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Friday, November 27, 2009

More Thoughts about the Judiciary

So this morning, The Wichita Eagle ran a version of my post from last week decrying the involvement of our local school district--and, in principle, all school districts anywhere really--in a possible lawsuit against the state over cuts in levels of school funding. Allow me to add a couple of clarifications and addendum.

To reiterate what I said before, my problem isn't with getting more funding for schools (please! raise my taxes! give the public schools more money!), but rather with the manner in which one does so. If I could put my thoughts into one (long) sentence, it would be: whereas access to and participation in basic collective civic goods (like public education) can and should be considered a right which may properly require judicial intervention to be made equitable and just (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), the specific hows and how much of the funding of said rights should probably not itself be considered a right, or in other words, something to be settled by judicial or constitutional edicts. To put my thoughts in one shorter sentence: let judges decide on who has what rights, but let the people decide on how to pay for them.

I have some relatively complicated theoretical reasons for this, which I made some reference to in an old post of mine; to put it at even greater length than above:

[T]he language of rights is by definition interventionary; it involves a presumption that there exists an individual who has a standing separate from whatever historical or collective laws and traditions make up their social context, thus allowing for that individual to turn around and judge that context. Consequently, rights talk is invariably judicial talk, a strategy of breaking up whatever communal arrangements exist in a given time and place in favor of an abstracted "right" or set of rights assumed, by definition, to adhere in most any individual simply by virtue of their ability to claim them....[Hence,] judicial intervention, as necessary as it may be in order to correct and establish the grounds of political action, in practice often rides very hard on serious efforts to collectively engage in such action.

But I'm not sure that makes anything clearer here. For example, an advocate for those public school systems contemplating a lawsuit might rightly ask, just what are the "historical or collective laws and traditions" that a demand for the Kansas government to own up to a variety of judicially decreed funding formulas would presumably be opposing? If the Kansas State Constitution states that "the legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools," and that "the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state" (and it does say both), then shouldn't the funding of public education thereby be construed as a right? And shouldn't, therefore, the properly appointed interpreters of the constitution get to say whether or not funding levels are currently fulfilling that right?

Well, no, they shouldn't, because to do so puts the wrong sort of power into the wrong sort of hands. Much of this comes down to how one understands constitutions, and constitutionalism as a form of government. Suffice to say that I think that approach to constitutional interpretation which best respects democracy is that which denies that constitutions make self-government possible--by supposedly providing a form, an identity, and a means of expression to the disorganized, already individuated, self-interested and therefore competitive masses--and instead sees, as Sheldon Wolin did, a constitution as that thing which "houses" and imposes norms upon an already-existing people, who are the real site of democracy (see "Form and Norm," in Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, p. 31).

Participation, activism, local organizing, popular sovereignty, the actions of the people and their representatives: that is the context here, a context which a turn to the courts treats as being powerless, exhausted, and pointless. And, yes, sometimes that is the case: the frequent turn by liberal polities to constitutions makes it clear that often people are convinced--rightly or wrongly--that the ordinary people can't do it on their own, that they need a codified, juridically enforced intervention to accomplish their popular aims in the face of the powers that be. But the equally frequent abuse of those interventions have corrupted them and we who employ them, I think, with the result that we are a people more comfortable turning even small, ordinary details of the daily grind of political compromising into constitutional crises, robbing us of a sense of proportion, to say nothing of robbing us of the responsibility to accept reality (in this particular case, fiscal reality!) and govern ourselves as we should, rather than trusting in constitutionally empowered judges to do it for us. To do the latter is to put oneself in a potentially permanent state of dependency, with every act of democratic or representative decision-making seen as merely tentative, a way to pass the time as one waits to see if (or, as is often the case, when) the courts will wade back into the dispute again, insisting that their decisions haven't been fully or correctly carried out (See BobChi's comment on Eagle column as an example of such.) Which, of course, they never truly can be: the nature of judicial action is to make precedents out of particulars, whereas the nature of legislation is to treat particulars as just that--particular details that will evolve and change as people do. Precedents cannot, and should not, be expected to so govern, and anyone who truly wants to be governed by such inflexible, top-down, uniform procedures has obviously lost a lot of faith in themselves and their fellow citizens.

But what if that is the case? David Watkins, a professional colleague and blogging friend of mine, commented on my post, saying: "[T]his view...romanticizes legislatures, and simply places too much of the 'work' of democracy on the shoulders of that institution. And while I more or less agree that this is probably a lousy way to do educational funding policy, I'll hardly begrudge those who pursue the means they have been provided to protect their interests. If using established but non-ideal institutional structures to defend one's interests is 'bad citizenship' good citizens are going to be rare indeed." He makes two points here: the first is that legislatures aren't capable, or at least aren't usually capable, of being the kind of responsible and responsive institutions that my democratic complaint about people turning to the courts assumes they can and should be; the second is that, given that we are, like it or not, a society that likes to talk about rights, and provides means for citizens and interest groups to turn talk about their rights into salient political action, it's rather arrogant to pronounce "bad citizen" upon those who are simply following the channels which have been dug for them. His second point is a strong one; unless I want to defend a highly elitist definition of proper democratic behavior (and I'm too populist to do that), then I really have to allow that, even if theoretically I see problems with this course of action, I really can't deny that it may well be a reasonable one.

His first point, though, isn't that strong, or so I believe. Representative institutions were designed for this kind of "work": namely, receiving citizen inputs--via elections, protests, meetings, letters, and more--and translating those inputs, through extensive compromises with one another, into workable policies, any of which can be extended, corrected, eliminated or improved in the next legislative session, or by the next set of legislators. Perhaps this sounds like an ideal world, and I recognize there is a lot I'm ignoring: superintendents and school teachers may well protest, though they speak for a publicly-funded entity, they aren't heard nearly so well as other, more concentrated, less diffuse, lobbies and special interests, and so even if the legislators really did work the way they were supposed to, they wouldn't be receiving a fair shake. But I am doubtful that the substance of such complaints is sufficient cause as to allow schools to feel fully justified in escaping the messy logic of representative democracy in the way budgets-by-lawsuits allow them to. If legislative institutions are weak in the face of various pressures, it is not (mostly, anyway) the fault of the legislators, but rather of a political system--of districting, campaigning, and fund-raising--which leaves many of them at the mercy of a complex of forces which concerned citizens are rightly often infuriated by, and which leaves political parties--the very organizations most capable of providing backbone, discipline, and reliable channels of citizen-interaction to legislators--anemic at best. In other words, I'm not romanticizing the legislative branch, I'm indicting those (including both the legislators themselves, as well as the voters) who have gone along with a system which, too often, effectively knee-caps them.

Rafe Schaefer, a former student of mine, made a similar point in a Facebook comment: after agreeing with much of my theoretical complaint, he added that "the prohibitive costs of interest group politics have left many individuals with no recourse BUT the judiciary." I can't disagree with that sentiment; it echoes what David said above about citizens making use of what is available to them, and the truth is that without strong and locally active political parties (and so long as Facebook and blogs and Twitter and all the rest which come so easily to us are essentially passive means of passing along information and commentary, rather than a tool for organizing, advertising, recruitment and raising money) perhaps the courts do make the most sense, especially for the poor or the politically disconnected. (This point can't be forgotten, as it is one of the main reasons that tort reform, as important as it may be, often hides an agenda which favors those already in positions of wealth and influence.) Rafe also called one additional point to my attention: "if our beef with the judiciary is the countermajoritarian difficulty, do we really have that problem in Kansas (and most other states) where judges are elected or appointed for terms and not for life?" I would say, yes, we do--though certainly not to the extent which the doctrine of judicial review potentially puts in the hands of the Supreme Court. The same questions I asked above in regards to legislators has to be asked to Rafe's point here: how open-ended is the appointment process? how competitive are the "retention votes" for Kansas Supreme Court justices? Who controls the appointments, anyway? So long as we have a situation where individuals only nominally subject to the demands of democratic accountability are making these decisions, then we have a functionally countermajoritarian institution taking on a set of decisions that we really shouldn't be giving to them.

Friday Morning Videos: "Cars" (Again)

Yep, Youtube ate Gary Numan's pioneering bit of elctronica weirdness too. Anyway, this version should last a while longer. (And actually, I'm grateful to have a chance to repost it: I spelled Gary's name wrong last year.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, Bros

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

(Note: this is going to be another one of those boring family posts. So best read it now, rather than after dinner, so as to avoid any indigestion.)

Marjorie, like her older sister Samatha, is a long-suffering soul. She was raised, obviously, as a Fox, meaning she was raised while surrounded by seven reliably loud, frequently contentious, occasionally violent, always opinionated brothers, and while being led by a undeniably charismatic, unapologetically authoritative, firmly patriarchal father. It was, in short, a very male family, and she knew it. As a child, there was one particular conflict or argument, the specific provenance of which is lost in the midst of time, which required her equally long-suffering and blessed mother to ask her what was troubling her. She wrinkled her nose. "The boys" was all she said.

That would be us.

In the beginning, there was Daniel and me. We had our older sister, who was beautiful and smart and would boss us around mercilessly and whom we would ignore as often as possible. She was the princess who at first lived much the same way we did in those days--she helped milk the cows, collect the eggs, and shovel the manure right along with Dad and us two boys, and explored the woods and fields around the farmhouse our family moved into when I was in first grade, right beside the both of us--but then eventually came the day she was a young lady and that sort of thing just wasn't for her any longer. That was okay. Daniel and I had a routine. We could divide up the chores, the toys, the roles which our imaginations demanded of us, with no remainder. I would read the hard words in books to Daniel, and he would make sure I wasn't picked last when all the kids lined up to play kickball at recess. Dad was in a bishopric, and he was working long days and often Saturdays too, and there wasn't a lot of money to go around, but we didn't care, not so long as we could go digging in a swampy gully near our house and pretend that we'd discovered gunpowder, creating our own private wars and victories. It was good.

But then there was Stuart. Three kids, born in three years (1966, 1967, and 1968), and then a break of three years, and then another son, a red-haired strategic genius who quickly realized that Daniel and I had laid claim to the territory and had to be reckoned with. Since we'd made ourselves almost entirely dependent upon each other, that presented a good target; but it also meant we could put up a strong, united front. There were some bad times; lots of fighting, angry and irresponsible words, with occasional real physical damage done to one another and our environs. (Sorry about the sprinkler system, Dad.) I sometimes like to style myself the black sheep of the family, what with eschewing the family business and voting for Democrats and all, but I wonder if Stuart wasn't cast into that role without any choice on his part from the beginning, having to define his relationships and build an identity for himself in a family where his two other brothers, perhaps, if we are honest, saw him as a mere extra, playing a lowly bit part.

Well, he succeeded, not the least reason for which being the arrival of Fox Family Part 2. Three boys born one after another: Abraham, Jesse, and Philip (1975, 1976, 1978, the last two born exactly two years apart nearly to the day), each one progressively more distant and more foreign to Daniel's and my mind, and to each one of whom Stuart became something of a benevolent taskmaster, watching over them, sometimes hands-on, sometimes hands-off, setting the pace. Dad was out of the bishopric and then into a stake presidency, and we'd moved from the farm into the house the family would call home for twenty years, and Samatha was dating, and Daniel was already making financial plans beyond the small income we boys made milking cows and selling calves, and I was attending an expensive private school for a year (which didn't help me figure myself out much at all, I'm afraid) and had my nose buried in George F. Will's latest. They didn't care; they could get along just fine on their own. Stuart and the younger boys developed habits of work and play, forms of imagination and discipline, relationships and alliances, that Daniel and I kidded ourselves about, deriding them as mere knock-offs of what we'd had (hey, we actually played first edition Dungeons and Dragons, not that knock-off "adventures" crap you kids are into!). But that was a lie, of course. They had a rich, fantastic, intricate world, granting them deep wells of memory that they can and do still draw upon today. The ping-pong tournaments, the goofball adventures with Dad's early video-camera (you were never cut out for VH-1 stardom guys, but not for lack of trying), the rough-housing over who gets to play the pinball machine next, the friendships and social interactions with others at school and church which Daniel and I, whether for reasons of unconscious choice or simple nature, were never nearly as expert at: this was the world these four knew, and I envied it (though I'd never tell them so, of course).

Not that FF Part 1 and FF Part 2 were kept separate, even if they were so inclined to do so; that's not the way it worked. Dad had a uniform code, and while details and applications varied over the years, core principles never did. My parents were--and are--settled people, almost miraculously so, and from their firm places they kept every single one of us in orbit. Of course, we had advantages aplenty, with so many unfairnesses and injustices which randomly (or divinely?) our family avoided, or at least apparently so. The brothers came forth and grew up, and there were no physical, mental, emotional, sexual, spiritual or psychological departures (well, okay, no serious departures) from the stereotypical American and orthodox Mormon ideal to be found amongst us, which meant that there was nothing besides the usual orneriness and sins of fallen human boys to complicate Dad's teachings, or invalidate our parents' examples, or resist the obligations they placed upon us. There are many ways one could attempt to reduce it all to a formula, but to Mom and Dad's credit they never did (or at least not any that ever stuck): they simply made it clear what they felt God had given our family, and what all of us--especially we boys--were supposed to do in return; not as repayment, of course, but as duty. Attend church? Check. Keep the Word of Wisdom? Check. Graduate from seminary? Check. Earn an Eagle Scout award?

Check. Everythings seemed to be going according to plan.

And then: a girl, Marjorie, born in 1981. How neat--a child who wasn't a boy! She was like a little doll; wind her up, and see what she might do. Mainly she would do pretty much anything this obedient-yet-unruly, increasingly testosterone-soaked band of brothers wanted her to do (like bark like a constipated daschund, constantly, on camera, which we found endlessly entertaining, and which I'm certain we will all be punished severely by a just God for someday). The family had some money by then--Dad had sold the feed mill, and the family was moving out of agriculture, as Dad explored (and reaped the rewards of) business opportunities in restaurants, real estate, mortgages. Our parents had the opportunity to learn once again how to raise girl, in much more comfortable circumstances than before. Forget Samatha; Marjorie was the real princess as she grew up, and the younger boys were mostly protective...though sometimes not, and Marjorie, learning quickly from her older sister that you had to give as loud as you got if you wanted to flourish in the Fox family, held her own pretty well as she grew up. Then Samatha was gone (first BYU, then later a mission, then eventually marriage), and Daniel was gone (same thing, mostly: BYU, mission, marriage, but his road was rougher than his older sister's), and I followed (again: BYU, mission, marriage), and then, well, wasn't the family pretty much all done? A girl, then our big male mob, one after another--Dan, Russ, Stu, Abe, Jess, Phil--and then, fifteen years later, another girl; shouldn't the story end there?

But it didn't; God had one more Fox held in reserve, Baden, born in 1982. In retrospect, it mixed things up: we couldn't decide who he belonged to, FF Part 1 or 2. Did he and Marjorie form a unit, lumped in with the younger boys, or were they their own thing...or was, perhaps, Baden entirely on his own? He must have found--and probably still finds--this kind of speculation ridiculous, and hopefully dealt--and deals--with it with the same smarts and good humor which enabled him to tolerate the condescending way we would toss him around, call him "B" (excuse me: "BEEEEEEEE!!!!"), and basically treat him like a baby. He picked himself up, learned what we all had learned in years gone by, did everything we did (missions, yes, marriage, yes, though the BYU tradition had mostly come to well-deserved end with Jesse...though I guess that depends on if you think Rick's College--excuse me "BYU-Idaho"--counts, which I think all reasonable people would agree it doesn't), and often as not bested us at it as well. It confuses me and impresses me, to be honest. I look back, and the whole family is different. I leave home, having survived the public schools, and Mom decides to start home-schooling the kids. The stake presidency is dissolved, and Dad comes home on Sunday afternoons with the family for once, and then he's made bishop and is gone again. The old homestead is ripped apart, renovated, rebuilt, and then abandoned for a big log cabin on top of a tall hill, designed for returning children and grandchildren (a design which has been well-fulfilled many times over), but wherein Marjorie and Baden ran around like royal heirs for years, all but having entire floors to themselves. Baden learned business (all the younger brothers had gotten their feet wet working at the mortgage office, or at the property office, or cleaning apartments for rent: the chicken, cows, and manure were long, long gone), but he also devoured history, politics, literature on his own. He played role-playing games I've never even heard of. He formed his own rock band, for heaven's sake (Mom even let them practice upstairs). What is this? Well, its family--it's us boys, of course, busy with this or with that, trying new things, re-inventing old ones, changing the details but keeping the details the same, moving on but always coming back; that I know. Whatever more than that it may be, though, I'm just not sure.

Well, that's not true either. I'm not sure what all of it may be, but I am sure of some of it. I'm sure that in all our growing and learning, all our trusting and fighting, all our coming and going, we've become a living example of the molding power of familial love, and of a forgiveness (or, at least, a hope for such) that rarely needs to be spoken because it's woven into the passage of time. We're all different, every one of us, and it's unlikely that most of us would consider any of the others our best or closest friends, yet our sharp edges have been worn smooth, and we fit together--generally, anyway--like peas in a pod. There's not one of us, just as there's not one sibling in any family, that can't reasonably see themselves as the one that doesn't fit in, that doesn't belong (is it the one who had a lousy mission? the one who lost a child? the one who went through a divorce? the one who watched his financial plans collapse and had to start all over again? is it the one who mastered the piano? the one skilled in photography? the one who has become a needed bread-winner and responsible patriarch to his extended family and fractured in-laws?). And yet it doesn't take away from those diverse unique histories to acknowledge that, still, there is something shared there. A context: the shared experience of being one of the Brothers Fox.* It's a context of memory, of good times and bad, wild plans and boring family meetings, childish adventures and mature realizations, personal triumphs and collective pains. The content of what we do and what we think doesn't matter nearly so much, I think, as what we are.

Of course, we are more than brothers now: we're all husbands and fathers, and those other, more important ties can sometimes make us forget the context we share. Sometimes, but not always--or at least, not yet always, anyway. Different jobs, different homes, different politics, different priorities, different relationships: we could easily see ourselves as separated from our shared context and memory, separated as Abram and Lot were--or thought the were, until the day they once again came face to face. "Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee...for we be brethren." So far we've all been able to say the same, when everything else (and rest assured: sometimes there is a lot of "else"!) is said and done. For that, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful...and, of course, I'm thankful for them, too, each and every day.

[Taken July 26, 2000, at Philip and Katie Fox's wedding at the Salt Lake Temple, shortly before we lifted Phil in the air and started to parade him around the grounds, after which security came and threw us out for making too much noise. (Excuse me? What do you mean "it didn't happen that way"? I remember it happening that way. It's not my fault you don't remember all the good stuff. Pppttthhhbbt.)]

* Obligatory musical number.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Live Double Albums

Up early this morning with a headache; took some Excedrin, and couldn't get back to sleep. Went downstairs, and for no good reason, started to look through my cd collection, doing some re-organization. (I'm borderline OCD, okay?) Discovered that I have a lot of live music--especially if you throw the jazz in there--but not that much in the classic, live double-album format. Of course, that format now is most arbitrary, in the age of the cd (which itself, I suppose, is passing; maybe it's all about digital tracks loaded onto your iPod now?). The old school of a live concert recording that just couldn't fit onto a single vinyl record has now been transcended by the innumerable ways in which songs can be packaged. Still, sometimes the old format is preserved, to maintain the integrity of something originally recorded decades ago, and sometimes it's adopted for new stuff today, just because it seems like a good way to the album to sell. So anyway, herewith, a list of all the live double albums I own, good and not-so-good, in reverse alphabetical order (so as to save the best for last). It's mostly a miserably MOR list I know, but I don't care.

The Who, Live at Leeds. Confession: I didn't even know this wasn't originally a double album for years; it was only when I finally obtained a copy of my own (thanks Scott!) and did some research that I found out that for 30 years Who fans were, criminally, restricted to either only 35 minutes or at most about twice that of the Who's 1969 concert at the University of Leeds. As perfect as their performance of "Summertime Blues" on Disc 1 is, I can't imagine listening to this recording now without the complete "Tommy" being part of it.

James Taylor, James Taylor (LIVE). Taylor's first live album, but really just a greatest hits review. Not a bad double-album, but probably not one I'd seek out today; I bought way back when I fancied myself a James Taylor completist. Disc 2 stands out as Taylor's only recording, that I know of anyway, of the Dicky Lee tune "She Thinks I Still Care," and Arnold McCuller's lead on "I Will Follow" is stunning.

Talking Heads, The Name of this Band is Talking Heads. Not as good as their later stuff, to tell the truth: Stop Making Sense is a tighter, stronger live album. Still, it's worth having; Disc 2's "Life in Wartime" is terrific.

Sting, Bring on the Night. The album when Sting truly became "Sting": earnest, self-important intellectual warring constantly with jazzy, ironic goofball. Tremendous stuff; Disc 1's "Driven to Tears" is a small, tight, jazz fusion masterpiece.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live in New York. The best record which the Boss has ever produced, in my opinion. "American Skin (41 Shots)" is worth the price of the album alone.

Bonnie Raitt, Road Tested. Raitt is a great musician and performer, and the live music recorded on this double-album is first-rate. But really, it's the huge number of guest stars, and the odd, off-beat numbers she performs with them, that makes this live recording--her first after 25 years in the business--such a treat. Her duet with Kim Wilson on Wilson's own "I Believe I'm in Love with You" is a triumph.

The Police, Live!. Pretty good; Disc 1, which contains a 1979 show from Boston, is raucous and fun, while Disc 2 is much more slick and straightforward--it's essentially listening to Synchronicity live, with a couple of old favorites thrown in. Worth it if you're a Police completist.

Alison Krauss and Union Station, Live. A fine recording; nothing special, just Krauss's typically peerless voice and a lot of high-end, note-perfect bluegrass playing. It's Krauss's very best performance of "Baby Now That I've Found You," though.

Joe Jackson, Live 1980/86. Technically, Big World was originally also a double album, but the forth side was blank--just a gag, I guess--and that doesn't work too well in the cd world, obviously. His collection of various live recordings on this double album, however, is no joke: it's one of my favorite cds of all time. Three different versions of "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and a slow, luxurious, mournful version of "Steppin Out" that is simply one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. An absolute must-have.

Bruce Hornsby, Here Come the Noise Makers: Live 98/99/00. Hornsby continuing his unique journey though the blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass and gospel, subjecting a lot of his more pop-oriented work from The Range to similar treatment. I love what he does with "Th Red Plains" on Disc 1.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Sings. Hitchcock's tribute album to Bob Dylan, complete with a recreation of the "Royal Albert Hall" recording, with some drunk guy yelling "Judas!" at appropriate intervals in the background. Hitchcock's cover of "Desolation Row" is, I am convinced, the definitive take on the song. He owns it now; no one, I think, can steal it away from him.

Bob Dylan and The Band, Before the Flood. I actually really like this recording, but I can understand why it doesn't seem to get that much respect: Dylan and The Band don't actually seem to mesh particularly well. But it's worth having because it contains some of Dylan's best, strongest, most polished acoustic performances, especially "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" at the beginning of Disc 2.

Neil Diamond, Hot August Night. I wanted a copy of this for years, finally got one, and now can't take it out of my cd player at work. The awesome encore of "Soolaimon" (my wife's favorite Neil Diamond song) and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" (my favorite), with Diamond rapping out a borderline incomprehensible evangelical hallelujah, is an awesome slice of portentous 70s folk-rock.

John Denver, An Evening with John Denver. Shut up, haters. I discovered this double-album in LP form on my mission in South Korea, in 1989, where it was being passed around a congregation I attended like it was some mysterious Holy Grail, a treasured key to understanding that distant land called "America." Seriously, there are far worse introductions they could have received. "Matthew"? "Boy from the Country"? "This Old Guitar"? Pure gold, folks, pure gold.

Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East. Some people call it the greatest live double-album of all time. Once you listen to "Whipping Post" all the way through, you'll agree.

Suggestions, anyone?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Localist Principles, Populist Words (or, The Problem Defined)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

There's been a lot of talk lately over at Front Porch Republic about agendas--about what, in other words, a blog like Front Porch Republic is really for. To just discuss amongst ourselves our various complaints, or to actually articulate some localist or populist policies, maybe even a platform or sorts? The ideas being thrown around are many (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here), and as one might expect, some of them I agree with, and some of them I don't. But there is at least one large problem looming behind all this rousing debate about differing proposals, and that is a disagreement as to why, or to what end, proposals are to be offered in the first place. I don't think I've got either the brains or the wisdom to attempt an answer that could encapsulate all of the above. But recently I read a phrase--in a different but not entirely unrelated context--which strikes me as a good way of expressing the overarching problem, and thereby perhaps one which could help people like me know where we stand, and think about what we want to say.

The phrase I'm thinking about arose from a comment made by one of my favorite bloggers, Timothy Burke. As part of a reflection on his mixed reaction to Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft--which, of course, I've praised before--Tim and I got into a bit of an exchange, during which he sharpened his complaint with Crawford's tone:

Crawford’s manifesto strikes me as at least half based on his aesthetic view of what makes for the good life. Which is absolutely fine. It’s absolutely fine even to evangelize for the good life as you understand it, and that’s inevitably going to involve suggesting that most other people ought to like what you like, live as you believe they should live. But it’s got to start from a constant recall that this is about good (food) (sex) (wine) (literature) (machines) (daily habits) and an aesthete’s appreciation of their goodness, which seems to me should always be unabashedly personal. That way, when you argue that everybody else should get with the aesthetic program, you tend not to forget that you think you have better taste than other people, rather than tricking yourself into thinking that everybody would have this good taste if the Powers that Be/Consumer Culture/Hegemony/Mainstream Media or whatever weren't enslaving your mind. It’s about not confusing a project of persuasion with a project of emancipation, and I think Crawford really does confuse the two.

I like that--not all of it, maybe, but certainly at least the last line: a "project of persuasion" and a "project of emancipation." I can work with that, maybe run with it a little bit. The former project is one where you are attempting to argue through appeals to taste, morality, beauty, or virtue: qualities that may once have been widely accepted as objective, derived from ancient philosophical or traditional religious sources, but which today, in modern Western democracies anyway, are most usually assumed to be plural and subjective. In any case though, you're talking about something that will partake of a sense of the aristocratic, or the elite: a concern for the good (or, at least, a better) life. Of course, talking about "the good life" pushes up against talk about "the common good"; the two overlap somewhat, but not entirely. Common good talk partakes mostly of the latter approach, in which your goal is to do more than to persuade others about the worth of your values: it is to teach them about the practical, personal, and/or popular freedom or opportunity that you are convinced is available to them. This is an approach which requires not just making a case for a way of life, but an attack upon the structures, policies, and situations that you believe define both your own and others' ways of life. You are, in sort, appealing to the (presumably objective) political, economic, and/or social interests of your interlocutors. Tim adds that he thinks Crawford's book has been particularly successful amongst a certain type of social conservative because they also frequently confuse the two...and though he was kind enough to give me the benefit of the doubt, I can't help but feel the sharp edge of that criticism.

I don't really consider myself an out-and-out localist, but my family and I do try to live in accordance with certain localist, self-sufficient, simplicity-oriented principles: we try to eat local and buy cheap, we walk or ride bikes, and so forth. I'm also not much of an out-and-out populist, but there is so much which, I think anyway, potentially goes hand-in-hand with populism--a commitment to democracy and sovereignty, a recognition community integrity and social equality--that I don't mind the label, and use it repeatedly. (See here, here, here, here and here, for a start.) Point is, I find myself wanting to be able to do both things, just as Tim accuses Crawford of doing. I want to communicate a source of belonging and virtue and culture--call it "localism"--that I consider, philosophically and psychologically and, yes, aesthetically, to be valuable. I also want to communicate my belief that what gets in the way of people being able to appreciate their communities as sources of such is, more often than not, structural economic and political opposition to such--call that "populism." Is it really possible to do both at the same time?

Perhaps not. Localism--or, more plainly, a commitment to a specific, local community--is, quite possibly, in a world characterized by what Michael Walzer called the "Four Mobilities" (geographic, social, marital, and political) like our own, invariably just an affectation, not an agenda. True, we can--and should!--discuss the numerous economic and social forces which sustain the modern Western world's environment of innovation and dislocation, but until and unless a complete collapse of wealth and/or technology drains the pool of opportunity through which even the most grounded and conservative of individuals swim, you'll be hard pressed making the case for local communities without including along with your quasi-Marxist jeremiad a large portion of romance. (I know; I've tried.) By the same token, the populist critique almost invariably can't stay localist, can't stay nostalgic or simple: if you really want to empower people, then you have to attend to what people actually do...and if what they do is move around and live and buy and sell beyond the sphere of some basic, hypothetical, self-sustaining polity, then any attempt to reach those people will have to involve some compromises with and positive action towards socializing and preserving a communitarian sensibility within said polity. (In short: simplicity is complicated, and sometimes local communities are their own worst enemy.) So perhaps localist principles can never quite entirely support the sort of populist arguments which their defense requires, and conversely perhaps populist claims can never quite entirely capture the whole appeal of living locally in the first place. It's enough to make you want to move to some isolated cabin in the mountains of Montana--or a some nondescript anonymous apartment in Manhattan; whichever place best allows you to give up on any attempt at straddling--and leave the whole "project" alone.

(Of course, one could also respond to this fear with the example of more than a few Western European polities, which have arguably demonstrated that pursuing populist (or, at least, progressive or "socialist") ends, ends which to a great extent ground themselves in a socio-economic critique of those aspects of the market which can undermine equality, in fact rebound to the sustaining of local ways of life and the preservation of community. This is probably my own one weak hope: the Red Tory/left conservative/Laschian breakthrough! Though I suspect I'm mostly alone in believing the United States should strive to learn "conservative" or "communitarian" lessons from our Christian Democratic brethren across the Atlantic.)

In a comment to a recent post, Patrick Deneen asked whether the kind of conservative effort which Front Porch Republic is engaged in--if that is, in fact, what it is engaged in, a point about which I would have some questions at the very least--ought best be considered an "ethos" or a "movement." He further asks, "whether it's possible to advance an 'ethos' through politics and a political movement." If I might continue to make use of Tim's distinction, it is a question as to whether or not any "political" argument that necessarily involves some element of aristocratic persuasion--about what makes for good food, a good family, a good community, and a good, local life--will ever be plausible or workable in our modern, liberal democratic, interest-group-dominated political world. And it is a question of whether, assuming we can come up with a political argument that speaks of local common goods, will that "common good" be so watered down by the policies and compromises necessary to achieve real democratic emancipation--the freedom and capacity for the masses of individuals to get away from the rat-race, and find fulfillment the popular control of one's economy and culture and polity--that it isn't really conserving anything at all, anymore? For me, divided modern man that I am, this is the problem. But of course, it's actually a problem for all of us, in the end.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Happy Blogoversary, Melissa!

My wife Melissa, aka Book Nut, has been blogging for five years. I've been at this longer, but by any even remotely objective measurement, she's better at it than me. She has a clearer focus, she's a more regular writer, she has more readers, and her blog has brought her into a much wider world (not to mention a sometimes even financially remunerative one, at least based on all the free books she receives on an almost-daily basis...) than anything my blog has done for me. Am I jealous? I'll admit it, sometimes, yes. But mostly I'm impressed. She's always been a smart, funny, opinionated, caring, thoughtful person, and her blog has allowed her to apply those characteristics to something she loves: books. So go wish her some congratulations, everybody. And while you're there, stick around a bit, look through her archives, read some of her reviews. She's been talking about her favorite books for five years now; surely, she's probably talked about some of yours as well.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Our Three-Year-Old Sounds Exactly Like This

Via Ezra Klein, something way too cute to be denied: a little boy's first encounter with...lobster.

I sure hope this wasn't staged. It's awesome.

Friday Morning Videos: "Our House"

Next week is Thanksgiving, and we're preparing for some relatives to visit, and stay with us (on the old couch-bed downstairs) for a few days. I thought that might make it an appropriate week for something by Crowded House, but I never really liked any of their hits too much. So how about some Madness? No doubt it'll be that around Chez Fox next week.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Oh Sure, Let the Judiciary Save Us

So it appears that our local Wichita school district, USD 259, is joining up with dozens of other public school districts around the state to sue (or at least threaten to sue) the Kansas state government, claiming that cuts in the state's education budget constitute a departure from guaranteed funding formulas--which themselves arise from a long history of previous lawsuits--and thereby violate the state constitution.

I'm mostly a big fan of public education, and think that, generally speaking, people ought to be willing to pay more in taxes to support them. But in this case...blah.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed, close to 170 years ago, that "There is almost no political question in the United States that is not resolved sooner or later into a judicial" (Democracy in America, Book 1, Part 2, Chp. 8), and that remains the case. Some people see this as a good thing: democracy doesn't work for those who have no vote or voice, the argument goes, and so it is appropriate to have an independent judiciary capable of weighing in, issuing judgments, and forcing actions in regards to, say, minority populations, unpopular religions, the poor...or, in this case, the young students that public schools serve. I wouldn't argue against that principle in an absolute sense. I agree that broad rights do sometimes trump local politics or customary traditions, and that means interventions are sometimes necessary: I have no desire to necessarily see, for example, Brown v. Board of Education overturned. (I'm a fan of the arguments against judicial review as currently practiced by Jeremy Waldon and Mark Tushnet, but neither of them, I think, would dispute that "separate but equal" was a violation of fundamental rights) But the recourse to the judiciary, and the hope that through a carefully designed lawsuit it will bring judges to discover a right that will force things to change in the favor of the plaintiff is much, much too common in the United States.

That the U.S. is lawsuit-happy has become common knowledge amongst most observers of America's political culture, and the negative social, economic, and cultural consequences on relying too much on the courts can be seen, either directly or indirectly, in matters ranging from insurance costs to abortion politics to consumer complaints and more. But that knowledge doesn't seem to affect people's decisions much. The organization Schools for Fair Funding successfully pushed, through judicial action, the Kansas state government to provide significant increases in education funding, not to mention changes in how it was distributed, but those were during relatively flush times. Now we have a situation where Kansas, like so many other states, is struggling with high unemployment rates, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, all of which cut into the available tax base. And the way to resolve this is...what, democratic deliberation? Trusting our legislators to make the best decisions they can? Getting active through interest groups to demand changes in the funding formula? No, a lawsuit--in essence, trusting courts to intervene and set up a formula (or at least, set themselves up as those responsible for approving or rejecting whatever formula the legislature comes up with) which they think is fair and mandated by the state's constitution. Which will probably similarly result in taxes being raised--essentially, if indirectly, by mandate--or the highway budget or some other portion of the state budget being deeply cut, up to and including letting people go--again, essentially by mandate.

Leave aside your complaints about the separation of powers, and about how this kind of response to a set of genuinely difficult and complex social and economic trade-offs basically cheapens our democracy, entrusting public policy and the hard compromises which self-government involves to a small group of people, as serious as those complaints may be. Think about the backlash to all this. Yes, parents like ourselves would, generally speaking, love to see more money go to the schools, and if SFFF's arguments are correct and the money is there to be cut and re-allocated, more power to them. But think more broadly than that: think about the reliance upon the judiciary this fosters; think about the political reforms to make our government's budget process more participatory and transparent which are not pursued because everyone assumes the courts, not political action, is a proper last resort. Moreover, think about who really wins these kind of defiant clashes, as opposed to those who get what they need through careful deliberation. In Arkansas, it was a tiny Lake View School district that pushed forward a case that drove that state's education policy for years...ultimately resulting in school district consolidation and, you guessed it, the disappearance of Lake View. Consolidation is a complex issue, and there are both good and bad arguments for it, but that's just the point: almost everything having to do education funding, like so many other public policy issues, has both good and bad arguments behind, requiring compromising and continual tweaking. To keep such tweaking in the hands of legislators--and thereby, ultimately, in the hands of voters--is the proper way to run a representative democracy. Insuring that issues pertaining to fundamental rights are resolved through definitive, even defiant, judicial interventions is one, often necessary thing. But figuring out yearly education budgets? Just not the same thing at all.

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy is basically a libertarian outfit, and quasi-socialist that I am, I probably disagree with them nine times out of ten. But one of those ten times happens to occur right here, when people are tempted to turn to the judiciary to supposedly "cut through" the tough and always unsatisfying parameters and limitations of policy discussion. It's not a sign of good citizenship, ultimately, and more immediately, it almost never results in good policy. As the FHC put it, "the authority to make policy lies with the state Legislature and thus the voter." You don't have to sign up to join a bunch of Tea Party wing-nuts to recognize the truth of that.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Queen of Hearts"

Here's something a little different: country-pop music. Now sure, country music--original folk and roots, Nashville-style, western swing, rockabilly, whatever--was obviously out there all while I was growing up, but I missed out on nearly all of it. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found the sense to familiarize myself with all those great country performers over the years who never really respected genre boundaries--the Johnny Cashes, the Emmylou Harrises, the Willie Nelsons, the Dolly Partons--and who consequently, once radio went corporate, rarely had big, cross-over hits. In the early days of the video age, before Garth Brooks changed the whole country music scene, there was very little twang on VH1 or MTV, and hence little country music in my consciousness. But there was Juice Newton though, so let's give her some props.

I love her bandmate who keeps poking his head up over the jail cell window. Nice touch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Crawford, Once Again

My old review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, somewhat condensed and reworked for a Mormon audience, has just been published in The Mormon Review. So, if you want another look at it, or a chance to discuss the article with me, that's where to go.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


A good reminder that, whatever else John Stewart is, he's a very, very funny man.

It's the little "purity of essence" tag right beside the Xeroxed picture of Che Guevara that puts it over the top for me.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "King of Wishful Thinking" (Again)

One or two people out there might actually be wondering "Wait, didn't he do this video already?" Yep, I have. But, having arrived at the one-year mark for this feature, I looked back through the archives, and discovered that a good chunk of my videos are no longer playable, thanks to the fact that you can't embed most of the stuff on Youtube anymore. So, over the next few months, I'm going to be reposting new copies of the videos that readers can't watch anymore, as the week when I originally put them up comes around. Yes, that's right, I'm doing this all for you, my readers. Ain't I grand?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Whose Was the Real Winner in the New York 23rd Race?

Let's run down the possibilities.

1) Democrats. Well, of course; Bill Owens, a Democrat, won the election, taking over a seat that the Republicans have controlled for over a century, giving Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama have one more vote in the House than they had before. The possibility of 2010 becoming another 1994 for the Democrats just got one representative less likely.

2) Republicans. It was a loss for them, of course, but as defeats go, it wasn't terribly significant on its own terms; Dede Scozzafava, the chosen candidate of the New York state GOP to replace John McHugh (whom Obama had appointed to be Secretary of the Army), was an unknown quantity insofar as House voting would have been concerned, and was a terrible candidate to boot, so who knows how long she would have survived, even with the advantage of incumbency? But the real challenge coming out of the race is that posed by Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee.

3) Conservatives. As Josh Marshall noted a couple of days ago, Hoffman's rise as a serious candidate, stealing away major Republican support, eventually leading Scozzafava to drop out of the race, was itself a huge victory; once Hoffman became the "official" alternative to the Democratic candidate in the election, everything else--including an acual Hoffman win--would have been gravy. But what does the conservative movement do with this victory? One likely message it sends is another reminder that the Republican party needs to curry the support of movement conservatives, both social and fiscal, at every turn; that the Republican party can not count on their votes, and are willing to turn to third party candidates. Will that message have legs? Perhaps not; as Jay Cost points out, Scozzafava wasn't chosen through a regular primary process, where conservative activists could have made their votes count early on; and more importantly, New York's Conservative party has a long history, with an infrastructure available for disgruntled Republicans to capitalize upon in switching their allegiance to a preferable candidate. But still, if nothing else, Hoffman give conservatives a sense of the theoretical possibilities, at least.

4) Liberals. Owens's victory means one more vote in support of a variety of liberal causes, of course. But Hoffman's successful challenge to Scozzafava as the alternative to the perceived liberal Democratic party gives greater legitimacy to the "Tea Party" movement, making their attacks upon President Obama and his agenda more credible. On the other hand, a conservative movement which makes cleaning up the Republican party one of its primary objectives may not add a whole lot to persuading voters in the middle to support their anti-Obama platform.

5) The people of the New York 23rd Congressional District. They elected a candidate who actually lives in and knows something about their district, whose campaign wasn't overwhelmingly paid for by out-of-state donors, and whose demeanor doesn't suggest that of a nice, earnest person being pushed around by egos and agendas outside of his control. A wise move, I think. They have a representative which some actual local grounding, and not just a cause.

6) The American party process. A pretty strong victory, I think. The New York state GOP by-passed the primary process, and got slammed for it. A third party candidate rose to the mainstream. Energized voters forced the hand of party leaders. All positive signs of health, I think; the more third parties we have, the more responsive party leaders are obliged to be, the more people pay attention to political primaries, the better for American democracy.

So all in all, I'd say the real winner was the American voting public. There are ominous signs, of course, especially if you think the elimination of moderate Republicans is a matter of concern for the common good. But over all, we have solid candidate being elected after a genuinely competitive race. Not a bad result for an election day.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pixar Beats Disney

A week from today, Up will be out on dvd, and we'll be picking up our copy soon thereafter. Why shouldn't we? It was a charming, sometimes heart-breakingly real, sometimes gut-bustingly hilarious ("Squirrel!") bit of movie-making...just like nearly everything Pixar has done. The truth is, the mark of Pixar is pretty reliably pure gold: everything people used to say about the "Disney touch" now should be more properly said about Pixar. Disney may own Pixar, but Pixar has thoroughly beaten Disney's own record at their own game.

When I was an undergraduate, back in the late 80s and early 90s, everyone was talking about and watching Disney movies. Well, fine, yes, I was attending BYU, where no one was supposed to watch rated-R movies (er, emphasis on the "supposed to"...), so perhaps the Disney fan-base was pretty built-in. Still, it wasn't just Utah Mormons; it was all sorts of folks. There was the whole "Disney Renaissance" thing, with critics taking up the drumbeat: a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast, a campaign to give Robin Williams a Best Actor nomination for the role of the Genie in Aladdin (which, really, he should have gotten: it's his best, most focused, and hence funniest, comic performance on film). It was a good time to be a fan of animated films. But for those of us really hooked on the movies it was, at most, a throwback to the Golden Age of Disney. Back before cable television and Disney's leveraging of itself into a multimedia empire, back when its corporate presence was basically confined to Anahaim, Orlando, and The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, those classic films--Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Fantasia, Bambi, and the greatest of them all, Pinocchio (don't fight me on this, because you'll lose: as a mix of musical comedy, medieval Everyman tale, and moralistic bildungsroman, it's simply a flawless film)--were all we needed to know about what a great run of filmmaking meant. Those films, all gems, all produced in a five-year period, set a standard that Disney, or any other studio really, could never repeat or match.

Except that Pixar has.

In fifteen years, Pixar has made ten films, and there's not a dud in the lot. When you have a situation where someone asks what the worst film a studio has made is, and you end up pointing to such fun but less-than-truly-brilliant movies like A Bug's Life or Cars (though personally, I would elevate Cars above that group, and bring Ratatouille down onto it), then you're looking at something simply unprecedented in the history of film, I think; at the very least, unprecedented in the annals of animated filmmaking. Pixar use of technology, music, characterization, color, editing, storyboarding, vocalization, and more, is a damn near unmatchable labor of love. There was a run of four Pixar films beginning a decade ago--Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo (the best of the lot, I think--a Pinocchio-level achievement in animated story-telling), and The Incredibles--in which each one could credibly claim to have been the best American movie released that year. You just can't touch that. Disney itself certainly can't. And Pixar isn't letting up: WALL-E brought into theaters around the country a note-perfect silent-movie comedy sequence, and Up didn't just give us a film that parents and kids could enjoy together, but an adventure story which combined with a tale of resistance and acceptance that spoke truths about aging and change that everyone needs to hear.

It's just astonishing, when you think about it. When will Pixar ever make a bad film? Never, I hope.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Defending (Local) Prohibition(s)

Jacob Weisberg has taken on a difficult target in an essay in Slate: the Prohibition. "When the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1920, it was a radical social experiment challenging a custom as old as civilization....Today prohibition is a byword for futile attempts to legislate morality and remake human nature." Pretty bravely contrarian there, Jacob! So the Prohibition was a "gross insult to individual rights" and a "predictable failure," huh? Well, that's too big a target for a communitarian like myself to pass up.

Of course, Weisberg isn't really attacking the Prohibition, and I'm not really going to defend it. (Though--as one who thought highly of the years we lived in a dry county in Arkansas--I would argue that he passes over the actual historical record of the Prohibition much too casually; see here for some links to discussions over the larger and multifaceted questions of to what degree and in what way Prohibition really did "work.") What he's attacking is the notion of prohibition--technically, I suppose, the idea of prohibiting anything, really, when said prohibitions "fail to keep pace with a liberalizing society"--and what I'm defending is the opposite. Or, at least, I would claim that certain kinds of prohibitions--including but not limited to sumptuary laws of various kinds--are a lot less easy to discredit than Weisberg apparently believes.

His chosen targets are "laws that prevent gay marriage, restrict cannabis as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, and ban travel to Cuba." But he doesn't actually attack the substance of any of those laws; rather, he sees them all as fading into irrelevance in the face of "the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness." In issue after issue, Weisberg claims, "popular demand for an individual right"--to marry whomever you love, regardless of gender; to smoke a mostly harmless and sometimes medically beneficial recreational drug; to travel and do business in an island 90 miles from Florida--"is simply too powerful to overcome." He does allow that there may likely be some qualifications and variability in marginal cases, but overall is message is that prohibition, as an idea, is over, and that Democrats and Republicans alike (with their concerns about guns and abortion, for example) need to get out of the way.

Since he's not attacking these laws, I don't see a need to defend them. (For the record, though: marijuana doesn't strike me as any more dangerously addictive and potentially harmful than such legal-yet-restricted products as, say, alcohol and tobacco; the embargo on Cuba has been pretty pointless from the start; and my complicated feelings about same-sex marriage are something I've talked about more than enough already.) But his overall argument against prohibition in general has a couple of huge holes in it, and I might as well point them out.

Towards the end of his piece, Weisberg confidently places technology on the side of the liberationists: "In a world where everyone has his own printing press, restrictions on private behavior become increasingly untenable." But that is simply false--or at least, simplistic to the point of meaninglessness. One can just as easily argue the reverse: that in the age of the internet, we have become increasing obsessed with what our neighbors are doing, with who is moving in next door to us, with who said what about who; cyberbullying, Megan's Law, hate crime's legislation and more are all expressions of at least partially internet-empowered popular demands for our individual "private behavior" to be subject to public scrutiny and possible sanction. Apples and oranges, you say? Perhaps. Weisberg's examples of information running free and, by being so available, consequently affecting how people judge what is "normal," what they can co-exist alongside with without finding their own choices and ways of life threatened, make sense. But they aren't the whole story, of course; as my above examples suggest, the proliferation of information can just as easily generate paranoia, suspicion, and overreactions in the form of laws which erect prohibitions, rather than tear them down. All of which leads to a deeper point which Weisberg doesn't reckon with (but should).

Exactly how does our "definition of the pursuit of happiness" evolve, anyhow? It doesn't happen on one's own. It happens through time and space, through communities and history, through one's awareness of and involvement with others, past and present and future. Weisberg would obviously agree with this; otherwise, his claim that the internet alone--the raw force of all these options and lifestyles and possibilities, displayed at the touch of a button--contributes to making prohibitions laughable wouldn't make sense. But if so, doesn't it make just as much sense that communities can take control of their own development, emphasize certain portions of the past and project intentions into the future, and by so doing contribute to how the members of said communities define the pursuit of happiness? Of course it does--that's called "culture" (or "popular sovereignty," or "participatory democracy"; take your pick), and I find it hard to believe that Weisberg would dispute that either. Which means that the "popular demand for an individual right" isn't necessarily the death-knell for the prohibitionary or sumptuary mindset. He calls prohibition today more about "omission than commission"--meaning, I suppose, that he sees certain policies today (regarding gay marriage, or marijuana, or Cuba) as showing a misguided reluctance to admit the inevitable. But to call the failure of any individual prohibition inevitable is to assume that the individual is the only and the sovereign actor in each and every case, and that's not true. Individuals are in part made from their environments, and collective environments can be controlled. Any such control will be, of course, either welcomed or resisted by particular individuals, and off we go to the complicated realities of political life. But those complications won't ever wither away, I think. There's a tension between the individual and the community, between choice and culture, that's as old as modernity, if not much older. Weisberg's "big idea," by contrast, is just a quick and superficial political judgment about the current state of play in the United States about something much bigger than the country itself.

Of course, Weisberg may well be right about the three specific prohibitions he mentions. As I said above, I won't waste any pixels defending any of them in particular. But I do defend prohibition. Not all or any prohibitions, but some. America's experiment with a federal prohibition on alcohol--expressed through various laws and, ultimately, the 18th amendment--was ultimately flawed, I suspect, because it was too big: it allowed the passions of some parts of the population (including such strange bedfellows as Methodists, Southern Baptists, Progressives, feminists, and radicals from the South and Great Plains) to claim a moral consensus over everyone else (Roman Catholics, German Lutherans, immigrants from all parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, ordinary folk from big cities across the nation), and enforce that consensus accordingly. The harms that came from such a huge operation, whatever its arguable benefits, were many. By contrast, as I mentioned above, our old residence of Craighead County, Arkansas, had its own alcohol prohibition in place, and while the controversies continue--and why wouldn't they? it's a free country, after all--it seems that the community has survived it's collective decision to ban alcohol relatively well. At least, the folks who live there continue to value that kind of popular sovereignty, and it hasn't exactly led to a rush of political unrest, violence, and organized crime. So maybe it just depends on how any given prohibition is set up, and how many people, with all personal desires as well as their identification with and their aspirations for the community in which they live, can be fairly said such a prohibition might include.

Which is all just a long-winded way of saying that any democratic decisions, whether prohibitionary or otherwise, really must begin with figuring out what the borders of the relevant community are, so as to enable the people--the demos--so included to speak. Figuring out which prohibitions and which rights really are the business of the national government (and, despite my occasional localist sympathies, I acknowledge that many are), and which are best handled by the states, or counties, or cities, all the way down, is complex matter, for which there probably can never be any simple solution. But knocking aside the whole matter of prohibition as something on its way out, Weisberg does, because "the pursuit of happiness" has spoken, doesn't respect that complexity at all.