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National Security And Civil Liberties

[ 170 ] December 28, 2012 |

Corey Robin’s essay in the new Jacobin is quite brilliant.    There’s a lot that could (and will) be said about it, but I have initial responses/amplifications on three points.

First of all, it’s almost certainly correct to say that national security “has…provided the single most effective and enduring justification for the suppression of rights.”   At least in the American context, however, this is a complicated story.   To bring Klinkner and Smith, Dudziak, and Graber into the discussion security has not only been the most powerful justification for the suppression of rights; it’s been the most powerful justification for the expansion of rights.   The two major expansions of civil rights in American history were the result of an incredibly bloody civil war and the Cold War.  And national security has also been part of the story of other important and benign expansions of government authority.   One reason for the horrible escalation in LBJ is that Johnson (who primarily cared about domestic policy) thought that being perceived as a hawk was crucial to keeping his coalition together to get Great Society legislation passed, and he might have been right.   Nixon was the reverse with some similar effects — he was willing to sign some good domestic legislation a Democratic Congress put on his desk as long as that Congress would defer to his desires to bomb Cambodia inter alia.  Essentially, national security is an impetus that is more likely than any other to overcome the inertia-by-design of the American political system.   The consequences of this depends on what pre-existing agenda public officials want to use national security as a justification to implement.

Second, let me highlight one of the most important points of the essay, that “[t]he problem is not that we live in a world of Hobbesian states; it is that we live in a world of failed Hobbesian states”:

In the Hobbesian account, this constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action.  At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.

Another crucial and ongoing example of this phenomenon, of course, is the War (on Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs.   The language of national security is used to justify mass incarceration and a diminution of Fourth Amendment rights that has, on balance, almost certainly made the targeted communities less safe.

Finally, this is peripheral to the central claims of the essay, but I have a couple responses to this:

While liberalism as a theory has given us excellent reasons to oppose the use of coercive state power on behalf of religious or moral orthodoxy, it has given us far fewer reasons to oppose the use of that power on behalf of security.  In fact, if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.

I don’t entirely disagree with this, although (if you’ll forgive a pet peeve of mine) I’m not sure what useful work the “liberal tradition” is doing here. Holmes — while not a person of the left — is certainly part of the liberal tradition, but then Black and Douglas’s dissents in Dennis are surely just as much a part of the “liberal tradition” as Holmes’s disgraceful WWI opinions. The liberal tradition gives us plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of national security as a justification for the suppression of individual liberties; these reasons just tend to lack political potency.

That aside, Holmes is an excellent example — compare the application of the “clear and present danger” text in Schenck and Debs with his dissent in Gitlow. “Clear and present danger” gave some content to the First Amendment as soon as World War I ended. Although, at least, to Holmes “national security” wasn’t a perpetual justification; troops in the field of a war in Europe provided justification for the suppression of liberties, but vague “threats” from domestic radicals did not. The problem is, it’s not a coincidence that as soon as he started to take the First Amendment seriously he found himself in dissent.

Comments (170)

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  1. Doug M. says:

    The ritualistic beating of Holmes does get a little tiresome. Yes, he wrote some horrible opinions on civil liberties. (I’m a little surprised Robin doesn’t quote _Bucks v. Bell_. “Three generations of imbeciles” is usually the go-to stick for smacking Holmes with.) He wrote some awesome stuff too. He was a complicated guy.

    Also, Holmes was neither a progressive, a Progressive, nor a liberal in the American sense. (You could call him a liberal in the European sense, but, geez, it’s an awfully broad church.) He wrote some stuff that American liberals and progressives liked a lot, but that’s not really the same thing at all. So it’s a card-sharp move to shuffle him into the liberal deck. Jacobin writers generally love this sort of thing, I’ve noticed, so Robin is fitting right in.

    Doug M.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Well, I assume Robin in this context is using “liberal tradition” in the political theory sense, not in the American politics sense (which confines “liberal” to “left-liberal.”) Holmes isn’t really liberal in the latter sense but he certainly is in the former.

      • Corey Robin says:

        Yes, I do mean it in the political theory sense, which is not entirely divorced from the meaning of the word in the American sense but is different. In terms of your point in the post, Scott, I don’t disagree that there are instances, and a fair number of them at different points in time, of liberals opposing restrictions in the name of security. I can’t think however of a theoretical tradition within liberalism that has tried to work through that problem. Now that may not matter; I’m inclined, with you, to think that a lot of this has to do with the politics on the ground. But the theorist in me does wonder whether the fact that the instances you cite of liberals opposing rights violations in the name of security might not have political traction — a point you make — in part because there’s no real theoretical tradition of worrying about that problem. Because those theoretical traditions have a way, sometimes, of becoming popular discourses — just think about how commonsensical some of Mill’s views on harm for instance can appear to many undergraduates. Anyway, not sure where I come down on that, but it’s something I’ve wondered about. Re your first point: I completely agree. And have written about that elsewhere. Just didn’t seem to fit here.

        • Rhino says:

          Not sure what your article has to do with us, really. I mean I can see you mean well, but not a head on a pike anywhere.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Re your first point: I completely agree. And have written about that elsewhere. Just didn’t seem to fit here.

          Oh, yes, I agree — I don’t think it contradicts your point and would have gotten in the way of the argument you’re pursuing here, just wanted to make note of it.

    • timb says:

      I have an entire notebook from a Federalist Society confab about Holmes.

      Holmes is like Jesus, you can read whatever you want into him because he went everywhere.

      I do like the deference to Congress though

  2. Doug M. says:

    Also also, I’m going to cut some slack to anyone who enlisted young to fight The War Against Treason And Slavery, nearly got killed, then jumped right up and dove right back in again. Holmes managed to get through four years of horrible, horrible war without going nuts or becoming embittered. He then managed to climb the ladder from poor solo practitioner to state judge to J.S.Ct. almost entirely on his own merits, despite being the son of a famous father who could easily have wafted him into a career of success and ease in politics or academe.

    Given where Holmes was coming from, he’s *so much better* than we had any right to expect. He could have, and probably should have, turned out a snob, a fop, or simply an arrogant, entitled bigot. Instead he turned out to be one of the few late 19th century Americans able to (sometimes!) step outside his economic, social and cultural context and take a truly long-sighted view. He had, on most issues, a great deal of perspective — which is not the same thing as being right, or arriving at conclusions we agree with, but is nonetheless a rare and valuable thing.

    (Yeah, I’m a big old Holmes fanboy. And that’s with full knowledge of just how fucking wrong he was in those cases you’re thinking of right now, and how destructive and baneful those decisions have been.)

    Doug M.

    • Colin Day says:

      According to Shelby Foote, when Lincoln was on the parapet at Fort Stevens during Early’s invasion, it was Holmes who told the President “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!”, an utterance that might have saved the republic. (pp 458-459 of Red River to Appomattox, Volume 3 of The Civil War)

      • Doug M. says:

        This is an example of Foote going for the cool story. (Which was a thing he did sometimes.) The anecdote about Holmes yelling Lincoln down can’t be positively proven or disproven. It doesn’t seem to have appeared until many years after the war (1890s IMS). Holmes never mentioned it in his wartime letters, his diaries, or his postwar writings, and no other contemporary observer has ever confirmed that the officer who yelled at Lincoln was Holmes. On the other hand, he appears to have not-denied the anecdote when confronted with it on at least one occasion — though it was decades later, in the 20th century.

        So maybe he did and maybe he didn’t; we’ll probably never know for sure.

        Doug M.

      • Hogan says:

        And even more apocryphally, Lincoln later told him, “I’m glad you know how to talk to a civilian.”

      • rea says:

        I’d say this is one of those stories which, if it isn’t true, ought to be.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I’m not sure why you see this post as “Holmes-bashing.” He wrote some admirable opinions and some terrible ones — so we agree!

      • Doug M. says:

        I’m critiquing Robin, not you, Scott.

        Doug M.

        • Corey Robin says:

          Doug M.: Aside from changing the subject, can you tell me exactly how what you’ve written here is a critique of what I wrote?

          • Doug M. says:

            You wrote, “if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.” But calling Holmes a ‘touchstone of liberal discourse’ is problematic if not actually specious.

            We agree that Holmes was not a liberal in the American sense. You say above that you mean “in the political theory sense”. But there are some problems with this. One, “liberal in the political theory sense” is such a broad tent that it’s almost worthless — for starters, it includes pretty much all significant political actors in the United States and Western Europe.

            Two, your article is clearly talking about the United States. Trayvon Martin, Joe Lieberman, Learned Hand, the Iraq War, the War of 1812, Woodrow Wilson… it’s the American experiences of fear and repression front and center. In an article that’s clearly written about America and for an American audience, it’s not unreasonable for us to think that “liberal” means “in the American sense”. If that’s not what you mean, then you probably should mark it a bit more clearly. In fact, I’d say you’ve done the opposite — when you write stuff like “liberals [have argued] that politics stop at the water’s edge”, you’re pretty clearly talking about *American* liberals, not followers of Mill or Bastiat generally.

            Three, grouping Holmes with Locke and Mill makes no sense unless you’re talking about a narrowly American context, because Holmes is a narrowly American figure. Locke and Mill are part of the canon across the Anglosphere and well studied beyond it — you’d expect a well-educated French or Russian to be at least aware of them, and they both got regularly cited by (for instance) independence movements in the Third World. Holmes, not so much — he’s largely unknown outside the US, and has exercised almost no direct influence on non-American political thought or discourse.

            This is why I say it’s a card-sharp move to shuffle him into the (American) liberal deck. Citing Holmes doesn’t make a lot of sense outside the American context; but within the American context, calling him a “liberal touchstone” is simply wrong. He wasn’t considered an American liberal when he was alive; the myth of his liberalism was constructed in the last decade of his life and immediately thereafter, largely by a group of admirers led by Louis Brandeis. (Brandeis, BTW, would have been a much better choice as a “liberal touchstone” — he was the Velvet Underground of 20th century legal liberalism in the US.) If you’re interested in exploring this, I’d point you towards Irving Bernstein’s classic 1950 article “The Conservative Mr. Justice Holmes” — a very one sided piece, but not an inaccurate one. In any event, Holmes’ opinions have been cited by American conservatives as much or more than American liberals; in a US context, you could just as easily call him “a conservative touchstone” as a liberal one.

            Finally, there is actually a reasonable case to be made that Holmes was not only not a liberal in the American sense, but that he was not a liberal in any sense at all — European, Lockean, political-theory, what have you. I think this is a bridge too far myself, but it’s a case that can be and has been made. Probably the best expression of this is Albert Altschuler’s 2001 book, “Law Without Values: The Life, Work and Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes”. Altschuler argues that Holmes’ war experience (which, as noted above, was extreme even by Civil War standards) left him utterly cynical, convinced that life was a Darwinian struggle in which only the strong deserved to survive, and that his judicial philosophy directly reflected this. I think it’s a stretch, myself, but while it’s an extreme view of his thought and writings it’s not an utterly daft one.

            Doug M.

            • Corey Robin says:

              Doug: “One, ‘liberal in the political theory sense is such a broad tent that it’s almost worthless — for starters, it includes pretty much all significant political actors in the United States and Western Europe.” I don’t know if you’re a political theorist or not, but it’s a fairly conventional nomenclature in political theory, which does include Locke and Mill but does not include Marx and Nietzsche. Its basic contours most certainly would not allow for and not apply to a great many political actors in European and US history: Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Napoleon III, Blanqui, Maurras, and more. More important, I put Holmes in the camp of Locke and Mill deliberately to signal that I’m dealing with him as contributor to a theoretical tradition. I get that you didn’t get that, and I’m sorry it wasn’t clearer. But that is what I was doing. And while there’s no reason you should know this, a great deal of my work is about deprovincializing American thinkers, putting them into dialogue with European political theorists. And in that regard, it’s quite appropriate to put Holmes into the camp of Locke and Mill for the reasons I make clear in my article. Again, you’re more than welcome to take issue with that move, but that is what I was doing, so to point out that he’s not a liberal in the American sense is quite beside the point, and unless you want to dispute the claim that his contribution to thinking about civil liberties in Schenck is not liberal in the political theory sense, your claims are rather ancillary to mine. Interesting, but not relevant.

              • Doug M. says:

                I meant “contemporary political actors”, but I didn’t include the modifier — my bad.

                it’s a fairly conventional nomenclature in political theory,

                I’m familiar with it, and I somewhat dislike it — largely because I find it annoyingly garbled and sloppy. This is probably a consequence of having spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, where the term gets thrown around in rather different ways than in the West.

                But let that bide. My main quarrel here is with your use of the term “touchstone”. Perhaps it’s a shortcoming on my part, but I can’t parse this in a way that makes sense to me. Holmes isn’t a “touchstone” to American liberals in any meaningful sense. You can find liberals citing some particular cases of his, but you can find just as many conservatives.

                Now, Holmes is certainly a seminal figure in various ways. Most notably, he stands at the breaking point of old-fashioned legal formalism; he, Brandeis, Cardozo and the FDR judges helped plot a dramatically new philosophical course for the court after 1920. But a “liberal touchstone”? No, that just doesn’t work.

                But calling him a “liberal touchstone” in the political theory sense doesn’t work either, because most of the world outside of the USA has never heard of him, and he had no direct influence there.

                Was his reasoning in _Schenk_ in the liberal tradition? I’d say yes — though, as noted, there’s a significant minority view that disagrees. Altschuler argues with a straight face that Holmes has more in common with Nietzsche than with Mill. As noted above, I think it’s a stretch, but he makes a decent prima facie case.

                But in any event, “Holmes reasoned in the liberal tradition” is one thing. Saying Holmes is, in your words, “a touchstone of liberal discourse” is something else altogether. That description certainly works for Locke or Mills; I have trouble seeing how it works for Holmes. Possibly this is a shortcoming on my part! but if you could shed any further light, I’d be interested.

                Doug M.

              • Doug M. says:

                Incidentally, if you’re looking to deprovincialize Holmes and “put [him] in dialogue with European political theorists”, then I’d note that he’s in many ways more French — or Eastern European — than you might expect from a Boston Brahmin. Holmes’ character combined deep cynicism, ferocious nationalism, and abiding love of learning, good conversation, and intellectual play for its own sake. In his personal life he was a vigorous hedonist who, as we’d say today, worked hard and played hard; he loved good meals, fine wines and tobacco, nothing made him happier than sitting around a cleared dinner table with cigars, port, and several brilliant intellectuals to argue with. Putting those personal characteristics aside, his willingness to bend theory to the perceived needs of the nation strikes one as very continental-philosophy, though of course the term wouldn’t be invented for a generation after he died.

                Doug M.

      • AR says:

        Agreed. After Brandise (and maybe first John Harlen) Holmes can be seen as one of the touchstones leading to the liberal revolutions post “switch in time.” However, he has a lot of horrible cases to his name; not just the freedom of speech cases but also the often forgotten Giles v Harris, which signed of on de jur racial discrimination in voting rights.

        • Doug M. says:

          I said Holmes wasn’t embittered by his war experience, but he was definitely disillusioned — and one of the things he became very cynical about was his youthful abolitionism. He didn’t turn into a raving bigot, but he backed well away from his earlier the-Negro-is-my-brother-and-equal idealism. By the time he was on the Court, he’d become unfortunately reconciled to the dominant narratives of the day on African-Americans and their place in American society. There were Justices who were far worse, but you couldn’t say he was one of the good ones.

          He did stay abnormally liberal on Jews and Catholics, not only socializing freely with them but clearly considering at least some of them his social and intellectual equals and firmly opposing formal discrimination against them. For a guy born when William Henry Harrison was President, that was no small thing.

          Doug M.

        • Doug M. says:

          The Holmes-Brandeis connection gets overlooked a lot. Brandeis was, at the time, by far the most controversial appointment the Supreme Court had ever seen: he was a progressive, a Jew, and a fearless and outspoken opponent of corporate power. He was the first Supreme Court nominee to undergo hearings, and the four-month delay between his nomination and Senate approval was unprecedented at the time. (Previous nominees had typically been approved by voice vote within a few days of being nominated.) To give a very approximate modern comparison, imagine Obama appointing a no-kidding hard-left African-American lawyer with a long record of advocacy and activism for radical causes. It was, at the time, quite the thing.

          So when Brandeis arrived at the Court, he wasn’t exactly embraced with open arms. Several of his new colleagues were, to put it bluntly, dicks about the whole thing. The most extreme case — Justice McReynolds, a loathsome bigot even by the standards of the day — would not speak with him, sit next to him, or acknowledge his presence unless forced to. While McReynolds was the worse, for Brandeis’ first few years on the Court, several of the other Justices openly snubbed him, and almost all of them were visibly uncomfortable around him.

          Holmes was the great exception. Say what you like about the man, he had firmly internalized the maxim that “my intellectual equal is my peer”, regardless of race, creed or background. (It was one of the positive legacies from his lordly, ostentatiously overeducated father.) He went far out of his way to welcome Brandeis — sending him a telegraph of welcome when his nomination was fonfirmed, inviting him to his home, and generally serving as his mentor and patron through those difficult first couple of years on the Court. The tall, abstract Yankee Brahmin and the scrappy little German Jew quickly formed one of the great unlikely friendships of the Court’s history. Since Holmes was the seniormost Justice, and commanded much more respect than the unimpressive Chief Justice (Edward White — remember him? Nobody else does, either), this was no small thing. Brandeis and Holmes built, not just a friendship, but one of the more fascinating intellectual pairings in Supreme Court history, joining together in a number of important decisions (and some even more important dissents).

          From the POV of this discussion, what’s interesting is that Brandeis became, not just Holmes’ friend, but his devoted supporter and advocate. Since Brandeis was himself a liberal and a progressive, he downplayed or ignored the nonliberal aspects of Holmes’ record. By carefully cherry-picking through Holmes’ decisions and writings, Brandeis and his followers were able to construct a legend of Holmes as a great liberal and defender of personal freedom. It’s a nice notion — but it’s based on a very incomplete and one-sided reading of Holmes’ complex record.

          Doug M.

          • Doug M. says:

            Hm: flipping through the White bio of Holmes, I see that Brandeis was the only colleague who was with Holmes when his wife Fanny died. They’d been married well over 50 years, and Holmes didn’t want anyone else around, but he let Brandeis come in. Then a bit later, Brandeis was one of only two Supreme Court Justices who didn’t come to Holmes’ funeral… Van Devanter was sick, but Brandeis was so prostrate with grief that he couldn’t bring himself to attend. (And Brandeis was not a guy who normally let strong emotions knock him flat.)

            So, an unlikely but deep friendship, and one with profound effects on the development of US law.

            Doug M.

      • rea says:

        Holmes’ extra-judicial writings on the intersection of law and philosophy are probably more important than his opinions.

    • rea says:

      enlisted young to fight The War Against Treason And Slavery, nearly got killed, then jumped right up and dove right back in again

      Or, more accurately, nearly got killed, dove right back in again, nearly got killed, dove right back in again, nearly got killed, and dove back in again (seriously wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville).

      • Doug M. says:

        Yeah, at one point his family quite reasonably believed he was dead. (He’d been hospitalized, and the his file got lost.) His father ended up writing an article about searching for him — it can be found in the Atlantic archive here:

        – it’s written in a very slow and discursive 19th century style, but if you’re a Civil War buff it’s definitely worth a look.

        Holmes definitely saw more of the war than most; he signed up in 1861, and didn’t leave until the end. IMS at one point it was an open question whether his foot would have to be amputated, and he later wrote that his feelings were along the lines of “I’d hate to lose a foot, but OTOH it /would/ mean I’d finally be done with the war.” Yet he stuck it out.

        Doug M.

  3. Murc says:

    To bring Klinkner and Smith, Dudziak, and Graber into the discussion security has not only been the most powerful justification for the suppression of rights; it’s been the most powerful justification for the expansion of rights. The two major expansions of civil rights in American history were the result of an incredibly bloody civil war and the Cold War.

    Er… I don’t think the connections here are obvious.

    There’s a case to be made that the Civil War was indeed used as a justification for expansion of rights; certainly I’ve read plenty of accounts of people wanting to get blacks into the Army (often, of course, so they could stop bullets that would otherwise need to be stopped by whites) and of course the Emancipation Proclamation had at least part of its justification as denying rebels their ‘property.’

    But the Cold War? Seriously? I’m not what you’d call a rigorous scholar of the period, but I’ve never read any account of the civil rights movement where people were using the existence of the Soviet Bloc as justification for expanding domestic civil rights.

    I’m not sure how that would even work; “We’re being opposed ideologically by the world’s only other superpower, so we should alter longstanding social arrangements that have benefited our ruling elites handsomely because…”

    And I can’t think of a plausible justification to go after that ‘because.’ The civil rights movement was of course impacted by foreign politics, because everything is interconnected, but the primary driving forces behind it were domestic, and I certainly can’t recall ever seeing Cold War era security concerns being used as a justification for ending segregation.

    • Bill Cross says:

      I think that the Soviets made fun of the US for not upholding our principles with respect to non-whites in society and this reduced the conservatives resistance to Civil Rights change

      • Hogan says:

        There’s an old joke about an American tourist being taken on a tour of Moscow in the ’50s. The guide shows him a subway station, and the American marvels at how clean and beautifully decorated it is. After fifteen minutes of looking around, he observes to the guide that he hasn’t seen an actual subway train come through. The guide replies, “And what about the Negroes in the South?”

    • You haven’t?

      The Soviets were using the oppression of African-Americans in the South as a core element of their propaganda (this during a time period when the Soviets were promoting Marxist revolutions in plantation/colonial societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America).

      In addition, American Cold Warriors were terrified of a pro-Soviet movement among black Americans.

      • Murc says:

        The Soviets were using the oppression of African-Americans in the South as a core element of their propaganda

        This I did know; I just didn’t know that anybody took it seriously. The only places I’ve seen it mentioned are books about, well, international politics during the cold war, as opposed to texts about the actual struggle for civil rights.

        I always assumed it was taken about as seriously as propaganda as, say, the completely ridiculous videos the North Koreans shot on the Pueblo after they captured it.

        • Hogan says:

          The North Koreans didn’t stage any videos of Bull Connor setting the dogs on black children in Birmingham.

          • The Dark Avenger says:

            Or send federal troops to Little Rock, AR, to protect the schoolchildren.

          • Murc says:

            The North Koreans didn’t stage any videos of Bull Connor setting the dogs on black children in Birmingham.

            This is true, but I’m confused as to how it is germane.

            Basically, I’m not seeing how ‘the Soviets, who we hate and don’t trust and who all our allies hate and don’t trust, are making deeply hypocritical arguments about the failures of a social order that’s served us pretty darn well, so we’d better make some changes to deny them this tool’ is something that would have been taken seriously by American elites, either domestically or internationally.

            I could, of course, be wrong.

            • burritoboy says:

              It was absolutely taken seriously, particularly because the uppermost regions of the American elite was far more interested in prosecuting the Cold War in the Third World than in protecting the established regime in the South. And segregation in the American South was a centerpiece of Soviet / PRC propaganda in the Third World.

              Something that also shouldn’t be ignored is that the top of American elites was well aware that the bad conditions of segregation was leading to huge internal immigrations of African-Americans from the South to all other parts of the US – something that was creating immense racial tensions in the North, MidWest and West from the early 1940s onward.

              • JoyfulA says:

                At the time, I saw magazine articles about the Soviet propaganda that lamented the truth of the allegations and heard about it in adults’ conversations in my unsophisticated milieu.

                It was a big deal.

            • Djur says:

              “Deeply hypocritical?” Communists were a major part of the civil rights movement in the United States from the ’20s onward. That has always been part of the conservative hatred for communism (see the “red diaper baby” claims about Barack Obama), and anticommunist US liberals consciously worked to make civil rights a liberal issue, not a leftist one.

              There were a lot of hypocrisies in the USSR, but I think communists had a clear case to criticize America on civil rights for African-Americans. They did the ground work.

              • Murc says:

                Generic communists were no less qualified to call out the US on civil rights abuses than anyone else.

                The USSR didn’t get to point out the civil rights motes in other peoples eyes. Period. Any attempt on their part to do so was deeply laughable and also deeply hypocritical. It’s the equivalent of Pat Buchanan lecturing people on racial sensitivity.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  True, but largely due to their tiny numbers in the USSR, Blacks were generally treated well there up until the 1960s. After the 1960s when a large number of African students arrive there is the emergence of “unofficial” or “sociological” racism against Blacks in the USSR. However, unlike other minorities such as Koreans, Germans, or Crimean Tatars Blacks in the USSR were never victims of “official” or “institutional” racism like in the US South. This gave African-American Communists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois a distorted view of Soviet racial policies.

              • That’s all well and good if we’re talking about American communists, but Soviet Russian’s weren’t exactly blazing a path for civil and minority rights.

            • John says:

              The issue isn’t that it was domestically damaging to Americans. The issue was that it hurt America’s image in the Third World. American politicians cared about that, and certainly one of the reasons for the Eastern Establishment elite’s embrace of civil rights had to do with improving America’s image abroad.

        • Linnaeus says:

          This I did know; I just didn’t know that anybody took it seriously. The only places I’ve seen it mentioned are books about, well, international politics during the cold war, as opposed to texts about the actual struggle for civil rights.

          Cold War Civil Rights, by Mary Dudziak is a good example of a book that makes the argument that Cold War politics were an important factor in civil rights reforms after World War II.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      The argument is that Jim Crow offered a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union and, more importantly, that American policy elites saw it as doing so.

      • FlipYrWhig says:

        Yes, this. Part of the ideological battle during the Cold War was over which system was better delivering equality and justice. “Moral authority” and all that.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          It was hard enough to get non-aligned African governments to tilt towards the US with our support of Portuguese colonialism and tacit approval of apartheid in South Africa. Treating people of African descent as second class citizens within our own borders was a bridge too far for many African leaders. It was not capitalism that Africans had a problem with it was racism.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      More to the point, civil rights obtained support form high levels of the American government largely for Cold War reasons. Segregation was a powerful propaganda tool for the USSR, which is why the Truman and Eisenhower administrations urged the Supreme Court to rule segregation unconstitutional (although the civil rights movement had little direct influence on either.)

      • Djur says:

        I think Americans today underestimate how seriously Americans took communism during the ’40s and ’50s. Communists made significant inroads in American academia, arts, labor, and the civil rights movement during the Great Depression, and the USSR was our ally during the war.

        The post-war consensus was New Deal liberal because conservatives and liberals had to make common cause against communism. This didn’t last long, sure. But there was more to it than the Red Scare and the blacklists.

        It wasn’t until the ’60s that USSR-backed communism lost significant credibility in the West, and that’s where we get the New Left. After 50 years of almost unanimous anticommunist sentiment in the US (and several decades of widespread knowledge of how corrupt and incompetent the Soviet state was in its waning years), it’s hard to recognize that the USSR was considered a moral and ideological rival, not just a military threat.

        • Murc says:

          The loss of a clear ideological alternative to capitalism was one of the few (maybe the only) downsides of the Soviet Bloc imploding.

          Having the reds out there howling for blood helped keep the banksters in line.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Yeah but it was at cost of hundreds of millions suffering under Communism, especially its more ideologically whacky forms like Maoism.

            Yet, I think that a lot of the Far Left has become directionless after the end of communism and has yet to find a coherent ideologically replacement. Its a more serious problem in Europe where the Far Left has a better shot of potential electoral wins. I don’t really see myself as Far Left but I think that they are a necessary part of the political scene for any sort of left-liberal victory.

            • Djur says:

              The Russian kleptocracy hasn’t become notably more humane, equitable, or honest since abandoning communism. At least when Russia and China were officially communist they were ignoring their own claimed values. Now they just don’t have any at all.

              • LeeEsq says:

                OTH, the Russian kelptocracy isn’t subjecting the Russian people to sociological experiments anymore. The CCP on the other hand is.

                • Bill Cross says:

                  are you sure about this? or are you arguing that the results of the kleptocracy were known before implementation, so it wasn’t an experiment.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Yeah, being starved and denied basic medical care is much better than being subjected to sociological experiments.

                  What do you even mean by “sociological experiment”?

                • burritoboy says:

                  The period that established the kleptocracy itself was a giant sociological (or rather, economic and sociological) experiment that was run by a handful of American economists on the population of one of the (then) most populated countries in the world.

                  A lot of people died. Life expectancy went down substantially. People debate how many people died, but the decreased nutrition (particularly in the period 1989-2004), the increased murder and suicide rates have claimed, at minimum, in the hundreds of thousands of lives.

              • LosGatosCA says:

                There are considerably fewer dead Russian civilians in the 1990-2010 years than in the 1920-1940 period, so that’s real progress. On the other hand, relative to the Western world, their economic and routine political progress have been stunted through self-inflicted artery slashing at every stage. That’s regrettable.

                • LeeEsq says:

                  This is to DocAmazing, by sociological experiments I mean all those efforts to create a Communist system without thinking of the consequences first like collectivization of farms. You can’t predict every consequence but when attempting something unprecedented, where human life is at stake, there should be some caution.

                • burritoboy says:

                  But there were considerably more dead Russian civilians in the period 1990-2010 than there were in the period 1950-1990. If you’re going to use that yardstick solely, modern Russia looks substantially worse than the last half of the USSR.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            There are other ideological alternatives to capitalism other than Soviet style socialism. They are just not ones that western intellectuals are attracted to. The whole array of various forms of political Islam are quite clearly alternatives to both American style capitalism and Soviet style socialism.

            Having lived in the former USSR for almost four years, I would say were a few domestic downsides to the collapse. Nobody cared about ideology by the time of the collapse it had been dead for decades already. It had been replaced by a new “social contract” based upon the provision of social services, and material goods, a glorification of the victory over Germany in 1945, and support for ethnically based political “mafias” in the various non-Russian republics.

            The 1917 Revolution and May Day were basically completely forgotten in favor of May 9th. Socialist ideology was completely replaced with the provision of material goods including education and health care. Finally, internationalism was replaced by ethnic patronage systems and out right nationalist mythology on the level of the republican governments.

            The glorification of WWII has remained. The ethnic patronage systems and nationalist mythology have gotten worse. The provision of social goods like health and education have largely disappeared. In Central Asia the post-Soviet states have kept the KGB or its equivalent, censorship, corruption, and other negative aspects of the USSR. But, they have gotten rid of any pretense of internationalism, worker’s rights, and the state provision of quality education and health care.

            • LeeEsq says:

              I would disagree that political Islam is really an alternative to Western-style capitalism. Most of the leadership in Political Islam comes from petit to grande bourgeoisie backgrounds and their economic thought tends to be capitalism with an Islamic flavor rather than non-capitalist. Economic issues are not really something they focus on that much either.

              • J. Otto Pohl says:

                In practice there has been an awful lot of work done in Iran on how to square the existence of Islamic law and modern commerce. After all the Koran was written at at time when economics looked very different. Yet, the Iranian economy manages to work and it manages to satisfy the domestic ulema regarding adherence to sharia. This is not the type of stuff that is used in propaganda, but it is very important on a day to day level and Islamists have not neglected it.

                • Hogan says:

                  Is that a matter of “how do we change our economy to make it consistent with Islamic law?” or of “how do we interpret Islamic law so that we can keep doing what we’re doing?”

            • LeeEsq says:

              You forgot the revival of Jew-hatred.

              • J. Otto Pohl says:

                Well it depends where you are. But, in Kyrgyzstan the anti-semitism that exists is not a “revival.” Like vodka that particular prejudice is a Russian import. But, the fact is that Jews are not now in the former Soviet states nor were they in the USSR the most persecuted minority. There are lots groups that are far more hated and subjected to far worse discrimination and violence. You have to go back to Tsarist times for Jews to be near the top of the list and even then there was a lot of competition. The Circassian genocide for instance certainly exceeded the violence of the pogroms.

    • djw says:

      You really need to read the Dudziak book linked in the original post. The connection is real and the historical evidence presented there is significant.

      • Murc says:

        Fair enough! I didn’t have plans for the weekend anyway.

        Big ups to everyone who took the time to reply. I am less wrong about history than I was when I woke up this morning!

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Okay I got here late. But, competing with the USSR for influence in Asia and particularly Africa was definitely hampered by segregation in the South. Both Republicans like Eisenhower and northern Democrats like Kennedy saw the advancement of Civil Rights domestically as helping the US image abroad in the “third world.”

      What has not been said here is that the Soviet commitment to liberation for Black People was actually not very strong. It consisted mostly of rhetoric rather than action. Soviet material support for independence movements in Africa was rather weak until the Brezhnev era. In the 1920s and 1930s there was basically no Soviet contact with any African independence or Communist movements. The only Communist Party in Africa was the white dominated SACP and Moscow basically ignored them until after WWII. The official Soviet line which was quite racist and echoed British colonial theory is that Blacks in the US and Caribbean were more advanced than those in Africa being closer to Whites and that they would therefore lead the African revolutions. But, even here when Caribbean communists like Padmore wanted a Soviet commitment against British and French colonialism in Africa during the 1930s they could not get it. Stalin viewed a united front by the British, French, and Soviets against Germany as more important than African independence in the mid-1930s.

      It is only in the 1960s that there is any significant direct contact between the USSR and Africa. The Soviet Union, however, was rather disappointed in the results. Despite Soviet support for “progressive” governments in Ghana, Mali, and Guinea none of them actually joined the Soviet bloc. Agricultural collectivization and other key components of Soviet style socialism as well as any military alliance with Moscow were completely rejected by “African socialists” in the 1960s. It is only in the 1970s that there is some limited success in expanding communism to Africa. A total of three countries: Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique adopted Soviet style socialism and established close military and political relations with the USSR.

      For a variety of reasons. Communism had very little appeal in Africa compared to Europe or Asia. The result was that the only country in Africa where you had a full on attempt to emulate the USSR was Ethiopia. The consequences were predictably a disaster just as they had been in the USSR during the 1930s. Angola and Mozambique were more influenced by Cuba and hindered in moving beyond NEP style economies by South African supported insurgencies.

      Unlike a lot of areas of the world, Soviet socialism is not remembered fondly by African intellectuals. Africans were anti-colonial and liked Soviet weapons and were willing to mouth the right rhetoric to get them. But, at the end of the day when SWAPO came to power in Namibia and the ANC in South Africa they rejected the Soviet model. Even the MPLA in Angola has now completely rejected it.

  4. Scott de B. says:

    Robin says:

    Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests.

    First of all, I don’t see why ‘justice’ or equality, as ‘principles’, are any less neutral, at least as generally used, than ‘security’.

    Then he says:

    he practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests,

    But of course the same is true of the pursuit of justice and equality. Some forms of justice and some forms of equality tend to be preferred over others.

    So the basic conclusion I arrive at is that the foundational principles of the state are, in practice, socially negotiated through the framework of democracy. Isn’t that pretty much an unremarkable conclusion? And so I don’t see that ‘security’, as applied, is any more problematic than those other principles. All of them can be abused, from the standpoint of what is best for the most people. I don’t see ‘security’ as being in a special category.

    • Corey Robin says:

      Where do I say or even imply that I think security is more neutral than justice or equality? The whole point of my post is to critique that view. The problem is that many people, who I discuss in the piece, think that security is not mediated through democracy; they think it is unproblematic. And that is what makes it more problematic — and rife for abuse — than notions like equality or justice. The latter are accepted as contested notions; security often is not.

  5. Sly says:

    One reason for the horrible escalation in LBJ is that Johnson (who primarily cared about domestic policy) thought that being perceived as a hawk was crucial to keeping his coalition together to get Great Society legislation passed, and he might have been right.

    There’s also a reasonable argument to be made that Johnson’s domestic and international policy framework emerged from the same broad political ideology that was Cold War liberalism. It’s true that he cared more about domestic policy, but I don’t think Vietnam was, at least initially, any kind of departure from how he viewed the world and the role of the state.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Oh, yes, I think that’s right. As Caro’s new book makes clear, to the extent that he cared about foreign policy at all LBJ was certainly a hawkish cold warrior; Vietnam wasn’t antithetical to his worldview by any means.

      • Sly says:

        I don’t think its as simple as Vietnam not conflicting with his domestic agenda, but that both were part and parcel of the same worldview. That social harmony and social uplift were integral and that, for Johnson, PAVN and the Viet Cong were simply standing in the way of his desire to uplift the Vietnamese politically and economically because they were just another bit player in world communism’s attempt to undermine the harmony created by liberal democracy. Was this disastrously paternalistic? Sure it was. If nothing else, Johnson was certainly an egomaniac.

        Similarly, most of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs were designed to resist broad social change, not engender it. When he appointed Sargent Shriver to head up the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1964, for instance, the only order Johnson reportedly gave him was to keep “communists and cocksuckers” out of the agency. The irony is that the community action programs that fell under the auspices of the OEO became a breeding ground for the same New Leftists that went on to undermine Johnson and other Cold War liberals, years later, over Vietnam. So, at least in this case, one could argue that his instincts, however reprobate, were largely correct.

      • DrDick says:

        As I have said before, I think this reflects a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s. While there were differences between the parties and some Republicans were more hawkish than the Democrats, the more recent alignment is a product of Vietnam and the antiwar movement.

        • FlipYrWhig says:

          When is the heyday of the dovish Democrat? And how long did it last? It feels like for as long as I can remember — I’m just past 40 — the voter base has been more antiwar than the politicians they help to elect and re-elect.

  6. Lee Rudolph says:

    his desires to bomb Cambodia inter alia.

    You misseplled inter the Stone Age. HTH. HAND.

  7. DrDick says:

    I think this highlights the inherent tensions in the democratic state between its role as a benign agent of the people as a whole (“society”) and as a repressive agent of elite and state interests (the original basis of the state). It is worth noting that while elite and state interests overlap, they are not always the same given that the former is private interests and the latter collective interests and that the state will always fight to hold and expand its power, even against the elites should they challenge it.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      Do you really think this kind of repression is the “original basis of the state”? The Hobbes/Locke/Rousseau model, AFAIK, is always about organizing for collective security to put an end to primordial smash-and-grab lawlessness.

      • Anonymous says:

        Rousseau’s model of state formation in the second discourse is a fair bit closer to accurate to the one in the social contract, I’m afraid. Tilly is right.

        • FlipYrWhig says:

          Fair enough, but the dilemma comes when the task arises of how to achieve _and enforce_ civil rights, justice, equality, etc. without a strong coercive state providing the muscle. That’s where the individualist/libertarian streak of The Liberal Tradition, which is skeptical of government power and its expansion, grinds against the communitarian/progressive streak, which wants to use government power to manage, regulate, protect and uplift.

      • FlipYrWhig says:

        Re-reading, I think I was unclear… I shouldn’t have said “repression” generally, but rather something more like “repression exercised at the behest of elites.” All governments restrict and coerce to some degree.

        • DrDick says:

          That is what the available evidence seems to indicate, if you look at the archaeological and cross-cultural data. Non-democratic states primarily serve to protect and institutionalize the interests of the elites. States do have other functions in coordinating cooperation among much larger groups with only tenuous social connections and promoting exchange as well.

      • DrDick says:

        Conflict actually increases with the advent of the state, as all states are inherently expansionist (at least until they run up against substantial barriers to expansion).

        • chris says:

          My first reaction was “and nonstate political entities aren’t?” but then I have to wonder how you define “state” in the first place such that it can have an advent that isn’t deeply buried in prehistory, or even prehumanity.

          Aren’t chimpanzee bands expansionist?

          • DrDick says:

            I define the state in fairly standard terms (at least in anthropology) and it only dates back a little over 5000 years in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Many non-state societies continued well into the 20th century. Some non-state societies are indeed expansionist, though not to the extent that states are (though chiefdoms come close). Band level societies, like most mobile foragers, are not. This pattern of aggressive warfare and conflict only emerges in human history after about 20,000 years ago as a consequence of increased population density and sedentism.

            As to chimpanzees, the answer is not normally. There is only one area, with much higher than usual population densities, where territorial conquest occurs (Kibale, Uganda). Otherwise, they will defend their territories from incursions, but there is no concerted effort to displace other groups.

            • FlipYrWhig says:

              Cool, I’m digging this discussion. I’m a literature person and somehow never quite came to understand until now that people actually have worked on systematically figuring out the actual answers to some of this stuff about the origins of human society and government. In my conceptual world, Locke and Adam Ferguson and Bernard Mandeville are still authorities on such things.

              • DrDick says:

                My primary interests as an anthropologist deal with the issues of structural inequality and my original interest was in the origins of the state. More specifically, why people would sacrifice preexisting freedom and autonomy for state controls. My dissertation looks at the transition from chiefdom to state in one of the Southeastern Indian tribes during the 19th century.

    • Lee says:

      What happens to the democratic state when the interests of the people as a whole or at least large swathes of the people aren’t so good? Is it still benign or does it come a malign agent?

      At least in the American context, we have more than enough examples of the population as a whole or large parts of it not wanting things that weren’t good and getting it from the state. Jim Crow is the most infamous example. The general failure of socialism in the United States is also because large numbers of Americans, who were not elite, were anti-socialist.

      • DrDick says:

        You seem to assume the possibility of perfect institutions created by imperfect beings. I do not. Indeed, it is this inherent conflict of interests within society which is at the heart of the historical materialist dialectic.

        • Lee says:

          Oh no, nothing of the sort. There is just a certain school of pollyannish thought that assumes the people or society as a whole always has benign interests. Its kind of like a liberal/leftist version of if only “real, true Americans” could vote than we’d have or limited government fantasy. I’m too much of a pessimist to think that.

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            I fall victim to that tendency… but then my communitarian-inspired commitment to the value and power of The People coming together and supporting one another tends to clash against my other predominant tendency, my sheer misanthropic loathing of most actual persons.

            • LeeEsq says:

              I’m more of the democracy is the least bad system of government type. You rarely get stellar politicians in a democracy, and fact you really don’t want amazing politicians because its usually a sign of bad times, but you also have fewer really bad ones, unless you live in the United States.

              • DrDick says:

                I would generally agree with this and belong to the Marxist variant of the conflict theory school in political anthropology. This holds that conflict is always present in society and the need to manage it is a powerful force in shaping them.

                • LeeEsq says:

                  I haven’t read any of the literature but generally agree with this. I generally see myself as a non-utopian leftist. I don’t think we will ever get close to a perfect society without conflict. What we can do is reduce the sources and numbers of conflicts and mitigate the harm caused by conflicts.

                  But there are lots of humans and there is always going to be minor and major differences of opinion on how society should be shaped. There are going to be humans that delight in causing pain just because and they will find away to do so in any system.

                • DrDick says:

                  I think we are in general agreement. I am very much a non-utopian socialist (one of my critiques of Marx, actually).

  8. Semanticleo says:

    The Shenanigans are a direct result of taking Habeus Corpus out of the National Security debate.

    Beyond a reasonable doubt
    results in some guilty going unpunished. But we accept that, for the most part, as the price we pay for not rail-roading the innocent, and placing the burden on the government to prove guilt.

    It is an onerous task, and expensive, but there is a greater cost with the alternative, as we have seen. Until we displace our fear, the Authoritarians will continue the downward slide.

    V: Good evening, London. Allow me first to apologize for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine- the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But in the spirit of commemoration, thereby those important events of the past usually associated with someone’s death or the end of some awful bloody struggle, a celebration of a nice holiday, I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent. Last night I sought to end that silence. Last night I destroyed the Old Bailey, to remind this country of what it has forgotten. More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

    • Murc says:

      First of all, the graphic novel was so much better.

      Second of all, I’m not sure how you think quoting a genuine crazy man helps make your point. V was an anarchist nutjob who actually believed that we could get along without any sort of government at all and he lionized Guy Fawkes, a religious terrorist who was only interested in freedom inasmuch as it let Catholics put their boot on the necks of heathen protestant scum.

  9. Jim Lynch says:

    “..the War (on Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs. The language of national security is used to justify mass incarceration and a diminution of Fourth Amendment rights that has, on balance, almost certainly made the targeted communities less safe”.

    No question has ever been posed to a POTUS predicated on the truth of that statement, and it’s about time it was.

    • Murc says:

      Eh. The idea of posing the question is less important than the idea of aggressively following it up.

      Anyone who gets elected President is usually very adept at simply not answering any question they don’t want to, instead simply spewing out some talking points. The press usually just accepts this and happily writes it down; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reporter say ‘Excuse me, Mr. President, but I asked you a question and you did not answer it.’

  10. Sebastian H says:

    “Another crucial and ongoing example of this phenomenon, of course, is the War (on Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs. The language of national security is used to justify mass incarceration and a diminution of Fourth Amendment rights that has, on balance, almost certainly made the targeted communities less safe.”

    Query if creating a war on (some people who have certain types of guns and probably happen to be black) is likely to end up dramatically different in the US

    • Murc says:

      Why wouldn’t it be different?

      Guns, especially modern hi-tech firearms, aren’t something that can be mass produced and smuggled real easily. This means once they’re made illegal, stopping the supply is relatively easy. You’ll get the occasional whackjob gunsmith who is hand-building them in his workshop, but it isn’t going to be profitable to manufacture, import, and distribute them the way it is for drugs. Banning certain types of guns will, most likely, result in those guns rapidly becoming unavailable.

      Want to know how I know that? I know that because that is what happened in 1) every single other country that restricted firearms, and 2) it’s what happened HERE when we banned whole categories of weapons in the 30s and 40s.

      When we banned the tommy gun, that didn’t set off a huge wave of civil rights abuses, mass incarceration, a diminution of 4th amendment rights, or make the targeted communities less safe. Nor did the Brady Bill. I see no reason why future gun control wouldn’t be the same.

      • Sebastian H says:

        “Guns, especially modern hi-tech firearms, aren’t something that can be mass produced and smuggled real easily. This means once they’re made illegal, stopping the supply is relatively easy. ”

        Smuggling guns isn’t easy? That’s an interesting argument. I wonder how that squares with the only tillegal smuggling trade bigger than gunrunning being the drug trade.

        • Murc says:

          In developed countries, tho?

          I mean, yes, obviously the arms trade is big business. But, and correct me if I am wrong, does not most of that involve quasi-state actors?

          The US doesn’t have a ton of rebel groups who are trying to overthrow the central government and hold de facto control over wide swathes of its territory, nor does it have large, lawless syndicates which do the same thing. Nor is it an international pariah state whose central government has an interest in illegally importing arms.

          But, fair enough. Suppose I entirely conceded the point; suppose smuggling guns into and around a developed nation is very, very easy.

          Can you explain why the UK and Canada and Japan and most of Europe don’t have enormous problems with banned weapons being illegally imported and distributed? It does happen, of course, but their gun control regimes seem to work.

          For that matter, can you explain how, when the US has banned many types of weapons, a robust and vibrant black market DIDN’T spring up for them?

        • DrDick says:

          Which is why the US ban on fully automatic weapons, passed in the 1930s, was such a dismal failure.

    • L.M. says:

      a war on (some people who have certain types of guns and probably happen to be black)

      As a practical matter, felon-in-possession laws mean that this situation basically already exists.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      This is like libertarian arguments about health care — they require ignoring, you know, how things work in pretty much every liberal democracy. Gun control works perfectly well where it’s tried in nations comparable to the U.S., while prohibition doesn’t really work anywhere (granting that the consequences are less dire in countries with less harsh criminal justices systems.)

      • Uncle Kvetch says:

        This is like libertarian arguments about health care — they require ignoring, you know, how things work in pretty much every liberal democracy.

        But we’re nothing remotely like those countries, Scott! Because, you know, cultural differences something something yadda etc.

        • Hogan says:

          Seriously. Australia was founded by settlers of English and Irish descent who acquired land by killing and dispossessing the natives. You can’t compare a country like that to the US.

        • Sebastian H says:

          If you don’t think there are cultural differences between the US and say the UK on guns, you can’t really pretend to be having a discussion. I don’t own a gun or want one. But I can still see the cultural differences. Do you live in NYC or DC? That’s pretty much the only way I can imagine you’d be so unaware.

          • Sebastian H says:

            And BTW, how does your argument fit with the “gun suicide” problem. There are a very large number of western countries with much less liberal gun control law and much much higher suicide rates. (They have much lower GUN suicide rates, but much higher overall suicide rates). This strongly suggests that suicide statistics shouldn’t be counted in the cost of being awash in guns as a high gun suicide rate replaces other methods.

            Are you about to argue for social factors in the high suicide rates? I can, and would, but you’ll sound hackish.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            If you don’t think there are cultural differences between the US and say the UK on guns, you can’t really pretend to be having a discussion. I don’t own a gun or want one. But I can still see the cultural differences. Do you live in NYC or DC? That’s pretty much the only way I can imagine you’d be so unaware.

            This is just a non-sequitur. Obviously, there’s a different gun culture in the US that (combined with American political institutions) makes it essentially impossible to pass effective gun control measures. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t work if they were viable, or that gun control has a policy record remotely comparable to drug criminalization.

            • Sebastian H says:

              What does “that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work if they were viable” mean in this context? Of course if they were viable they would work. They would work because that would mean we had a totally different gun culture. But because we have a gun culture that makes them non viable, even if you had some tiny majority that could ram through a law, it would IN THE US, more of a prohibition/drug style law with all of the related problems of such a thing.

              That is why dismissing the culture is so silly. Now I’m not fatalistic about it. Cultures change and can be changed. I’m saying that the passing national laws side of this is closer to an end state not a beginning one. The problems caused even if you could eek out a slim temporary majority to pass a law would be well out of proportion to fears about shark attack level fears of things like Sandy Hook.

              Of course changing the gun culture might run into the 1st amendment and Hollywood lobbying, but that is a whole different problem.

              • Murc says:

                even if you had some tiny majority that could ram through a law,

                Majorities do not ‘ram through’ laws. They pass them. The only reason to use that kind of language is to imply that such laws are illegitimate.

                it would IN THE US, more of a prohibition/drug style law with all of the related problems of such a thing.

                How so?

                We banned assault rifles back in 94 and that didn’t have the results you claim. What has changes in 18 years?

                • DrDick says:

                  We banned (or at least passed highly restrictive regulations on them that effectively do the same thing) fully automatic weapons (machine guns) in the 1930s and you do not see a lot of machine pistols or machine guns used in crimes. It is quite clear that you can pass effective gun control laws here and the argument about “culture” is simply a red herring.

                • Well, DrDick, there is a limit. I don’t think a universal firearms ban, or a universal handgun ban, or anything close to those, could possibly work. On the other hand, drawing the line at automatics, semiautomatics, explosive rounds, or high-capacity magazines could work.

                  Culture does come into effect here. Prohibiting things that large numbers of ordinary people consider mainstream and acceptable is going to look like alcohol prohibition.

                • Murc says:

                  Alcohol prohibition I’ve always thought was a unique case in some ways, as it was simultaneously case you could assemble a supermajority in favor of banning alcohol while at the same time having an equally large supermajority that was going to keep drinking no matter what. That kind of disconnect isn’t hugely common.

                  That said, joe is right. I, personally, wouldn’t necessarily think a universal ban on all firearms would be either good policy or something easily enforced.

                  I just think you shouldn’t be able to get your hands on military-grade equipment whose only legitimate purpose is to storm a building and kill everyone inside.

          • Murc says:

            If you don’t think there are cultural differences between the US and say the UK on guns, you can’t really pretend to be having a discussion. I don’t own a gun or want one. But I can still see the cultural differences.

            You have to make the case that those cultural differences would mean that gun control laws in the US would not only not improve the status quo, they’d make things worse.

            Of course the US and UK have cultural differences when it comes to guns. So what? We have cultural differences when it comes to how we’ve implemented our respective forms of democratic governance as well, but that doesn’t mean we don’t learn from each other.

            • DrDick says:

              It also ignores the evidence from Canada, Scandinavia, and Australia, whose gun cultures are or were, much more similar to our own.

          • DrDick says:

            What cultural differences and how are they relevant to this discussion? Unless you can specify those, this is simply meaningless horseshit. The Brits drink tea and we drink coffee, but that has no bearing. Also what about Canada, Scandinavia, and Australia? Be specific and cite evidence for the significance of the differences or you are just a troll.

    • Murc says:

      I seriously hope that this isn’t Sebastian Holsclaw, by the way. I used to enjoy his posts over on Obsidian Wings a lot, and so far this possibly-Holsclaw has engaged in a lot of goalpost moving, refusing to address central points in favor of wrangling over irrelevant side issues, and other rhetorical nonsense that is more worthy of a troll than a serious commentator.

      • matttbastard says:

        Apparently you didn’t stick around to watch SH play Calvinball in ObWi comments. I was a reg since ’04. Trust me, this is BAU (am surprised abortion hasn’t been gratuitously introduced into the dialogression yet.)

        • Uncle Kvetch says:

          I’m with mattbastard; this is absolutely SOP for Sebastian. About the only shred of consistency that you’ll find amidst all the goalpost-moving and hair-splitting and yes-butting is that he really, really, really hates liberals on a very personal and visceral level, and that he really, really, really loves to argue. Everything else is up for grabs. (He just showed up today at Crooked Timber, starting off with “I’m not a gun owner, but…” and then proceeding to dole out the Wayne LaPierre-approved “Let’s blame Hollywood” horseshit.)

          Knock yourself out if you’re so inclined, but I’ve been down that particular rabbit hole one time too many.

        • Uncle Kvetch says:


          Very nice, mb. Your own coinage?

  11. Caesaigh says:

    Excellent post. Need to work this into my larger rights & liberties lecture sequence.

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