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Day May 15, 2005

Books #27 – #30: Michelman, MacLeod, Banks, Lukacs

It’s been an eventful week, and I haven’t had much time to write.   I did, however, finish several books.  Since I don’t have time for four separate posts right now, I’ll summarize fairly briefly. 

Frank Michelman’s Brennan and Democracy uses the judicial work of William Brennan to illuminate what is perhaps the central problem of constitutional democracy, including (and perhaps especially) ours:  how to reconcile constitutionalism (the notion of a government constrained in its actions by law) and democracy (the notion of government and self-rule by a group of people).  These notions seem to go together quite easily, but this is largely because of compromises and institutional designs that are buried quite deeply in our national history.  In reality, it’s fairly easy for the wishes of majorities to conflict with constitutional limitations.  When this happens, the principle of constitutionalism holds those majoritarian choices, however democratically arrived at, as void and without legitimacy.  Sounds good, right?  The trouble begins when we ask how the twin principles of constitutionalism and democracy are balanced, and by whom.  The answer in the United States, at least most of the time, rests with courts, and in particular the Supreme Court.   Nine unelected judges, who hold office for life unless impeached, are the way in which majorities are constrained to act within constitutional limits.  And thus the way that these nine judges make decisions is of considerable importance.  All of this is background – Michelman’s book is, first, an exploration of arguments for how to deal with the conflict between limited government and majority rule, and second, an examination of how William Brennan – perhaps the late twentieth century’s most activist liberal justice, navigated these treacherous waters.  I’ll have more to say on this subject in upcoming posts.

John Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred is a connected series of "mini essays," exploring the history of political ideas and events since the early 1800’s in Europe and the United States.  Lukacs takes as his main theme the ending of the "Modern" era and the concomitant replacement of aristocracy and monarchy by democracy worldwide.  Naturally, this is a good thing, though Lukacs warns that liberal and limited democracy are being replaced by naked majoritarianism (or "populism"), and that increasingly in the twentieth century this populism was linked to aggressive nationalism with devastating results.  He sees these trends continuing in the United States, and I wholeheartedly agree – the replacement of political deliberation with electoral "publicity" contests is both an outgrowth of populism and its ongoing cause, and has led to a massive degredation in our public discourse.  I recommend Lukacs’s book highly, and although he can be quite the crank and disapproves of seemingly every aspect of contemporary life, when it comes to the large scale challenges facing democratic societies in an age of mass media and poor citizen participation, he’s right on the money.  It is not, however, an "easy" book by any means.  Lukacs writes at a very high level in this book, without detail or references, and presumes a strong knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual and political history on the part of the reader.  That said, it repays the effort required.

The next two books were both fiction.  I’d had Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas on the shelf for some years, and just never found myself wanting to read it, but his Culture novels come highly recommended by many folks, so I finally cracked it, and enjoyed it.  The science isn’t detailed, but there is a great sensitivity to social and cultural conflict here, combined with grand scope and fast action.  I’ll probably keep going with the Culture novels and see how much I like a couple of the others. 

Finally, and sadly, I finished off the Fall Revolution series by Ken MacLeod, in reading The Sky Road.   Sadly, because I really haven’t read a fictional series this good in a long time, and now there aren’t any more to read.  I continue to be both amazed by the Fall Revolution series as storytelling and blown away by how MacLeod managed to weave together a plausible future history out of leftist and libertarian politics.  I approached The Sky Road with some trepidation, given the terrible reviews on Amazon.  Clearly, most of these came from folks who hadn’t read the other novels in the series and thus weren’t able to see how The Sky Road ties up a few last threads during the interval (on Earth) between The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, in much the same way that Stone Canal and Cassini Division dovetail to create the story of New Mars.   If you haven’t read the other books, start at the beginning with Star Fraction

Might be awhile until I post on books again; having just finished a stack, I’ve embarked on the next batch, but they include Carroll’s book on evo-devo, Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, Cass Sunstein’s One Case at a Time, and John Banville’s The Untouchable.  Several of these will take awhile.   Penrose is still anchoring the stack on the table, but I haven’t made any progress on that lately.