Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Myth of Unconditioned Rationality: "Wise Latino" Errors

Republicans are trying to make political capital out of Sotomayor's unfortunate "wise Latino" remark. They are creating or implying or giving aid and comfort to the fallacious notion of a pure universal rationality that is uninfluenced by the specifics of individual life history and background. The unconditioned mind so envisioned functions like a computer programmed with sophisticated software that enables the brain to apply strict rules to facts in light of the text of the Constitution and its court-sanctioned interpretation over the years. Thus unbiased conclusions that yield original intent or the real meaning of the historic document are enabled. The underlying assumption appears to be that this capacity is uniquely and superbly present in white Republican males.

The notion of an unconditioned judicial rationality will not bear up under even cursory scrutiny. The perpetrators of this politically-convenient myth know or should know better when not politically motivated to make grandstanding points for their relevant constituencies back home.

The fact is that our mental framework is shaped by numerous factors beginning with genetic endowment, including gender, and continuing with historically contingent specifics of race, class, religion, region, time, place, and culture, plus the details of family and individual life history and experience as interpreted by our available and appropriated conceptual categories, knowledge, moral norms passions, commitments, aims, and--yes-empathy.

To state or imply or assume otherwise is to embrace a notion of ahistorical reason so fatuous and indefensible that only those can deny it who are so invincibly ignorant and blind to what most people instinctively know when it is not convenient to avoid. Can anyone with minimal intelligence and discernment be that impervious to plain truth? Nah!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking News: Sotomayor Questions Senators

In my vision Judge Sotomayor gets to question Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee, not about the finer details of Constitutional law or the technicalities of specific cases but about judicial hermeneutics, i. e., principles of Constitutional interpretation.

This would take place after she was given a potion making her the baddest bitch in town.

What a fun day that would be!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Getting Sick Enough to Vomit: The Discipline of a Good Depression

Sometimes a blog is so timely that it needs to be repeated periodically, especially when it seems equally as relevant today as it was last September.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We all know that you feel better after you vomit, but nobody wants to get that sick.

It is horrible to think about it, and I feel guilty for even letting the idea surface. But I will proceed anyway. Would a serious economic depression be good for us in the long run? It might.

Could a good depression revive the prudence, discipline, and caution that the Great Depression reinforced in the generation represented by my parents and grandparents.? If so, America might be the better for it.

In recent decades we have developed some toxic cultural habits--runaway consumerism, an unrestrained self-indulgent hedonism promoted by corporate advertising, disdain for delayed gratification, greed for bigger houses, cars, and the latest gadgets, a pattern of living beyond our means, a careless attitude toward debt aided and abetted by the easy availability of credit and credit cards, failure to consider the consequences of our reckless extravagance, and the like.

To revive an old phrase, the "Protestant ethic" has died. Even many of the churches that are growing rapidly are preaching a gospel of prosperity that a shocked Calvin would have abhorred. Paradoxically, it was the disciplined style of life that valued work and thrift as a divinely-approved virtues that helped generate the widespread prosperity subsequent generations enjoyed. In capitalism individual self-interest was supposed to produce universal welfare. Sadly we find in the current generation a bastardized form of culture that lacks the self-restraint and prudence of the stringent ethic of the past and retains only the desire and expectation of the unlimited possession of material goods in a life of self-indulgent gratification.

No, I don't wish another Great Depression on myself, my children, and grandchildren along with the whole lot of us. I just wish that we could recover the ethic strengthened by it for a generation badly in need of repentance and newness of life.

But sometimes we need to get very sick before we can vomit and feel better.

Difference between Obama and the Pope?

The Pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra.

PS. Obama apparently also has the power to pass his
ad judicium perfectum on to others, e. g., Timothy Geithner also seems to possess it when he is sitting down, i. e., in the chair (cathedra).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why We Can't Have a Really Good Democracy

Monarchy is the best form of government,
if you can find a good King. Aristotle

The capacity of justice makes democracy
possible, the tendency toward injustice,
makes it necessary. Reinhold Niebuhr

Democracy is the worst form of government
except for all those others that have been tried.
Winston Churchhill

It is impossible to have a good democracy in the United States, i. e., one that is prosperous, well-ordered with liberty, equality, and justice for all, fully protective of minority rights, and that serves all appropriately.

The country is too large, too diverse racially, religiously, ethnically, regionally, economically, and ideologically to be a melting pot in which an informed moral commitment to the most noble values determines policy by way of a political process appropriately organized to achieve them.

It might be sufficient simply to quote Churchill, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But I will proceed.

The worst corruption of democracy is that intensely focused parochial interests are able to distort the process to achieve narrow ends offensive to justice and the welfare of all, especially the poor and powerless. They may be regional (agricultural subsidies), ideological (reactionary religion), topical (NRA), or economic (well-funded corporate lobbyists). Since Congressional politicians are elected regionally, their views are frequently shaped by interests and perspectives peculiar to that constituency rather than the welfare of the whole.

Consider, for example, how the narrow interests represented by the gun lobby (NRA) are fanatically devoted to a specific issue, whose operatives watch every political move in detail searching of even the slightest deviation from their absolutist dogma. They are armed sufficiently with money and backed by enough members and regional ideological preferences to enable them to influence legislation in disproportionate fashion. Pharmaceutical and drug companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the Israeli lobby, the military-industrial-university complex, and others illustrate the principle that intensely focused restricted interests with money and organization can be victorious over much larger constituencies whose concerns are broadly distributed but lacking concentrated focus on these specific ones, especially when this is joined with general apathy and ignorance of issues and political processes in general that do not concern them directly.

At this moment Congressional factions are threatening to defy recommendations of the military, the Secretary of Defense, and the President that the F22 fighter is not needed and should not be funded. Why? Because the defense industries have seen to it that the manufacturers and suppliers are scattered around the country, enabling regional interests to supercede national interest. The same folks will condemn deficit spending and a bloated federal budget. Alas, alas! Hooray for American democracy.

Added to this is the dismal state of political dialogue in this country-aided and abetted by talk-show radio, mass instant electronic communication, and 24-hour news channels--that reduces debate to simplistic talking points that have emotional attractiveness for the unwary or analytically unskilled. These appeals are carefully designed with professional public relations assistance, sometimes spiced with deliberate lies or distortions crafted to exploit ignorance and bias. All this is made possible by the fact that multitudes people are too apathetic, too lazy, understandably so bogged down in immediate personal struggles, or so easily duped by their own uncritical, never questioned, base of inherited misinformation, bias, or subtle perfidy.

Let us not forget that in the Electoral College and the Senate, small states have power all out of proportion to the citizens represented in an increasingly urban population. In the Senate, e. g., at the moment this is bad news for health care reform since some of the most powerful Senators are from small states with interests different from where the vast majority of people live. For example, "The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California's 36.7 million -- which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein." For details see:

Pervading all this is a persisting individualism shaped by the early history of the country with its expanding frontier and the necessity of self-reliance, partially explaining why socialism never came to America -- that old standard question.

Countervailing trends are created by changes in cultural consciousness, e. g., on civil rights or gay rights, as well as by crises which do concentrate the attention of large constituencies. Such situations when skillfully organized can potentially exploit kairotic moments ripe and ready for transformative change when sufficiently informed by liberating visions that excite enthusiasm enabled by political mobilization and charismatic leaders and geared to achieve more ideal ends.

Of course, if we all loved justice, freedom, equality, prosperity, and well being for all as much as we loved ourselves, we might be inspired to try and smart enough to succeed in creating the institutions and processes that would produce an ideal democracy. Darn that original sin!

To spell all this out would require a book. My aim has been to make some initial suggestions hinting at why an ideal democracy is impossible under current conditions.

The Folly of Republicans

The reasoning of most Republicans these days on matters of politics and policy is as limp as an overcooked noodle without Viagra.

What really bothers Republicans about Sotomayor's "wise Latino" remark is the suggestion that anyone could be as wise as a white Republican male whose judgment is fully rational and not at all influenced by family history or social context.

Republicans think that interpreting the Constitution is like looking at Mt. Rushmore on a clear day and deciding which is Washington and which is Jefferson.

Never mind how many 5-4 decisions with each faction consisting of the same cluster of Justices, Republicans think Constitutional interpretation can be free of the background and outlook of the interpreters. So shockingly naive is such a view that only a politician or a fundamentalist theologian or a citizen oblivious to the obvious would admit to having it.

Republicans are distrustful of government to do anything right except when it is acting in secret or funneling money to their preferred beneficiaries.

Originalists, including many Republicans, assume there is one settled meaning of the Constitution built in from the beginning, whereas historians know that the Founding Fathers intended to begin an argument which must continue, they being well aware of disagreements among themselves and the many ambiguities, complexities, trade-offs, and the like generated in the concrete realities of life and history.