Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Flowers of Evil

Over the weekend while returning clothes to Value Village, I picked up Judgement Ridge, a true-crime hardback describing the murders in early 2001 of Half and Susanne Zantop, German-born married professors at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, at the hands of two teenagers from a nearby town. By reporters Richard Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff and published in 2003, it is in fact a very good read (I finished in two days), written with obvious sensitivity toward the victims and the townsfolk who were to learn, weeks after the murders, that two of their nicest — and brightest — young boys were responsible for the butchery (both the victims had multiple stab wounds, with one stabbed several times straight through the skull with the kind of knife used by U.S. Navy “SEAL” commandos).

The brutality led investigators to believe it was a crime of passion — perhaps one or the other of the couple was having an affair. Disgruntled students and colleagues were also questioned. The status of the victims — Half Zantop was a noted geologist, his wife a German language professor whose works had been published in book form — also attracted wide news-media attention. Soon town gossip, innuendo and irresponsible leaks by authorities found their way even into respected broadsheets. Murder victims haven’t a shed of privacy, and no voice with which to defend themselves.

The crime may never have solved at all, had the murderers not left behind the sheaths to the knives they had purchased over the Internet a few months before the deaths. From them, investigators were able to track down the make of the weapons. Tedious searches through local and regional retailers of such knives, yielded up a name of buyer of two knives from the town just a few miles from the small hamlet where the Zantops made their home, and met their end. It was ordered by one of the teenagers — they were sixteen and seventeen at the time — who had carried out the crime. When police questioned Jim Parker, they did not believe his story that he and his friend (the other perpetrator, Robert Tulloch) had sold the knives to a mysterious stranger soon after purchasing them.

But they also did not believe that Parker and Tulloch were directly involved in the murders. Only when Tulloch and Parker fled New Hampshire, did the police obtain warrants to search their family homes, uncovering the actual knives that Tulloch had inexplicably forgot to get rid of not only after they had murdered the Zantops, but also after the pair had come to the attention of police, and decided to flee.

After the pair were arrested at an Indiana truck stop, the question turned to why Parker and Tulloch chose to murder Susanne and Half (whose name meant, literally, “help” in German) Zantop. The killers did not know the couple. Though no one from their town were as well-off as the Zantops or any other faculty member of the “ivy league” Dartmouth, they weren’t from poor homes either. They were not driven by hatred of the rich, of foreigners, or of academics. The Zantops had come from Germany, but both Parker’s and Tulloch’s families were also from outside of New Hampshire (the latter had moved there just a few years before the murders).

Neither were high-school dropouts: on the contrary, both had finished high school ahead of time, bright students who had, on the other hand, little inclination toward going beyond what was necessary.  They did not (nor did their) friends drank booze or used illicit drugs. Both boys had girlfriends at the time of the murders, or had one shortly before. The only thing taken from the Zantop’s lavish home was several hundred dollars out of Half’s wallet.

It seems that, in what was to be their last year of high school in the autumn of 2000, Parker and Tulloch entered an intense companionship that came to exclude not only the rest of the gang they had been running around with, but wholly or partially, their girlfriends as well. Lehr and Zuckoff provide no evidence that Parker and Tulloch were homosexual. Instead, they believe something more sinister was at play. Quoting the B.C. psychologist Robert Hare, the authors conclude that Tulloch was a psychopath. The teenager not only had no apparent feeling for others, he also had a grossly inflated estimation of his own self and his abilities.

Just months prior to the murders, Tulloch had encountered unaccustomed setbacks and humiliations, including an effort to remove him as student-council president for failure to carry out his duties, and the loss of a state-wide debate-club title after referring to his opponent (an exchange student) as “just a German.” Zuckoff and Lehr propose that around this time, a bloodlust had erupted in Tulloch, an aggressive response to these setbacks. It was around this time, too, that Tulloch began to alienate Parker from their other friends, and from his girlfriend as well. Tulloch, a year older and always the dominant personality, began to persuade Parker of the need of the two of them, superior brains both, to leave the small town in which they had come of age, and which offered no future. He suggested that they’d need ten thousand dollars to get to the various places they had chosen to run away to (Europe, New Zealand, and the finally, Australia). The only way they could get this kind of money quickly, was to take someone hostage in their home, force them to reveal their bank account and credit card numbers, and take what belongings were there. From there the plan escalated to murdering the hostages, too, lest they reveal the assailants’ identities. As the authors see it, the initiative for these actions came from Tulloch, with Parker going along in order to please his idol.

But to them, it was all a ruse. Tulloch’s actions at the Zantops’ disprove the robbery motive. After gaining entry to the house under the pretense of being students conducting an environmental survey, the murderers did not overpower and tie up the couple (who, in their fifties and sixties, could not be expected to put up too much resistance even to sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys). Tulloch went for his knife the first moment Half Zantop turned his back, plunging the weapon into the man’s chest as soon as he turned around again. He continued his assault until he turned his attention to Susanne, already dead after Parker had slit her throat. Tulloch proceeded to stab her several more times.

After they were apprehended, both Parker and Tulloch pled guilty to the crimes. Parker turned on Tulloch, and received a lighter sentence than the latter, who will not see the outside of a prison. There is something else that Lehr and Zuckoff dwell on. The knife-sheaths were the key to solving the crime, but the boys’ rush from the scene could explain why they would have been left behind. But what about their decision to keep the knives, even after the police were on to them? This flatly contradicts Parker’s and Tulloch’s own assertions that they were beings with superior intelligence. There is, however, a pattern of heinous murderers committing stupid mistakes such as this, which result in their capture. It has been remarked that Ted Bundy, the infamous serial-murderer of young brunettes during the 1970s, was apprehended twice (for the first time, and then again after he twice escaped custody) by his disobedience as a motorist of basic traffic regulations. Denis Rader, who terrorized Wichita, Kansas, for twenty years as the “bind, torture, kill” predator of mostly elderly women (though his toll also included an entire family), was apprehended after he was assured by investigators that his identity could not be traced if he continued his long-running correspondence with authorities on computer disk rather than on typed pages. Forensics quickly discovered the meta-file data necessary to track Rader down. He had been using the computer at his church, where he served in a lay capacity, to write his murder notes.

I dwell on this macabre subject perhaps because not dissimilar crimes have resulted in an arrest closer to home. In early February, I learned of the disappearance of a 27-year-old Belleville, Ontario woman, late last month, upon reports that news was imminent in the matter. At a press conference a little later, the police announced the identity of the suspect not only in this case, but also in the rape and murder of a 38-year-old corporal serving at a Canadian Forces airbase in Trenton, not far from Belleville: the base’s commander, colonel Russell Williams. Williams is accused not only of these crimes (the Belleville woman’s body was discovered in a field not far from town), but also in two other home-invasion rapes in the vicinity. This was startling news to everyone. Williams is a big-shot. He was commander of the only real functional airbase in Canada. Recently, he piloted the minister of National Defence to Afghanistan, and last year he ferried the Prime Minister and several cabinet members on an official visit to India. He’s appeared in the news media, and was well-known in the town of Trenton. Williams lived with his wife in Ottawa, on a street a block over from where my wife once worked.

One has to assume that, on his climb through the ranks, Williams was subjected to several levels of psychological testing. My private conclusion is that he is guilty, since he reportedly led authorities to the body of the Belleville victim. If this be so, then Williams’ twisted mind was not revealed to the examiners. How else could he have reached so high a rank, at such a relatively young age of 45? Those who knew Williams and his wife, and are ready to express an opinion, all say that they are complete shock as to the accusations against him. If anything at all is said about Williams, it is that he was “hard to get to know.”

Through my own casual studies of murderers of this type — those who kill for gratification, whether sexual or not — I believe that no environmental situation can account for such behaviour. A small number of people are born evil. The predatory instinct exists in all humans (except again, for a very small number), but so does the sympathetic drive. Robert Tulloch, and I presume, Russell Williams, don’t have this sympathetic instinct, or not enough of one to make a difference. These are indeed the evil ones.

There are certain common features of the background of many famed serial killers, namely disorder and dysfunction within their immediate families. Russell Williams, for example, is apparently estranged from his brother and mother, after the latter went through a bitter divorce with Williams’ step-father a decade ago. The English-born Williams scarcely knew his biological father, after he and his mother divorced at when he was very young, and she emigrated to Canada with her new husband. The aforementioned Bundy was raised by his grandparents, thinking they were his actual parents, and his mother, his sister. He did not know his real father, either. Paul Bernardo, the “schoolgirl” murderer and rapist in southern Ontario during the 1980s and early 90s (assisted by his wife at the time, the ugly Karla Homolka), also did not know his real father. His mother was reportedly something else entirely, a strict disciplinarian who kept the family’s food locked way in a cupboard under her bed. Robert Tulloch’s father was an alcoholic, depressive and once attempted suicide. His mother was indifferent to him, or preoccupied with caring for his sister, who had “special needs” and was a compulsive shoplifter.

But these factors cannot themselves explain cold-blooded murderers like these. Or rather, it is this environment of family disorder and uncertainty, together with the predisposition to pitilessness, which is key. Paul Bernardo and Robert Tulloch’s siblings (each had at least one sister and one brother) did not become sadistic rapists and murderers. There is some abnormality at birth with the psychopathic serial killer involving, as I said, the absence of a sympathetic drive. But, in addition to this, there is abuse and neglect at home, thus ensuring that even a stunted instinct for empathy, will not be developed at all during the early-years’ “critical period.” The scary thing is that there is really no way to tell when a child who has faced such domestic trauma, will grow up to be a psychopath.

In Judgement Ridge, the authors make reference to another murderous incident carried out by a pair of teenagers, the Columbine high school massacre in Colorado in 1999. In that case, as with Tulloch in regard to Parker, one of the pair of young killers was determined to be a psychopath, who over time prevailed upon his more sensitive and humane cohort, to murder twelve fellow students and a teacher (the Columbine duo had also planted explosives at the school, intending to kill hundreds more; fortunately, the bombs failed to detonate). In that case, as with the Zantop murders, Lehr and Zuckoff describe the “missed signs” and “telltale acts” that might have identified the murderers, before they actually struck.

This line of inquiry (also the centrepiece of an official report issued by the Colorado governor some time after the Zantop killings) has always seemed off-base to me. Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris (the Columbine killers), along with Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker, were involved in relatively minor crimes prior to carrying the acts for which they are now infamous. But there was nothing in these which suggested either pair of killers was capable of slaughtering fellow human beings. It is true that Eric Harris at least, had made open threats against classmates and his school, verbally, in private journals, and in Internet postings. But many people, especially teenagers, make such threats. Very few go on to carry out their threats. Indeed, very few of those who murder openly threaten their victims beforehand, for to do so automatically renders the perpetrator as suspect.

But what could authorities do, in any case, if they became certain that a certain youngster or adult, had a personality consistent with psychopathy (according to Robert Hare’s detailed personality checklist), and thus, was a danger to the public? The police couldn’t touch them, unless and until they did, or were in the active process of carrying out, a serious crime. There is no way, in any case, to judge psychopathy, that would stand without controversy and contention. But even if there were, there is no legal basis for imprisoning an individual on the basis of what he might do, given his psychological resemblance to others who have done very bad things in the past. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition especially, punishment is based on deed, not thought. The psychopath is, by definition, one without a conscience. Imprisonment would have thus cause little penitence, because the capacity for the latter is missing in the “psycho”. It would, on the other hand, excite the non-offending psychopath to even more grandiose efforts at bloody revenge for his persecution. A psychopath, once apprehended, couldn’t be freed. This would put authorities, and the public, in the uncomfortable position of imprisoning people for life for something they might do. Again, it is hard to see how this would not be extremely controversial, especially given the number of people who wish to make folk-heroes out of those who have committed horrendous crimes.

A couple of observations, in closing, about the Zantop murders. I found it remarkable that even in rural New Hampshire, as long ago as the turn of the century, not a single person is described owning an American-made car. Everyone — the victims, the investigators, the murderers, the friends and families of the murderers and victims — is driving a Saab, Subaru, Mazda, Volvo, Toyota, or BMW. Not a Chevy or Ford in sight, at least according to Zuckoff and Lehr’s account.

When Parker and Tullouch fled New Hampshire following the initial police inquiries (leaving behind the murder weapons), they eventually abandoned their car for fear of falling into the dragnet police had set up for them. They ended up at a truck-stop somewhere in New England, soliciting drives from cross-country truckers. They were repeated stiff-armed but by two separate haulers. Both of the latter were southeasterners. They were both ultimately fired for disobeying their employers’ strict no-hitchers policy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Liberal- and Statist-Democracy

I was pondering Max Weber's assertion that bureaucracy is the height of human rationality. It occurred to me that bureaucracies place social relations on a machine-like, or mechanistic basis. As with the parts of a machine, the functions of a bureaucracy are divided and subdivided between different offices and departments. Each functionary carries out his or her work, indifferent to the work of other functionaries in other departments. The bureaucracy cannot, or should not, show feeling or favouritism toward anyone; it is simply a method of getting things done. It may be objected that bureaucracies, in the real world, far less efficient and far more dysfunctional, than are machines that run on inanimate power sources. But in the real world, too, few machines function at anywhere near maximal efficiency. Very frequently, they don't function at all, or do their job very inefficiently. Again, though, they get their job done, just as most bureaucracies do, eventually.

I have often thought, over the years, as to why I identify myself as `conservative', when I don't particularly identify with many conservative beliefs. For example, I believe that "all things being equal" a child should be brought up in a two-parent family. Yet, all things are never really equal and sometimes it is better that quarrelling parents should divorce (I'm acquainted with a couple whose constant fighting is having a manifestly deleterious effect on at least one of their children). I'm dubious as to the assertions that welfare-programmes lead to family breakdown, broken communities and drug abuse. I think the `war on drugs' is about the stupidest thing that was ever conceived (at least some died-in-the-wool conservatives are with me here). I'm against the death penalty, partly for pragmatic reasons (namely, the impossibility of pardoning a wrongly convicted individual who has been put to death) but also for moral reasons (capital punishment is morally demeaning to a society - not the equivalent of cold-blooded murder, mind - but demeaning nonetheless). I'm also dubious as to the benefits of laissez-faire economics: yes, most of the economy should be in private hands; however, it is equally obvious to me that certain taken-for-granted industries and services (ie. modern medicine, and mass-schooling, not to mention industrial-engineering) would not exist without the subsidies provided by the state over the last century and more.

Yet, for all this, I can only turn my head away in disgust and disbelief at what the modern liberal-left has become. Pick any issue, and in my assessment, left parties and intellectuals are on the wrong side of justice, decency, logic, and just plain common sense.

Take the issue of terrorism. I supported the policies that George Bush the younger adopted after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and believed, as he and his officials did, that `terrorism' (it is Islamic-fascist terrorism) must be met with a military response. This is a policy decision. To me, it is self-evident that a criminal-justice approach to terror will not be effective. Others, however, disagree. That is their right. Others still (and not only on left) will state that the threat of terror is `exaggerated', proffering statements that `You are x times more likely to die from an automobile accident, than be killed by a terrorist.' I think such commentators miss the point, but again, it is an entirely legitimate point of view.

What I find incomprehensible, however, is that much of the left has actively chummed-up with Muslims who, while not actively part of Osama Bin Laden's crusade, are advocates of terrorism against Jews and other Westerners nonetheless. Recently, the Canadian journalist (and former union activist) Terry Glavan reported on a `fact-finding' mission to Afghanistan by the American left-wing group Code Pink.

The latter have been prominent since at least 9/11, demanding that the U.S. military withdraw from Afghanistan (they were of course opposed to any plan to invade the country initially), and indeed, believe that the U.S. military should not be stationed anywhere in the world. According to Glavan, however, the Code Pink activists were surprised when most of the Afghani women they encountered were not in favour of an American withdrawal C for the good reason that if the Taliban fascists again take power, women and girls will again become the prisoners in their homes, as they were during the Taliban's rule up to October, 2001.

Earlier, Glavan wrote, the Code Pink activists had gone on another fact-finding mission to the `occupied' territories of Palestine. They were there, of course, as guests of Hamas, the terrorist government of the Gaza strip whose charter promises not only to destroy Israel, but also, to kill Jews anywhere they can be found.

In regard to social questions, Hamas may be slightly more moderate than the Taliban: perhaps homosexuals in a terrorist-led Palestinian state would not be killed, but merely locked up for long periods; women who were `promiscuous' may also escape execution in favour of long prison sentences. This is the movement that the `feminists' of Code Pink have chosen to give aid and succour to.

Even where the left has not actively courted alliance with known terrorists, they have sought common-cause with Muslim lobby groups that advocate social philosophies that these same leftists condemn when they are proposed by Christian lobbyists.

The example of the Canadian New Democratic party, the socialist group in the federal Parliament, is illustrative. A few years ago, Parliament voted on the issue of same-sex marriage. Although the vote was designated as `free', that is, members could vote their conscience, the NDP leader, Jack Layton, whipped his caucus, such that his members were expected to vote in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage (for the record, I am against granting gays the same right to marry as straights, although I am otherwise stoutly opposed to discrimination against homosexuals - as with the stupid `don't ask, don't tell' policy of the U.S. military).

One NDP MP chose to vote with her constituents, and her own conscience, and said `nay' on the issue. The response was quick and brutal: she was kicked out of the NDP caucus, her party membership was revoked, and in the nomination contest in the run up to the next federal election, party officials engineered her defeat at the riding level, such that she was not able to run in the poll.

But, in this very same general election, NDP leader Layton sought out a prominent Muslim activist to run in an Ottawa riding. This woman, who never appeared anywhere without a prominent head-veil, was revealed to be stoutly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Rather than jettison her candidacy, however, Layton simply let it be known that the Muslim candidate, if required to vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, would be allowed to `vote her conscience.' The hypocrisy on display here is astounding. Layton declared war on one of his own MP's for breaking ranks with the party on the very same issue that another potential MP, would be allowed to break ranks on if she were elected office (the Muslim candidate went down to defeat; but alone among the many other NDP candidates who faced that situation, she was given a high-paying job the party headquarters in Ottawa).

Then there is the issue of terrorism generally. Soon after the attacks on New York city and Washington, D.C. that day over eight years ago, the left's explanation of the `root causes' of terrorism settled on the dogma that the attacks were motivated by `the divide between global rich and poor', the `35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip', and the `oppression of the Muslim world' by the United States (and what do you know? These are exactly the causes championed by the modern left!). These soon became conventional wisdom among the elites in politics, academia and the news media.

All of this in spite of the lack of any evidence for any of them. Is terrorism is the last refuge of the impoverished against the affluent, as asserted so many times by those on the left? Osama Bin Laden was not poor at all; he came from a very wealthy family, and even if the nineteen attackers were not as rich as he, they all came from the upper-middle class. They were, as a group, far richer than most of the 3,000 the terrorists wantonly murdered that day. This holds, too, for terrorists who carried out attacks subsequent to 9/11 (like the Jordanian doctor who, posing as an informant, killed several CIA agents, soldiers, and some reporters in Afghanistan recently, or the Nigerian `underwear' bomber, whose family is the richest in Africa). 

Were they motivated by the so-called occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel (the Israelis pulled out of the Gaza strip years ago, but apparently, are still `occupying' the territory somehow, at least according to the left)? There were no Palestinians involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, and no mention was made of this `occupation' in the initial communiques released to Al-Jazeera TV by Bin Laden (only subsequently, after Western leftists brought up the issue, did he include it in his list of `grievances' to justify the attacks). 

Were the Sept. 11 terrorists motivated by the mistreatment by the United States of the Muslim world? The overthrow by the Iranian military, backed by Britain and the U.S., of a duly-elected prime minister of that country in 1953, resulting in the rule of the Shah, was often cited as an example of this U.S. `oppression', in the weeks and months after 9/11. Another was the support given by the U.S. to `corrupt oil monarchies' in the Middle East. This is, in itself, pretty thin gruel. There were no Iranians involved in the Sept. 11 attacks; again, Bin Laden never mentioned the overthrow in his `grievance' list; there is no expectation whatsoever that Islamic fascists such as Bin Laden and his operatives, would be compelled to kill thousands on behalf of a secular Iranian prime minister who was thrown out of office nearly half a century earlier. 

As for the U.S. support of `corrupt oil monarchies' in the Middle East, this is a peculiar argument as well. All of these monarchies do, to a lesser or greater degree, uphold a very `fundamentalist' interpretation of Islam, that Wahhabists like Bin Laden find quite felicitous indeed. When in 1991, the U.S. repelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait, the Americans were obviously doing so to secure an vitally important commodity - crude oil. 

Incidentally, however, they were (aside from defending international law) ensuring the reinstatement of a regime that upheld a version of Islamic law that, while not as severe as that found in Saudi Arabia, was hardline by any other standard, from an invading state that was (as we were told ad infinitum in the run-up to the Iraqi war in 2003) a secular Arab regime that had itself suppressed political Islam for decades. There is another thing also. 

The United States and other Western countries can be criticized for their support of illiberal, anti-democratic regimes such as Kuwait's and the Saudi Arabia's, sure. But the enemies of the U.S. and the West in the Middle East and nearby regions, are all far more illiberal and anti-democratic than any `corrupt oil monarchy' that counts itself as an ally of the Americans: thus, Libya, Iran, Hussein's Iraq, Assad's Syria, the Hamas- (and Fatah-) controlled Palestinian territories, Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban (in this, they have much in common with all anti-American regimes, past and present: Castro's Cuba, Chavez's Venezuela, the Soviet Union and its eastern European satraps, Mao's China, and so on). 

Is terrorism the only issue over which the modern left has lost its way? Far from it. Take the matter of freedom of speech. At one time, the left was a diehard opponent of censorship; conservatives, on the other hand, were hardly fast friends of liberal rights of speech. An episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, accurately dramatized the situation as of the late 1970s. 

In the segment, the station's manager, Mr. Carlson, is visited by the leader of a church-based `concerned citizens committee.' The actor who portrayed the latter character bore an uncanny resemble to the late Moral Majority head, the reverend Jerry Falwell, who was just then coming to prominence as a leader of the religious right. 

The `Falwell' character presents Mr. Carlson (played by Gordon Jump) with a list of songs he believes should be banned from the playlist, for containing crude or sexual language. The churchman issues an ultimatum: stop playing the songs, or else the members of his flock will stop patronizing the businesses that advertise on WKRP. Semi-reluctantly, Mr. Carlson agrees. Inevitably, the situation escalates. The `Falwell' preacher returns with yet more songs to be banned, with the boycott-threat intact. Eventually, Mr. Carlson presents the churchman with the lyrics of Imagine, by John Lennon. `Falwell' begins to read the lyrics, `Imagine there's no heaven...', and immediately trails off. Mr. Carlson asks him, `Is it on or off the banned list?' The preachers says, almost more in sorrow than in anger, that because the song preaches atheism, it must go on the list, too. 

`Ok. But now,' Mr. Carlson replies, `you're not just trying to ban songs with bad words. It's ideas you're trying to ban.' Although exaggerated for dramatic effect, this WKRP episode portrayed rightly just which end of the political spectrum had the least respect for traditional speech rights, thirty and more years ago: the right. 

It also showed how censorship inevitably results in escalation: the determination to ban some expression that `everyone' agrees shouldn't be articulated in public (words such as `shit' or `fuck', let's say), leads to the banning of other words, and even ideas, that only those in power believe should be banned. I will return to this theme in moment. 

For now, I will say that the scenario offered by the WKRP episode became stale-dated within a very few years. Starting in the 1980s, the political left, in the United States and Canada, and no doubt, elsewhere, became less and less enamoured with the concept of free speech. If a similar scenario were being presented on a fictional TV programme today, it wouldn't be some Falwell-like preacher demanding censorship; it would instead be a university professor, an `anti-racism' activist or a grubby street protestor. 

Or, what am I saying? In fact, Hollywood-Burbank script-writers would try to make it seem like the greatest threat to freedom of speech was from the religious right, even today. Just as, in any Hollywood movie or TV show produced during the millennium, only Christian `fundamentalist' or neo-Nazis are terrorists, and Muslims are always perpetually the victims of hatred and violence on the part of Christians. 

And what is true in fiction, is true of the news as well... I first noticed this trend myself, when I began university during the late 1980s. In my first year as an undergraduate, the British historian David Irving was scheduled to give a talk at a convention centre nearby my alma mater, the University of Ottawa. Leftists on campus were up in arms about this. Signs went up around the university: `No free speech for Nazis.' 

I accept the judgement of a British court, handed down some years ago, that Irving is a Holocaust-denier. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever that Irving was or is a Nazi. In any case, I don't believe that Irving or any other Holocaust denier should face speech bans, or even worse, face charges for using their liberty of speech to convey reprehensible ideas. 

The activists were, however, undaunted. I recall the words of one young anti-Irving protestor, replying to claims from an interviewer, that she and her comrades were advocating censorship: `We're not advocating censorship,' she claimed. `We just want Irving to crawl back under the rock from which he came...' Nice. 

These protestors were engaging the same sort of dehumanization of their opponents, as was carried out by gangs of Nazis on the streets of Weimar Germany. Since the late 1980s, `anti-racist' and other left-wing protestors have proven worthy successors of the Brownshirts. 

For more than twenty years, what had been isolated incidents wherein `anti-racists' and other left-wing protestors denied speech to truly reprehensible people, the situation escalated to the point, where by the early twentieth-first century, a presentation by the former prime minister of Israel was shut down by a mob of neo-Brownshirt thugs, hoisting the flag of Palestinian oppression. 

The American radical-turned-conservative David Horowitz must, when given talks on university campuses in his own country, attend with as much as a dozen private security folks, in order to prevent attacks on himself or the use of the `heckler's veto' on the part of protesting Muslim and radical students. 

During a recent visit to a college campus where, in contravention of university rules, a Muslim student group had posted on a school web domain quotes from the Koran, in which the Prophet counselled his followers to `kill all the Jews.' After complaints, the page was taken down, but according to Horowitz, it reappeared soon after, at a different domain owned by the university, and remained there at least until Horowitz visited the university recently. 

His visit was, inevitably, occasion for protests against his very presence on campus, and again according to Horowitz, the student group that invited him was called into a private meeting by a top university official, who tried to `persuade' them to dis-invite Horowitz, claiming that his presence there was `divisive'. 

Apparently, to the university administration (supported by much of the faculty), a web page exhorting people to kill Jews, on a domain owned by the institution, is A-OK, but the appearance by an activist denouncing this kind of thing is 'divisive.' 

On Canadian campuses, meanwhile, the latest group to be subject to repression on the part of activist student governors, are anti-abortion activists. At Carleton university in Ottawa, anti-abortion groups were recently de-funded by student administrators: it means that they will receive no funding from the compulsory fees levelled upon undergraduates at the behest of the student administrators, will have no space on campus to carry out their activities, be given no way to promote these activities through campus media. In effect, it is a ban on anti-abortion activism on the Carleton campuses. 

This is, of course, outrageous enough. Yet the reasoning employed to justify on the part of the student government, was quite marvellous. According to them, abortion-on-demand is a woman's `right' (there is no such `right' under Canadian law, but no matter). For anyone to suggest that abortion should be banned or restricted in any way, was thereby in violation of `women's rights.' 

The president of the student administration came up with an even bigger whopper. He claimed that, if he was not able to ban anti-abortion activists from campus, his own rights of free speech would be violated. It is hard to fathom that anyone would justify censorship on these grounds, in public and with a straight face. 

Yet, they passed by mostly without comment from those who are always sniffing around for signs of repression coming from the conservative camp. It illustrates how the bounds of censorship are continually increased, once the principle of freedom of speech is thrown in the trash. 

These examples, sadly, are just a gob in the spittoon of repression that has enveloped university campuses over the last two decades, a regime enforced by left-wing student activists and protestors, assented to by similarly leftist administrators and faculty, and largely ignored by the news media. 

I call it neo-McCarthyism, the effort by leftists on campus to label anyone they don't like as `racist', `sexist', `homophobic', or whatever. Except Senator McCarthy, Roy Cohn and their anti-Communist (really, anti-liberal) minions had just a few years to wreak havoc upon campuses, and then mostly from without, and in the face of the hostility of faculty and administrators. 

The neo-McCarthyites have had a run of more than two decades, been welcomed on campus, and been subject to no `have-you-no-shame' denunciations by any official that I'm aware of. 

The truth of the matter is that, they have no shame (it's a bourgeois hang-up, I guess). I've barely scratched the surface of either of these issues. In regard to censorship, I haven't even touched how government bodies charged with protecting human rights, have gone berserk in their efforts to suppress the human right of free speech, in favour of the `right' of certain people, and certain groups of people, not to be offended. 

And these are just two of the issues where the left has gone very wrong. But it is not only in the realm of social and cultural issues. What about their views about our governing institutions and so on? The democratic left is always complaining about how insufficient are Western democratic institutions. 

For this reason, the NDP, the Canadian social democratic party, is avidly in favour of adopting some kind of `proportional representation' system instead of single-riding plurality that exists in the present day, wherein a candidate that receives more votes than anyone else, wins representation in the legislature. 

This would mean that a party would receive the number of seats in Parliament in exact proportion to their total vote. I've written extensively on the many difficulties of proportional representation (a system which is, in fact, supported by some on the political right, as well). 

For one thing, if legislative seats are to be awarded based on the total proportion of the vote, rather than the actual number of votes counting in any electoral district, how is representation to be decided? Under `first-past-the-post', the member of Parliament (or any legislature) is she who has received the most votes in the riding. 

This is exactly what proportional representation seeks to abolish. 'P-R' would thus shift representation from the local level to insiders and place-sitters belonging to each of the contesting parties. Hardly an improvement in democracy. Another problem with proportional representation (this list is hardly exhaustive) is that it enshrines political parties as semi-official entities. 

Parties are private entities: they may be regulated under laws other than what are employed for other types of association (ie., business firms, labour unions, charitable or other associations), but they are still associations of private individuals who come together under a common ideological interest, in order to compete with other, similarly motivated private entities, to form the government. 

But proportional-rep makes the party primary over its individual members, thereby rendering them as, essentially, para-governmental organizations. Again, I don't see this as being beneficial to democratic rule. Nor is another issue that is unique to P-R: that is, its empowerment of fringe parties. 

Under an electoral system wherein each party is awarded representation precisely in proportion to their total vote, parties with twelve or nine or five percent of the vote that are denied seats under first-past-the-post, get represented under P-R. Larger parties with the support of, say, four of ten voters, are never able to get a majority of seats. 

Thus, under proportional-rep, the two largest parties must, following a vote, bargain for the support of all the fringe parties, just to form a government. The bargaining power resides almost exclusively with the marginal parties. They will not, after all, be able to form a government themselves. Their clout rests in being the spoiler for the parties that are able to do so. 

For a party with a tenth or a twentieth of the vote to, essentially, control the agenda of competing party with almost half the votes counted, hardly seems very democratic. This is germane to Canada's NDP: its support for proportional-representation is clearly motivated by self-interest. 

It has never received more than twenty percent of the total vote in any federal election (and more frequently, in elections since the turn of the 1990s, it got under ten percent). Under P-R, it would gain far more seats that they have ever received in any first-past-the-post election: they would become the permanent balance of power. Again, since the NDP has never had nearly enough votes to form a government, the two other main parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives) would be forced to bargain for the support of the third party, following each election. 

This would lead, in effect, to a permanent leftist government. The Liberals, a centrist-left party, would find it easier to bargain with the left-wing NDP than would the centre-right Conservative Party. In Canada, proportional representation would permanently disenfranchise the Conservative-party plurality. The votes of one fifth (or even a sixth) of the electorate would always count for more than the near-half who support the right-centre party. 

It is hard not to conclude that it is this, not `electoral fairness', which has made demands for proportional-representation virtual dogma among social democratic parties like the NDP. This is especially evident when one moves beyond abstract debates, to how the left has responded to actual proposals for democratic reform. 

The Conservative party of Canada, currently in government under prime minister Stephen Harper, is actually less than seven years old. It was formed from the union of two conservative parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative party of Canada. In the year 2000, a general election was called by the Liberal-party Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. 

At the time, Chretien was battling charges of corruption involving the sale of a Qu├ębec hotel and golf course in which he had part-ownership. In fact, the election-call seemed timed to shut down a Parliamentary committee that was looking into the corruption charges. When a reporter had the temerity to question Chretien about this, the Prime Minister of Canada manhandled the journalist, screaming `Get out of my way!' (Chretien had, a few years earlier, grabbed and choked a protestor who was similarly too pushy). 

One might think that the scandal, and the behaviour of the prime minister in response it, would have dogged Jean Chretien throughout the campaign trail. News media love a scandal, don't they? Apparently, they do not; at least not in Canada, not when it involves one of `our guys' (ie. a Liberal prime minister). 

Instead, led by the state-owned CBC news, the fourth- and fifth-estates went after Stockwell Day, the former Alberta politician who had taken the leadership of the Canadian Alliance (and thereby, that of the official opposition) a few months earlier. 

Their pretext for doing so was a plank in the Alliance campaign platform which called for citizen-initiated referenda, such as exist in several U.S. states (and in Switzerland). Apparently, allowing citizens the right to vote on any issue enough of them believed was important enough, was a threat to civilization itself. 

Reporters from the CBC and elsewhere dreamed up a scenario wherein a petition of 250,000 could result in a vote that would put restrictions in the current regime of abortion-on-demand (as has existed in Canada since a Supreme Court ruling in 1988). The news-media narrative then became, `Canadian Alliance threatens a women's absolute right to abortion at any time in her pregnancy' (and yes, I am exaggerating for effect). 

Day was repeatedly questioned about this totally phantom issue. A CBC comedy programme then piled on, setting up an online petition wherein it was demanded that a referendum to compel Stockwell Day to change his given name to `Doris.' 

The elites in this country treated the latter stunt as a great example of wit. Meanwhile, the comedian most responsible for this `cleverness' went on CBC radio and declared citizen-initiated referenda a `stupid idea.' 

Left unstated were the really pertinent points about citizen-initiated referenda. First, any law, whether enacted by Parliament or by popular referendum, is subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No matter if, hypothetically, a plebiscite declared all abortion illegal, the courts could (as they did in 1988) declare such a law as against the Charter, and thereby, invalid. 

Second, there is nothing to stop a group of pro-abortion activists from getting one quarter million signatures for a referendum to declare abortion completely legal and taxpayer-supported for all time. All this is aside from the fact that, at the time, there was no organized effort on the part of abortion opponents to have such a ballot; and public opinion surveys indicated that there was little support for an outright ban on abortion. 

The whole episode showed, however, the contempt with which the modern left holds democracy. Were the pro-abortionists, in 2000, so fearful of direct citizen balloting, because they knew their positions were not popular - they need the courts to fulfill their agenda? That seems to be the case. 

There have been many legitimate criticisms against plebiscites or referenda. But I think citizen-initiated ballots are just dandy. They are used in Switzerland, as I said, and in fact they are used more frequently there than anywhere else. Anti-plebiscite people are always ready will examples of how, in referenda, the people made the `wrong' choice (ie., the recent Swiss vote which banned minarets on Islamic temples). 

Do these critics ever believe the people make the right choice? I would like to return here to the more general thrust of this discussion. 

I identify myself as a conservative, but that is only because I believe the nomenclature of ideology has become outdated and insufficient to describe what is really going on in Western political culture. Rather than dividing up politics between `liberals' and `conservatives', I think it is more useful, now, to say the biggest divide is between those who are liberal-democrats, and those who are statist-(or social-)democrats. 

Before I explain this, I would like to take a slight detour into political terminology as it is employed in American politics. In the U.S., a `liberal' is someone to the left of the political spectrum. This does not mean, as is usually suggested, that the U.S. has no true left-wing. In fact, is simply a euphemism for `socialist' or `social-democrat.' 

Those who, in other Western countries, are called `liberal', are in the U.S. called `moderates' (the U.S. use of `conservative' conforms to that found elsewhere, at least in the English-speaking democracies). 

This is to say that many or most American `liberals' are not liberal in any meaningful sense of the word: they are statists, who believe that the government, rather than civil society, or the collective of individual citizens voluntarily working in cooperation with each other, should have the lead role in society. 

This is the difference between statist- and liberal-democracy. I should caution that not all statist-democrats are on the left, or at least, they traditionally were not. Up until the 1970s, at least, many conservatives were quite keen to use the state in order to enforce what could be considered a generic Christian ethics: chiefly in regard to sexual morals (ie, bans on homosexuality, premarital and adulterous sex, severe limitations on divorce, abortion, contraception, etc.), but also bans or controls of behaviours thought sinful (mainly, the drinking of alcohol, but also the use of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana - though it must be strongly emphasized that Prohibition in the U.S. was a Progressive hobby-horse for decades before the Volstead amendment of 1919, which banned the consumption and sale of booze; and the Franklin Roosevelt government imposed the first restrictions upon marijuana). 

As evidenced by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and other movements of the religious right, statist-democrats continue to exist on the right of the political spectrum (in part, the modern religious right arose in reaction to the loosening or revocation of the sexual-prohibition laws described above during the 1970s). 

What is also remarkable is how spectacularly unsuccessful these right-wing statist-democrats have been in imposing their agenda on anyone. Thus, abortion: still not banned. Homosexuality: this speaks for itself, but not only has the Christian right singularly failed in its attempt to re-marginalise homosexuals, the latter now have the right at least to enter into civil partnerships in most places, and the right to marry in some others. Porn: not banned and (since the advent of the Internet) has become nearly a mainstream area of entertainment. The list goes on. 

This is in marked contrast to the great success that social or statist-democrats have had in imposing their own agenda on everyone else (as with `politically correct' speech codes; `employment-equity' or `affirmative action' - preferential hiring based on race and sex; the alteration of judicial and policing polices to suit the whim of left-wing activists). 

And again, in spite of the lack of success by conservative statist-democrats in imposing their polices on government, their very presence has been used as a cudgel by those on the left, including but limited to social- or statist-democrats, to bash more moderate and centrist conservatives with the charge of `theocrat' (invariably, those who scream about the `threat of the religious right' maintain a blissful ignorance about the real theocratic fascists in our midst, the Islamist radicals). 

This, then, is the distinction between statist-democrats and liberal-democrats. The latter believe the heart of a polity resides in its civil society, the voluntary association of individual citizens, who are assumed to be rational and if not completely virtuous, then possessed of moral (and common) sense. 

Accordingly, liberal-democrats believe that laws and regulations are a necessary evil, a mechanism for ensuring that the actions of one individual or one group, do not infringe upon others, and that the law should be applied evenhandedly to all persons and all groups. 

Statist-democrats believe, in broad form, the opposite of these things. Christian-right statists, on the one hand, view human beings as inevitably fallen and thus, cannot be expected to resist the temptation to sin, if private sexual and other practices were not strictly regulated by the state. Social- or statist-democrats on the left, do not base their beliefs on the Bible or Christian theology. Instead, they see people as not essentially rational, and thus, not able to assess and regulate their own behaviour without the assistance of the state, which is thus given primary in society. As for `civil society', statist-democrats only recognize the contributions of individuals, when the latter belong to groups that would not exist without the subsidies provided by the state. The latter are usually really referred to as `non-governmental organizations.' 

But since most of them would not exist without the largesse of the government, they are really more accurately named `para-governmental organizations.' They exist only because of the state; but unlike government officials and agencies, they are completely beyond the control of the state and of the electorate. 

Para-governmental organizations can be relied upon to promote an ever-expanding state, and to criticize those liberal-democrats who wish to limit the power of government (and generally, their status as creatures of the state goes completely unmentioned in the news media). It is important to remember, however - and their critics often do forget - is that statist-democrats are democrats. 

They are not Stalinist or Leninists in disguise (or at least, this is the case with statist-democrats in the Western world), who would impose a dictatorship of the proletariat at the first chance. Social- or statist-democrats believe that popular sovereignty (as opposed to say, violent revolution) should be the vehicle for the imposition of their agenda. 

When this agenda is met with defeat through a democratic mandate, statist-democrats accept (however begrudgingly and half-heartedly) the verdict of the people, and leave office. On the other hand, the attitudes held by social-democrats, when they do encounter electoral defeat, give a clue to their views of `the masses.' Rather than conceding that the electorate was not in agreement with what social-democrats believe, at least at the moment, statists believe that the voters have somehow been tricked or deceived by their opponents into voting for things that are against their interests. 

This was the thesis of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a 2004 book published by the American `liberal' (statist) Thomas Frank. It was the logic behind the statement made by Barak Obama, when he was running for the U.S. presidency in 2008, and he told a well-heeled San Francisco audience that the decline of traditional American industries in the heartland, was the reason so many working-class and rural whites became `bitter', making them `cling to their guns and religion.' 

This thinking reared its head, too, more recently, when Republican Scott Brown was elected to the Senate in Massachusetts in a special election, and at least some `liberal' commentators condemned the Massachusetts electorate of voting against their own interests (at least this point of view made more sense than the instant dogma among the American left, that Scott Brown's victory meant that the electorate was angered that Obama was not being statist enough for them). 

 As I said, not all statist-democrats are on the left (at least, this was the case traditionally). Conversely, not all of those on the political left are statists. But there is a definitive trend where those who would have in the recent past been considered liberal-democrats, are growing increasingly statist in orientation. 

No better example of this exists than the Liberal Democratic party of Great Britain (formed by the union of the once formidable British Liberal party, and the Labour-breakaway Social Democratic party), which far from being liberal-democratic, is in many ways more statist than the British Labour party. 

In Canada, the Liberal party has gone so far to the left that its previous leader felt comfortable enough, in November 2008, to attempt a coalition with the social-democratic party and secessionist Bloc Quebecois (also a social-democratic party), to turn the ruling Conservative party out of government, this just weeks after the Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, had specifically disavowed such an idea, but which he had entered secret negotiations about immediately following the October vote (the plan was abandoned in the face of popular outrage). 

To restate: statist pols in Occidental democracies, are democrats (and not, say, closet Leninists). This doesn't mean there are not contradictions in the statist-democratic credo. For example, if people generally are not rational (and thus, need to be guided or - in the fashionable terminology - `nudged' to behave correctly), how is it that the people in government can be so rational not only to determine what is in their own best interest, but that of everyone else? Further, if the `little people' need a powerful state to protect them, what will protect the little people from a powerful state. Nevertheless, logical contradiction didn't stop any political movement before, and it won't stop statist-democrats now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

POTUS and Caesar

The day before the first anniversary of Barak Obama assuming the U.S. presidency, his Democratic-party candidate to succeed the late Ted Kennedy as senator from Massachusetts, went down to defeat to the Republican challenger, named Scott Brown. Just to emphasize: this was the former office of the "lion of American liberalism", held by the Kennedy family since 1952 (but for a couple of years, when John Kennedy vacated it to assume the presidency in 1961, and his younger brother, Teddy, was then too young to run for the office); in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of three to one; and where no Republican has won a Senate seat since 1972

Brown is no right-winger, but he vowed on the campaign trial that, if elected, he would vote against the health-care socialization bill that Senate Democrats, who held sixty of the 100 seats in the chamber, had threatened to invoke cloture on (thereby passing it into law). The Democrats, other leftists, and their many cheerleaders in the media were, at first, in deep shock as to this election results for the office that one pundit referred to as "Ted Kennedy's seat."

Having had time to rally, the left has seemingly succumbed to the same delusions that overcame some Republicans following the defeat of John McCain in 2008. Back then, American conservatives fervently believed that the public had rejected them because McCain was perceived as too moderate, and that if the party had only run a true conservative, the public would have backed them. Similarly, the instant dogma on the left is that the Democratic candidate lost to Scott Brown, because Obama was "too moderate." One Canadian former union official put it as such: "Obama was sent an ultimatum by the electors in one of the most liberal states in the union. It wasn't: Please compromise more. It wasn't: Don't forget to track down all the nuances before you make the slightest move." He concludes (with the emphasis in the original): "Yes, we're pissed off enough to put a homophobic Cosmo nudie with a taste for water-boarding into the Senate. Did that get your attention?"

Apparently, to this commentator, the election of a Republican senator in Massachusetts is some kind of guerilla theatre, wherein the people voted for someone who is entirely opposed to what they really believe in, as some kind of attention-getting ploy. Amazing.

Another Canadian, who identifies himself as a "conservative", took a rather different tack. Although everyone acknowledges that the election of Scott Brown was a referendum on the presidency of Barak Obama and his health-care "reform", radio host John Moore said that this is just the "loss of one lousy Senate seat." It was so lousy, apparently, that Obama took time out from his busy scheduled to jet in to try and save his clearly failing candidate. Somehow, according to Moore, to suggest that the loss of Massachusetts senate seat is important, is part of the "new intolerance."

I'm not certain how sincere Democrats and leftists in general, really are with this thinking. There must be some element of face-saving, here, surely. I'm very sceptical than any serious political operative within the Democratic party actually believes that the aftermath of the election of Scott Brown should be that the Obama government becomes even more so what the public is clearly rejecting. As it stands, no one believes that Obama's ambitious efforts to socialize American health care has a chance of becoming law, at least not the bill that the Democrats had threatened legislative cloture upon prior to the election.

I'm scarcely a fan of the Republican party. I am, however, heartened that the party has managed to revive itself in the year-plus since the 2008 election (heeding the lesson, finally, that it they did not lose because the party ran a moderate candidate rather than a right-winger). Long-term dominance by one party, whether Liberal or Conservative, Democratic or Republican, is no good in a democracy.

On the other hand, the more I look at America these days, the more so I am reminded of ancient Rome. This is hardly a novel analogy: but my own comparison is not with the Rome of the third and fourth century of the Christian calendar, the period prior to it final collapse. I'm thinking instead of the closing decades of republican Rome, when the Italian confederacy at which the original city-state stood at the head, finally transformed itself into an imperial monarchy (in all but name).

Studying ancient history, I was always struck by the parallels between the rise of Rome and the development of the United States, from its origins in the "thirteen colonies" to the continental polity as it exists in the present day. In both ancient Rome and revolutionary America, prospering yeoman farmers and slave-holding landholders, supplemented by urban merchants and others of the "middling sort", rebelled and expelled their king, establishing self-government. Neither Rome nor America were, during their early republican eras, democratic in the modern sense, let alone compared to the direct democracy that was practised in the city that came to be so influential upon the Romans, ancient Attica. It was not only that, in the early United States, women and (naturally) slaves were denied the vote; even white men without property qualifications couldn't vote in Congressional elections (the Senate was appointed until 1912), which was in turn a significant number of this demographic.

The American presidency, meanwhile, wasn't really directly elected until 1828, when the votes of the Electoral College were rendered a post-facto formality. The early United States, like early Rome, was what I call an aristocratic republic. In neither ancient Rome, nor the early U.S. were the aristocrats granted noble titles. Yet, the elites of both polities recognized themselves, and were recognized by others, as a patriciate standing apart from the rest. It took much longer, in Rome, for the plebes to achieve full popular sovereignty, than was the case in the U.S.

There are, of course, many differences between America and Rome, as there are between any two polities. But the early American patriciate, themselves looked to republican Rome as their chief influence (as evidenced in the architectural style of the Capitol building, the White House, Supreme Court and so on). One chief difference between Roman and American government, was that the former refused to invest executive power in a single individual — the president — and instead opted for a dual proconsulship. This would, the Romans hoped, prevent the emergence of a single ruler, who could attempt to reimpose a monarchy. The ultimate result of the dual rulers was the exacerbation of schism within the Roman government itself. Ultimately, the Romans created the office of Dictator, who in times of emergency or internal strife, was given authoritarian powers to defend the republic from threats internal or external, for the period of a year only. Again, however, the Dictatorship spurred yet more schism, as many of those chosen for office, refused to leave after the year term.

This leads to, in turn, perhaps the most significant difference between late-republican Rome and the United States during the contemporary era (1920s on): whereas the Romans, prior to the appearance of Caesar, and ultimately, his step-son Augustus, were engaged in civil war more frequently than not, the Americans have had one such conflict in their history, and that was a long time ago. But even so, part of the reason why the Roman republic became an empire, was that Rome already was an empire by the time Julius Caesar came along. The institutions established to rule a city-state, and then a confederacy of such states, were insufficient to govern the vast territory controlled by the Latins by the second century before the calendar. I don't believe that the United States is an empire, under any meaningful use of that term. But because all the other great powers chose to destroy themselves during the World Wars, the U.S. became the default hegemon, at least of that part of the Cold War world not under control of Communist governments. But the responsibilities this entails, have been as challenging to governing institutions of the U.S., as much as if the Americans became the dominant global state — the hyper-power — by conquest instead of consent.

Recently, I came across a piece by Washington Post columnist George Will, about "Washington's latest awful idea", that idea being "for Congress to divest itself of the core competence that the Constitution vests in it — the power to make the taxing and spending choices that shape the nation. This power would be given to an 18-member panel assigned to solve the budgetary crisis."

The devolution of sovereignty from legislative bodies to organizations, agencies and committees that are not directly responsible to the electorate, was a feature, too, of the decline of Roman republicanism. It is commonplace not only in the United States, but in every other Western democracy, as well. Take the aforementioned health-care restructuring bill that Scott Brown promised to help filibuster, should he be elected to the U.S. Senate. This proposed law runs to more than 1,900 pages of legal text, yet the Senators who support it openly admit that they have never read in whole (some even say that they have not read even a word of the bill itself). A different bill (also floundering before the U.S. senate) which would "cap-and-trade" carbon dioxide emissions, so as to help prevent the greenhouse-effect (is it too early to ask, "Whatever happened to the climate-change panic?"), is not quite that long, but it is more than 1,000 pages, and many senators have stated openly that they've never read it either.

It is obvious, though, that someone has read the entire of this bill, and of course, someone, or rather some people, actually wrote the bill. It wasn't, though, the legislators who are supposed to either pass it into law, or defeat it, by majority vote. Again, responsibility for this vast undertaking by the U.S. federal government was farmed out to lawyers, presumably those in the employ of the government itself, but also no doubt to various attorneys belonging to the various lobby groups representing the interests most affected by the bill itself.

Of course, the process by which the administrative power of the U.S. government was delegated to officials without direct responsibility to the public, began long, long before Barak Obama became the president. The "imperial presidency" began probably with the first Roosevelt to occupy the White House, Theodore (who served as president from 1901 to 1909); but it really got going with "Teddy's" distant cousin, Franklin Delano, the longest serving U.S. president, from 1933 to ‘45. FDR was charged with fighting the Depression and World War II, but the war-powers granted to (say) Abe Lincoln during the War Between the States, or to Woodrow Wilson during the Great War, were not subsequently relinquished to the second Roosevelt's successors, after the conclusion the Second World War (Franklin Roosevelt himself died some months before the war came to an end in August, 1945), due to the need to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

As well, Roosevelt's "new deal" social programmes marked the beginning of the American welfare state, which expanded slowly following World War II, and then greatly with the "great society" measures introduced by Lyndon Johnson (president, 1963-69). The welfare state required yet more delegation of responsibility to unelected officials than ever before. Add to this the need of this behemoth government to collect the taxes to pay for itself (not to mention the other activities taken on by the executive branch, such as hunting down illegal firearms, smugglers of non-excised taxed commodities — ie. tobacco and alcohol, as well as sellers of illicit drugs).

Such are the leviathan powers now possessed by the office of the President of the United States — not the least of which is the power to take the country to war without an even an resolution of the Congress — that one wonders when the American executive branch will become all-powerful, and the U.S. Senate, like its Roman predecessor, an ineffective talk-shop. One wonders if the new imperator will have a title such as "POTUS", to suit her or his august position.

Some thoughts from Georgia...

Wakefield Tolbert, follower / reader from the great state of Georgia (U.S. Georgia that is - I've never been there but they came up with the Allman Bros. Band, and that's good enough for me!) has some thoughts germane to `Revolution and romanticism', that I thought bear repeating -

(btw, Wakefield, please believe me when I say that the comments I left on your site re: climate-change are completely friendly, respectful disagreement...)

Wakefield away!:

The Labor/Knowledge dichotomy is interesting to behold.

Reminds me of one pundit who said this is akin to how the United States Navy basically operates at the human level: A system of fantastically complex machines designed by geniuses, to be operated by dummies. Without taking so glum a view of the abilities of the quotidian masses hired to do the wet work of war, some have also pointed to the "Rosie the Riveter" phenomenon of WWII, where millions of American women--primarily secretaries and housewives for the age where most women were tending home, hearth, and snotty noses of kids--were hired to forge the machinery of war almost akin to some Tolkien narrative about Sauron hiring Orcs to beat metal into scimitars. Johnny went of to war, so Mom had to step in and follow the factory whistles and routines of labor in his absence.

Engineers set the standards for mass productions of the war such as tanks, planes, machine guns, etc. Of course. But it was demonstrated that "the average person" could very well grasp--with some shortened hurry-up training--many of these same intricacies of design. No, engineers and scientists were not made out of these women, but it's all the same fascinating to know that the majority of the American war effort's labor and detail of weaponry was made by female hands that formerly were rocking cribs.

Your knowledge of history is far more in-depth in mind. I know some of the major players and busybodies on the political or philosophical stage, and that we be about it for my elucidation in the public system of the state of Georgia. No doubt you've moved by choice and interest far beyond this kind of thing.

In any event, I can only add that it would be beyond fascinating to speculate what future historians will say was the proximate cause or main set of causes in what will invariably be our turn to have our coffee tables, refrigerators, and cars dug up from the successive layers of soil, that tomorrow's archeologists will almost doubtless sift.

Unless, of course, we end things long before then or the transition is something smoother. But whether Utopian or Dystopian, there WILL be some sort of future that we can only guess at and of which writers of all stripes have had much mirth in trying to pin down entertaining vignettes for their stories.

Wakefield's a very astute man.

With respect W.T.'s statements as what will come in the Future, I'm reminded that the most accurate predictions that I have heard, came not from `serious' science fiction, but from comedy programmes.

I'm too young to have watched the original `Laugh-In' show, that aired in the late 1960s and early '70s. I saw a retrospective of the show in the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, the producers of the retrospective decided to include clips of several `jokes' that turned out to be true (I'm going by memory here): "Dateline, Washington, Dec. 1988: President Ronald Reagan..."


"Berlin, 1989: the Berlin wall fell today, and was replaced by a moat of alligators..."

This is in 1968.

Note: checking this out on the net just now, I discovered a youtube clip of both of these segments:

Note: I'm planning a new essay as why the modern world differs in sensibility from the Middle Ages.