Friday, January 23, 2015

All the News that’s Fit to Print
Senate Rejects Human Role in Climate Change
JAN. 22, 2015
The Senate on Thursday again voted to reject two measures related to the Keystone XL pipeline that declared that humans are a cause of climate changethe second set of votes on the issue in two days.
Senators are using the Keystone debate to argue over climate issues. The Democrats want to force their Republican colleagues to come out one way or another on whether they believe humans have a role in changes to the climate and the rise of global temperatures. Republicans telegraphed their intent to attack President Obama’s climate policy agenda.
Mr. Obama is expected to veto the underlying bill that would force federal approval of the Keystone pipeline and allow construction to begin. Still, the debate has led to the first Senate floor votes in eight years on climate change measures.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 56 to 42 not to take up an amendment offered by Senator Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, that declared that climate change is real, is caused by humans and wreaks devastation. The amendment also called on the federal government to lead the way in the national transition away from dependence on fossil fuels.
Senators voted 54 to 46 not to take up an amendment offered by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, that also declared human-caused climate change to be real and devastating, and urged the government to support research on technologies that would capture carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
A third, Republican-sponsored amendment, which was rejected 51 to 46, was more political in nature. Offered by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, it called on the Senate to nullify a climate change agreement in November between the United States and China in which both nations pledged to reduce their carbon emissions.
After a brief recess and a short debate, the Senate voted 53 to 44 that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is not the cause of the birth of children.
Whereupon the Senate adjourned.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rethinking the Twenty-Second Amendment

   In March of 1947 Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution and by February of 1951 the requisite number of states had ratified it, making it the law of the land. The amendment is short and the formulation that will suffice here is even shorter: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.” I here want to put forward two arguments—different, if related—why passing that amendment was a mistake, so that repealing it should be considered. I concede ab initio that in the current political climate reconsideration is highly improbable, but I also believe that it is worth starting a discussion in anticipation of more favorable weather in the future.
   My first argument is the weaker of the two, because it merely looks backward. The second and stronger one, points to the harm it has done and will continue to do.
   When the amendment was formulated, the thirty-third president was in the White House—all but one of his predecessors having served no longer than two terms and with none, to my knowledge, having made serious moves to run for a third. For almost a century and a half, George Washington’s articulated refusal to stay beyond two terms was the model for presidential politics.
   It ended in 1940 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, successfully ran for a third term and, subsequently, for a fourth. That break with tradition sparked the movement that became the 22nd Constitutional Amendment.
  I won’t try to give an account of the debate that led to it, except to say that FDR’s success with what has become known as New Deal legislation had evoked much conservative animosity and that his pre-Pearl Harbor moves to support the Allies had been the target of what were called isolationists. No doubt antipathy toward FDR played a role in the approval of a two-term limit, but I have not studied the debates that led to its passing.  
   Given the history of American presidents, I am inclined to say that the 22nd Amendment was a much more powerful cure than the disease warranted. A single president of 32 went beyond George Washington’s restraint. A president, moreover, who was embroiled, by the time of the third term was envisaged, in a European situation that became World War II. Unprecedented? I’m not in a position to say, but surely far from Business as Usual.
   I will leave it at that, but point out that it is not prudent legislation to create a law in response to a single case of putative transgression of what is desired, especially if there are plausible reasons for that deviation from the norm. To make a trivial analogy, it’s like requiring people always to carry an umbrella in a part of the world in which it rains once every other year.
   The second argument has more bite, because it pertains to now and to the future. The data are surprisingly limited. Since the existence of Amendment 22, only three presidents were potentially poised for a third term: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to which one can now add now Barack Obama. Three presidents stepped down, given the 22nd Amendment, and the fourth will do so.
   But even given so small a sample, it is clear that requiring the second term to be the last has a significant effect on what a president is able to do as a Lame Duck. Both Reagan’s and Clinton’s second terms were affected by that dubious status, situations that were then frequently discussed by commentators on the political scene. And while Obama’s chief woes are a  hostile Republican party that has now also come to control both houses of the Congress, that fact only masks the way in which he is constrained by the 22nd Amendment.
   The manner in which the United States Constitution parcels out governmental authority, already provides for checks and balances, as the familiar phrase puts it, that is lacking in, say, the parliamentary system of Great Britain. While the 22nd Amendment was not designed to impose an additional constraint on the country’s chief executive, it does so, distorting the system put in place by the founding fathers.
   I am arguing, in short, that this amendment to limit a president’s term of office should be repealed—first because it was born out of circumstances that were unique, not ongoing and, more importantly, because it has harmful effects that were probably not intended by most of the people who favored it.

   As I said, I have no expectation that moves will be made to act on this recommendation at this time. I bring it up now because no actual person would be affected by a repeal, so that its wisdom or the lack of it can be taken up,a attending to the principles.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Du kannst mich nicht beleidigen
(Some comments on the Charlie Hebdo Catastrophe)

   That German phrase translates as “You can’t insult me.” But, since it is itself insulting, it must be understood as it is intended: not that you won’t succeed because I am impervious—that is, resistant to, hardened against, insults—anybody’s, yours included. What it means is that you, you can’t insult me because of who you are, because you have no standing.
   If fervent adherents to the religion of Islam had taken that position, many lives would have been saved. Who are the cartoonists and writers of Charlie Hebdo so that they can insult anybody? They are not lapsed Muslims who once revered Muhamed and then left the faith to become its critics. Nor are their targets former Jews who reacted against their religion, nor Catholics who stopped believing in the divinity of Jesus, not to mention the authority of the pope. Adherents to these faiths might be justified to feel animosity to defectors, formerly my fellows and now aliens. Nor are they fervent adherents of other (than Muslim) faiths, in “competition” with Islam. Even they would be  subject to the principle that they are not their brothers’ keepers, not to mention that no one has given them the authority to act on negative judgments they might have about their former confrères.
   The fact is that the Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists are not adherents of any faith—not in their capacity as journalists, whatever their beliefs, if any, as private citizens. Their concern is with public discourse, pushing the claim that one should be able to say anything in public. Free speech is not as ingrained elsewhere in the world as it is in the United States, where the limit is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
   But you don’t get heard, you don’t sell publications, you don’t derive even a modest salary, unless someone wants to listen to what you have to say. Thus a humorous magazine of insults is born: insult alone does not sell, but insult that is funny does—if only modestly so, even in France.
   The Islamists who murdered those journalists were deeply wrong in their target. They looked at the words and the drawings without assessing the motive that brought them into existence. Muhamed was not insulted, because no one intended to denigrate Muhamed: he was the victim, so to speak, of strenuous free speech advocates or, more closely, perhaps, of intellectuals who thought—or at any rate professed—that no one should believe anything they can’t see or that science has not shown to be the case. Yesterday it was someone else, tomorrow it will be another.  (Sextus Empiricus, the grandfather of skepticism, lived nearly 2000 years ago.)  But is skepticism blasphemy? Or are we here just dealing with a kind of loose talk. And were we to punish loose talk, none of us would go free, including the murderers now themselves dead.

   It would be very worthwhile for there to be a discussion not only about “Islam’s Problem with Blasphemy,” as launched by Mustafa Akoyl in The New York Times of January 13, but about the nature of blasphemy itself. To have a case of blasphemy, there needs to be an act and a motive. Much more clarity is needed about both.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
New York: Basic Books, 2010

Some Comments
—not a review. There are many such, though mostly unread by me. Numerous of them are by competent students of the period, which I am not one; and they are overwhelmingly favorable. The primary goal of my remarks is to get you to read the book.
   It is hardly a cheerful subject: the approximately fourteen million people killed by Stalin and Hitler between the early 1930s—when five million people were starved to death as a consequence of Stalin’s push to collectivize agriculture, mostly in the Soviet Ukraine—to 1945, when Hitler’s defeat put an end to the Final Solution that murdered nearly six million Jews. Nevertheless, I could hardly put the book down or, rather, the Kindle on which I was reading it. In my brief post of December 19, “Concerning ‘Pure Evil,’” I called Bloodlands brilliant, which it is.  But what immediately grips one’s continuous attention is the virtually unending array of statistics-backed information that is revealed within a brilliant framework.    
   Although I had been at least superficially acquainted with most of the events Professor Snyder recounts, the specificity with which he does so and the context that he unfailingly provides made virtually all the parts and aspects of the narrative new information for me. Some of you who read these remarks are likely to know far more than I about this unprecedented nadir in the world’s history. But it is unlikely that you will be acquainted with more than a fraction of the very many components that add up to the history of those 14,000,000 of Stalin’s and Hitler’s murder victims. The sheer scholarship that brought that information from a multiplicity of sources in more than half a dozen languages—on to the pages of a book written in jargon-free English—is astonishing.
   And I say the book is brilliant because of the complex context within which those numbers appear. There are the events themselves, the location and methods of the murders—deprivation of food, assassination with rifles and pistols, asphyxiation with poison gas—and a characterization of the perpetrators and of their leaders, from Heinrich Himmler down to some of the SS heads of Einsatzgruppen. There is much information about the motives and goals of Stalin and Hitler and, most interestingly, on how they influenced each other and interacted. Remember that this period began with enmity, but not war, between Germany and the Soviet Union, went on to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Nazi and the Marxist-Leninist states, to be followed by a precipitous and extensive German invasion of the Soviet Union that then turned into a rout of the Germans by the Soviets, ending with the final defeat of the Germans and the end of the Second World War.
   Throughout, the author keeps the victims of the murders in sharp focus. Who they were—Kulaks, prisoners of war, Jews of Warsaw or Minsk, and, alas, many additional categories. Because attention is paid to those many other groupings of murder victims, some have claimed that Bloodlands takes away from the special character of the Holocaust. To my knowledge, however, Snyder does full justice—an odd phrase in this context—to the Shoah, nor does he undermine the view of its uniqueness by giving an account of over eight million others that were murdered during the years of the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler.
   And while most the fourteen million of victims written about in Bloodlands are of course inevitably faceless, anonymous, the author nevertheless succeeds—efficiently, I am inclined to say—to give different classes those victims names and faces. Without cluttering a scholarly text with anecdotes, he introduces a name and an incident here, a comment in a recovered diary there that give flesh and blood, so to speak, to entire categories of the victim of the Bloodlands.
   Professor Snyder’s book is a major achievement and adds not only much of our knowledge of these major events of the twentieth century—wie es eigentlich gewesen ist—but to our understanding of the most evil events in all of human history. Read the book.
   P.S. If you have neither the time or the stomach to go from beginning to end of Bloodlands, read its “Conclusion,” subtitled “Humanity,” followed by “Numbers and Terms” and a very brief “Abstract.”