November 2008

Buckley, Christopher. Supreme Courtship. New York: Twelve, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-57982-7.
You know you're about to be treated to the highest level of political farce by a master of the genre when you open a book which begins with the sentence:
Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin's deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire.
The departure of Mr. Justice Brinnin created a vacancy which embattled President Donald Vanderdamp attempted to fill with two distinguished jurists boasting meagre paper trails, both of whom were humiliatingly annihilated in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, loquacious loose cannon and serial presidential candidate Dexter Mitchell, coveted the seat for himself.

After rejection of his latest nominee, the frustrated president was channel surfing at Camp David when he came across the wildly popular television show Courtroom Six featuring television (and former Los Angeles Superior Court) judge Pepper Cartwright dispensing down-home justice with her signature Texas twang and dialect. Let detested Senator Mitchell take on that kind of popularity, thought the Chief Executive, chortling at the prospect, and before long Judge Pepper is rolled out as the next nominee, and prepares for the confirmation fight.

I kind of expected this story to be about how an authentic straight-talking human being confronts the “Borking” judicial nominees routinely receive in today's Senate, but it's much more and goes way beyond that, which I shall refrain from discussing to avoid spoilers. I found the latter half of the book less satisfying that the first—it seemed like once on the court Pepper lost some of her spice, but I suppose that's realistic (yet who expects realism in farces?). Still, this is a funny book, with hundreds of laugh out loud well-turned phrases and Buckley's customary delightfully named characters. The fractured Latin and snarky footnotes are an extra treat. This is not a roman clef, but you will recognise a number of Washington figures upon which various characters were modelled.

 Permalink

Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1990, 1991, 1998] 2008. ISBN 978-1-56663-796-1.
If you want to understand what's happening in the United States today, and how the so-called millennial generation (May 2008) came to be what it is, there's no better place to start than this book, originally published eighteen years ago, which has just been released in a new paperback edition with an introduction and postscript totalling 65 pages which update the situation as of 2008. The main text has been revised as well, and a number of footnotes added to update matters which have changed since earlier editions.

Kimball's thesis is that, already by 1990, and far more and broadly diffused today, the humanities departments (English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, Philosophy, etc.) of prestigious (and now almost all) institutions of higher learning have been thoroughly radicalised by politically-oriented academics who have jettisoned the traditional canon of literature, art, and learning and rejected the traditional mission of a liberal arts education in favour of indoctrinating students in a nominally “multicultural” but actually anti-Western ideology which denies the existence of objective truth and the meaning of text, and inculcates the Marxist view that all works can be evaluated only in terms of their political context and consequences. These pernicious ideas, which have been discredited by their disastrous consequences in the last century and laughed out of public discourse everywhere else, have managed to achieve an effective hegemony in the American academy, with tenured radicals making hiring and tenure decisions based upon adherence to their ideology as opposed to merit in disinterested intellectual inquiry.

Now, putting aside this being disastrous to a society which, like all societies, is never more than one generation away from losing its culture, and catastrophic to a country which now has a second generation of voters entering the electorate who are ignorant of the cultural heritage they inherited and the history of the nation whose leadership they are about to assume, this spectacle can also be quite funny if observed with special goggles which only transmit black humour. For the whole intellectual tommyrot of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” has become so trendy that intellectuals in other fields one would expect to be more immune to such twaddle are getting into the act, including the law (“Critical Legal Studies”) and—astoundingly—architecture. An entire chapter is devoted to “Deconstructivist Architecture”, which by its very name seems to indicate you wouldn't want to spend much time in buildings “deconstructed” by its proponents. And yet, it has a bevy of earnest advocates, including Peter Eisenman, one of the most distinguished of U.S. architects, who advised those wishing to move beyond the sterility of modernism to seek

a theory of the center, that is, a theory which occupies the center. I believe that only when such a theory of the center is articulated will architecture be able to transform itself as it always has and as it always will…. But the center that I am talking about is not a center that can be the center that we know is in the past, as a nostalgia for center. Rather, this not new but other center will be … an interstitial one—but one with no structure, but one also that embraces as periphery in its own centric position. … A center no longer sustained by nostalgia and no longer sustained by univocal discourse. (p. 187)
Got that? I'd hate to be a client explaining to him that I want the main door to be centred between these two windows.

But seriously, apart from the zaniness, intellectual vapidity and sophistry, and obscurantist prose (all of which are on abundant display here), what we're seeing what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called the “long march through the institutions” arriving at the Marxist promised land: institutions of higher education funded with taxpayer money and onerous tuition payments paid by hard-working parents and towering student loans disgorging class after class of historically and culturally ignorant, indoctrinated, and easily influenced individuals into the electorate, just waiting for a charismatic leader who knows how to eloquently enunciate the trigger words they've been waiting for.

In the 2008 postscript the author notes that a common reaction to the original 1990 edition of the book was the claim that he had cherry-picked for mockery a few of the inevitably bizarre extremes you're sure to find in a vibrant and diverse academic community. But with all the news in subsequent years of speech codes, jackboot enforcing of “diversity”, and the lockstep conformity of much of academia, this argument is less plausible today. Indeed, much of the history of the last two decades has been the diffusion of new deconstructive and multicultural orthodoxy from elite institutions into the mainstream and its creeping into the secondary school curriculum as well. What happens in academia matters, especially in a country in which an unprecedented percentage of the population passes through what style themselves as institutions of higher learning. The consequences of this should be begin to be manifest in the United States over the next few years.

 Permalink

Anderson, Brian C. and Adam D. Thierer. A Manifesto for Media Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-228-8.
In the last decade, the explosive growth of the Internet has allowed a proliferation of sources of information and opinion unprecedented in the human experience. As humanity's first ever many-to-many mass medium, the Internet has essentially eliminated the barriers to entry for anybody who wishes to address an audience of any size in any medium whatsoever. What does it cost to start your own worldwide television or talk radio show? Nothing—and the more print-inclined can join the more than a hundred million blogs competing for the global audience's attention. In the United States, the decade prior to the great mass-market pile-on to the Internet saw an impressive (by pre-Internet standards) broadening of radio and television offerings as cable and satellite distribution removed the constraints of over-the-air bandwidth and limited transmission range, and abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” freed broadcasters to air political and religious programming of every kind.

Fervent believers in free speech found these developments exhilarating and, if they had any regrets, they were only that it didn't happen more quickly or go as far as it might. One of the most instructive lessons of this epoch has been that prominent among the malcontents of the new media age have been politicians who mouth their allegiance to free speech while trying to muzzle it, and legacy media outlets who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while trying to construe it as a privilege reserved for themselves, not a right to which the general populace is endowed as individuals.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, while technologists, entrepreneurs, and new media innovators strive to level the mass communication playing field, it's the politicians who make the laws and write the regulations under which everybody plays, and the legacy media which support politicians inclined to tilt the balance back in their favour, reversing (or at least slowing) the death spiral in their audience and revenue figures. This thin volume (just 128 pages: even the authors describe it as a “brief polemic”) sketches the four principal threats they see to the democratisation of speech we have enjoyed so far and hope to see broadened in unimagined ways in the future. Three have suitably Orwellian names: the “Fairness Doctrine” (content-based censorship of broadcast media), “Network Neutrality” (allowing the FCC's camel nose into the tent of the Internet, with who knows what consequences as Fox Charlie sweeps Internet traffic into the regulatory regime it used to stifle innovation in broadcasting for half a century), and “Campaign Finance Reform” (government regulation of political speech, often implemented in such a way as to protect incumbents from challengers and shut out insurgent political movements from access to the electorate). The fourth threat to new media is what the authors call “neophobia”: fear of the new. To the neophobe, the very fact of a medium's being innovative is presumptive proof that it is dangerous and should be subjected to regulation from which pre-existing media are exempt. Just look at the political entrepreneurs salivating over regulating video games, social networking sites, and even enforcing “balance” in blogs and Web news sources to see how powerful a force this is. And we have a venerable precedent in broadcasting being subjected, almost from its inception unto the present, to regulation unthinkable for print media.

The actual manifesto presented here occupies all of a page and a half, and can be summarised as “Don't touch! It's working fine and will evolve naturally to get better and better.” As I agree with that 100%, my quibbles with the book are entirely minor items of presentation and emphasis. The chapter on network neutrality doesn't completely close the sale, in my estimation, on how something as innocent-sounding as “no packet left behind” can open the door to intrusive content regulation of the Internet and the end of privacy, but then it's hard to explain concisely: when I tried five years ago, more than 25,000 words spilt onto the page. Also, perhaps because the authors' focus is on political speech, I think they've underestimated the extent to which, in regulation of the Internet, ginned up fear of what I call the unholy trinity: terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers, can be exploited by politicians to put in place content regulation which they can then turn to their own partisan advantage.

This is a timely book, especially for readers in the U.S., as the incoming government seems more inclined to these kinds of regulations than that it supplants. (I am on record as of July 10th, 2008, as predicting that an Obama administration would re-impose the “fairness doctrine”, enact “network neutrality”, and [an issue not given the attention I think it merits in this book] adopt “hate speech” legislation, all with the effect of stifling [mostly due to precautionary prior restraint] free speech in all new media.) For a work of advocacy, this book is way too expensive given its length: it would reach far more of the people who need to be apprised of these threats to their freedom of expression and to access to information were it available as an inexpensive paperback pamphlet or on-line download.

A podcast interview with one of the authors is available.

 Permalink

Macintyre, Ben. Agent Zigzag. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-35341-2.
I'm not sure I'd agree with the cover blurb by the Boston Globe reviewer who deemed this “The best book ever written”, but it's a heck of a great read and will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Imagine the best wartime espionage novel you've ever read, stir in exploits from a criminal caper yarn, leaven with an assortment of delightfully eccentric characters, and then make the whole thing totally factual, exhaustively documented from archives declassified decades later by MI5, and you have this compelling story.

The protagonist, Eddie Chapman was, over his long and convoluted career, a British soldier; deserter; safecracker; elite criminal; prisoner of His Majesty, the government of the Isle of Jersey, and the Nazi occupation in Paris; volunteer spy and saboteur for the German Abwehr; parachute spy in Britain; double agent for MI5; instructor at a school for German spies in Norway; spy once again in Britain, deceiving the Germans about V-1 impact locations; participant in fixed dog track races; serial womaniser married to the same woman for fifty years; and for a while an “honorary crime correspondent” to the Sunday Telegraph. That's a lot to fit into even a life as long as Chapman's, and a decade after his death, those who remember him still aren't sure where his ultimate allegiance lay or even if the concept applied to him. If you simply look at him as an utterly amoral person who managed to always come up standing, even after intensive interrogations by MI5, the Abwehr, Gestapo, and SS, you miss his engaging charm, whether genuine or feigned, which engendered deeply-felt and long-lasting affection among his associates, both British and Nazi, criminal and police, all of whom describe him as a unique character.

Information on Chapman's exploits has been leaking out ever since he started publishing autobiographical information in 1953. Dodging the Official Secrets Act, in 1966 he published a more detailed account of his adventures, which was made into a very bad movie starring Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman. Since much of this information came from Chapman, it's not surprising that a substantial part of it was bogus. It is only with the release of the MI5 records, and through interviews with surviving participants in Chapman's exploits that the author was able to piece together an account which, while leaving many questions of motivation uncertain, at least pins down the facts and chronology.

This is a thoroughly delightful story of a totally ambiguous character: awarded the Iron Cross for his services to the Nazi Reich, having mistresses simultaneously supported in Britain and Norway by MI5 and the Abwehr, covertly pardoned for his high-profile criminal record for his service to the Crown, and unreconstructed rogue in his long life after the war. If published as spy fiction, this would be considered implausible in the extreme; the fact that it really happened makes this one of the most remarkable wartime stories I've read and an encounter with a character few novelists could invent.

 Permalink

Miller, Ron and Fredrick C. Durant III. The Art of Chesley Bonestell. London: Paper Tiger, 2001. ISBN 978-1-85585-884-8.
If you're interested in astronomy and space, you're almost certainly familiar with the space art of Chesley Bonestell, who essentially created the genre of realistic depictions of extraterrestrial scenes. But did you know that Bonestell also:

  • Was a licensed architect in the State of California, who contributed to the design of a number of buildings erected in Northern California in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake?
  • Chose the site for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (of which the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts remains today)?
  • Laid out the Seventeen Mile Drive in Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula?
  • Did detailed design of the ornamentation of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and illustrated pamphlets explaining the engineering of the bridge?
  • Worked for years in Hollywood doing matte paintings for films including Citizen Kane?
  • Not only did the matte paintings, but designed the buildings of Howard Roark for the film version of The Fountainhead?
  • Painted the Spanish missions of California as they would have appeared in their heyday?

Although Bonestell always considered himself an illustrator, not an artist, and for much of his career took no particular care to preserve the originals of his work, here was a polymath with a paintbrush who brought genius as well as precision to every subject he rendered. He was, like his collaborator on Destination Moon, Robert A. Heinlein (the two admired each other's talents, but Bonestell thought Heinlein somewhat of a nut in his political views; their relationship got off to a rocky start when Bonestell visited Heinlein's self-designed dream house and pronounced his architectural judgement that it looked like a gas station), a businessman first—he would take the job that paid best and quickest, and produced a large volume of commercial art to order, all with the attention to detail of his more artistically ambitious creations.

While Bonestell was modest about his artistic pretensions, he had no shortage of self-esteem: in 1974 he painted a proposed redesign of the facade of St. Peter's Basilica better in keeping with his interpretation of Michelangelo's original intent and arranged to have it sent to the Pope who responded, in essence, “Thanks, but no thanks”.

This resplendent large-format coffee table book tells the story of Bonestell's long and extraordinarily creative career in both text and hundreds of full-colour illustrations of his work. To open this book to almost any page is to see worlds unknown at the time, rendered through the eye of an artist whose mind transported him there and sparked the dream of exploration in the generations which expanded the human presence and quest to explore beyond the home planet.

This book is out of print and used copies command a frightful premium; I bought this book when it was for sale at the cover price and didn't get around to reading all the text for seven years, hence its tardy appearance here.

 Permalink

Kauffman, Bill. Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-933859-73-6.
It is a cliché to observe that history is written by the victors, but rarely is it as evident as in the case of the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, where the proponents of a strong national government, some of whom, including Alexander Hamilton, wished to “annihilate the State distinctions and State operations” (p. 30), not only conducted the proceedings in secret, carefully managed the flow of information to the public, and concealed their nationalist, nay imperial, ambitions from the state conventions which were to vote on ratification. Indeed, just like modern-day collectivists in the U.S. who have purloined the word “liberal”, which used to mean a champion of individual freedom, the covert centralisers at the Constitutional Convention styled themselves “Federalists”, while promoting a supreme government which was anything but federal in nature. The genuine champions of a federal structure allowed themselves to be dubbed “Anti-Federalists” and, as always, were slandered as opposing “progress” (but toward what?). The Anti-Federalists counted among their ranks men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Samuel Chase, and Elbridge Gerry: these were not reactionary bumpkins but heroes, patriots, and intellectuals the equal of any of their opponents. And then there was Luther Martin, fervent Anti-Federalist and perhaps the least celebrated of the Founding Fathers.

Martin's long life was a study in contradictions. He was considered one of the most brilliant trial lawyers of his time, and yet his courtroom demeanour was universally described as long-winded, rambling, uncouth, and ungrammatical. He often appeared in court obviously inebriated, was slovenly in appearance and dress, when excited would flick spittle from his mouth, and let's not get into his table manners. At the Consitutional Convention he was a fierce opponent of the Virginia Plan which became the basis of the Constitution and, with Samuel Adams and Mason, urged the adoption of a Bill of Rights. He argued vehemently for the inclusion of an immediate ban on the importation of slaves and a plan to phase out slavery while, as of 1790, owning six slaves himself yet serving as Honorary-Counselor to a Maryland abolitionist society.

After the Constitution was adopted by the convention (Martin had walked out by the time and did not sign the document), he led the fight against its ratification by Maryland. Maryland ratified the Constitution over his opposition, but he did manage to make the ratification conditional upon the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

Martin was a man with larger than life passions. Although philosophically close to Thomas Jefferson in his view of government, he detested the man because he believed Jefferson had slandered one of his wife's ancestors as a murderer of Indians. When Jefferson became President, Martin the Anti-Federalist became Martin the ardent Federalist, bent on causing Jefferson as much anguish as possible. When a law student studying with him eloped with and married his daughter, Martin turned incandescent, wrote, and self-published a 163 page full-tilt tirade against the bounder titled Modern Gratitude.

Lest Martin come across as a kind of buffoon, bear in mind that after his singular performance at the Constitutional Convention, he went on to serve as Attorney General of the State of Maryland for thirty years (a tenure never equalled in all the years which followed), argued forty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and appeared for the defence in two of the epochal trials of early U.S. jurisprudence: the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase before the U.S. Senate, and the treason trial of Aaron Burr—and won acquittals on both occasions.

The author is an unabashed libertarian, and considers Martin's diagnosis of how the Constitution would inevitably lead to the concentration of power in a Federal City (which his fellow Anti-Federalist George Clinton foresaw, “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious, and ambitious” [p. xiii]) to the detriment of individual liberty as prescient. One wishes that Martin had been listened to, while sympathising with those who actually had to endure his speeches.

The author writes with an exuberantly vast vocabulary which probably would have sent the late William F. Buckley to the dictionary on several occasions: every few pages you come across a word like “roorback”, “eftsoons”, “sennight”, or “fleer”. For a complete list of those which stumped me, open the vault of the spoilers.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Here are the delightfully obscure words used in this book. To avoid typographic fussiness, I have not quoted them. Each is linked to its definition. Vocabulary ho!

malison, exordium, eristic, roorback, tertium quid, bibulosity, eftsoons, vendue, froward, pococurante, disprized, toper, cerecloth, sennight, valetudinarian, variorum, concinnity, plashing, ultimo, fleer, recusants, scrim, flagitious, indurated, truckling, linguacious, caducity, prepotency, natheless, dissentient, placemen, lenity, burke, plangency, roundelay, hymeneally, mesalliance, divagation, parti pris, anent, comminatory, descry, minatory
Spoilers end here.  

This is a wonderful little book which, if your view of the U.S. Constitution has been solely based on the propaganda of those who promulgated it, is an excellent and enjoyable antidote.

 Permalink