Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Check this out.

The always excellent Iowahawk is in particularly fine form today, taking on anti-western academia and deconstructivism.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

What Good's the First Amendment, Now?

The British Courts have gone completely insane. It is hard to know how to respond to their bizarre overreaching -- if Britain weren't such an important ally I'd think laughing and pointing would be appropriate, but as the facts are... it's simply flabbergasting.

The latest (Editor & Publisher via Power Line) example is a Saudi billionaire suing for libel over claims that he funds terrorism. That seems fine -- even billionaires deserve a day in court. The insanity is that a British judge feels he has jurisdiction to hear a case by a Saudi against an American author for a book that's never even been published in Great Britain. The infamously low standards for libel cases in British courts -- especially the fact that the defendant has an obscenely high burden of proof, in which the mere truth of a statement may not be sufficient defense -- makes this jurisdictional assault also an assault on our First Amendment protections.

Think I'm exaggerating -- what about this case -- in which an American politician is being tried in British courts for statements during an American political campaign, in which his spokesman denied allegations made by a British citizen against him. This denial itself is said to have been defaming the British journalist's reputation for truthfulness. Now an American politician, by virtue of having denied an allegation in the middle of a political campaign, is being called on to show up in a foreign court and prove the allegations false.

See also Don King's suit, also over statements made by an American about an American in talking to the American press.

What good is the protection of the First Amendment if foreign courts can impose their own sanctions on that once-protected speech? Are American journalists and politicians -- reporting in American papers and running for American political office -- expected to adhere to British constraints on their speech? Why stop there? Why not haul them into court in China if they criticize Chinese officials? Why not haul church leaders into court in Saudi Arabia for blasphemy? In general, I'm wary of slippery-slope arguments. But in this case, we're already well down the slope.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Facts are Facts. Aren't they?

I'm not sure whether this is actually a recent trend, or just something I've been noticing more recently, but it seems to me like people on the left and the right can no longer debate reasonably about anything -- not because they have different opinions and beliefs, but because they can't even agree on the basic facts involved.

Take the memo behind CBS's reporting on President Bush's service in the National Guard. It's been widely reported that the document couldn't have been produced on a '70's typewriter, that the secretary who would have typed them said they were fake, that they were provided by a clearly partisan source who said he had no idea where he got them from, and that they contained basic errors like ordering him to report on a weekend when the base would have been closed. And yet, the CBS report dodged the question, investigating only the narrower question of whether political bias influenced the reporting. Now, a new article in the New York Review of Books lays out the new liberal consensus -- there's no reason to think the documents were forged. (via TigerHawk via Power Line)

Take the tragic situation of Terri Schiavo and her family. Clinically, she's in a Persistent Vegetative State. CT scans show that much of her cerebral cortex is physically gone. Yet, proponents of ending her life routinely describe her as in a "coma" or even "brain-dead". Far worse, doctors opposing her death have made a number of misleading claims, culminating in this article for the Florida Baptist Witness: "“Terri’s not that bad,” Hammesfahr said. “She is like a child with cerebral palsy. She can speak. At least when I saw her, she would speak very slowly. She would sort of form words, she would move her arms and legs at command. She could understand questions in English.” If that were true, this truly would be a monstrous injustice.

These are just two examples, but just about any issue in the headlines provides a similar example. Once upon a time, the role of the press was to investigate and report and help to establish the facts. Then pundits and politicians would stake out positions and argue them on a mix of those facts and their values and beliefs. Now it seems like the debate never gets beyond the question of the facts. We don't discuss what Social Security should accomplish -- we argue about how much it will cost and when it will "go broke". We don't discuss who should make end-of-life decisions or how -- we argue about what the condition of one patient is. We don't discuss the circumstances under which military force can be justified -- we argue about whether the Iraq war was "unilateral" or whether Hussein had "WMD's". In short, we don't really discuss anything political anymore. And that's a shame.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

I Suppose This Is How...

Yesterday, I rhetorically asked, of the death of terminal patients by slow starvation, "once we've concluded that (they) ought to die, how can anyone believe that this is the right way for it to happen?"

Today, the New York Times answers in an astounding news article (not even an Op-Ed) which describes dehydration as a peaceful and dignified death. (via Just One Minute)

I can certainly understand how this belief would bring comfort to the relatives of those we've consigned to this kind of death, or to doctors forced either by state law or their patient's wishes to preside over such a death. But why is it that I suspect the editors at the Times would be as horrified as the rest of us if they discovered a branch office of the American Humane Society that euthanized excess cats and dogs by denying them food and water?

Liberal Cyncicism

The flip side of the rise in idealism on the right has been the increasing cynicism and visceral hatred on the left.

The problem has become so widespread, it's hard to know where to start. The new DNC chair is Howard Dean, who spent years mocking Bush's claim to be a "uniter, not a divider" and claimed in his campaign that he would actually be a "uniter not a divider", now gives us: "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for.". President Bush frames a world view in which America is called to be a force for the good of freedom against the evil of tyranny and oppression around the world. The new DNC head finally embraces the terms good and evil, but only to apply them to domestic politics -- in a world with genocide, a nuclear North Korea, and slavery, the evil Dean identifies is the Republican Party. While it's understandable that he's focussed on the struggle immediately before him, it's a very small vision.

But the problem seems endemic in the Democratic Party today. It's not just Howard Dean. It's hard to find more than a handful of prominent Democrats (perhaps Lieberman and Clinton?) who have managed to stand aside from the expressions of visceral hatred for Republicans, calling them evil or nazis. Victor Hansen's recent piece in the National Review (via Decision '08) surveying these expressions makes depressing reading for anyone hoping for a return to two-party politics at the federal level any time soon.

Scary thought for the day. Do you suppose that Democratic strategists take seriously the idea that the Republican leadership is pushing hatred and bigotry, and is responding to electoral defeat by trying to outdo them at it?

One China

In the wake of China's new anti-secession law there's been much talk of Chinese intentions towards Taiwan:
  • The Dignified Rant (via Instapundit) last week noted China's rapid naval buildup, particularly in amphibious ships and escort submarines, and suggests that they might be preparing for a massive invasion just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
  • Bill Roggio (via Arthur Chrenkoff) responds at length, citing a two-year-old article in the Naval War College Review.
  • Both sides seem at least interested in being ready for the possibility -- Bill Roggio reports on U.S. naval operations last summer practicing to oppose a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and now the Dignified Rant has reports of a joint exercise between China and Russia in which China will be basically doing a dry run for the invasion.
For myself, I've no idea how capable the Taiwanese military is of repelling a significant Chinese beachhead, nor of how long it would take U.S. naval forces in the region to cut it off from supplies and reinforcements. The two points that stick with me are: (1) Even if it's true that China can't win militarily, that's no guarantee that they won't try very hard, and (2) China gets most of its oil by sea, and apparently has no significant strategic reserve to fall back on.
Even so, it's not hard to imagine China's leaders talking themselves into the belief, however ill-founded, that they could swamp Taiwan quickly and present the U.S. with a fait accompli.

UPDATE: From a brief reading of the NWCR paper, one of the factors the authors argue from is China's old and declining ambibious assault navy, predicted to fall by half by 2010. China's actual buildup of these forces since that article was written could cast matters in a different light.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

When Lives End

The AP (via Captain's Quarter) is now reporting that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed. Her slow death over the next couple of weeks can't possibly be the best we can do.

I hope that we can briefly draw our attention away from the entertaining spectacle of last-minute legal and political maneuvers to really think about what's happening.

I wrote earlier, here, about the strange moral exaltation of inaction. In this case, simply put, once we've concluded that she ought to die, how can anyone believe that this is the right way for it to happen? Perhaps in this case it's true that she can't suffer, but the same decision is made every day by and for people who can and do.

Some would refer to starvation or pneumonia as a "natural" death, as though that somehow makes it a good thing. Others would call it not interfering in "God's will," as though any human action is always wrong. Though the two might vehemently disagree on most issues, they both make the same deeply misanthropic mistake, fundamentally severing Man from what they hold sacred -- the first by denying that Man is a part of Nature, the second by denying that Man has a role to play in God's plan.

I don't claim to know whether death is the right choice for Terri Schiavo -- but if it is, I would hope we could show her the same decency we show to animals and serial killers and make the end quick and humane. With apologies to Eugene Volokh no one deserves less.

The Conservative Idealists II

It may be about time to retire the overused, underdefined term "neo-conservative" and replace it with the more descriptive term "conservative idealist".

No doubt this is the George W. Bush our grandchildren will study in school. But when they study the transformation he underwent after our national tragedy a name that will surely come up will be that of the quintessential neo-con, Paul Wolfowitz. Two and a half years ago, Bill Keller wrote America's introduction to Paul Wolfowitz in the N.Y. Times magazine section. The article makes fascinating reading with the advantage of hindsight. Keller writes:
The third striking thing about Wolfowitz is an optimism about America's ability to build a better world. He has an almost missionary sense of America's role. In the current case, that means a vision of an Iraq not merely purged of cataclysmic weaponry, not merely a threat disarmed, but an Iraq that becomes a democratic cornerstone of an altogether new Middle East. Given the fatalism that prevails about this most flammable region of the world, that is an audacious optimism indeed.
Way back in September of 2002, six months before the Iraq War began in earnest, Paul Wolfowitz said:
I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Iraq, properly managed -- and it's going to take a lot of attention, and the stakes are enormous, much higher than Afghanistan -- that it really could turn out to be, I hesitate to say it, the first Arab democracy, or at least the first one except for Lebanon's brief history.
With delicious understatement, Keller notes, "This is a notion regarded with deep skepticism at the State Department."

One more last quote from Keller's article which seems apropos to Wolfowitz's potential new role at the World Bank:
"What I think distinguishes him, and it's very alarming to some people, is that there is this spirit in Washington that foreign policy consists of managing problems," said Charles H. Fairbanks, a Johns Hopkins political scientist who has known Wolfowitz since college. "Paul Wolfowitz is really free of that tendency."
I can't think of a better endorsement for the job.

The Conservative Idealists I

It may be about time to retire the overused, underdefined term "neo-conservative" and replace it with the more descriptive term "conservative idealist".

In 1987, then Vice-President Bush famously derided "the vision thing." The words would haunt his presidency, a concise reminder of how he felt short of his predecessor. Apparently, the lesson was learned well. Since September 11th, the second President Bush has given a number of stirring, idealistic speeches displaying a new vision of America's role in the world -- as the most powerful of the free nations with the consequent moral responsibility to help spread that freedom to those less fortunate.
Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice, made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life. (Applause.)

Steadfast in our purpose, we now press on. We have known freedom's price. We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory.

Americans are a resolute people who have risen to every test of our time. Adversity has revealed the character of our country, to the world and to ourselves. America is a strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.

Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity.
Has any Democrat since Kennedy spoken like this on foreign policy and meant it?

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Seductive Vice of Inaction

In honor of Paul Wolfowitz's recent nomination to head the world bank, I'd like to recall possibly his most important contribution to the national debate: considering the cost of inaction. You will still hear arguments about the Iraq War asking if the direct costs of the war (the lives of our soldiers and of Iraqis, the destruction of homes and infrastructure and the staggering monetary cost) are made worthwhile by the apparent benefits (a democratic Iraq, moves towards democracy throughout the Middle East). These arguments typically ignore the enormous toll exacted by the status quo (the cost of maintaining the "no fly" zones, the human and propaganda costs of the sanctions, the corrupting influence of Oil-for-Food kickbacks international organizations, payments to Palestinian suicide bombers, Baathist atrocities beyond counting) -- the cost of doing nothing.

I think this natural creep back towards ignoring the costs of inaction stems from the basic principle that we're responsible for the consequences of our actions, but that we get a pass when we stand aside and do nothing.

Occasionally, this principle itself is debated, as with "good Samaritan" laws, brought to national attention by the final episode of Seinfeld. But the corrupting influence of this principle, which seems to stem more from fear of blame (or legal liability?) than from any moral judgement, extends through every kind of issue.

On abortion, some find a negative responsibility not to interfere with even a fertilized egg in utero, but find no analogous positive responsibility with respect to "extra" embryos during IVF. In our prisons, we are properly outraged when a guard abuses a prisoner, but turn a blind eye to over a hundred thousand prisoners raped each year by other prisoners. We agonize over the death penalty, but see no problem when serial killers are murdered in prison in far less time than most prisoners spend on death row. Nowhere is this principle more deeply embedded than in our medical system: First, Do No Harm. We forbid assisted suicide, but permit terminal patients to refuse treatment (or have it refused on their behalf), resulting in horrible deaths and needless suffering. Letting a patient slowly drown from pneumonia or starve without a feeding tube is accepted practice, but a simple, painless injection is murder.

With power and with freedom come responsibility. The temptation to shirk that responsibility by casting our inaction as non-interference is as old as civilization -- Pilate washing his hands, the Priest and the Levite put to shame by the Good Samaritan -- but so are the moral injunctions to resist.

We seem to be approaching another national debate on euthanasia, between Million Dollar Baby and the Terri Schiavo case. Has the time come for a national discussion of the supposed virtue of doing nothing?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Whither Baseball?

The latest “top story” on the cable news networks are now covering the Congressional hearings on steroid use in professional sports. In principle, there are all sorts of good topics here -- where to draw the line on acceptable "training" techniques; the moral responsibilities of role models; whether any of this is an appropriate topic for Congressional hearings and federal regulation at all -- but good luck finding any of that on the news channels. The main topic here is Canseco's tell-all book and the he-said/she-said denials of the other players, the bigger the celebrity the better. George Will is a notable exception. He can always be counted on to care passionately when baseball is involved: here and more recently here. The main difference, of course, is that he hasn't just discovered the issue this week, and won't forget about it in another twelve hours when there's a new revelation about Michael Jackson's pajamas.

Major League Baseball is now at a crossroads. Will major league baseball continue to be a part of our national pastime, part of a continuum with every little league program and weekend softball team in America, or will it become just another part of the entertainment industry, along with surgically enhanced supermodels and choreographed wrestling matches?

Countdown to the Filibuster Nuke...

It's official. (here via Right Rainbow)

President Bush has picked one of his previously blocked judicial nominees, and renominated him: It's William Meyers.

The battle lines are drawn. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and something called Earth Justice seem to be leading the charge against him. The accusation is that he's too anti-environment. Other organizations in the tent on the left like the NAACP and NARAL also oppose his nomination, but their arguments are based on the implications of his views on the environment to their own issues. A fascinating list of all the organizations opposing him, via the People for the American Way, here.

Meanwhile, Democrats decrying the hystrionically-titled "nuclear" option have finally made their threats concrete. The Washington Times reports: "Democrats yesterday said they will halt all Senate business except essential operations and national defense if Republicans use the "nuclear option" to unclog President Bush's judicial nominees.

Get a bucket of popcorn -- our elected representatives are about to earn their keep and provide us with some much needed entertainment. After all, our half dozen 24-hr "news" networks need something to cover after the Trial of the Millenium winds down.

Rebuild It, Don't Gild It?

James Panero at Arma Virumque makes a very persuasive argument for rebuilding the Twin Towers. (See also Deroy Murdock's piece in the National Review. Money quote: "Had savages destroyed the Empire State Building, the Capitol, or the White House, the restoration of those icons surely would be underway." It certainly would.)

In the end it boils down to the difference between marring the greatest skyline in the world with a permament monument to terrorism -- a daily reminder to every commuter that they should be afraid to go to work -- and an obstinate refusal to let thugs with box cutters permanently change the landscape of a city we love.

On the other hand, I don't live in the NY area anymore. The sight of the radically changed skyline post-9/11 is dramatically shocking when I go back to visit my family, but I might feel profoundly different if I'd seen it every day for the last three and a half years.

So why doesn't someone ask New Yorkers what they think?

Another Cool Beirut Picture

Check out this rotatable picture from the middle of the protest in Beirut. (via instapundit)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Filibuster Insanity.

Apparently, it wasn't just Robert Byrd.

Power Line reports that in a recent mass-mailing from Howard Dean, again framing the filibuster as a "Free Speech" issue:
Today Harry Reid and the Democratic Senators asked us, the American people, to help them preserve the right of our elected representatives to speak their mind on the floor of the U.S. Senate. We have to act. Sign this petition, which we will deliver to every U.S. Senator, asking them to protect the right to free speech in the Senate.

All of this is entertaining enough. But here's a point that had slipped my mind (via Right Rainbow) -- except in episodes of the West Wing, Senators no longer stand up in the Senate and speak while exercising this "free speech" right. Thanks to a gentleman's agreement (dating back to the '70's?) they now merely inform the leadership of their intention to filibuster, and everyone politely accepts this.

Go back and read the quote from Howard Dean's letter again -- and remember, we're talking about the right of a Senator to nod his head at the leadership and prevent a vote from taking place, no debate required.

Why Do They Hate Us? Libertarians, that is.

A guy could start to get a complex.

First there was this piece in the American Conservative, titled "Marxism of the Right". (Thanks to Mark Coffey at Decision '08 for pointing this one out.) Robert Locke presents an extreme parody of libertarians, defends it by claiming it's what every libertarian secretly believes, and then proceeds to pummel this strawman roundly about the head. For a good laugh, skip down to the last few paragraphs where he pokes fun at his strawman's naivete in not understanding the role of government in securing our rights.

One silly article lampooning the small-government contingent of the GOP's big tent isn't that shocking -- particularly coming in such a conservative rag. Republicans were returned to power last fall, and it's natural there'd be some jockeying between the different wings of the party. We can't do everything at once -- the government was deliberately set up that way.

But now we have this piece at Opinion Journal. It's playfully titled, "Party On! Do Libertarians have more fun?" Perhaps I'm just primed by Locke's piece a couple of weeks ago, but the relentless picture of the selfish, hedonistic b*stard painted in this piece seems rather extreme. Unlike Locke's piece, this one is clearly at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, I did a triple-take at the description of the libertarian as "A conservative with an unhealthy preoccupation with sex." I think most Americans given that description would expect a discussion of the religious right. Julia Gorin goes on with a few more descriptions: "A Republican with a wild side." -- "An amoral Republican" -- "Someone who thinks he should get a medal for being home in time for dinner and helping the kids with homework regardless of what the lower part of his anatomy was doing earlier in the day."

I don't want to read too much into what was certainly meant to be humorous (and at times, was), however, she goes on to cite several bloggers with similarly dismissive attitudes towards small-government conservatives.

So, finally, the question is: Is this just jockeying for position with the Big Tent, or could this be the beginning of a rightward lurch that could spell disaster for the GOP in the midterms next year?

Random Thought of the Day

Little Green Footballs notes the convergence of American naval forces on the Middle East, including three carrier groups and half a dozen amphibious ships.

Speculation there is over the possibility of using them to keep the pressure on Syria, with respect to the Lebanese pullout, or on Iran, with respect to nuclear proliferation.

It's just a random thought, but, wouldn't it be interesting if they were actually headed for Sudan?

(This is just a random thought -- I don't really expect us to be invading anybody in the near future.)

Putting Numbers in Perspective

In the era of trillion-dollar debts and million-man marches, sometimes big numbers can lose meaning in the absence of context.

I was elated yesterday at the unbelievably large crowds -- over a million people -- supporting democracy in Beiruit. Today, Arthur Chrenkoff puts this number into its proper context:
First off, we've had the Hizbollah, pro-Syrian, pro-government rally, which according to various estimates attracted somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people to the center of Beirut.
Now, we have an opposition, anti-Syrian, anti-Government rally, with anywhere between 800,000 and 1.3 million people in the streets.
Lebanon's total population is 3.7 million.
And in the U.S. we were proud when 60% of our population managed to vote!

This also adds context to protesor Marwan Kayrouz's response to a reporter's concerns about possible civil war with: "Who is going to fight who? All the factions are here." (via GlennReynolds.com)

I had taken that to mean "All the factions are represented here." Perhaps he meant it literally.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Thoughts about Embryos, Part I

In any moral issue, the question "what is this called" is never the Right Question, and a debate about what terms to use is equivalent to the part of foreign policy negotiations where we work out what size flags to put next to the seats. In contemporary politics, it's become a way to appear to take positions and debate issues, without having to actually do anything of the kind. This isn't what I thought I was getting into when I eagerly opened up Charles Krauthammer's recent column on the Washington Post's Op-Ed page. I've grown accustomed over the last year or two to agreeing with most of what he writes, or at least finding a well-thought-out position that I don't agree with - his pieces on foreign policy have become essential reading for me. This week, his topic is an amalgam of stem-cell research, cloning, embryos, and an apparent "gotcha" on congressional democrats.

Let's start with the gotcha -- during this year's State of the Union, President Bush reiterated his desire to "ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or for body parts." There was applause for this principle on both sides of the aisle. "Aha!" cries Krauthammer, but many congressional Democrats support exactly that. In research cloning, a somatic cell is returned to totipotence, effectively making it an embryonic cell. Therefore, he says, a human embryo has been created. And thus supporters of research cloning who applauded the no-new-embryo's line are hypocrites.(*)

Some readers will probably be nodding their heads at this logic and yelling "touché" at their pro-research-cloning friends. Others will be crying "foul!" at the notion that a single embryonic cell constitutes a human embryo. They will point out perfectly good terms like blastocyst and zygote, and claim that it's not an embryo until it's implanted, or until 14 days post-conception, or something like that. Behold the Orwellian arena of argument by redefining terms. Rather than make an argument against a moral distinction your opponent is making, just call the two things he wants to distinguish by the same term, call him a hypocrite and claim victory. ("But you already agreed that embryos shouldn't be used this way - and this is an embryo too!") This is just the flip side of the faux argument by defining different classes with science-based distinctions and claiming victory. ("That's not a baby, it's an eight-month fetus.") In both cases, the debater has sidestepped the part where he actually makes an argument supporting his position - that a single cell should be treated with the same respect as a complex organism or that an organism's rights are a matter of location (the only distinction between a one-month premature baby and an eight-month fetus).

So count me among those crying “Foul!” on Mr. Krauthammer - he knows perfectly well that these congressional Democrats aren't being hypocrites, they just have a different understanding of the issue than he does. He knows when they rose to applaud they didn't hear what he heard, when the president said "that human embryos are not created" they didn't hear "that no somatic cells are rendered totipotent." They see an important moral distinction between a half-dozen cells and a four-week embryo with the beginnings of a nervous system. He's welcome to disagree, even to believe that their view is incoherent -- he might even be right. But having a mistaken or different belief on an issue is absolutely not the same thing as coming to the debate in bad faith. There's been far too much use of the important and meaningful terms, "hypocrite" and "liar" in the past several years when what the speaker (or writer) really means is "someone who disagrees with me" or "someone who is wrong." And when the two sides in an important public policy debate refuse to understand what the words mean to those on the other side, nothing good can come of it.

(Coming soon, Parts II and III... in which I actually talk about the issue of research cloning and stem-cell research)

(*) In fairness, he actually writes, "The Democrats were oblivious to this contradiction." -- and never uses the word hypocrite, but he does simply assume that their applause indicates support for what he wants the declaration to mean, not what we all know they took it to mean.

UPDATE: Some discussion of the op-ed which spawned this at Of Cabbages and Kings. Note especially the piece it references from Slate, with reporting on the recent meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics which prompted Charles Krauthammer's piece.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Robert Byrd's remarks -- the Free Speech angle

The blogosphere erupted last week over remarks by Senator Byrd (D-WV) comparing procedural changes in judicial appointments to the Nazi takeover of Germany.

The lunacy of this comparison, and it's rank hypocracy, as well as Byrd's most famous use of the filibuster have all been noted at length.

But it seems like one of the most dangerous parts of his speech has been ignored. Go back and read the speech again -- or check out how his own official web site characterizes the controversy:
Senator Byrd delivered the remarks below warning the Senate and the American people about a procedural effort being considered by some Senators to shut off debate and shut down minority voices and opinions.   Byrd believes that such an effort strikes at the very heart of the Senate -- the freedom of speech and debate.

Did you get that? The right of 41 senators to block any action of Congress is a Freedom of Speech issue -- not one of constitutional powers.

Now on just this one reference, you might think I'm making this up -- that he was just talking about the freedom of debate on the floor of the Senate... so a few more quotes directly from his speech:
The uniquely American concept of the independent individual, asserting his or her own views, proclaiming personal dignity through the courage of free speech will, forever, have been blighted.
Generations of men and women have lived, fought and died for the right to map their own destiny, think their own thoughts, and speak their minds.   If we start, here, in this Senate, to chip away at that essential mark of freedom...

In the eloquent, homespun words of that illustrious, obstructionist, Senator Smith, “ Liberty is too precious to get buried in books.   Men ought to hold it up in front of them every day of their lives, and say, ‘I am free – – to think – – to speak.   My ancestors couldn’t.   I can.   My children will."

He couldn't be clearer.

The relentless march of Orwellian redefinitions of the First Amendment's protection of free speech continues. We're routinely being told that free speech doesn't apply to things that are offensive (from the right if it's obscene or the left if it's bigoted), or to speech that costs money to produce (does a 7 cent photocopy count?) or most recently to political speech in general. Others stand logic on its head and claim that public criticism of their views is a violation of their right to free speech. But Senator Byrd's comments are the first I've heard of a new redefinition of what free speech is about.

We've all heard that the Second Amendment doesn't really mean individuals have a right to keep and bear arms -- it's about the government's right to maintain an armed national guard. Are we about to start hearing that the First Amendment doesn't really mean that individuals have a right to speak without government interference -- it's about the right of government officials to debate the issues? Can we imagine a day when a politician argues that the First Amendment protects his right to discuss the issues with other elected officials without having private citizens chiming in with their own opinions?

Okay, no, I don't really think Senator Byrd's comments were a conscious attempt to lay the groundwork for a claim that free speech was really intended to protect debate by elected officials, not discussion of issues and candidates by private citizens. But then I still have trouble believing that the Supreme Court actually ruled that first amendment protections for political speech are less stringent than those on non-political speech. I'm not advocating more stringent pornography laws -- but I always thought our society tolerated truly offensive speech because of the risk of a slippery slope toward restricting our national political debate. What ever happened to that notion?

UPDATE: via Power Line -- Apparently this wasn't just Robert Byrd. The Power Line crew has received an urgent action message from Howard Dean. Money quote:
Today Harry Reid and the Democratic Senators asked us, the American people, to help them preserve the right of our elected representatives to speak their mind on the floor of the U.S. Senate. We have to act. Sign this petition, which we will deliver to every U.S. Senator, asking them to protect the right to free speech in the Senate.
Good grief. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Defining Moments

For my parent's generation, a defining political moment was the Kennedy Assassination. Ask any of them where he was when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, and each will have a story for you -- not just of what they happened to be doing at the time, but of how it affected everyone, changed everything. September 11th was obviously another such moment, where for a moment nearly all of America was drawn together in a shared emotional experience of shock and grief. The political clarity of the moment was intense, putting the lunatic fringes at both extremes into harsh perspective as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed "the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians" and Michael Moore commented that he couldn't understand why New York and D.C. were targeted when people there had voted against Bush.

For me, another such moment was the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9th, 1989. I can still remember where I was, and how I felt. It was my first year of college, and I was just beginning the slow shift from the unquestioning liberalism of my youth to the naïve libertarianism of my post-college years. I was back at my high school that week, hosting the return visit of a group of Russian exchange students. I can remember wondering what this moment meant to them -- raised with a very different understanding of the world, though I had neither the nerve nor the clarity to ask. For myself, I can recall playing over the sequence of events in my mind -- imagining what it must have felt like for a million East Germans packing up their lives in their station wagons and heading to Hungary, nominally on vacation, only to cross the now-open border into Austria and thence to West Germany. Recalling the peaceful surrender of the communist governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, I was in awe at the peaceful ending of a war that had always loomed over me. It had been an article of faith for me as a child that if The War came, I'd never even know it. It's hard to explain to someone even ten years younger how certain I was that I could be vaporized in a nuclear explosion at any time. Throughout the Gorbachev years, chinks of doubt began to work their way into that fear -- and when the Berlin wall fell and still the Russian tanks didn't roll in, that fear exploded.

Between the "orange revolution" we've just witnessed in the Ukraine, the miraculous events in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the revival of the democracy movement in Lebanon, these memories have been powerfully stirred recently. It's hard not to wonder if yet another certainty about the world is about to fall. Over my lifetime we've seen a world in which most people lived under oppression transformed into one in which a slim majority now live in free nations, and every indication is that the vast majority of the world will live in freedom within the turning of another generation.

Friends and family on the left often ask me how I can support President Bush's foreign policy. I have trouble understanding how anyone, especially anyone professing progressive liberal ideals, could oppose his policies. Looking back over the last fifteen years, I think that my beliefs -- my ideals -- have remained constant. It's just that I've lost some of my cynicism (while retaining my healthy skepticism -- hat tip to Penn and Teller for this useful distinction). In 1987 when Ronald Reagan stood in Berlin, pointed at Checkpoint Charlie and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." I was right there with the political left -- I understood that Reagan was being childish, all this talk about "evil empires" and cartoonish black-and-white morality was risible. Today, hearing Bush speak passionately about freedom as the birthright of every human being in every nation, I am instead moved. We're living the progressive idealistic dream of my youth - now that the Cold War is over, America is proclaiming her support for freedom everywhere, and actually meaning it. It's a cliche that Democrats are idealists and Republicans are cynics -- my experience has been entirely the other way around. I didn't become a conservative by growing out of my idealism - I became a conservative by growing out of my faux-sophisticated cynicism.

The fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of communism, changed how I see the world and what I imagined to be possible. In my better moments, I imagine a multitude of cynical young idealists in this country with the image of a burkha-clad woman's ink-stained finger seared into their consciousness, just as the image of Germans with hammers pounding the Berlin wall into tourist souvenirs was seared into mine. I doubt we can even imagine what miracles the next twenty years may bring.

UPDATE: I think by now the images of ink-stained fingers have been overwhelmed by the image of the human tsunami in Beirut. This is beyond incredible.