September 2004
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Month September 2004

The continued closing of the American mind

The culture war continues this week, with conservative groups urging a boycott of Proctor & Gamble products because they allegedly “support gay marriage.” The facts of the case are these: the City of Cincinatti has an issue on the ballot this November to repeal a 1993 city charter amendment which forbids the city to enact or enforce laws based on sexual orientation. The 1993 charter amendment (Article XII) forbids the city from taking into account sexual orientation in any claim of “minority or protected status, quota preference or other preferential treatment.”

In other words, Article XII prevents gays and lesbians from petitioning city government for protection against discrimination — in housing, hiring and firing decisions, and so on. Cincinnati is the only city in the U.S., apparently, with such a ban in their city code. The movement to repeal Article XII is motivated by numerous factors; naturally, the gay and lesbian community itself is irate about their basic civil rights and equality; the business community believes that businesses are losing revenue and encountering difficulty recruiting new employees. In addition to Proctor & Gamble, the Mayor, Vice Mayor, 6 city council members, the Chamber of Commerce, 18 business leaders, several dozen religious leaders, unions, General Electric, and the Union Central Life Insurance Company believe it should be repealed. And despite evidence that this is a broad-based, bi-partisan, business & community supported effort, the religious right “thought police” have become involved.

A constitutional vision for Democrats, Part 3

Following the thread from two previous posts, it’s worth looking at the possibility that Democrats still have such a vision, and what vision conservatives offer in return.  In his original post on Balkinization, Mark Tushnet stated — without much elaboration — that the Democratic constitutional vision was "something like equal dignity and respect."  There’s a sense in which this is correct.  It’s not hard to trace this vision back to FDR; the following is from the "Four Freedoms" speech of 1941:

Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all nations, large and small.

Originally, of course, Roosevelt was concerned to secure equal dignity through redress of economic privation, in the wake of the Depression.  Civil rights and racial equality were still issues for the future.  National opinion would begin to place racial and gender issues on the "equal dignity and respect" agenda starting in the 1950’s and continuing throughout the 1960’s, while retaining (in the Great Society programs of Johnson) the economic dignity legacy of the New Deal.  As Cass Sunstein documents in his new book, Roosevelt’s "Second Bill of Rights" came close to defacto recognition by the Court prior to the Nixon appointments in the early 1970’s. 

Since then, Democrats seem not to have lost the earlier vision but have instead have been playing defense.  Since 1970, Democrats have controlled the White House for only 12 out of 34 years.   Only two of the sitting Court were nominated by Democrats (although several Justices nominated by Republicans now form part of the Court’s "liberal/moderate" minority).  And majority control over Congress has rested with Republicans for the majority of the period since 1980.  The liberal "vision" has lost ground ever since; both real ground in the form of legislative cutback and judicial erosion, and steady decline in public opinion.  I need not belabor the point — excellent sources exist for analysis of the tactics by which Democrats and liberals came to be the minority force in national politics.

Far more interesting, I believe, is the opposing constitutional vision (or visions) which find so much support among conservatives:  limited or "small government" as the "original" and desired state of government.   If Democrats want to understand how to stop defending, and start building again, the weaknesses in the conservative constitutional argument are the place to start.

German & Alsatian wines with Thai Food, Sept. 2004

Every so often, I get together with a group of friends who are aficionados of German, Alsatian, Austrian, and French Loire white wines. We meet at Chantanee, a terrific Thai restaurant in Bellevue, WA. The spicy Thai cuisine (hot curries, Miang Kum and Tod Mun to start, cold beef salad, crispy garlic chicken) are an excellent counter balance to the dry to sweet white wines. Perennial favorites for this type of food include Trimbach’s Cuvee Frederic Emile Riesling from Alsace (which we all collect in most vintages), and good German Spatlese and Auslese wines.

Last night, our friend Bryan Loufbourrow was in town from Sonoma (an emigre to CA after years of living here in the Pacific Northwest — he’s crazy to move, but it takes all kinds). So we met, ate some terrific food, and sampled some terrific wines. I’ll hit the highlights here, from my perspective.

We opened with a Nigl Riesling 2000, a steely minerally dry Riesling from Austria, and a lovely bottle of wine. If you like the bone-dry Rieslings of Chablis (e.g., Dauvissat & Raveneau), and like dry minerally Alsatian Rieslings, you’ll love Austrian Riesling from the better producers, such as Nigl. A Trimbach CFE 1989 was oddly flat and lacking on the palate, which means a bad bottle — this is drinking beautifully right now.

Other highlights were a J.J. Prum 1990 Wehlener Sonn. Spatlese, the Albert Mann 2001 Altenberg Vendages Tardive Riesling (superb!), and a Donnhoff 1995 Niederhauser Hermannsholle Auslese. But the amazing wine was a half-bottle of Zind-Humbrecht 1997 Tokay Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal Selection des Grains Noble. Thick, like light oil, and spice cake with citrus on the palate, the concentration was mind-blowing. Don’t know whether it’ll age a long time — opinion was split on that — but the wine is going to be gorgeous for at least a few years.

Orthodoxy and the “war” on terror: the lessons of 9/11

If there’s one meme that deserves a swift burial, it’s the notion that the “lessons of September 11th” demonstrate clearly the strategy we need to take. Rice Grad, writing at Southern Appeal, illustrates the type of argument:

Cheney was saying that if we get hit again, then the danger is that Kerry will treat the terrorist attack as a law enforcement matter. That is, Kerry shows signs that he has not learned the lessons of September 11th. He is still in pre-9/11 mode, whereas Bush sees the matter as an act of war, not a mere criminal act.

The mode of thinking represented here is insidious — if for no other reason than actual events have demonstrated the need for both a military and “law enforcement” (more specifically, investigative) capability in order to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle terrorist cells. 12 suspects were arrested in the UK during August, following the tipoff from Noor Khan and some dedicated police work. Earlier in the year, UK police arrested 8 suspects and seized half a ton of fertilizer, again through police work informed by intelligence data.

On the other hand, when you’re combing the mountainous Tora Bora and tribal regions of adjacent Pakistan, the police aren’t the solution, and even the FBI and CIA are of limited help. You need military manpower, on the ground and in the air. To secure Afghanistan, you need troops. Lack of troop strength, in fact, is leading to the resurgence of the Taliban in the west and south, and loss of control for the new government.

So I’m not quite sure what is meant when people — especially otherwise intelligent, informed people — refer to the “lessons of 9/11” and manage to dichotomize our approach so easily. The presidential campaigns dichotomize issues because they seek to maximize the separation between the candidates; this is clearly at play in Cheney’s words:

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” Cheney said.

Nor is Senator Kerry entirely innocent of painting too simplistic a picture.

But it worries me that the meme is still spreading — beyond the campaigns that employ it as tactic, beyond the early anger at being attacked, and into general usage. Today, three years later, you’d expect a bit more analysis, more critical thinking about what the “lessons of 9/11” truly are. Rice Grad, writing in the passage quoted above, says with approval that Bush sees the matter as an “act of war.” And we’ve all heard the President and his team use those terms.

But three years later, I’m still not sure that “war on terror” is an accurate way to describe our present situation. We certainly have been attacked, and we certainly have attacked al-Qaeda leaders and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the nation of Iraq in return. But we are, demonstrably, also engaged in an intelligence and investigative effort, spanning national and local polices, to track and apprehend potential attackers. And those avenues, albeit less noticeable, are producing results — as evidenced by arrests around the world.

The real lesson of 9/11 is that it’s too early, and we’re too deeply involved, to be able to say conclusively which strategies and tactics will turn out to be the best. It’s early days in a diffuse global insurgency like this, and the evidence suggests that both “law enforcement” and military action are appropriate tools in their own contexts. Tactics and methods we haven’t tried yet, and technologies possibly yet to be invented, may aid in our efforts. Experimentation will be the norm, not the exception, as we try everything in the playbook to stop, destroy, or apprehend attackers before they strike.

And I haven’t heard either candidate truly suggest otherwise. Using the “lessons of 9/11” and “law enforcement” memes as a way to judge one’s choice of Presidential candidate is quite simply misguided. There will be little, if any, real difference on the ground in the methods used by either candidate should they win the White House in the fall. As a country, we are far better off judging our affinity with the candidates based on domestic policy and the probability of Supreme Court nominations, than we are chasing phantom differences in the ability of either candidate to be Commander-in-Chief.

(following up posts by Will Baude and Rice Grad and De Novo)

Chateau Climens 1971 Sauternes

I don’t open thirty-three year old dessert wines very often, but last week our tasting group met and my red wine was bland and uninteresting (Les Cailloux Chateauneuf 1994) so in order to avoid the slings and arrows of my fellow wine drinkers, I popped open some Sauternes to sooth their savage tempers. The 1971 Climens is an interesting wine, as it comes from the year Lucien Lurton took over the estate, which had been declining. Climens has since produced some excellent wines, gaining the reputation of being the nearest rival to d’Yquem.

The 1971 bears out this reputation fully. A number of folks in my circle of wine friends had bought bottled from Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, after tasting a truly spectacular bottle in 1999 or 2000. The bottle opened last week was excellent, but not quite the equal of the bottle we’d previously tried. Thick, with a really luscious texture, the wine has a deep honey and butterscotch aroma and flavor, with a long finish. Characteristically, I should have decanted it instead of just whipping it out during the tasting — this bottle improved greatly by the next day, and after a week the remaining portion of the bottle is still tasty, once it warms from refrigerator temp. This wine is not in danger of going over the hill, but will likely continue to improve as a superb example of mature Sauternes. Fortunately, I think I’ve got one more left…

Vladimir Putin’s constitutional slippery slope

The news today that Vladimir Putin is proposing major changes to Russia’s political system, in the name of the war on terror, will repay careful attention by those in the United States that believe terrorism justifies whatever a chief executive wants to do. Putin starts out reasonably enough, asking for reform of intelligence services and the building of a “single organization” to coordinate the fight against terror.

But this new organization, Mr. Putin claims, should have the authority to “destory criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad.” It’s hard to tell whether this means with or without any form of due process, but given Russian history, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume the latter.

But the far more insidious changes are those proposing structural changes to the Duma, or lower house of parliament. The proposed changes would destroy local representation in favor of pure proportionality of parties; this would make the Duma easier to control centrally. Putin also called for the upper house (filled with regional governors), to be elected by legislatures after nomination by the President. In other words, the upper house — and therefore, regional governors — would not be popularly elected.

Putin is putting his country on a classic slippery slope. Those who support any aspect of these changes may quickly find themselves back in a defacto dictatorship. Those who fear for constitutional government in Russia must therefore oppose all such proposals from Putin, possibly even some that will help in their fight against internal terrorist attacks.

The lesson here is clear, and needs to be learned by both parties — no agenda, however laudable, whether aimed at the national security or at social justice, is free of the slippery slope which erodes constitutional government if it ignores separation of powers and limited executive authority. Democrats have just as much to answer for in this regard as Republicans, since as I’ve mentioned previously, the modern notion of executive power is largely a creation of FDR. Not everyone is FDR, however. The world is also home to Vladimir Putin, not to mention politicians with even fewer scruples.