Friday, July 01, 2005

The Supremes break up

Rumors were going around about Justice O'Connor retiring, but it was still a shock to see the screaming headline. Man, oh, man. We all knew Rehnquist was on the verge of retirement. But the fight over Rehnquist's spot was never really a big deal, because the fundamental complexion of the court wouldn't have changed. The Chief Justice is easily the worst justice on the Court, a right-wing, results-oriented hack with a particularly atrocious view of defendants' rights. He's a conservative judicial activist, and his replacement, whomever he or she is, can't be much worse.

O'Connor's retirement is a completely different matter. She is *the* critical swing vote on a myriad of cases ranging from states' rights to 1st Amendment issues to abortion. O'Connor's not really a "moderate," but political labels could never completely describe federal judges, who are guided by judicial philosophy and other concerns.[1] But her judicial philosophy, which is fundamentally pragmatic, moderated her conservative politics. In law school, some of the more intellectually rigorous types (there were a few who actually cared about judicial philosophy) would dog on O'Connor for her unprincipled, ad hoc opinions. True, she belonged to no well-defined school of jurisprudence, but in this Court, that's preferable to the hypocrisy of would-be originalist Antonin Scalia. O'Connor's always grappling with the facts of a case. Her chief legacy will probably remain Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the case that reaffirmed and refined Roe v. Wade, where she carved out areas various boundaries for state infringement of a fundamental right under an "undue burden" test. Parental notification and 24-hour waiting period laws are okay under this rule.

Personally, I find the entire line of "right to privacy" cases to be rather sloppily argued, including Roe and Casey. But the court isn't academia, and when you need to carve out a compromise solution with real life consequences, you can count on O'Connor to draft an opinion with a narrow scope. So even though she has a legislator's temperament for Frankenstein law, O'Connor tries to limit the reach of Supreme Court decisions, which, on balance, is a good thing, regardless of what the composition of the court is. Judicial restraint is usually a good thing.

O'Connor's routinely described as the most powerful woman in America. That's probably right. She's the most powerful figure in the Court simply because she's the justice that both sides often end up vying for. Stories abound about how justicies try to craft first drafts of opinions specifically tailored to Sandra Day's taste to try to win her over. Her late-breaking swing into the majority in Casey essentially saved Roe v. Wade. But should Roe v. Wade be saved at all costs? That seems to be the standard progressive position. A pro-Roe justice has just retired, as some may take nothing less than O'Connor II.

That's a bad idea. Dubya owes his base, big time, and if he wants to wait until Rehnquist goes to nominate a wingnut activist, he's still not going to use this slot to nominate anyone who may potentially become David Souter II. I'd be happy with Alberto Gonzales, the current Attorney General. Or guys like Luttig or McDonnell, who at least sound like principled conservatives. Why have a one-issue litmus test when the Supreme Court rules on so many matters of great importance? And on non-abortion issues, Justice Kennedy has become a swing vote himself, so not all is lost.

Someone made the argument that the progressives have lost their political instincts because they don't ever try to make their case to the public anymore. Instead, they go to courts. I agree. Abortion should've always been a congressional matter, and had it remained there, I expect that progressives would have been kept on their toes, organizing and mobilizing to insure the right to choose, rather than sit back and let the one swing justice decide the matter. O'Connor wasn't an abortion rights true believer. Court watchers think she reaffirmed Roe because she was loath to overrule precedent, especially one of defining as Roe. Abortion rights advocates won't be so lucky next time.

[1] Two recently handed-down opinions, both controversial, show the inadequacy of political labels. The moderate-liberal bloc struck down a state's legalization of medicinal marijuana due to their expansive reading of the commerce clause (which gives Congress broad powers to regulate commercial activities). Then that moderate-liberal bloc (give or take one or two justices) then expanded the government's eminent domain powers, to the consternation of many liberals on the lefty blogs I frequent. "Liberal" and "conservative" really don't fit the reasoning behind those decisions. Bush will nominate a "conservative", but it's possible his nominee will be governed by something other than just wingnuttery. I'd settle for a principled state's rights guy. Someone who won't betrays his principles for political expedience a la Bush v. Gore.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Book meme

Was kinda slacking off on picking up the baton left by the sometimes insane, sometimes brilliant Del Angelo, but now that Matt Prigge has tagged me with this meme, all the more pressure to come up with a few perfunctory words.

1. Total Number of Books I Owned

Anyone who can answer this question with any kind of precision clearly needs help. My best guess is that I own about 800 books. About 4,000 if you include comics.

2. Last book I bought

I believe it's Austerlitz by the late Winfried Sebald from Abebooks online, though I can't be sure. Man, it's been a while since I bought a real book.

3. Last book I read

Besides the NL hold'em chapter in Doyle Brunson's Super System? Erm, The Great Gatsby a second time (the middle chapters contain some of the most exquisite prose in American literature), though I'm sorta working on Wodehouse's Code of the Wooster now. Also always reading random bits of nonfiction, like revisiting passages from Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, which is a very useful general treatise on evolutionary psychology. And I should get crackin' on that borrowed copy of Haruki Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart. The gulf between my reading ambitions and my actual accomplishments remains a constant source of shame.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me

  • The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. This notoriously "difficult" read is, most obviously, a staggering display of literary style. For those who don't know anything about Faulkner's masterpiece: the four chapters of the book are divided into three stream-of-conscious narratives that jump back and forth in time, told from each of the wildly different Compson brothers, Benjy the retard, Quentin the Harvard undergrad romantic (I used to read the Quentin chapter over and over), and Jason the hardened, cynical brute, with the last chapter a Faulknerian requiem to the Old South. But it's Faulkner's soul-shaking genius in expressing my favorite subject, the yearning for something that now only exists in memory, that's at the heart of why The Sound and the Fury is not only my favorite book, but my favorite work of art period. Or, to put it another way (in the booming voice of the movie trailer guy): "In a time of [cultural change]. A world that is [on the verge of vanishing]. Three [brothers] fight for the love of one woman [who happens to be their sister] and that shared memory that haunts each of them. For poor Benjy, she offered love and hope. For the haunted Quentin, she represented all that's noble and pure about his world. For Jason, she was the South corrupted and emasculated. Now! Each must grapple with... Love! Family! Betrayal! And a world they cannot come to terms with! Academy Award winner..." Alternate favorite modernist opus dwelling on the twin themes of time recaptured and love lost: Swann's Way, Marcel Proust; The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.
    Every two years or so, I'd flip open this book to check out something and all of a sudden four hours would've elapsed, and I'd still be totally transfixed in Moore's alternate reality, where superheroes helped Nixon win the Vietnam war only to find themselves the victims of an elaborate conspiracy. As utterly convincing a dystopic (and utopian) vision as you'll find, with all the little details -- a pirate comic-within-the-comic that echoes and foreshadows the narrative proper, excerpts from the first Nite Owl's novel, the "New Frontiersman" (a National Review knockoff) fragments -- coming together in a way that never ceases to amaze and shock, even on the twenty-fifth reading. What makes it the best comic ever, though, is the characterization. Specifically, in twelve 25-page issues, Moore borrows from superhero archetypes and mythology to both comment on those archetypes and create characters that are more flesh-and-blood than superheroes who've survived four hundred issues: Rorschach (the vigilante anti-hero as sexually frustrated Fascist), Nite Owl (a lonely, insecure gadget freak), the Comedian (thug, rapist, would-be-hero?), Ozymandias (liberal-utopian-as-neocon), etc. Even if the six other different levels at which this book operates elude you, Watchmen's a whale of a yarn and a superb read. Alternate amazing comic books that can't work as anything other than as comics: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware; "Days of Future Past," (Uncanny X-Men 141-142) Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

  • The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt.
    I studied political theory in college, and did my thesis on four books by Hannah Arendt, one of great modern political philosophers. This is my favorite work of hers, the best expression of Arendt's political thought and demonstration of her Wusthof-sharp analytical intelligence. In her philosophy treatises, Arendt's categories are too rigid, her strict division of the public and private spheres too draconian and abstract to work. Not the case with Origins. In this more concrete study, Arendt discusses, with her usual clarity and sobriety, the rise of 20th century totalitarian regimes from the ashes of European anti-Semitism, and the philosophical horror these regimes wrought. Arendt's ideas take on greater force here because she's able to explain the consequences of her ideas -- what happens when the sanctity of a wholly private and a wholly public sphere gets annihilated by one another -- by engaging with the real world. An illuminating study that unfortunately remains relevant today. Other favorite political philosophy tracts: The Genealogy of Morals, Frederich Nietzsche; Politics, Aristotle; Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville; The Dialectics of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer.

  • I Lost It At the Movies/Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael & Confessions of a Movie Cultist/American Cinema, Andrew Sarris. The yin and yang of film criticism. Not much to add to Kent Jones' glowing tribute to Sarris, except that more than any other person, he helped turned me on to the "ineffable" cinema of the pantheon gods back when I was a fledgling film buff trying to go through the canon in sixty days (now I know it'll take sixty years to get through everything worth watching). Kael, Sarris' eternal foil, is just a blast to read, and her passion infectious. Like many cinephiles, Kael's the first critic I really got into, but unlike most others, I haven't yet renounced her. Kael, more any other critic, makes the case that one's fresh response to a movie can be as honest and vital as re-watching Rivette thirty times. Caricatured by certain eggheads as a heedless anti-intellectual, I think Kael's personality-oriented approach, whatever its failings, gets one important thing right: she doesn't divorce a movie's surface pleasures from its merits. Other movie criticism books that mean a great deal to me: Negative Space, Manny Farber; A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson; Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary; Foreign Affairs: Nat'l Society of Film Critics' Guide to Foreign Films; Movies and Politics, Jonathan Rosenbaum.

  • The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manner, Savvy & Vice, Phineas Mallod & Jason Tesauro. Because a man cannot survive in this rough and tumble world devoid of such vital skills as superior flaskmanship and jukebox savvy.
Never been much of a tagger. So anyone who wants an excuse for some navel-gazing blogging (is that redundant?), go for it.