24 August 2009

Discovering the letters of Justice William O. Douglas

I was sorting through some books in my closet yesterday, and I discovered a fantastic book which drew me away from my regular reading: The Douglas Letters: Selections from the Private Papers of William O. Douglas, edited by Melvin I. Urkofsky. William O. Douglas was a brilliant, contrarian Associate Justice on the Supreme Court as well as a transformative environmentalist and New Dealer who crusaded against rampant speculation and corruption in the financial industry. His writing is insightful and often hilarious. Here are a few samples:

To Ramsey Clark, 4/28/70:

On my visit to Baghdad, I went to the University with my interpreter to see what books, if any, they had on our Constitution or Bill of Rights or Jefferson, Madison, democracy, etc.

That library was bare on those subjects. So when I returned, I prepared what I called the Douglas Eight Foot Shelf which I thought should be in every underdeveloped nation. I thought then - and still think - that those ideas are more important than military missions.

To Max Radin (professor at Berkeley Law School), 5/27/46:

...If you are willing, I will ask you to find me a law clerk each year....I need not only a bright chap, but also a hard-working fellow with a smell for facts as well as for law. I do not want a hide-bound, conservative fellow. What I want is a Max Radin - a fellow who can hold his own in these sophisticated circles and who is not going to end up as a stodgy, hide-bound lawyer. I want the kind of fellow for whom this work would be an exhilaration, who will be going into teaching or into practice of the law for the purpose of promoting the public good. I do not want to fill the big law offices of the country with my law clerks....

To the Wall Street Journal, 10/16/78

19 August 2009

Interview with the University of Chicago Magazine

UChiBLOGo, the blog of the University of Chicago Magazine, interviewed me about Wide Awake Minds and the idea of self-education today.

Check it out here, and please pass the interview along to others if you enjoy reading it. Thanks for helping to spread the word about self-education!

Readings from Charles Taylor and Erich Auerbach

One way to put the question I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?
Important as science is to our present outlook, we mustn't exaggerate its causal role here, and make it the main motor of the transformation. Our encasing in secular time is also something we have brought about in the way we live and order our lives. It has been brought about by the same social and ideological changes which have wrought disenchantment. In particular, the disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before in human history. Time has become a precious resource, not to be "wasted". The result has been the creation of a tight, ordered time environment. This has enveloped us, until it comes to seem like nature. We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done. This "time frame" deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber's famous description of a "stahlhartes Gehäuse" (iron cage). It occludes all higher times, makes them even hard to conceive.
Augustine sees ordinary time as dispersal, distensio, losing the unity, being cut off from our past and out of touch with our future. We get lost in our little parcel of time. But we have an irrepressible craving for eternity, and so we strive to go beyond this. Unfortunately, this all too often takes the form of our trying to invest our little parcel with eternal significance, and therefore divinising things, and therefore falling deeper into sin.

Charles Taylor
--A Secular Age

If it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence.
To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.
The Old Testament, in so far as it is concerned with human events, ranges through all three domains: legend, historical reporting, and interpretative historical theology.
The Homeric poems, then, though their intellectual, linguistic, and above all syntactical culture appears to be so...highly developed, are yet comparatively simple in their picture of human beings; and no less so in relation to the real life which they describe in general. Delight in physical existence is everything to them, and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us. ...(The Homeric heroes) wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly.
Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, (the Bible) seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. This becomes increasingly difficult the further our historical environment is removed from that of the Biblical books; and if these nevertheless maintain their claim to absolute authority, it is inevitable that they themselves be adapted through interpretative transformation.
It is easy to separate the historical from the legendary in general. Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly.... Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted.

Erich Auerbach
--Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

15 August 2009

Quotes from Hugo Black and Lon L. Fuller

Every departure from the principles of the law's inner morality is an affront to man's dignity as a responsible agent. To judge his actions by unpublished or retrospective laws, or to order him to do an act that is impossible, is to convey to him your indifference to his powers of self-determination.
I believe that if we were forced to select the principle that supports and infuses all human aspiration we would find it in the objective of maintaining communication with our fellows. ...How and when we accomplish communication with one another can expand or contract the boundaries of life itself.

Lon L. Fuller
--The Morality of Law

The Court's justification for consulting its own notions rather than following the original meaning of the Constitution, as I would, apparently is based on the belief of the majority of the Court that for this Court to be bound by the original meaning of the Constitution is an intolerable and debilitating evil; that our Constitution should not be "shackled to the political theory of a particular era," and that to save the country from the original Constitution the Court must have constant power to renew it and keep it abreast of this Court's more enlightened theories of what is best for our society.

It seems to me that this is an attack not only on the great value of our Constitution itself but also on the concept of a written constitution which is to survive through the years as originally written unless changed through the amendment process which the Framers wisely provided. Moreover, when a "political theory" embodied in our Constitution becomes outdated, it seems to me that a majority of the nine members of this Court are not only without constitutional power but are far less qualified to choose a new constitutional political theory than the people of this country proceeding in the manner provided by Article V.

Justice Hugo Black
--Harper v. Virginia State Board of Education (dissent); 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

No one may be compelled against his conscience to render war service involving the use of arms.

--Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Article IV

I cannot consider the Bill of Rights to be an outworn 18th Century 'strait jacket' as the Twining opinion did. Its provisions may be thought outdated abstractions by some. And it is true that they were designed to meet ancient evils. But they are the same kind of human evils that have emerged from century to century wherever excessive power is sought by the few at the expense of the many. In my judgment the people of no nation can lose their liberty so long as a Bill of Rights like ours survives and its basic purposes are conscientiously interpreted, enforced and respected so as to afford continuous protection against old, as well as new, devices and practices which might thwart those purposes. I fear to see the consequences of the Court's practice of substituting its own concepts of decency and fundamental justice for the language of the Bill of Rights as its point of departure in interpreting and enforcing that Bill of Rights.

Justice Hugo Black
--Adamson v. California (dissent); 332 U.S. 46 (1946)

All excerpts from Lloyd, Introduction to Jurisprudence (4th ed., 1979).

01 August 2009

How to Think About Politics

"How to Think About Politics," my most recent essay, is being featured in the August issue of Fogged Clarity. I've also pasted it below. If you enjoy it, please consider linking to it, sharing it, or passing it along to others who might be interested. Thanks, as always, for reading.


How to Think About Politics

Ryan McCarl

First, question everything, beginning with the political ideas you inherited from your parents, family, community, church, and school.

Create an inventory, in your mind or on paper, of these ideas: what are your strong, visceral, “gut” feelings about the political parties, religion in schools, the legalization versus criminalization of abortion, taxation, drug laws, and so on? What about your ideas about other races and social classes, and about race and class relations in general? Interrogate your emotional, pre-rational political ideology: why do you think it is the case that some people are poor, others wealthy, and others starving? Do you admire military power, or are you suspicious of it? How do you react to talk of America’s present and past wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan?

The first step to becoming a serious political thinker is to distance yourself, at least temporarily, from what might be called your “political inheritance” – the political ideas and values that you were infused with as a child and young adult.

Many of these ideas may be worth keeping, of course, and it is perfectly acceptable to venture into the wilderness of new ideas and then return, older and wiser, to where you began – but it is unacceptable to never waver, even in thought, from the political ideas you grew up with. You must rediscover these ideas to make them truly your own.

The second step is to understand your own interests and distance yourself from them for the purposes of political thinking.

Your self-interest, whatever it may be, can probably be translated into a political and economic ideology: you are in a union, so you support unions and vote for pro-union politicians. You are an investment banker or venture capitalist, so you oppose anything – including unions – that could interfere with economic “efficiency,” that is, with your ability to “restructure” businesses and shift resources around to make a profit. You own a home in an almost entirely white, middle-class suburb where your kids attend a top-tier public school, so you oppose policies such as intradistrict school choice and property taxes that could, you feel, threaten your lifestyle.

But mature political thinking requires that you think about politics in terms of the public good and what is best for society (or humanity, even) as a whole. That does not imply that mature political thinking requires a “liberal” political ideology: it is quite acceptable to believe, conservatively, that radical or revolutionary changes to the status quo would do more harm than good, or that the way things are should be tweaked and adjusted rather than significantly changed, or that the public welfare is best served through deregulation, lowered taxes, and the privatization of public institutions. But whatever political ideology you adopt, you must, if you want to begin thinking seriously about politics, adopt it for some reason other than the health of your pocketbook.

Of course, it often happens that people consciously or unconsciously wrap their self-interests in a veil of ideology – they disguise the fact that their political views are a function of their self-interest by speaking in terms of the public good, and often they even believe their own disguise. But serious thinkers must honestly examine their own views and biases, look at their own ideas with critical eyes, and constantly work to create distance between their self-interest and their political views. If these overlap, it must be by accident and coincidence.

Question yourself, your ideology, your vocabulary, and the beliefs behind your beliefs. And also question every overt and covert political statement, every candidate’s speech, every newspaper opinion column, every dinner-table rant, every historical narrative, and even every piece of art or literature. Politics touches everything and everything touches politics. Cultivate your awareness of the political dimension of the world, a dimension that is often hidden beneath the surface of things. A map, for example, seems straightforward and self-evident – but what part of the world did the mapmaker select as central? Which continents’ sizes are distorted?

And speaking of looking beneath the surface of things: advanced political thinking requires a partial distancing from the rancorous spats and celebrity politics that are all-too-often the central focus of 24-hour cable news stations, political talk shows, and the most popular political blogs. Thinking politically does not mean choosing a side, stepping into the echo chamber, and becoming one more unimaginative partisan foot-soldier – it is better to keep one foot in the fray and one foot in the slightly-removed world of philosophy, theory, scholarship, history, and literature.

For me, this means reading both conservative and liberal blogs and websites, but favoring those that are more thoughtful and less reactive. More importantly, it means monitoring the amount of online, print, and cable news I consume, and giving primacy of place in my reading to good books – which are intrinsically more thought-out, edited, careful, and less bound to a specific historical moment than even the best newspapers and websites.

The third step toward mature political thinking involves understanding that we look at political issues through certain lenses – lenses of theory, of history, and of our biases and ideologies.

The best political thinkers do not get trapped in one lens. Rather, like an ophthalmologist conducting an eye examination, they shift from lens to lens and look at a problem through as many lenses as possible in order to identify which lens best clarifies the problem and points the way to a possible solution.

Let’s take the contemporary debate about school reform and vouchers as an example. Conservatives use the analogy of market economics to argue that if we privatize schools and school services and create a more competitive school system, the outcome will be better and more educationally efficient; liberals argue that it is a profound mistake to think about schooling in economic terms, and that we should focus on improving the public schools, which reflect our moral commitment to providing equal educational opportunity to every American child. But why not look at education through both lenses – the lens of economics and the lens of ethics? And also the lenses of history and law?

Take practically any political or economic problem and gather a room full of academic specialists: one each in political philosophy, political psychology, law, evolutionary biology, theology or religious studies, women’s studies, history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Each of these experts will speak intelligently about the issue, looking at it through the lens of their discipline. And each will have something valuable to contribute to the debate.

And so we arrive at a final guideline for engaging in serious political thought: become a lifelong self-educator, and never stop critically examining your own political ideas and those you find in contemporary debates.

Political issues are infinitely complex, and the political loudmouths of our world who claim to have it all figured out are cashing in on a lie. You, their target consumer, have the power to reject the narrow wares they peddle and turn to better, more thoughtful sources.

If there is one slogan and sound-bite that is worth adopting, it is this: “Well, it isn’t really that simple.”