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All the News That Was Fit to Print Ten Years Ago

21 May

New York Times:

For instance, while much has been written about the F.B.I.’s first and most influential director, J. Edgar Hoover, and his hunt for communists and his suspicion of the civil rights movement, little attention has been paid to his effort to unmask gays in government and academia.


According to John Cheever, 1948 was ‘the year everybody in the United States was worried about homosexuality’. And nobody was more worried than the federal government, which was rumoured to be teeming with gays and lesbians. One might think that Washington’s attentions would have been focused elsewhere – on the Soviet Union, for example, or on Communist spies – but in 1950, President Truman’s advisers warned him that ‘the country is more concerned about the charges of homosexuals in the government than about Communists.’ The executive branch responded immediately. That year, the State Department fired ‘perverts’ at the rate of one a day, more than twice the figure for suspected Communists. Charges of homosexuality ultimately accounted for a quarter to a half of all dismissals in the State and Commerce Departments, and in the CIA. Only 25 per cent of Joseph McCarthy’s fan letters complained of ‘red infiltration’; the rest fretted about ‘sex depravity’.

The scare lasted from 1947 to the 1970s, and in The Lavender Scare David Johnson estimates that thousands lost their jobs. The men and women charged with rinsing the pink from the Potomac were astonishingly ignorant about their quarry. Senator Clyde Hoey, head of the first congressional inquiry into the threat, had to ask an aide: ‘Can you please tell me, what can two women possibly do?’ Senator Margaret Chase Smith asked one Hoey Committee witness whether there wasn’t a ‘quick test like an X-ray that discloses these things’.

The official justification for the purge was that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could be turned into Soviet spies. But as Johnson points out, investigators never found a single instance of this kind of blackmail during the Cold War. The best they could come up with was a dubious case from before the First World War, when the Russians allegedly used the homosexuality of Austria’s top spy to force him to work for them.

The real justification was even more suspect: gays were social misfits whose pathology made them susceptible to Communist indoctrination. Many conservatives also believed that the Communist Party was a movement of and for libertines, and the Soviet Union a haven of free love and open marriage. Gays, they concluded, couldn’t resist this freedom from bourgeois constraint. Drawing parallels with the decline of the Roman Empire, McCarthy regarded homosexuality as a cultural degeneracy that could only weaken the United States. It was, as one tabloid put it, ‘Stalin’s Atom Bomb’.

How could a nation confronting so many foreign threats allow itself to be sidetracked like this? (This is not just a question for historians: in recent months, Congress has devoted considerable energy to debating gay marriage, while in the last 13 years the US military has fired 55 of its Arabic speakers for being gay; the most recent was uncovered after investigators asked him if he had ever participated in community theatre.) With the Soviets in possession of the bomb and Korea on the march, why was Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, dispatched to Congress to defend his heterosexuality and that of his ‘powder puff diplomats’? Didn’t he have more important things to do than host rowdy gatherings of politicians and journalists that were

reminiscent of ‘stag parties’, featuring copious amounts of Scotch and bourbon, and smiling women ‘whose identity remained undisclosed’. As one senator remarked, ‘It reminded me somewhat of the fraternity rushing season at college.’ Dean Acheson tried to appear as ‘one of the boys’, slapping senators on the back. A journalist reported that ‘his hair was rumpled, his tie awry. The stiff and precise manner and speech which have antagonised many of us had disappeared. He even seemed to have removed the wax from his moustache.’

Johnson’s book is one of the most instructive histories of the domestic Cold War to have appeared in years…

 The rest of the Times piece is actually quite interesting, so make sure to check it out. Just wanting to correct the record a bit.

There’s no business like Shoah business

4 Mar

I’ve been reading Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m hoping to blog about it when I’m done, but for now, I wanted to tell this little story from the book.

In 1966, Anne Marisse, who was playing Tzeitel in Fiddler, was fired after she missed a performance on Rosh Hashanah without, the producers said, giving advance notice. Marisse’s firing proved controversial in the Jewish community. For two reasons: first, because Fiddler was a show about preserving Jewish traditions in the face of the secular (and other) demands of modernity; and second, because Sandy Koufax had refused the previous year to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. One particularly irate man in the Bronx wrote to the producers: “Your ‘show must go on’ regardless…Six million of our people also had a ‘show’ of their own when they marched into gas chambers.”

Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

8 Feb

As some of you may know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”

But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.

If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert.

• • • • •

Dear Douglas Martin:

Many thanks for your wonderful obituary of Bob Dahl, who I knew distantly when I was a grad student in political science at Yale. I believe, however, that there may be an error in the obituary. You write:

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

That definition of politics is commonly understood to be David Easton’s, not Dahl’s. In his 1953 book The Political System Easton said that political science ought to be the study of “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Dahl reviewed Easton’s book in 1955 in the journal World Politics. In that review, Dahl characterized Easton’s view as follows: “Political science is (or, at any rate, ought to be) focused on the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” It is important to note that this is not Dahl’s view; he is merely characterizing Easton’s view. And indeed, he goes onto criticize that view (and the general desire to find a definition of politics or political science) as “curiously metaphysical” in the succeeding paragraphs of his review.

As for the specific phrase that you cite in your obituary—”the process that determines the authoritative allocation of values”—I believe that’s a quote from Karl Deutsch’s textbook Politics and Government, which came out in 1970. You can find the passage here, where he is summarizing a common view of politics. But again I don’t think it’s Dahl’s view.
Corey Robin
Update (February 12)
From today’s New York Times (h/t my mom):
An obituary on Saturday about the political scientist Robert A. Dahl…mistakenly credited a concept to Professor Dahl. The political scientist David Easton — not Professor Dahl — wrote that politics involves “the authoritative allocation of values.”

Freud on Global Warming

18 Dec

Whenever I think about global warming, and our suicidal rush to destroy the planet, I think of these bleak lines of Freud, which he composed after witnessing a similar headlong rush toward destruction in the form of the First World War:

It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that “the goal of all life is death”…

My Life

16 Nov

The Ghost Writer:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

Pretty much.

Jackson Lears on Edward Snowden

19 Jul

I don’t agree with everything in this editor’s note on Edward Snowden by historian and Raritan editor Jackson Lears—I actually think the traditional left/right distinction is still of value and relevance, even on this issue; I’m not so partial to the framers of the Constitution; and I’m not big on calls for restoration, even (especially) a constitutional restoration of the framers’ vision (Seth Ackerman’s views here are closer to my own)—but on the fundamental question of the surveillance state I could not be in more agreement. Besides, reading anything by Jackson is always a treat. So check it out. And then subscribe to Raritan. It’s one of the best journals around.

The Hayek-Pinochet Connection: A Second Reply to My Critics

25 Jun

In my last post, I responded to three objections to my article “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children.” In this post I respond to a fourth regarding the connection between Friedrich von Hayek and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Though my comments on that connection took up a mere three sentences in my article, they’ve consumed an extraordinary amount of bandwidth among my libertarian critics. At Bleeding Hearts Libertarians, Kevin Vallier repeatedly accuses me of “smearing” Hayek with the Pinochet connection:

When Hayek was eighty he said that Pinochet was an improvement on Allende. This was a serious mistake in judgment, but it is not significant for Hayek’s body of work in any way. Why would it be?

Libertarian journalist Julian Sanchez says, “I don’t think anyone denies that was a grotesque mistake but…what? Hayek isn’t Jesus? Unsure why we’re supposed to care.” And again: “I mean, maybe Hayek was a shit human being. Let’s suppose. Still. Why do I care?”

While Sanchez and Vallier concede that Hayek was wrong on Pinochet, much of the libertarian commentariat at Bleeding Hearts do not. Here’s a representative remark:

I am now going to utter what some have been thinking: perhaps Hayek was right. 190 units of evil is better than 191 units of evil (if there were any such thing)….Let me affirm it loud and clear: Pinochet was better than Allende.

The claims of my libertarian critics boil down to these: The Pinochet connection is little more than Hayek saying Pinochet was better than Allende. That was a bad call (though some of these professors of liberty aren’t sure), but Hayek was 80 when he made it. His political judgment was clouded not by ideology but age. (Last summer, Vallier even broached the issue, in this context, of Hayek’s “important mental decline.”) So who cares? To raise the Pinochet connection is a smear, a smear so low I should be banned from Crooked Timber.

Let’s take these one at a time.


Hayek only said that Pinochet was better than Allende

This is absurd. The Hayek-Pinochet file is so extensive that I could only give it the barest mention in my Nation piece. Here’s the brief version of the story; all supporting evidence can be found in these five posts and the links therein.

Hayek first visited Pinochet’s Chile in 1977, when he was 78. Amnesty International had already provided him with ample evidence of Pinochet’s crimes—much to his annoyance—but he went anyway. He met with Pinochet and other government officials, who he described as “educated, reasonable, and insightful men.” According to the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Hayek

told reporters that he talked to Pinochet about the issue of limited democracy and representative government….He said that in his writings he showed that unlimited democracy does not work because it creates forces that in the end destroy democracy. He said that the head of state listened carefully and that he had asked him to provide him with the documents he had written on this issue.

Hayek complied with the dictator’s request. He had his secretary send a draft of what eventually became chapter 17—“A Model Constitution”—of the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty. That chapter includes a section on “Emergency Powers,” which defends temporary dictatorships when “the long-run preservation” of a free society is threatened. “Long run” is an elastic phrase, and by free society Hayek doesn’t mean liberal democracy. He has something more particular and peculiar in mind: “that the coercive powers of government are restricted to the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct, and cannot be used for the achievement of particular purposes.” That last phrase is doing a lot of the work here: Hayek believed, for example, that the effort to secure a specific distribution of wealth constituted the pursuit of a particular purpose. So the threats to a free society might not simply come from international or civil war. Nor must they be imminent. As other parts of the text make clear, those threats could just as likely come from creeping social democracy at home. If the visions of Gunnar Myrdal and John Kenneth Galbraith were realized, Hayek writes, it would produce “a wholly rigid economic structure which…only the force of some dictatorial power could break.”

Hayek came away from Chile convinced that an international propaganda campaign had been unfairly waged against the Pinochet regime (and made explicit comparison to the campaign being waged against South Africa’s apartheid regime). He set about to counter that campaign.

He immediately wrote a report lambasting human rights critics of the regime and sought to have it published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The editor of this market-friendly newspaper refused, fearing that it would brand Hayek as “a second Chile-Strauss.” (Franz Josef Strauss was a right-wing German politician who had visited Chile in 1977 and met with Pinochet. His views were roundly repudiated by both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Germany.) Hayek was incensed. He broke off all relations with the paper, explaining that if Strauss had indeed been “attacked for his support for Chile he deserves to be congratulated for his courage.”

The following year, Hayek wrote to the London Times, “I have not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.” (This is the statement that Vallier believes exhausts the contents of Hayek’s Pinochet file.)

In 1981, Hayek returned to Chile. The Pinochet regime had recently adopted a new constitution, which it named after The Constitution of Liberty. During this visit, El Mercurio interviewed him again and asked him what “opinion, in your view, should we have of dictatorships?” Demonstrating that he was fully aware of the dictatorial nature of the Pinochet regime, Hayek replied:

As long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally, I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking in liberalism. My personal impression…is that in Chile…we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government….during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers.

(The transition Hayek imagines here would not occur for another seven to eight years, over and against the wishes of the “liberal dictator” Pinochet.)

In a second interview with El Mercurio, Hayek again praised temporary dictatorships “as a means of establishing a stable democracy and liberty, clean of impurities” and defended the “Chilean miracle” for having broken, among other things, “trade union privileges of any kind.” In a separate interview not long after, he said the only totalitarian government in Latin America he could think of was “Chile under Allende.”

But Hayek’s greatest contribution to the Pinochet regime may well have been his effort to organize the 1981 convention of the Mont Pelerin Society that was held in Viña del Mar, the Chilean city where the coup against Allende had been planned. Hayek was in on the convention plan from the beginning. As early as 1978, he was working with Carlos Cáceres—a member of Pinochet’s Council of State and soon to be a high-ranking minister in the regime—on the schedule and financing of the conference. It turned out to be a spectacular propaganda coup for the regime. The backdrop of the conference, explained its official rapporteur, was the bad rap “the often maligned land of Chile” was getting in the international media. The conference made a point of providing its participants with an opportunity “for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage.” Two hundred and thirty men and women—including James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Milton and Rose Friedman—from 23 countries attended. Like pilgrims to the Soviet Union, they were treated to lavish displays of the wonders of their host country and were happily trotted out for interviews with the media.

After the convention, Hayek milked it for all that it was worth. When the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for example, published a cartoon comparing Pinochet’s Chile to Jaruzelski’s Poland, he fired off an angry letter to the editor:

I cannot help but protest in the strongest possible terms against the cartoon on page 3 of your publication of the 30th of December equating the present governments of Poland and Chile. It can only be explained by complete ignorance of the facts or by the systematically promoted socialist calumnies of the present situation in Chile, which I had not expected the F.A.Z. to fall for.  I believe that all the participants in the Mont Pelerin Society conference held a few weeks ago in Chile would agree with me that you owe the Chilean government a humble apology for such twisting of the facts.  Any Pole lucky enough to escape to Chile could consider himself fortunate.

These were just some of Hayek’s actions and statements on behalf of Pinochet’s Chile over a five-year period. As the Hayek archives reveal, the regime was more than grateful for his efforts and repeatedly conveyed their thanks to him. As Cáceres wrote Hayek: “The press has given wide coverage to your opinions and I feel no doubt that your thoughts will be a clarifying stimmulous [sic] in the achievements of our purposes as a free country.”


This old man

Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the whole of Hayek’s contribution to the regime can be found in that letter to the Times, where he favorably compares Pinochet to Allende. That was in 1978, a mere two years after the publication of volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty and a full year before the publication of volume 3. These books are generally recognized to be among Hayek’s greatest contributions to political theory. The notion that Hayek was sufficiently compos mentis to write these classics but not to understand what he was saying about Pinochet is risible.


The Pinochet connection has nothing to do with Hayek’s ideas

As Andrew Farrant, Edward McPhail, and Sebastian Berger document in their exhaustive treatment of the Pinochet connection, Hayek had a long-standing interest, pre-dating his engagement with Pinochet, in the idea of temporary dictators and strongmen. It is a running thread throughout his work, and more than a decade before his dance with Pinochet, Hayek took a turn with the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar.

Even in Constitution of Liberty, which makes a powerful case for the evolutionary nature of rule formation, we get a glimpse of a Schmittian-type legislator stepping forth “to create conditions in which an orderly arrangement [of rules] can establish and ever renew itself.” That, Hayek says, is “the task of the lawgiver.” (Hayek sent the text to Salazar, perhaps with that very passage in mind.)

Again, Hayek did not imagine the dictator as simply a response to foreign attack or domestic insurrection; he was the antidote to the discretionary free-fall of a socialist state run amok. When a “government is in a situation of rupture,” Hayek told his Mercurio interviewer in 1981, “and there are no recognized rules, rules have to be created.”

But it is precisely on this notion of the dictator as a creator of rules that Hayek’s theory falters, for nothing in his notion of evolutionary rule formation seems to allow—or, more precisely, to account—for it. Though Hayek frequently speaks of this dictator, the strongman seems to be, almost literally, a miracle: an appearance from nowhere, with no background or context to explain it. Not unlike Schmitt’s notion of the decision or the exception—or, as Henry Farrell points out, the notion of innovation in standard economic models of equilibrium that Hayek, Schumpeter, and the other Austrians so chafed at.

One might say, I suppose, that Hayek failed to develop or account for this idea because it meant so little to him. But Farrant et al show that’s not the case. The more likely explanation is that it meant a great deal to him but that he wanted it to remain a miracle out of the whirlwind, or simply didn’t know how to reconcile it with his ideas about evolutionary rule formation. In either case, it was a circle he couldn’t square.

Hayek’s failure to grapple with what he was doing with dictators theoretical and actual is symptomatic of a larger problem: not his personal flaws—as libertarian Jesse Walker points out, Hayek was not the only libertarian to embrace Pinochet; Austrian economist and libertarian George Reisman called Pinochet “one of the most extraordinary dictators in history, a dictator who stood for major limits on the power of the state”—but the vexed relationship between capitalism and coercion, a relationship, as we’ve seen, libertarians have a difficult time coming to terms with.

Whether we call it primitive accumulation or the great transformation, we know that the creation of markets often require or are accompanied by a high degree of coercion. This is especially true of markets in labor. Men and women are not born wage laborers ready to contract with capital. Nor do they simply evolve into these positions over time. Wage laborers are often made—and remade—through violence, coercion, and force. Like the labor wars of the Gilded Age or the enclosure riots, Pinochet’s Chile was about the forcible creation, at lightning speed, of new markets in land and labor.

Hayek’s failure to fully come to terms with this reality—his idea of a good “liberal dictator” shows that he was more than aware of it; the fact that so little in his work on rule formation gives warrant to such an idea demonstrates the theoretical impasse in which he found himself—is why his engagement with Pinochet is so important. Not because it shows him to be a bad person but because it reveals the “steel frame,” as Schumpeter called it, of the market order, the unacknowledged relationship between operatic violence and doux commerce.

In his excellent post, Walker suggests that Hayek didn’t have to respond to Pinochet as he did. If that’s the case, the burden is on my critics to explain why he did—without resorting to “he was an old man” foolishness. But I wonder if Walker is right: not about markets but about the man. And here I circle back to the question of Hayek the theorist.

Given everything we know about Hayek—his horror of creeping socialism, his sense of the civilizational challenge it posed; his belief that great men impose their will upon society (“The conservative peasant, as much as anybody else, owes his way of life to a different type of person, to men who were innovators in their time and who by their innovations forced a new manner of living on people belonging to an earlier state of culture”); his notion of elite legislators (“If the majority were asked their opinion of all the changes involved in progress, they would probably want to prevent many of its necessary conditions and consequences and thus ultimately stop progress itself. I have yet to learn of an instance when the deliberate vote of the majority (as distinguished from the decision of some governing elite) has decided on such sacrifices in the interest of a better future”); and his sense of political theory and politics as an epic confrontation between the real and the yet-to-be-realized—perhaps the Pinochet question needs to be reframed. The issue is not “How could he have done what he did?” but “How could he not?”


So what? Who cares? Stop the smearing!

My response to the above claims should answer the “So what? Who cares?” question and set to rest the notion that I was smearing an old man. If anything I let him off easy.

Petraeus may not be quite all in at CUNY

2 May

General David Petraeus has been hired to teach at CUNY at the University of Southern California (h/t Anna Law):

David H. Petraeus, the former four-star U.S. Army general who resigned as head of the Central Intelligence Agency last year after confessing to an extramarital affair, will teach part-time at USC and help mentor students who are veterans, officials are announcing Thursday.

Petraeus, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, will teach and participate in seminars on such issues as international relations, government, leadership, information technology and energy, according to USC…

Petraeus, 60, is supposed to start his faculty position at USC July 1 for an open-ended period, officials said.

“I am very grateful to have an opportunity to be part of a great university that prizes academic excellence, that is doing cutting-edge research in areas of enormous importance to our country, and that is known for steadfast support of its veterans and ROTC programs,” Petraeus stated in a statement released Thursday.

Someone better tell the CUNY administration: Petraeus may not be quite all in.

In a statement, Mr. Petraeus said he looked forward to leading a seminar “that examines the developments that could position the United States — and our North American partners — to lead the world out of the current global economic slowdown.”

The idea, Ann Kirschner, dean of Macaulay, said in an interview, “is an interdisciplinary seminar in keeping with his research interest in energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and information technology.”

In addition, she said, he will give talks and meet with students about their research projects. “We’re still figuring out how much time he’ll be available to us and how to get him as involved as possible in the life of the college,” she said. His compensation for the one-year position, which begins in August, is “still in discussion,” she said.

Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the CUNY system, said in a statement that “with his appointment, our students will have a unique opportunity to learn about public policy firsthand from a distinguished leader with extraordinary experience and expertise in international security issues, intelligence matters and nation-building.

Anyone who teaches at CUNY has to fill out and sign a Multiple Position Form, which attests to the fact that he is not doing more than eight hours of work per week outside the university. I’ll be curious to see what our newest hire writes on his.

Oh well, time for a new sign: Guess Who’s Not Teaching at CUNY!

George W. Bush did not always lie about Iraq

17 Mar

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, it’s important to remember that George W. Bush did not always lie about Iraq and the threat it posed. He did not sell the war simply by making stuff up about the presence of WMD or exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq. That storyline is too easy. Bush and his allies did something far subtler—and more disturbing—and what they said was actually well within the canon of national security discourse, both on the left and the right. Here’s an excerpt from The Reactionary Mind:

Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but, as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the “moral as well as physical extinction” of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its “ongoingness”—its ability “to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down” from its ancestors—threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls “supreme emergency,” a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.

For obvious reasons, Walzer maintains that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that the rules of evidence will be ignored in practice, but also that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, these rules being flouted. “In normal affairs,” Cardinal Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, “the administration of Justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.” As we ascend the ladder of threats, in other words, from petty crime to the destruction or loss of the state, we require less and less proof that each threat is real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great, Richelieu suggests, that we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that “the gravity of the ‘evil’” should be “discounted by its improbability.” The graver the evil, the higher degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. Or, to put the matter another way, if an evil is truly terrible but not very likely to occur, we may still take preemptive action against it.

Neither statement was meant to justify great crimes of state, but both suggest an inverse relationship between the magnitude of a danger and the requirements of facticity. Once a leader starts pondering the nation’s moral and physical extinction, he enters a world where the fantastic need not give way to the factual, where present benignity can seem like the merest prelude to future malignancy. So intertwined at this point are fear and reason of state that early modern theorists, less shy than we about such matters, happily admitted the first as a proxy for the second: a nation’s fear, they argued, could serve as a legitimate rationale for war, even a preventive one. “As long as reason is reason,” Francis Bacon wrote, “a just fear will be a just cause of a preventive war.” That’s a fairly good description of the logic animating the Cold War: fight them there—in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola—lest we must stop them here, at the Rio Grande, the Canadian border, on Main Street. It’s also a fairly good description of the logic animating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union:

We are fighting on such distant fronts to protect our own homeland, to keep the war as far away as possible, and to forestall what would otherwise be the fate of the nation as a whole and what up to now only a few German cities have experienced or will have to experience. It is therefore better to hold a front 1,000 or if necessary 2,000 kilometers away from home than to have to hold a front on the borders of the Reich.

These are by no means ancient or academic formulations. While liberal critics claim that the Bush administration lied about or deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify going to war, the fact is that the administration and its allies were often disarmingly honest in their assessment of the threat, or at least honest about how they were going about assessing it. Trafficking in the future, they conjured the worst—“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—and left it to their audience to draw the most frightful conclusions.

In his 2003 state of the union address, one of his most important statements in the run-up to the war, Bush declared: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.” Bush does not affirm the imminence of the threat; he implicitly disavows it, ducking behind the past, darting to the hypothetical, and arriving at a nightmarish, though entirely conjectured, future. He does not speak of “is” but of “if” and “could be.” These words are conditional (which is why Bush’s critics, insisting that he take his stand in the realm of fact or fiction, never could get a fix on him). He speaks in the tense of fear, where evidence and intuition, reason and speculation, combine to make the worst-case scenario seem as real as fact.

After the war had begun, the television journalist Diane Sawyer pressed Bush on the difference between the assumption, “stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and the hypothetical possibility that Saddam “could move to acquire those weapons.” Bush replied: “So what’s the difference?” No offhand comment, this was Bush’s most articulate statement of the entire war, an artful parsing of a distinction that has little meaning in the context of national security.

Probably no one in or around the administration better understood the way national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual than Richard Perle. “How far Saddam’s gone on the nuclear weapons side I don’t think we really know,” Perle said on one occasion. “My guess is it’s further than we think. It’s always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we’re able to prove and demonstrate . . . . And, unless you believe that we have uncovered everything, you have to assume there is more than we’re able to report.”

Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates. Instead, he imagines and projects, and in the process reverses the normal rules of forensic responsibility. When someone recommends a difficult course of action on behalf of a better future, he invariably must defend himself against the skeptic, who insists that he prove his recommendation will produce the outcome he anticipates. But if someone recommends an equally difficult course of action to avert a hypothetical disaster, the burden of proof shifts to the skeptic. Suddenly she must defend her doubt against his belief, her preference for politics as usual against his politics of emergency. And that, I suspect, is why the Bush administration’s prewar mantra, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—laughable in the context of an argument for, say, world peace—could seem surprisingly cogent in an argument for war. “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions,” Burke noted, “than ruined by too confident a security.”

As Walzer suggests, an entire people can face annihilation. But the victims of genocide tend to be stateless or powerless, and the world has difficulty seeing or acknowledging their destruction, even when the evidence is undeniable. The citizens and subjects of great powers, on the other hand, rarely face the prospect of “moral as well as physical extinction.” (Walzer cites only two cases.) Yet their leaders seem to imagine that destruction with the greatest of ease.

The US Senate: Where Democracy Goes to Die

12 Mar

Every once in a while I teach constitutional law, and when I do, I pose to my students the following question: What if the Senate apportioned votes not on the basis of states but on the basis of race? That is, rather than each state getting two votes in the Senate, what if each racial or ethnic group listed in the US Census got two votes instead?

Regardless of race, almost all of the students freak out at the suggestion. It’s undemocratic, they cry! When I point out that the Senate is already undemocratic—the vote of any Wyomian is worth vastly more than the vote of each New Yorker—they say, yeah, but that’s different: small states need protection from large states. And what about historically subjugated or oppressed minorities, I ask? Or what about the fact that one of the major intellectual moves, if not completely successful coups, of Madison and some of the Framers was to disaggregate or disassemble the interests of a state into the interests of its individual citizens. As Ben Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “The Interest of a State is made up of the interests of its individual members.  If they are not injured, the State is not injured.” The students are seldom moved.

Then I point out that the very opposition they’re drawing—between representation on the basis of race versus representation on the basis of states—is itself confounded by the history of the ratification debate over the Constitution and the development of slavery and white supremacy in this country.

As Jack Rakove argued in Original Meanings, one of the reasons some delegates from large states ultimately came around to the idea of protecting the interests of small states was that they realized that an equal, if not more powerful, interest than mere population size bound delegate to delegate, state to state: slavery. Virginia had far more in common with South Carolina than it did with Massachussets, a fact that later events would go onto confirm. In Rakove’s words:

The more the delegates examined the apportionment of the lower house [which resulted in the infamous 3/5 clause], the more weight they gave to considerations of regional security. Rather than treat sectional differences as an alternative and superior description of the real interests at play in American politics, the delegates saw them instead as an additional conflict that had to be accommodated in order for the Union to endure. The apportionment issue confirmed the claims that the small states had made all along. It called attention not to the way in which an extended republic could protect all interests but to the need to safeguard the conspicuous interest of North and South. This defensive orientation in turn enabled even some large-state delegates to find merit in an equal-state vote.

As Madison, a firm opponent of representation by states, would argue at the Convention:

It seemed now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lay, not between large and small but between the Northern and Southern States. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.”

True, Madison made this claim in the service of his argument against representation by states, but for others, his claim pushed in the opposite direction: a pluralism of interests in an extensive republic was not, as Madison claimed in Federalist 10, enough to protect the interests of a wealthy propertied minority.  Something more—the protection of group interests in the Senate—was required. (Which is why, incidentally, I’m always amused by conservatives’ horror at the notion of group rights: what do they think the Senate is all about if not the protection of group rights? This is not to say that there aren’t principled reasons to oppose group rights; I’m commenting merely on the scandalized tone of the opposition.)

And when one considers how critical the Senate has been to the protection of both slavery and Jim Crow—measures against both institutions repeatedly passed the House, only to be stymied in the Senate, where the interests of certain types of minorities are more protected than others—the distinction between race and state size becomes even harder to sustain. Though the Senate often gets held up as the institution for the protection of minority rights against majoritarian tyranny, the minorities it protects are often not the powerless or the dissenters of yore and lore.

Indeed, for all the justified disgust with Emory University President James Wagner’s recent celebration of the 3/5 Clause, virtually no one ever criticizes the Senate, even though its contribution to the maintenance of white supremacy, over the long course of American history, has been far greater than the 3/5 Clause, which was nullified by the 14th Amendment.

This is all by way of a long introduction to a terrific article in the New York Times by Adam Liptak on just this issue of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, and some of the racial dimensions of that un-democracy. Just a few excerpts:

Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states. The nation’s largest gap, between Wyoming and California, is more than double that.

The difference in the fortunes of Rutland and Washington Counties reflects the growing disparity in their citizens’ voting power, and it is not an anomaly. The Constitution has always given residents of states with small populations a lift, but the size and importance of the gap has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated. It affects the political dynamic of issues as varied as gun control, immigration and campaign finance.

In response, lawmakers, lawyers and watchdog groups have begun pushing for change. A lawsuit to curb the small-state advantage in the Senate’s rules is moving through the courts. The Senate has already made modest changes to rules concerning the filibuster, which has particularly benefited senators from small states. And eight states and the District of Columbia have endorsed a proposal to reduce the chances that the small-state advantage in the Electoral College will allow a loser of the popular vote to win the presidency.

What is certain is that the power of the smaller states is large and growing. Political scientists call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.

Behind the growth of the advantage is an increase in population gap between large and small states, with large states adding many more people than small ones in the last half-century. There is a widening demographic split, too, with the larger states becoming more urban and liberal, and the smaller ones remaining rural and conservative, which lends a new significance to the disparity in their political power.

The threat of the filibuster in the Senate, which has become far more common than in past decades, plays a role, too. Research by two political scientists, Lauren C. Bell and L. Marvin Overby, has found that small-state senators, often in leadership positions, have amplified their power by using the filibuster more often than their large-state counterparts.

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

The article is long, but it’s worth the entire read. A model of how good journalism can incorporate the insights of historical and institutionalist political science (and not just the number-crunching kind).

Update (12 pm)

A commenter at Crooked Timber reminded me of this great review by Hendrik Hertzberg of Robert Dahl’s book on the Constitution. Hertzberg quotes this line from Alexander Hamilton at the Convention that I wish I had remembered and quoted in my post:

As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?

Update (12:30 pm)

Nathan Newman just posted the following comment on my FB page. I thought it was worth sharing:

Ran the numbers a few years ago and found that states representing just 11% of the population could elect the 41 Senators needed to block any legislation the other 89% of the population wanted to pass. It’s actually worse than that since you only need a majority in each of those states to elect those Senators– so the right 6% of the population could theoretically block any legislation they wanted. Just a crazy anti-democratic institution. The Constitution kick of sucks– yeah, I said it.

Nathan also co-wrote a great article a few years back on the relationship between slavery, the Constitution, and the Reconstruction amendments. Worth a look.


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