Book Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Subtitled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan’s New York Times #1 Bestseller takes a purely secular look at the historical Jesus to draw the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that he was primarily a Jewish political agitator. Complete with exhaustive endnotes and a seemingly endless bibliography, Aslan shows he has studied the available literature in many languages — original source material in Greek and Aramaic as well as scholarly works in English and German. Because of its sometimes overly drawn out and mellifluous language, I don’t necessarily recommend reading Zealot unless the motivations of the historical Jesus in the context of his times and the evolution of his following is of particular interest to the reader. While not a novelization, the prose is both flowery and verbose, with chapters often repeating key facts probably with an eye to making them more independently consumable. Even so, the book is undeniably engaging and offers several profoundly interesting secular takeaways that help us to better understand how Jesus became the influential spiritual and religious figure he is seen as today. I offer a summary, or even a reorganization to taste, of the highlights.

Continue reading

Book Review: “Drift” by Rachel Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power is frank analysis by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow of the recent rise in American militarism. Fans of her television show will immediately recognize her snarky voice and can-you-believe-this incredulity, which translate effectively to the page. Maddow’s stated goal is encouraging a genuine debate about the role of the military in American life and foreign policy, the usefulness of which is echoed by many of the journalistic elite whose reviews grace Drift‘s covers, including Ira Glass, Tom Brokaw, and even Roger Ailes. I seriously question whether she’s laid on the disdainful snark a bit too thickly for this purpose — skeptics might be turned off rather than engaged — but the book is well researched and smoothly written. At the last, Maddow is hopeful rather than dejected. This creeping militarism, she concludes, is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather the cumulative effect of boneheaded but generally well-meaning politicians and officials doing their inadequate best to try to protect us. And as a result, the damage is reversible. We just need to frankly discuss what has happened.

Continue reading

fresh politicization of gay marriage

The question of whether a pair of homosexual adults ought to be able to enter a federally recognized marriage has been under debate for twenty years or so. Hawaii appears to have forced the issue in the early 90s with the interesting case of Baehr v. Miike. The Hawaii Supreme Court remanded a trial court dismissal of a suit alleging Hawaii’s ban on same-sex marriages was illegal. The Court found in 1993 that, because the ban was discriminatory based on sex, it was subject to “strict scrutiny” and hence the burden of proof that the law was sound rested with the state “by demonstrating that it furthers compelling state interests and is narrowly drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgments of constitutional rights.” This led to a remarkably childish legislative and judicial back-and-forth which culminated in the People of Hawaii enacting, by a vote greater than two thirds, a constitutional ban in 1998.

At around the same time there had also been federal wrangling over the legal status of homosexuals. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on ending fifty years of refusing to allow gays in the military, which was derailed in part by then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, leaving us with the widely reviled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. In 1996, Congress enacted the dubious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally codified marriage as being only between a single heterosexual couple on fears that the US would be forced to recognize Hawaiian gay marriages due to the Full Faith and Credit clause in its Constitution. Many states followed suit in the intervening years; at present, 42 states ban gay marriage, 31 of them through Constitutional provision.

Continue reading

happy pi day!

Today is March 14th, which is often written in the west as 3/14. Looking at it this way, the date bears a striking resemblance to a common approximation for pi, the mathematical constant which expresses the ratio of any Euclidean circle’s circumference to its diameter. For this reason, today is celebrated by math enthusiasts the world over as Pi Day, a day on which the wonders of pi (and usually also pie) can be shared by one and all. There is even a website dedicated to pi day (and of course associated merchandising: check out this awesome clock). On the occasion of this delightful holiday, I would like to remind the reader about several interesting things about pi.

Continue reading

thoughts about third parties

The GOP primary battle continues to rage, but Mitt Romney continues to dominate. Let’s recap: among viable non-Romney candidates, only Newt Gingrich remains in the race. Rick Santorum won in Iowa, but just barely, and has come in third or worst in all the other states to date. Ron Paul has yet to carry a state and admits he doesn’t yet know which ones he might. Newt Gingrich has only won so far in South Carolina, a racist southern state more likely than most to find resonance with “blacks should demand paychecks not food stamps” bullshit; and even then, his victory might well be attributed to a bump from some jabs he managed to get past the inept moderator at the debate held there days before the primary.

With contests in Minnesota and Colorado tomorrow, Romney is well positioned to double his collection of wins: according to PPP, he’s the clear favourite in Colorado and is in a more or less dead heat with Santorum in Minnesota. A win for Santorum there will not breathe life into his dying, unelectable bones, but the obvious loss Gingrich is about to face will surely kill all that remains of his momentum. It seems clearer and clearer that what has been conventional wisdom for months — that Romney will be the nominee — has been right all along.

All this would be considerably less interesting if there were any other uncertainties in the race. But Obama will not be primaried, and with unemployment rates starting to seriously drop, providing cautious optimism for some that a recovery is starting to kick back in, his reelection seems all but certain. Barring some cataclysm, does it seem reasonable to suppose that Romney could beat Obama? The latter is likely to enjoy something close to a repeat of the record black turnout in 2008, and Romney isn’t too popular even among conservatives (hence the unending support for the not-Romney candidate trending up at any moment). Obama is starting to put his toe in the general race now, saying he “deserves a second term” in an interview with NBC ahead of the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty nice time to have the national airwaves, and polls are showing he would do well in a race with Romney.

But all this is very sad! We must choose between a sitting president with a dubious record and a flip-flopping venture capitalist no one really likes. This ‘fact’ was ironically highlighted for me as I was reading Federalist 66 the other day and noticed this choice bit from Hamilton:

The [House of Representatives] will be the umpire in all elections of the President, which do not unite the suffrages of a majority of the whole number of electors; a case which it cannot be doubted will sometimes, if not frequently, happen.

Ha! Of course, this did happen, but only twice out of the 56 presidential elections held so far. In 1800, before the 12th amendment changed the rules of the electoral college, the House deadlocked repeatedly and finally elected Thomas Jefferson after 35 votes. And in 1824, following the dissolution of the Federalist party, four candidates each gained a fairly significant slice of the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson beat his next closest rival, John Quincy Adams, by 10 points in the popular vote and 15 electoral votes, but missed a majority by more than 30 electoral votes. The House eventually selected Adams after Henry Clay, also running, gave the former his support; Clay was eventually named Secretary of State in what was called a ‘corrupt bargain.’

So given the Constitution has baked into it a way to resolve disputes between candidates when none obtains a majority of electors, a mechanism Hamilton thought would be used ‘frequently’, why has it remained unused for nearly two centuries? Even from the earliest days of the republic, the two-party duality has been a potent force in general elections. The Federalists and Anti-federalists were not officially recognized parties like ours today are, but they were responsible for bitter election battles in the late eighteenth century. Parties were more dynamic between that 1824 standoff and the civil war, but the formation of the Republican party in 1854 saw more or less the final manifestation of the two-party system we see today, with only a handful of serious third party bids since.

Modern laws make it harder for third parties. Ballot access usually requires meeting some minimum signature bar in a petition, which means parties need nationwide local coordination, something which requires a large establishment. Debates are basically bi-partisan affairs and usually do not include third parties. Mass defection to a third party might swing the election to the least desirable of all three (consider the charge that Nader lost Gore the election in 2000). States almost always award electors on a winner-take-all basis, so the incentive for voters in each state to make their voices heard on the national stage by picking perceived winners is high.

In that vein, I think the biggest reason that the two-party system persists is inertia. The parties are well-established and can pretty easily either gobble up any fringe third-party platform (or ridicule it as being Unserious, as has been happening to Ron Paul’s candidacy generally). Most issues are binary as far as the average voter is concerned: you’re either mostly for gay rights, or you’re mostly against them; you want increased social programs, or you want to cut them back; you mostly want to drill for oil or you mostly want to research green energy. It doesn’t help that these ideas mostly align with conservative or liberal ideologies very nicely: conservatives tend to want to stick to the ancient ways, while liberals want to change most aspects of society and government.

Then there’s the related issue of bipartisan consensus. Perceived political realities force politicians to cave to certain positions, which then silences debate. Look to Clinton’s welfare reform, “tough on crime” laws which had led to unprecedented incarcerations, the jingoism of the runup to Iraq war that seems to have returned but this time against Iran; and of course, the notion that taxes should not go up except maybe for the other guy. When both parties largely agree on so much, it can be difficult to see what the usefulness of a third party could be. Is there a third major platform in American politics today? Evidently not.

And that is the main problem. The Tea Party was swallowed by the Republicans since they aligned closely enough to allow it. Obama has already begun to adopt of the rhetoric of Occupy and might win several of its less aware and passionate members. But this is too bad. An adversarial third (or fourth, or fifth) party would make this election battle a lot more interesting than the inevitable “lesser of two evils” Obama-vs-Romney scorched earth, no-holds-barred steel cage match. And if more people demanded better at the ballot box, they would get it: that’s a political reality. Consider that before holding your nose for Obama (or Romney if you have no soul) in November.

Newt Gingrich is an evil man

There is one good thing we can say about Newt Gingrich: he can play to a crowd. This makes him an effective politician. But on the eve of the South Carolina primary, where Gingrich is either beating Romney by 6 (PPP [pdf]), down by 10 (Gallup), or more or less in a dead heat up by 2 (Ramussen), I don’t think we have reason to fear that Gingrich will be the nominee. That’s because he’s evil.

Gingrich became the Speaker of the House after the republican takeover in 1995. He had helped engineer this takeover with the Contract with America and figured centrally, along with President Clinton, over the government shutdown that year, where federal workers were furloughed over budget intransigence. This wasn’t the first government shutdown, but it was the most widely felt and most politicized, and the republicans ended up taking the blame, aiding in costing the republicans the presidency in 1996. Oops! But Gingrich actually broke laws in addition to being a lousy speaker: he was the first speaker in history to be assessed a fine over an ethics probe and eventually was forced to resign the speakership by his own party after poor showings in 1998 election.

Then we have Gingrich’s poisonous racial and anti-poor views: riding the Reagan-esque rhetoric of “welfare queens,” he helped pass the stringent (and reviled) welfare reform of 1996 which obviously targets racial minorities disproportionately, and he recently defended his offensive declaration that black people ought to “demand jobs, not food stamps.” He has repeatedly called Obama a “food stamp president” since about 15% of Americans now use them, but doesn’t acknowledge the role that the economic collapse and rising poverty might have played: for Gingrich, it is enough just to connect Obama to this statistic. But amazingly, Gingrich himself is the welfare queen: in 2003, he played a major role through vocal advocacy in passing Medicare Part D, the expensive prescription drug benefit that helps explain the yawning federal debt. Welfare for old white people is — of course — a fine thing; it’s when the welfare targets young black people that problems arise.

But Gingrich’s most damning behaviour centers around his views on marriage. Newt publicly supports “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman, including support for DOMA, which he helped to pass as Speaker in 1996 (and a constitutional amendment if DOMA is found to be illegal, and condemnation for Obama’s failure to defend it); opposes adoption of children to gay and lesbian couples, citing religious interests; and, famously, lead the charge to investigate President Clinton for his own marital infidelities shortly before resigning the speakership over that aforementioned ethics problem.

That last issue has had a resurgence in the media after the shocking revelation that Newt apparently sought “an open marriage” with his second wife while he was cheating on her with his third and current wife. It’s no secret that Gingrich has had three wives, and even converted to Catholicism to get with Callista, who is 23 years younger than he. He divorced his first wife, Jackie, while she was recovering from cancer after having an affair with his second wife; and he divorced his second wife, Marianne, after failing to get that open marriage thing to cover his affair with Callista. What’s amazing is that, to gain conservative support for his presidential run, Newt now cites his influential support of DOMA while failing to mention he was cheating on Marianne while lobbying for that bill. Furthermore, he is rewriting history about the Clinton impeachment to try and cover the inherent hypocrisy of vilifying the president for virtually the same thing he was doing at the time. His defense for all this: passionate patriotism drove him to base behaviour, which he regrets in retrospect. Lolwut?

Understandably, all this deserves some media attention as Gingrich courts the GOP presidential nod, and it has commanded attention for years even before the revelations of the second wife. The moderator of the most recent republican debate, the last one before the South Carolina primary, thought the same, and opened the debate with a question about this bombshell. The question was perhaps a poor choice though for an opening question, since it allowed Gingrich to reply thus: “I’m appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Despite the obvious utility of the question, the relevance of the hypocrisy it exposes, the questions of character it raises, the fact that this is the 20th-or-so debate the GOP has engaged — when can this kind of question be posed if not after hours and hours of televised discussion of the ‘real issues?’ — Newt was able to fire back against the “elite media” in a way that resulted in a majority of conservative pundits calling the debate for him. Look at how skillfully Gingrich can play the crowd!

But my first point, that we have no reason to fear a Gingrich general campaign, is supported by all this. Gingrich has his supporters, but he could not muster a winnable campaign for president. He is too vulnerable to attacks from the GOP on welfare and marital hypocrisy, and from the general electorate on popular issues like gay marriage due to his marital hypocrisy. He is basically unlikable. It seems to me that decent people can only conclude that he is some kind of evil. The republican establishment will not allow him to win the nomination, just as they won’t let Paul win it. The only sober analysis remains, despite ongoing and desperate mainstream media hype trying to suggest otherwise, that Romney is the inevitable candidate. Gingrich might win South Carolina tomorrow, a Southern red state sympathetic to his brand of white racism and male privilege, but I don’t believe it will translate to a mandate for opposing Obama in November.

UPDATE: The always-excellent Charles Blow of the New York Times had a column today that echoes many of these points, and also drives home the point that Gingrich cannot be an effective opponent for Obama in the general election. It is for this reason that Gingrich will not win the nomination; the anxiety he causes his party as a result of his fringe views and tepid personality is simply insurmountable.

Book Review: “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View” by Stephen Breyer

Making Our Democracy Work is the work of a left-leaning sitting Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer. Well-titled, the book is a treatise that explains the goals of the Court as set out in the Constitution and its successes and failures over the last couple centuries, as well as the means that its author believes ought to be emphasized today in order to realize a constitutional democracy based on civil rights, not simply on paper but in actual practice.  Justice Breyer suggests an arsenal of tools and focuses that he believes — convincingly — the Court can and should use to maintain a public trust in enforcing “our Constitution’s liberty-protecting limits.”

The book is just as no-nonsense as you might expect and require of a sitting high court judge: it is divided into discrete, functional parts that each build in their own way in spare but effective prose to the ultimate and multifaceted thesis.

The first part explores the historical basis for the remarkable trust and deference that the American people grant the Court, explicitly relying only on well-accepted but detailed historical accounts of a few important cases. Breyer explores in entertaining prose the first great test of the nascent Court in Marbury v. Madison; points out a miscarriage in the treatment of the Cherokees under the Jackson administration when he ignored a Court order protecting their rights; visits what is hailed as one of the worst decisions the Court ever made in Dred Scott; counters with a triumph of cooperation between the judiciary and the executive in Brown v. Board of Education and school integration in Little Rock; and concludes with an analysis of the contentious 2000 decision Bush v. Gore. The exercise was to demonstrate that ours is “a nation that has gradually come to place confidence in the Court.”

The second part is Breyer’s vision for the manner in which the Court ought to function to preserve Constitutional guarantees by maintaining the public trust while not yielding to political pressures. This is clearly easier said than done, and the proffered mechanism of emphasis on the purposes (whether determined or inferred) and the consequences (more often real than imagined) of legislation — as opposed to fealty to wording or precedent or archaic interpretation, which are acknowledged as well to have a place in crafting decisions — seems phrased specifically to convince strict constructionists like Breyer’s colleague Antonin Scalia. But it is easy to forgive the explicit emphasis on these tools given the herculean job Breyer performs in justifying their application both through specific examples and accessible abstractions. Breyer’s approach is multifaceted too, as he also explores justifications in depth for qualified deference to the specialized expertise of executive administrations, state authorities, and lower federal courts. I was struck by the breadth and restraint of Breyer’s judicial vision.

The third and final part is devoted to an exploration of the Court’s duty to protect individual rights. Between detailed and painful discussions of Court failures with WWII Japanese internment cases and recent relative successes with Terrorism cases like Hamdi and Boumediene, Breyer demonstrates how the Court has and (sometimes) uses the power to check executive excesses to guarantee constitutional liberties. Importantly, he underscores the tenuous successes of the Court in maintaining a functioning democracy by quoting Bush 43’s reaction to the Boumediene ruling: “We’ll abide by the court’s decision — that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”

Overall, the book is an eminently readable, educational treatise unlikely to be less informative than any text book on the subjects it addresses, and it has an aggressive collection of notes. There are also a pair of appendices: the first is a collection of images relating to the cases discussed throughout the book that Breyer hopes will remind readers that they “were decided by, and the principles have a profound effect on, human beings” in order to drive home the real importance of these issues; the second is among the shortest and most effective descriptions of what it is the Supreme Court actually does that I have ever read, which is indispensable for anyone unfamiliar with or prone to needing to explain to others the function that our government’s third and ‘weakest’ branch (according to Hamilton) performs.
I fault the book for repeating certain phrases and themes a little too often, but that seems more like a failing of sloppy editors, a symptom of the desire to make the book exceedingly consumable to the layman, or perhaps a forgivable idiosyncrasy of the author; and it is my only major criticism. I recommend the book heartily, and close with the final passage from its conclusion, which summarizes its laudable purpose:
The stories this book sets forth are told from the point of view of one judge. I have drawn my own lessons from them. I hope that they lead others to study the stories and ponder their lessons about our constitutional history. Then they too will be better able to help make our democracy work. I hope so.
That is why I have written this book.
 
Published 2010, 270 pages.