it was supposed to accomplish. A continuing problem in historical analysis is that objectives are often multiple, vague, or equivocal, while apologists sometimes seek to modify the objectives after the fact. For example, the United States lost the War of 1812, and lost it decisively, in terms of the original objectives of the War Hawks, such as Henry Clay, who wanted to annex Canada. One of the results of the Treaty of Ghent was the end of impressment of sailors from American ships. So, after the war, publicists spread the notion that our objective had been to end impressment, and we had. Ipso facto, we won the war! In fact, the British had agreed to terminate the Orders in Council authorizing impressment before they received word of the American declaration of war.

That sort of equivocation has consequences. Because American history texts tended to go along with the notion that we had won the War of 1812, the Richard Nixon’s assertion that he refused to be the first U.S. President to lose a war had some credibility. In fact, Jemmie Madison was the first U.S. President to lose a war (and, one might argue, Jefferson Davis was the second), so Mr. Nixon’s point wasn’t as valid as he liked to think. Valid or not, it did help to prolong the Vietnam war. In one of the great cases of such equivocation, assertions by right-wing German politicians that the German army had won World War I, and that victory had been given away by left-wing (Jewish) politicians, led to the rise of Hitler.

In the May/June 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, Steve Simon’s article “The Price of the Surge: How U.S. Strategy Is Hastening Iraq’s Demise,” is ostensibly a straightforward critique of the infusion of additional U.S. soldiers into Iraq in 2007-2008. In reality, Mr. Simon is establishing a basis for blaming the “loss” of the war in Iraq on the surge. Because of the way the surge has developed, Simon asserts, its successes are largely due to the “bottom-up” developments of better relations between Sunni tribes and the U.S. forces, the withdrawal of Shiite militias from active combat, and the reduction of friction between groups through “ethnic cleansing.” All of these are, according to Simon, threats to the development of a strong, unitary Iraqi state. As he says, “A strategy intended to reduce casualties in the short term will ineluctably weaken the prospects for Iraq’s cohesion over the long run.”

Simon assumes throughout that weakening the central Iraqi state is bad, and that the model that should be followed is that of subordinating the tribe and sects to the state. He asserts, and I’m sure he is correct, that there will be some negative effects of encouraging these centrifugal forces. On the other hand, Simon at no point adduces any evidence that a strong, centralized Iraq is, in fact, the goal of U.S. policymakers or military commanders. It may be true, for example, that strengthening the tribes against the state will weaken the center. But lessening the burden of the center on the tribes may make life tolerable for those tribes, so that they will remain in a (weakly) united Iraq. They might not so readily submit to a strong center dominated by Shiites. Similarly, restoring strong central authority over the three Kurdish provinces is likely to exacerbate, rather than relieve, stresses between the ethnic groups. In brief, a weakly centralized Iraq may be more stable in the long run than an attempt to impose a strong central government on a disunited populace.

The surge appears to have succeeded, not only in “reduc[ing] casualties in the short term,” but in demonstrating that a decentralized approach to Iraqi governance is more workable than attempting to clothe an emperor in Baghdad. I could point to parallels with the American experience before the Civil War, when the slave states were willing, if not content, to remain in a weak Union, but felt themselves force to secede at the prospect of a stronger central government. Moreover, whenever I hear someone lament that Iraq will be weak and disunited, I think to myself that the last time we had a strong central government in Baghdad, it attacked its neighbors in Iran and Kuwait. Would a failure to achieve a powerful Iraqi government really be a sign that we had lost the war?

Knight’s Reading List XI: November 2007

Reading List:

Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers.
Drake, David. Queen of Demons.
Drake, David. Servant of the Dragon.
Drake, David. The Mirror of Worlds.
Krantz, Steven G. Calculus Demystified.
Marks, Sheldon, M.D. Prostate and Cancer.
Ornish, Dean, M.D. Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish.
Rosen, Jeffrey. The Supreme Court.
Theroux, Paul. The Old Patagonian Express.
Torrey, E. Fuller, M.D. Surviving Prostate Cancer.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 512 pages. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

The late Steve Ambrose was a very well-known popular historian, author of Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, and multivolume biographies of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. This book is in the tradition of oral histories of World War II, of which John Toland’s Battle: The Story of the Bulge (1959) is a fine example. I was a little surprised not to see Toland’s book in Ambrose’s Bibliography. Nor did he refer to John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy (1982, with a new introduction 1994), a really fine account of the period June-August, 1944.

Ambrose’s accounts of D-Day and the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the late battles will be familiar to those who have read much in the history of World War II. Less familiar and, therefore, perhaps more interesting, was the section on the battle of the Hurtgen Forest. The drama of the battles around Bastogne may have led us to ignore the almost utterly pointless slaughter occasioned by Eisenhower’s decision to continue offensive operations on the Western Front through the bitter winter of 1944-1945. Had the allies settled down into winter quarters, a fine tradition of European warfare, they could have resumed the offensive in the spring with little difference – except that many casualties suffered in the Hurtgen Forest would not have occurred.

Another interesting aspect of this book is that Ambrose devotes a section of six chapters to “Live in the ETO.” This covers the roles of the many non-combat personnel involved in the theater: nurses, medics, prisoners, as well as some discussion of what was a thoroughly segregated army. Even though World War II modified American social and technological life, it was, nonetheless, a product of the culture of the time, and many assumptions and relationships were carried over from the homeland to the European theater.

Krantz, Steven G. Calculus Demystified. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. xii + 343 pages. Bibliography. Solutions to Exercises. Final Exam. Index. About the Author.

I still find calculus mysterious, but that isn’t Krantz’s fault.

Marks, Sheldon. Prostate and Cancer: A Family Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Survival (Third Edition). 2003. xv + 349 pages. Index.

I concur with Dr. E. Torrey Fuller’s comments on this book. “Originally published in 1995, this is one of the best books available on prostate cancer. It is user friendly, with forty chapters in question-and-answer format and a helpful index. Like most books written by urologists, it primarily covers treatment issues and includes little on causes (except nutrition), research, and other issues.”

Ornish, Dean, M.D. Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish. 1996. xxi + 344 pages. Index.

Ornish is a well-known television doctor who pushes diet and meditation as pathways to better health. This cookbook represents an attempt to bring Ornish-healthy food to people who can’t afford a personal chef. I didn’t find it an indispensable addition to my kitchen’s library (unlike, say, Joy of Cooking). I do have Ornish’s Eat More, Weigh Less, but his recipes end up on my table a lot less often than dishes from Gabe Mirkin’s Fat Free, Flavor Full or Sarah Schlesinger’s 500 Fat-Free Recipes.

Rosen, Jeffrey. The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Books, 2006. 274 pages. Cases Cited. Notes. Acknowledgments. Illustration Credits. Index.

This book was written as a companion to a PBS series on the United States Supreme Court in American history. (I have not seen the series, so I can’t compare the book to it.) This may explain Jeffrey Rosen’s choice of format: Each of the four principal chapters is structured around the relations between two key players in an important period of the Court’s history: John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson in the early history of the Republic, John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., around the beginning of the 20th century, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas in the mid-century period, and William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Rosen’s thesis is that temperament matters more than intellectual brilliance, political power, or legal knowledge. A justice with the right temperament will be able to build coalitions, broker compromises, and affect many decisions. A less fortunate justice will anger and alienate his or her colleagues, and write many minority opinions whose brilliance can’t conceal the simple fact that they are written in a losing cause.

This is an attractive thesis, and it helps to account for the inability of Antonin Scalia to participate more often in the majority side of decisions. I have, however, a few reservations. John Marshall’s congenial (and convivial) disposition certainly helped him to carry his Court on many occasions. On the other hand, one reason for his influence in American jurisprudence is that Marshall was Chief Justice from 1801 until 1835; Jefferson was President from 1801 to 1809. It may also be a little unfair to compare Holmes and the first Harlan, as they were on the Court together for only nine years, out of tenures that exceeded thirty years for each man.

Theroux, Paul. The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. (Introduction, 1997). A Mariner Book. xv + 404 pages.

This is a really fine travel book, by one of the outstanding travel writers. The author travelled from Boston, Massachusetts, to southern Argentina, by train. Theroux’s observations are keen, and his descriptions are clear. Theroux isn’t about taking his own viewpoint out of the picture; in his books the reporter – his experiences, his frustrations, his opinions – is very much a part of the story. An elegantly written book.

Torrey, E. Fuller, M.D. Surviving Prostate Cancer: What You Need to Know to Make Informed Decisions. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, Health and Wellness, 2006. xv + 280 pages. Notes. Index.

Fuller was an M.D., but not an oncologist (cancer specialist), when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004. His purpose was to write “the book I wish had been available to me when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.” In my opinion, as an interested party, he has succeeded remarkably well. Of the various books I have read on prostate cancer, this one ranks with Prostate Cancer for Dummies as the most useful.

Part of the usefulness of Surviving Prostate Cancer is Fuller’s attitude, as captured in the title. Fuller expresses, and shares, a determination to beat this disease. Driving this book is the conviction that prostate cancer is beatable. Fuller covers the various treatment options – and there are many – clearly and thoroughly. His bibliography includes a brief description of each book, with an indication of his recommendations. (He recommends both Prostate Cancer for Dummies and Prostate and Cancer.) For example, he does not recommend the American Cancer Society’s Complete Guide to Prostate Cancer with this comment: “Thus, the book lacks specific information to help a man choose which treatment is best for him. These shortcomings may be an inevitable consequence of having sixty-two authors and trying not to offend anyone.”


Drake, David. Queen of Demons. New York, Tom Doherty Associates, A Tor Book, 1998. 480 pages. Sequel to: Lord of the Isles.

Drake, David. Servant of the Dragon. New York, Tom Doherty Associates, A Tor Book, 1999. 612 pages. Sequel to: Queen of Demons.

Drake, David. The Mirror of Worlds. New York, Tom Doherty Associates, A Tor Book, 2007. 333 pages. Sequel to: The Fortress of Glass.

David Drake, who recently became a contributor to this blog, has been writing excellent science fiction and fantasy since the early 1970s. I’ve known Dave for 34 years now, and he is both a good friend and one of my favorite authors. The Lord of the Isles/Crown of the Isles series encompasses a total of nine novels, all featuring a group of four young friends from a village back of beyond, who are thrust into position of power and peril in an age of powerful magic and malevolent magicians. Drake very nicely balances the naturalism of his prose with the fantastic aspects of his subject matter. There is very little more frightening than a horror story told in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, and David Drake is very good at letting his stories develop their own atmospheres.

You can find out more about Dave and his books at:

Long Time, No See

Readers -

October was a good month for this blog, with 12 posts. I had a pretty good rhythm going, moving back and forth between (more or less) five-paragraph essays and reading list articles. November has been much slower here on the blog, in large part because I've been caught up in work. But nobody wants to hear excuses. I'm going to continue to post as I can, and hopefully that will be somewhat more often than in the past few weeks.

Please contribute your comments and your original essays as you have time and energy. I welcome comments on, and links to, articles and blogs of interest.

Thank you for your patience.

Glenn A. Knight

Monday, November 17, 2008


A definition is a statement of the meaning of word, phrase, or term. Consider that definition for a moment. (Do we see the beginnings of an infinite regress, definition of definition of definition?) If we replaced the word "is" with an equals sign, it would read: A definition = a statement of the meaning of a word, phrase, or term. This form is reversible: A statement of the meaning of a word, phrase, or term = a definition. The statement is also stable under alternation: A definition is a statement of the meaning of a word, or a statement of the meaning of a phrase, or a statement of the meaning of a term. In short, the word, phrase or term defined, and the defining word, phrase or term, may be substituted for one another, without changing the meaning of the statement in which they are used.

To be happy is to be characterized by good luck. Happy is synonymous with fortunate. The definition of happiness is good fortune. One can use "happy" in any sentence in which one would use "fortunate," without changing the meaning of the sentence. The Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, "How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom." This sentence retains its meaning when one modifies it to, "How fortunate your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom."

When one is happy, one is enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure or joy. Happy is a synonym for glad, and unhappy is a synonym for sad. "A happy face makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit." This is a perfectly acceptable meaning of the word "happy," and it is commonly used in this way. There is a degree to which the two meanings impinge upon one another. If one has good luck, one should be cheerful. But they are, in fact, distinct meanings. When one says that one had a run of bad luck, that is not interchangeable in meaning with saying that one was depressed or sad all day. Solomon's officials may be pleased to hear his wisdom, but they are lucky to receive it, even if they take no pleasure in it.

Aristotle says that equivocation occurs when two objects share a name and nothing else. Another way to put that is to say that a word may have two (or more) definitions. So it is with "happiness." One must always be clear whether one is using "happy" to mean "lucky," or to mean "showing joy." When a word has two definitions, either of which may be accepted for some uses, great confusion can result from a failure to specify which definition is in use.

While definitions are important, it should be remembered that they tell one nothing of the empirical content of a concept. "God" has been defined as "a being than which there can be no greater." That is a workable definition, clear and unambiguous. It could be used to substitute for "God" wherever it occurred, although it would substantially increase the length of the document. However, when one tries to use this definition to prove that God exists, one is going beyond the power to definitions, which is, after all, merely to express the relationships of words to one another. That a = b proves neither that a exists, not that there is any b.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The happiness of free people

Click on this link:

to go to the great ideas forum if you would like to discuss the implications of the November issue of Great Ideas Online , where Dr. Adler explains the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia or happiness. As usual, I am grateful to Dr. Adler for stimulating essays, but find I totally disagree with his conclusions and most of his premises. In this case, I have argued that the Aristotelian definition of happiness is suitable only for a nation of rulers and subjects and propose an alternate definition, based on Stoic philosophy which I will argue is more suitable for a free people.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Republican Future

I just posted here an article by David Drake, author of Hammer's Slammers, Lord of the Isles, and Some Golden Harbor, as well as many other science fiction and fantasy novels. Dave is a terrific writer, and I've known him for many years. But that's not why I posted his reflections on the Republican Party. Dave's writing skills make the article a pleasure to read, but the main reason I wanted to post Dave's piece is that it expresses so well my own feelings, and those of a lot of other former Republicans.

In the movie A River Runs through It, the narrator notes that his father, a Presbyterian minister, used to say that Methodists were Baptists who could read. (By the way, as far as I can tell, the line does not appear in the story on which the movie was based.) For some years now, I have referred to myself as a Republican who can read. This was my way of distinguishing myself from the ignorant, superstitious, anti-intellectuals who have come to dominate the Republican Party.

In the history of American politics, stupidity has not been a monopoly of the Republican Party. In fact, for most of the twentieth century, the center of ignorance and superstition was the Southern Democratic party. The Democrats, after all, nominated William Jennings Bryan for President, and were represented in Congress by such paragons as Theodore Bilbo, Huey Long, and James Eastland. It was the movement of white southern Democrats to the Republican party in the wake of the civil rights revolution that transformed the GOP into the party of medieval superstition. Oddly enough, it was Richard Nixon, that most intellectual of Republican Presidents, who decided to exploit the disaffection of southerners from the Democratic Party.

In the wake of Barack Obama's victory, the Republican Party has some serious decisions to make. The GOP may be on the path to permanent minority and irrelevance trodden by the Federalists and the Whigs. Avoiding that dead end road will require good decisions - decisions of a quality we can't expect from Sarah Palin and her ilk.

What Have They Done with My Party?

The title comes from the question plaintively asked some months before the 2008 presidential election by a friend who's a businessman. Like me he's well on the wrong side of Fifty, and like me he was raised a Republican. I think we'd both describe ourselves as conservatives (note the small c).
Max Hastings, a right-wing British journalist, put it in a slightly different fashion when he noted during the campaign (I'm paraphrasing) that the Republicans had become the party of the poorly educated, superstitious, and rural. You only have to listen to one of Sarah Palin's campaign speeches to see that he has a point.
The Republican Party my friend and I identified with was the party of business. Republicans were neither exciting nor cuddly, but you could trust the economy to them and expect them to avoid foreign military adventures. We liked Ike.
In 1983 I became rewrite man for Newt Gingrich on the book which became Window of Opportunity. Newt is a very smart, very dynamic man; working with him was both an honor and an education.
In the course of our first meeting, Newt told me that he was going to engineer a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Thank goodness I didn't say, "Right, and pigs will fly," but I certainly thought it. I was colossally ignorant, though in 1983 most people would have agreed with me. The only smart thing I did during the exchange was to keep my mouth shut.
Newt continued to work from within to change the Republicans from a party of the elite and privileged (people like me, not to put too fine a point on it) into a real populist movement. In 1994 he achieved his end: Republicans took control of the House.
There has been quite a lot of movement since then, but not--from the vantage of hindsight--a great deal of progress. The House Republicans didn't seem to know what to do with their victory. Newt himself left the House and elective politics. His economic mantra had been, "Reduce the national debt." His majority spiraled into a wasteland of tax cuts and deficit spending.
The populist majority fell away, not so much in anger as boredom. Quite a lot of people dislike Bill Clinton, but very few would say that it was worth shutting down the government of the United States to delve into his sex life.
What remained isn't the Republican Party of Eisenhower (or Dewey and Taft): it's a populist fringe. It certainly represents a significant portion of the citizens of the United States, just as the Taliban represents a significant portion of the citizens of Afghanistan, but it isn't the business party, the Safe Hands party.
It's a party which has turned away from people like me and my businessman friend. And, though he worked with the fringes too in putting together his majority, I believe it's a party which is equally alien to Newt Gingrich,.
It's a shame. I still like Ike.

Dave Drake

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Knight's Reading List X: October 2007

I finished a short list of books in October of last year. I also started six books in October, which I finished reading in November. Along with other records I have, that indicates that the following list represents only a fraction of what I was reading in October of 2007, but an important fraction, for all that. The first two books, two very different approaches to wars which have been imagined very differently, are both excellent. One is a work of literary criticism which reveals quite a bit about a war and its effects; the other is a work of history that explores the literary, as well as the political effects, of a brutal war.


Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. 2006. xvi + 462 pages, including Notes and Index. This past summer my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II on PBS. One of the old veterans who provided commentary, with particular emphasis on the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, was Paul Fussell, who had been a brand-new lieutenant in 1944. When he isn’t fighting wars, Fussell is a literary sort, a professor and the author of a number of books. This is a very, very good work of literary criticism, exploring the literary traditions of World War I. Fussell examines such major writers as Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, looks at the break with earlier literary forms and expressions which marked the period after 1916, and notes the differences between the much franker, more open literature of World War II. He even spends a chapter or so on the homosexual imagery of World War I’s prose and poetry. This is a work about literature and thought, which is itself a thoughtful work of literature. Read 1-28 October 2007.

Alistair Horne. A Savage War of Peace. 2007. xxvii + 484 pages, including Index. Thirty years ago I spent eighteen months in Algiers. I was focussed on my immediate job at the American Embassy, and spent much of my tourist time exploring Roman ruins. (Legion III Augustae was stationed in the area for several hundred years; the Romans had a grasp of the long-term nature of military commitments.) I heard this and that about the war of the Algerian revolution, and I was there for the 25th anniversary celebrations in November 1979. But I didn’t really know much about the war – I was, after all, 11 when Charles de Gaulle returned to power, and the war entered its final phases.

Alistair Horne is a terrific author, specializing in French history, and with a taste for the violent side of politics. A Savage War of Peace, with its savagely ironic title, is a very good read. It is also a very good source for those wondering what’s been going on in Iraq these past five and one-half years. A while back President Bush asked Mr. Horne to the White House, looking for insights into insurgent warfare in Muslim countries. It might have been better if he had thought to do that before ordering the invasion of Iraq. Read 2-30 October 2007.

Paul H. Lange, M.D. Prostate Cancer for Dummies. 2003. xxii + 356 pages, including Index. October 10, 2007, I received a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the disease, undergone treatment, including radiation and hormone therapy, and am doing very well now, thank you. This was the first, and in some ways the best, of the books I read while informing myself about a disease which affects one male American in six. Read 16-30 October 2007.


Margaret Frazer. The Bastard’s Tale. 2003. 309 pages. One of a series of medieval mystery novels. Our detective is a prior century’s Miss Marple: a nun named Dame Frevisse. Read 1-10 October 2007.

David Drake. Lord of the Isles. 1997. 625 pages. This is the first of a nine-book fantasy series written by a friend of mine from North Carolina. I like them, and I’ve found them worth re-reading. In fact, I’m listening to the book-on-tape version as I prepare this little report. This was, perhaps, the third time I’d read the book. Read 5-22 October 2007.

The Limits of False Prosperity

When economists and economic historians come to write about the crash of 2008, I hope that they take a longer view. This wasn't just a "housing bubble," or a " bubble," or a "credit crunch." At some point, probably back in the Reagan administration, the government, corporations, and individuals all decided to "put it on the never-never." (That's an old British expression for installment payment plans, under which one could have a desirable something now, and cost of it would be stretched into the "never-never.") I could even trace it to a single tacit agreement between a national leader and the people of this country.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan promised to increase military spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget. Let me digress for a moment into the world of project management. A popular theory of project management holds that there are three conditioning factors for a project: time, money, and quality. A project manager can increase quality by spending more time or more money, or can cut the budget by decreasing quality, but you can't improve quality, use less time, and spend less money. Similarly, I think that everyone knew that it was impossible, barring some sort of miracle, to increase spending, decrease revenue, and decrease the budget deficit. But a majority of Americans, myself included, voted for Mr. Reagan, by that action tacitly agreeing to base government programs on make-believe, rather than reality.

Parenthetically, I might say that there was an escape clause here, and it lay in the ambiguity between "cutting taxes" and "lowering revenue." According to economic theories attributed to Joel Laffer, a decrease in the tax rate could lead to an increase in tax collections, because of the removal of incentives to evade taxes, and because of the stimulus to economic activity provided by the tax rate cut. My personal problem with Laffer curves is that they were based upon the experience of the early 1960s, when maximum tax rates were decreased from 91 per cent to 70 per cent. The incentive to evade, and the disincentive to invest, at 91 per cent may have been enough to increase revenue in an otherwise favorable economic climate. But there was little or no evidence about what would happen when maximum tax rates were already in the 40 per cent range.

It has become a commonplace that incomes (in real terms, i.e., adjusted for inflation) have been pretty much flat since the early 1970s, and that such income growth as has occurred has been at the upper levels. On the other hand, productivity has been rising, which would have supported substantial wage increases. If workers, who were also consumers, could not purchase goods in some proportion to their increase production, an oversupply, with the inevitable deflation, would have occurred. Moreover, because the profits of corporations were not being distributed to the workers, money was accumulating in their accounts. What to do, what to do?

I want to make clear that I do not believe that there was some master plan at work here. I think the set of rules and incentives established in the early 1980s, along with an aversion to deferring gratification, led to the following results, which reinforced one another in various ways.

First, money was shipped overseas, for investment in foreign plants. That removed the threat of inflation due to excessive money circulating in the system.

Second, cheap products were imported from overseas. That removed the threat of cost-push inflation, by ensuring that there was always a cheap alternative.

Third, because more production was happening overseas, manufacturing jobs declined in number in the United States. And that took care of wage-driven inflation.

Fourth, a lot of jobs appeared in services. Some of these were very low-wage food service jobs, but some were commissioned sales jobs in the financial sector.

Fifth, noting that demand might not be keeping up with supply, which would lead to deflation (mustn't have deflation!), the authorities loosened all of the rules on borrowing.

In other words, because people's wages didn't go up with their productivity, they couldn't buy a lot of stuff that other people needed to sell, because so many people - mortgage brokers, stockbrokers, real estate salespeople - were commissioned. Therefore, it was in everyone's (apparent) interest to make it easy for people to borrow the money, so that they could buy houses, and cars, and appliances, and stuff. So, individuals stopped saving, and increased their borrowing. When savings occurred in spite of them, as when the values of their houses rose, they borrowed against that increased equity.

But corporations were also borrowing. I might note that one reason for this is that equity financing, which corporations pay for with dividends, lacks tax advantages over debt financing, which corporations pay for with (tax-deductible) interest. Corporations borrowed huge sums to buy other corporations, assuming their debt.

And, after a brief period in the 1990s, caused more by the inability of the branches of the government to agree on tax and spending policy, than by their agreement on a sensible approach to these things, the government has been borrowing. Not only are their constituents averse to taxes, they actually seem to believe that higher taxes are unnecessary! So President Bush cut taxes for the wealthy, and many not-so-wealthy, and then didn't rescind those cuts when he became involved in expensive overseas combat operations.

So, that's the real core of the crisis. No one, and I mean no one, has been willing to accept the spending discipline required to, in a phrase that falls quaintly on the ear, "live within their means."

I read an article in the Washington Post (National Weekly Edition) issue of October 6, which gave me a perfect example. A woman bought a townhouse in Dale City, Virginia, for $75,000 in 1993. After a number of actions, including refinancing the house for $208,000 with a reverse-amortization loan, she defaulted on the mortgage. The house reverted to Fannie Mae. They couldn't sell it at $149,000. They are now trying to sell it for $69,900. In other words, that house is worth today just about the same amount it was worth in 1993. It's always been worth $70-75,000. It has never been worth more. It, and a lot of other things, were made to appear worth more than they were, because unlimited credit led to massive inflation, which wasn't counted as such. Nobody wanted to say that the prosperity was false, or that the emperor had no clothes.

Knight's Reading List IX: September 2007

After the August 2007 reading list, you won’t be surprised to find another four Harry Potter novels on the September 2007 list. Two other novels – one good, one really bad – round out the fiction group. In non-fiction we have one computer techie book, one investment guide, one work on the Supreme Court of the United States, and one polemic on politics, religion and oil. A mixed bag, indeed, which won’t surprise those of you who know me.


Maria Langer. Quicken 2007: The Official Guide. 2007. xxvii + 484 pages, including Index. If you use Quicken, the personal finances software from Intuit, this guide could be useful for you. It has major sections on Quicken functionality for cash flow, investing, managing property and debt, financial planning and tax management. It is, of course, more of a reference than a work to be read for pleasure, or even for general information. Read 21 August-7 September 2007.

Kevin Phillips. American Theocracy. 2006. xvi + 462 pages, including Notes and Index. Kevin Phillips became famous – famous in political junkie circles, anyway – back in the 1960s, when he published The Emerging Republican Majority. In that book, he accurately predicted some of the major trends in the partisan politics of the next forty years. The South became Republican territory, the Sun Belt became the core of conservative country, and the Republicans benefited from the racial and social tensions which riddled American society. Forty years later, Phillips’s youthful enthusiasm had turned to horror: His Republican majority had given rise to George W. Bush, the religious right, and an unholy alliance between the petroleum sector and foreign oil powers. Phillips seems to feel that, because he predicted the success of the Southern Strategy, he is somehow responsible for its results. So, he has turned to writing polemics attacking the political nexus of the Bushes, the evangelicals, and the oil producers. American Dynasty (which I have not read) preceded American Theocracy. American Theocracy is heavy reading, because Phillips is no prose stylist. But it is chockful of material to feed any conspiracy theorist’s hunger for tales of the evildoers behind it all. You can fill the breaks in reading American Theocracy watching Fahrenheit 911, Jesus Camp, or Crude Awakening. Read 29 July-16 September 2007.

Charles B. Carlson. The Smart Investor’s Survival Guide. 2002. xxiii + 325 pages. I wish I had read this one earlier, but I don't know that any individual's investment decisions could have affected the impact of the recent financial crisis. There have been bigger forces at work in the credit markets, in particular - and this does relate back to Kevin Phillips and his work - the set of policies designed to allow people to improve their standards of living, without increasing the incomes which ought to have been required to support those standards. At this point, "smart investor" sounds like an oxymoron. Read 3-26 September 2007.

Earl M. Maltz. The Chief Justiceship of Warren Burger, 1969-1986. 2000. xvi + 307 pages, including Appendix, Bibliography, Index of Cases, and Subject Index. This is a volume in a series from the University of South Carolina Press, Chief Justiceships of the United States Supreme Court. At the time this book was published, volumes had been published on Melville W. Fuller, John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Stone and Vinson, and Edward Douglass White. Read 17-29 September 2007.


J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000. 734 pages. I suppose that one can sum up the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel written for young people in this fact: I read Goblet in eight days and Deathly Hallows in three, while it took me seven weeks to get through The Stone the Builder Refused. Read 26 August-2 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. 2003. 870 pages. Read 2-8 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. 2005. 652 pages. Read 8-10 September 2007.

J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 2007. 759 pages. Read 10-12 September 2007.

Elizabeth Peters. The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits. 1971. 247 pages. Elizabeth Peters, a cat fancier from Maryland, has become a prolific author of mystery novels, who is perhaps best known for her Amelia Peabody series set in late 19th- and early 20th-century Egypt. This was an early book, and it shows. Peters’ acceptance of a sort of Reefer Madness attitude toward drug use rings of Puritan disapproval. And that’s only one of the bad points in this improbable adventure set in Mexico. Read 17-19 September 2007.

Madison Smartt Bell. The Stone the Builder Refused. 2004. xvii + 747 pages. This is the third work in a trilogy on the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint Louverture. Bell does an amazing job of weaving French, Creole, and various African expression through the dialogue. His characterizations of both fictional and historical persons have depth and texture. Bell has a very solid grasp of the political realities of the relations between Haiti, Santo Domingo, France, and the United States. The title is taken from a Biblical citation, a Psalm quoted several times in the New Testament. Read 10 August-27 September 2007.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Republican Depression

I've been visiting a few Web sites on the Republican side of the fence. While there's a lot of energy on blogs like The Daily Kos, many conservatives are writing articles with titles like: "Six Things McCain Should Do to Salvage His Campaign," "There May Still Be Hope for McCain," "Oh, God! It's Going to Be a Disaster!" Well, not that last one. Here's an example by the well known and prolific Victor Davis Hanson, who frequently contributes to Commentary.

Hanson is saying that the supposed "nastiness" of McCain's campaign is merely an excuse for former supporters, or potential supporters, or people who might be expected to be supporters, to distance themselves from a losing cause. Maybe he's right, but I think there's more to it than that.

McCain likes it best when he's talking about national security. He's not an expert on economic matters, despite years on the Senate Commerce Committee, and he's not comfortable talking about the economy. Even so, he has economic advisers, he has speechwriters, he knows people who do know about the economy: So why hasn't he been able to articulate some kind of compelling, large-scale plan for dealing with the economy? I think that there are a couple of possible answers.

1) McCain is so ignorant of economic matters, and so uncomfortable discussing them, that he and his advisers are afraid to have him try to articulate a complex plan in public. I don't think this is really it, because he does know how to use a Tele-Prompter, but maybe it is. In which case, I'd really worry about how President McCain would deal with issues outside his comfort zone.

2) All of the plans his advisers have come up with would anger some constituent group. This is a possibility. You will have noted that both he and Senator Obama have dodged questions about what programs they'd have to cut, which promises they'd have to break, and which groups would have to suffer, because of the cost of the economic rescue plan. It's also obvious that some of McCain's supporters are really unhappy about "socialism," and here's McCain himself proposing that the government become the biggest mortgage banker in the country.

In any event, I think, pace Hanson, that some people are genuinely turned off by the negative tone of the McCain campaign. (They don't like negatives from Obama, either, but he's ahead, so he's doing less of that.) Moreover, it demonstrates a paucity of ideas relevant to popular concerns. That is, if McCain had a really good answer on the economy, he'd be pushing it instead of going negative. That he and Governor Palin are spending so much time attacking Senator Obama and his positions, serves as a marker that they don't have good proposals of their own.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Constitution and Personhood

One of the claims that appears to be important to the anti-abortion position is that embryos have rights. It may then be presumed that when the rights of the embryo are in conflict with the rights of the putative mother, some balanced resolution must be reached. Since abortion ends the existence of the embryo and, hence, any ability of the embryo to exercise any rights, it would seem that any reasonable balance precludes abortion entirely. In fact, some exponents argue that the rights of a pregnant woman can be quite significantly limited, in order to ensure that she carries her pregancy to term. If, however, embryos lack rights, then no such balance need be struck, and the regulation of abortion can proceed on other grounds.

The rights of citizens and residents of the United States are specified, or at the least adumbrated, in the Constitution of the United States and a number of the amendments thereto. I have attached the entire text of the Fifth Amendment, and the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, as containing passages relevant to the instant controversy. One of the notable points is that, while some of the rights or privileges alluded to in the Fourteenth Amendment belong to citizens of the United States, while the equal protection of the laws is extended to all persons “within its jurisdiction.”

In other essays, I have argued that an embryo is not, on the face of it, a human being, and that the two conditions are mutually exclusive. That is, a human being isn’t a human being until it has been born, while an embryo ceases to be an embryo when it is born. If find that the language of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that the same position is held by the Constitution. The amendment states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The plain meaning of this statement is that one is neither a citizen nor a person until after one has been born. Since all of the rights granted by the Constitution accrue to persons, and some only to citizens, it is obvious that there are no rights under the Constitution accruing to an embryo.

I think a simple illustration will make this clear. A citizen is a person “born or naturalized in the United States.” This principle, which is known as the jus soli, the “law of the soil,” means that the fundamental criterion for American citizen is birth in this country. It is well known that a pregnant Mexican citizen may enter the United States, have the baby in California or New Mexico, and thus gain a claim to U.S. citizenship for the child. But birth is a critical element in this scenario. A German citizen woman may come to the United States, become pregnant here, spend eight months of her pregnancy in the United States, and lose any claim to U.S. citizenship for the child by giving birth in Germany. In other words, no claim to citizenship is accrued during time spent as an embryo in the United States.

The critical Constitutional dividing line between person and non-person, eligibility for citizenship and lack of eligibility, is the actual birth. Thus, prior to birth, an embryo has no Constitutional rights, although, immediately upon being born alive within our boundaries, a baby acquires certain rights.
Due Process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments

Article [V]

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Article XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.