Constitution Day

Wednesday is Constitution Day; here’s Sandy Levinson (Our Undemocratic Constitution).

Faux Originalism and “Constitution Day”

Many originalists claim to feel bound not only by the text of the Constitution (which would make them only textualists, but also by the values, aims, and aspirations of the Founders). But surely one of the central values of the Founders is that no one like Sarah Palin would ever be a candidate for the presidency (and not only because she is a woman, a piece of bigotry that would also, of course, extend for other reasons to Barack Obama). Rather, she is basically uneducated, inexperienced, and incurious about the world at large. She is no Abligail Adams or Mercy Warren, let alone James Madison or John Adams.

I have many times over the past two years, since publishing my book Our Undemocratic Constitution, been reminded, sometimes with a tone of withering condescension that ours is a “republic” and not a “democracy,” and we should keep it that way. There is, of course, some truth to that, especially if by “republican” one means a concern for public values instead of partisan interests, deemed “factions” in the 10th Federalist. Madison obviously saw no way to get read of factions, but he did believe, naively, that one might tame them through a system of representative government that would try to assure “virtuous” leaders.

Madison’s vision, of course, collapsed very quickly. Some would say 1800, though this depends on whether one shares Hamilton’s view that Burr was out-and-out unfit to be president. Others would say 1828, with the election of Andrew Jackson. I’d be more tempted to go with 1840, when William Henry Harrison, who ran under the famous slogan, Tippacanoe and Tyler too, picked the egregious John Tyler for no other reason than supplying “electoral balance,” even though he had no apparent qualifications for the presidency (unlike every earlier VP, including, one might well argue, Burr) and was a disaster as President. What is striking is that we no longer even both to lament the decline of “republican” values; instead, too many of us have become little Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters, luxuriating in the “cleverness” of political operatives who indeed care only about partisan political success and nothing else.

In any event, there is something passing strange about (some) contemporary “originalists” clutching the Founders to their bosom at the same time they celebrate John McCain’s ostensible “sagacity” in choosing the patently unqualified Sarah Palin because it might provide him an electoral boost. This is not to deny the accuracy of the analysis; it is only to say that no member of the Founding Generation would recognize such a motive (and character) as being the reason they gave for establishing a new Constitution dedicated to maintaining a “Republican Form of Government.”

Benjamin Franklin famously said that we were given a republic and the question was whether we could “keep it.” The answer is clear. Not only do we not have anything we should be willing to call a 21st century democracy; we also don’t have anything we should be willing to call a “republic.” Something to think about as we prepare to “celebrate” Constitution Day on Wednesday….. Whatever it is that (some of us) celebrate, it has almost nothing to do with 1787-88, for good (the substantial overcoming of sexism and racism) and for ill (fill in the blank with one’s favorite critique).

Nazi TV

 

From Barista:

Here is a television schedule for a certain Tuesday, 28 March:

“2000: News
2030: Newsreel clips
2045: “Etiquette for those in Love”: Seasonal tips for those in love, or who want to be
2130-2200: “Spring Showers”: Performance by the White Ravens”

The program started with the words (as translated by some computer on the internet),

“Attention, attention! Paul Nipkow television. We welcome all ethnic comrades and Volksgenossinnen in the large Fernsehstuben Berlin” and ended with this: “This stopped the operation of the television Reich end its current image management program. Were you satisfied? If so, please tell all your friends. Gefiel you can not say it, please contact us. Write to the Fernsehbetrieb reach the end of the line, Berlin, home of broadcasting. For the evening: marching music. Goodbye at the next shipment. Heil Hitler!”

The place is Berlin, and the year is 1939.


But in fact the first mass, practical use of television did not occur in English at all – it was developed by the Nazis, who rushed to transmit the first regular broadcast before the BBC, who in turn had arguably already been gazumped by experiments in the US. They switched on for the first time in March 1935, to small 18 x 22cm screens set up in special “television parlours”, sometimes in pairs, run by the Post Office.

About ten years ago, archival footage was cut into a documentary, now available on the net


It is a strange experience to watch. Even without our hindsight, it does seem vaguely brutish. The nasty, snappy salute of the blonde hostess is creepy, while the gruesome interview with Robert Ley, the head of Strength Through Joy, just makes him seem stupid. Albert Speer is interviewed, pulling up in his fast open top Merc, and sitting casually at the wheel, the very image of a European playboy, unlike the busy technocrat we expect of the propaganda machine –

The film is full of instructional videos, about items like gardening for the Fatherland, keeping scrapts for pigs and a course on Nazi marriage for brides-to-be. The contempt and intrusion is palpable – the feeling that a small-minded elite was sculpting a vision of proper suburban life for citizens who are simultaneously little more than clay and also the conquerors of the world.

Via Danny Yee.

Hesperus is Phosphorus

The line is from Gottlob Frege, I gather, though I just now came across it while reading David Chalmers. It’s new to me, though my brief career in academic philosophy centered on Wittgenstein, an admirer of Herr Frege.

Hesperus and Phosphorus are the latinized forms of the Greek personifications of the Evening and Morning Stars, respectively. (Frege’s point was roughly that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” might convey information—the Morning and Evening Stars are in fact the same planet—or might be tautological—Venus is Venus.)

Hesperus is the Roman Vesper, evening (and so vespers). Phosphorus is “bearer of light” (a form of the chemical element phosphorus glows as it reacts with oxygen). The Roman Phosphorus is Lucifer. (And -fer, “bearer” or “bringer”, also shows up in aquifer, conifer, Christopher (St Christopher carried a disguised Christ across a river), and so on.)

And here’s Isaiah 14:12:

When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has ceased! How his insolence has ceased! … How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who would not let his prisoners go home?”

Isaiah is talking about a Babylonian king, but the passage was later applied to Satan. I like the image of Lucifer, the Day Star, appearing as the brightest object in the pre-dawn sky, only to be eclipsed by the overwhelming brilliance of the Sun God.

Orwell’s Diaries

Starting today, George Orwell’s diaries start appearing as a blog, 70 years after they were written (you may recall a similar project some time back blogging the diaries of Samuel Pepys). By way of introduction:

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

What impression of Orwell will emerge? From his domestic diaries (which start on 9th August), it may be a largely unknown Orwell, whose great curiosity is focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid. From his political diaries (from 7th September), it may be the Orwell whose political observations and critical thinking have enthralled and inspired generations since his death in 1950. Whether writing about the Spanish Civil War or sloe gin, geraniums or Germany, Orwell’s perceptive eye and rebellion against the ‘gramophone mind’ he so despised are obvious.

Orwell wrote of what he saw in Dickens: ‘He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry— in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

Here’s the first entry, August 9, 1938.

Caught a large snake in the herbaceous border beside the drive. About 2’ 6” long, grey colour, black markings on belly but none on back except, on the neck, a mark resembling an arrow head (ñ) all down the back. Did not care to handle it too recklessly, so only picked it up by extreme tip of tail. Held thus it could nearly turn far enough to bite my hand, but not quite. Marx1 interested at first, but after smelling it was frightened & ran away. The people here normally kill all snakes. As usual, the tongue referred to as “fangs”2.

Notes by Peter Davison, from the Complete Works:

1The Orwells’ dog.

2It was an ancient belief that a poisonous snake injects its poison by means of a forked tongue and not, as is the case, through two fangs. So Shakespeare in Richard II, 3.20 – 22.

            Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder

            Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch

            Throw death upon thy sovereign’s enemies.
See also 11.8.38.

Via /.

Mere filler

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke.

Helmuth von Moltke was at a meeting at the Foreign Minstry in Berlin with twenty-four men. They discussed a legal decree that would expropriate the property of deported Jews. Twenty-four of the twenty-five wanted to approve the decree; Moltke opposed it.

The men were chameleons, Moltke wrote his wife: “In a healthy society, they look healthy, in a sick one, like ours, they look sick. And really they are neither one nor the other. They are mere filler.”

It was November 8, 1941.

Super Cub nostalgia

Honda Super CubWired notes the Honda Super Cub’s 50th anniversary and 60-millionth unit sold. That places the first sales in 1958, which also happens to be the year I moved (with my family) to Tokyo.

The Cub must have been an immediate hit, because I remember them as ubiquitous. Years later, attending New College in Sarasota Florida in the late 60s, I briefly owned a derivative of the Cub, one without the step-through styling and (am I remembering this right?) a 90cc engine.

A brief search on eBay turns up some Cub parts, gasket kits and such, and Cub-themed Zippo lighters and refrigerator magnets. But no Cubs.

Churchill on Hitler, Trotsky

I’ve been reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.

Winston Churchill was readying his book Great Contemporaries for the press. It was August 1937. In it was his article on Hitler, written a few years earlier. “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

Churchill also included a piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill,

the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”

Links mine.

Borah, Hitler and Bush

David Kaiser: Facts are stubborn things

A couple of days ago President Bush ignited a firestorm before the Knesset by attacking those who support talking with hostile foreign leaders as practitioners of appeasement. “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939,” he said, “an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.” White House officials have identified the Senator as William Borah of Idaho, one of the longest-serving members in the history of that body, a one-time chairman and long-time ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a committed isolationist who opposed American entry into the First World War (and died in January 1940 before entry into the Second had become a major issue.)

That fact that Borah was a Republican has been cited as ironic by several commentators. David Kaiser suggests that the entire business is apparently a fabrication (unlike, it also appears, the suggestions of Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush’s financial connections with the Nazi war machine).

The purported quote from Borah has been a favorite of neoconservative Charles Krauthammer for some time. There is, however, one problem. While I cannot claim to have researched the issue exhaustively, the Proquest database of major newspapers includes not one shred of evidence that Borah ever said any such thing—and an enormous amount of evidence that he never would have.

More to the point, however, Borah was anything but naive about Hitler and was in fact a violent opponent of Fascism, Nazism, and the Munich agreement reached by the western powers. A selection from the reports of major newspapers during the 1930s leaves no doubt about this. Like many isolationists, he blamed Hitler’s rise largely on the Versailles treaty (an opinion which I personally do not share), but he never minced words about the nature of Hitler’s regime. In 1934 he referred to Nazism as “the malign influence which the world now contemplates with amazement and horror.” In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, he violently attacked Mussolini and Hitler for making war on the government of Spain and argued that domestic Fascism was a greater threat than domestic Communism. In a radio address in late March 1939, after Roosevelt had proposed amendments to the neutrality act to allow the British and French to buy arms, Borah argued that those powers did not deserve our help. “What they are contending for is the realization of their imperialistic scheme and not the destruction of Nazism,” he said. He attacked the British for failing to oppose the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931 and for letting Hitler know they would not object to the annexation of Austria a year earlier (an apparent reference to the famous Halifax mission of late 1937.) “During the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia,” he said, “no mention was ever made of the teachings of Nazism and the dangers of enlarging its influence in Europe. ” He also criticized the British and French for failing to make any provision for the many anti-Nazis who had fallen under German sovereignty as a result of the Munich agreement. In the absence of a direct, sourced quote—which no one so far has produced—I cannot believe that this man would have made the statement that our President attributed to him.

White Sox

My father turned 83 this year. Four years before he was born, the White Sox won their second World Series, against the Giants (they had beaten the Cubs(!) in 1906. The Sox lost to the Reds in 1919.

When I was born in Chicago in 1949 (my Dad, a Minnesota farm boy, was going to school on the GI Bill), the Sox had not appeared in a Series for 30 years, and the drought was still young.

I was ten in 1959, living in Tokyo, when the White Sox made their next Series appearance. I remember getting up before dawn to listen to the games on the US Army’s Far East Network, a crystal radio under my pillow.

1959 had been a year of pitching, stolen bases, and one-run wins for the Sox, but they opened the Series with a bang, beating the Dodgers 11-0. Sadly, they only had another 12 runs in them, and lost in six.

I’ve never been much of a base ball fanatic, but it’s a game that marks our lives anyway.

In the Sox’ last Series win in 1959 (Game 5) they beat Koufax and the Dodgers 1-0. Last night’s game was a nice echo.