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Why Wasn’t This Briefed?

[ 0 ] November 11, 2008 |

The Supreme Court yesterday denied cert in two cases asking them to review standards for the “victim impact” statements that the Court decided to reverse course with unusual speed and permit at the sentencing phase of death penalty trials. The dissents make some interesting arguments, but I think they overlook a key constitutional issue:

All 37 states and the federal government that maintain the death penalty allow victim impact evidence in the sentencing phase of murder trials. In the cases denied review on Monday, the evidence was composed of a 20-minute videotape in one case, and a 14-minute videotape in the other. The 20-minute presentation included dozens of still photographs and video clips depicting the victim’s life, set to the music of recording star Enya, with a voice narration by the victim’s mother.

If forcing a captive audience at a state trial to listen to Enya isn’t cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is. I hope a future case will consider the second Eight Amendment issue.

Meanwhile, in the interests of being fair-and-balanced for those Enya fans out there, I present an alternative perspective from an objective critic:

Pondering the fate of post-September 11 pop, everyone predicted what they already wished for–Slipknot undone, Britney in hiding. What happened instead was the unthinkable–sales of Enya’s first album since 1995 spiked 10 months after release. (And she thought that movie where Charlize Theron fucked Keanu Reeves and died of cancer was a promotional coup!) Two years in the making with the artiste playing every synthesizer, the 11 songs here last a resounding 34 minutes and represent a significant downsizing of her New Age exoticism since 1988’s breakthrough, Watermark–it’s goopier, more simplistic. Yanni is Tchaikovsky by comparison, Sarah McLachlan Ella Fitzgerald, treacle Smithfield ham. Right, whatever gets folks through the night. But Enya’s the kind of artist who makes you think, if this piffle got them through it, how dark could their night have been? Like Master P or Michael Bolton only worse, she tests one’s faith in democracy itself.

Maybe a little generous, but…

Armistice Day

[ 0 ] November 11, 2008 |

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.

Wilfred Gibson

Ten verified veterans of the First World War remain. On distaste for the “Veterans Day” construction, see here, here, here, and here.

Alaska shall be as a citty upon a hill

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

America’s Governor, responding to a question that no one had actually asked:

I think OK, it provides opportunity, again, to do things right up here as the governor. And to make sure that, if those eyes of the nation are on the state, that we are responsible, we are just, we are fair, we are productive, all those things that this state already is but we have opportunity to be even more so. The eyes of the nation are on the state, we’re not going to let them down, we’re going to make sure that people know we can do things right up here.

Um. Yeah. About that…

To the degree that the nation has cast its gaze on Alaska, it’s been with bug-eyed disbelief that its voters may have actually re-elected Ted Stevens instead of, say, making a vest and hat out of his skin. Beyond that, I can’t imagine what sort of sustained interest the rest of the nation might have in the operatic gyrations of Alaskan politics. But Palin seems convinced that Americans — real Americans, that is, the pro-Americans who failed to elect her — are eagerly awaiting the arrival of those fungible commodities whose molecules we don’t flag, and that the state of Alaska is somehow going to serve as a government-in-exile for the Drill Now/Drink America’s Milkshake Party. Meantime, Palin is apparently unable to comprehend the simple fact that new resource development — ANWR, off-shore drilling, the Trans-Canada gas pipeline — won’t come online, if ever, until years after she’s been humiliated in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

I suppose the good news to draw from this is that in lieu of actual actual accomplishments, Sarah Palin will continue to entertain the nation until the expulsion of Ted Stevens supplies us with something else to talk about.

Handbags and gladrags

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

Things you learn while shopping for other people: I had to buy a wedding gift for somebody who is registered at Nordstrom, and in the course of surfing the store’s internet site I ran into this.

Now I guess I generally think of myself as a somewhat sophisticated fellow, but if you had asked me how much the most expensive handbags at Nordstrom were I would have said, oh I don’t know, $400? I mean I know there are crazy expensive things in this world purchased by crazy rich people (or the wives of crazy rich people), but I sort of assumed there were semi-secret boutiques where those people went to engage in the most insane sorts of conspicuous consumption.

But nope . . . good ‘ol Nordstrom, an anchor store in the very ordinary megamall just down the road apiece, sells $3000 handbags! $3000! I sold my car for less than that last summer, and it was still a pretty good car.

True confession: I don’t think I’ve spent $3000 on clothes, collectively, in the last five years (this wouldn’t exactly shock my students I’m afraid).


The Next "Real America"!

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

I think we have the media’s winner starting in 2010:

“Among Oklahomans, Mr. Cook and Mr. White are hardly alone. Though the state’s Democrats still outnumber its Republicans, you would never know it by looking at the election results. Oklahoma voters went for Senator John McCain by almost two to one, bucking the tide that swept Mr. Obama to the presidency. Not a single one of the state’s 77 counties backed Mr. Obama…


“Oklahoma Democrats, with very few exceptions, are the old-line white Southern Democrats,” said David Ray, another political scientist at the university. “They don’t like liberals or liberalism.”

Indeed, the state has a political landscape closely resembling that of the old solidly Democratic South, especially in its southeastern corner, known as Little Dixie, where many Southerners settled after the Civil War. When conservatives of the Old South began abandoning the party decades ago, Oklahoma’s Democrats lagged behind the historical trend. Further, the state has relatively small black and Hispanic populations, and so the Democrats did not absorb as many new voters from those groups as in the states of the old Confederacy.


Another Republican, State Representative Sally Kern, who recently declared that homosexuality was a greater threat to the nation than terrorism, easily won re-election.

Wow, I think according to Mark Penn’s calculations Oklahoma’s votes should count at least 12 times those of quasi-“Americans.” And I expect David Broder to write a column urging that Oklahoma be moved to the front of the primary calendar, as recent elections results have suggested that Iowa and New Hampshire are becoming a touch less American.

On a related note Mark Schmitt grades the election theories, and notes that the Emerging Democratic Majority theory — the very opposite of the “obsessive focus on the Real American reactionary rural/exurban white voter” beloved by so many pundits and Republican politicians — is looking better than most of the alternatives.

Infrastructure + Cap & Trade = Good Stimulus Package

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

I’m convinced.

From Colony to Superpower: Part I

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

Erik Loomis and I have embarked on a project to evaluate George Herring’s new book, From Colony to Superpower. Herring is a well-respected historian of the Vietnam Era, and has produced a roughly 900-page book on the history of American foreign policy. Each Sunday, Erik and I will comment on a new chapter of the book. I’ll be reading as a political scientist, focusing on how the development of US foreign policy fits into extant theories of international relations. Erik will be reading the book as a historian, with an eye toward how Herring integrates modern scholarship on American foreign policy into the overarching narrative. Perhaps more interesting than the academic element, we’ll also take the opportunity discuss interesting and worthwhile stories about American foreign affairs, in particular those that have fallen out of the public memory. The book has twenty chapters, so we expect to keep this up for twenty Sundays. We’ll be responding to each others points in posts throughout the week, and of course in the comments sections of both blogs. Anyone who wants to join in is welcome, even if you don’t plan to read the book. We’ll take care to include responses to posts and comments in our responses to one another. If you have the book and would like to participate, drop one of us a line. Erik has the first post on the first chapter; go read it now.

Herring makes what amounts to a second image reversed argument about the impact of international factors on the formation of American political institutions. A second image argument (using the terminology developed by Kenneth Waltz in Man, the State, and War) derives international outcomes from domestic factors; for example, democracies don’t go to war against other democracies. Second image reversed derives internal characteristics of states from the international system. Herring makes the case that much of the drive towards centralization in the early Republic came from the need to interact with the international system. While security was one concern (the Founders were concerned about Native Americans, the British, and the Spanish), commerce, according to Herring, was a larger consideration. Pursuit of an open commercial policy was one of the justifications for the Revolution, and expectations were that the new nation would enjoy good commercial relations with Europe. It turned out, however, that coming to agreements was difficult without a central legislative and executive authority capable of negotiating and regulating such agreements. This is a clear cut case of institutional isopomorphism on the international stage. In order to deal with the states that then existed, the United States needed to become like them. The international system creates units that mirror already existing units. There’s both a realist and a constructivist account for this, with the realist case focusing on security concerns, and the constructivist case concentrating more on social and commercial issues. Both cases find some support in Herring’s argument, although I tend to find the latter more satisfying.

As Erik points out, the introduction and first chapter of this book probably look different than they would have fifteen years ago. Herring makes clear that the Founders were, in a very important sense, genuine revolutionaries; they expected the United States to behave differently internally and externally than the nations of Europe. Moreover, the Founders believed that the United States would play a revolutionary role in world politics, eventually if not immediately. Early American efforts at diplomacy with Europe were, it’s fair to say, uneven and often a bit naive. The colonists shared the British prejudice towards continental powers, especially Catholic ones, even as they sought the military and commercial aid of France and Spain. It’s still wrong to make a leap connecting the Founders to modern-day neoconservatism; the Founders on the whole had a profoundly different conception of the relationship between democracy and force than is held by the neoconservative right. Nevertheless, the idea that the United States would play and unique and crucial role in world politics is not new to American political thought.

I’m not sure that I can agree with Erik’s argument that the Revolution was a mistake. Herring convincingly argues that the interests of the colonies and of England diverged significantly in the latter decades of the 18th century. The United States wasn’t able to achieve everything that it wanted through independence (in particular, the commercial sector didn’t grow as anticipated), but the nation was able to survive and expand without the protection of the British Empire. The expansion point is key; Britain and the colonies disagreed bitterly over proper relations with the various Indian nations. The British preferred a far more conciliatory policy than the colonists were willing to entertain. This disagreement doesn’t put the Founding generation in a particularly good light, but it nevertheless represented a serious dispute that would have proved problematic even if the various tax and autonomy issues had been solved. Also, the Revolution limited (but did not fully preclude) American participation in the world war that last from 1790 until 1815. The avoidance of such entanglements was another justification of the Revolution.

Erik further makes the case that slavery in North America would have been abolished earlier in the absence of the Revolution. I’m not sure that I can agree with this, either. To keep the colonies part of the Empire, some power-sharing arrangement would have been necessary. The population of the United States was 16.2 million in 1838, while the population of Great Britain was a touch over 25 million. Even allowing that a considerable portion of that population was enslaved, and that the population might not have grown to the same extent had the colonies remained part of the Empire, this represents a free white population of a scale dramatically different than the other elements of the Empire. The continued inclusion of the colonies within the British Empire would have necessarily transformed the character of the Empire, opening some possibilities and foreclosing others. In particular, the continued existence of a large, white, and wealthy slaveholding class in the North American colonies would have made it much more abolition in the British Empire a much more dodgy prospect than it ended up being. Moreover, the slaveholding class was willing to fight to protect slavery in 1860; there’s no reason to think that would have changed if the relationship between the Empire and the colonies had remained intact.

Finally, I think that a movie or HBO miniseries about John Jay is long overdue. He seems to have had entertaining adventures in France and Spain, and was of course both the “Forgotten Federalist”, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A quick perusal of Wikipedia and IMDB reveals not a single instance of Justice Jay appearing in film; this is surely a crime against cinematic history.

Any thoughts on casting?


[ 0 ] November 9, 2008 |

Steve Conn has some interesting observations on the race in Ohio, where Democratic turnout may have proven less of a factor in the race than the degree to which Republicans simply stayed home. In the end, Obama received fewer about 8000 votes more than Kerry had earned in 2004 — but whereas Kerry lost by 110,000 votes four years ago, Obama wounding up carrying the state by 200,000.

I mention this only because there’s been a lot of speculation over the past two days about the strangely low turnout in Alaska, where it so far appears that about 8000 fewer votes were cast this time around than 2004. I wouldn’t have expected that sort of fall-off going into election day, but I’m not nearly as surprised as Shannyn Moore, who seems pretty well convinced the election was stolen on behalf of Stevens and Young.

For starters, I think too much can be made of the expectation that Alaskans would show up in droves to vote for Palin as VP. While a good many people here implausibly regarded her as a decent candidate for the office, it’s important not to forget how unpopular John McCain was in this state. He finished fourth in the February caucuses, and I would imagine that there were a good many Republican voters who just stayed away on Tuesday, either because they just didn’t care for the guy and/or because a McCain victory in Alaska was already inevitable — as was a McCain defeat nationally. I’m of course just guessing here, but I can imagine that any of those factors might help to explain some of the low numbers.

I’m also not necessarily shocked by the discrepancy between the numbers of Obama and Kerry voters (80K and 111K, respectively). For as excited as Democrats were for this year’s campaign, it’s easy to forget how eager we all were to cast a vote against Bush in 2004. And I suspect there are plenty of Obama supporters who spent the day making phone calls to swing state voters whil assuming — incorrectly, it turns out — that Begich and Berkowitz would mop the floors with Stevens and Young. There are plenty of people, self included, who couldn’t imagine that enough people would vote for these dopes to make the race close. And while I’m not beyond suspecting foul play, I think the more likely scenario is that a surprising number of Alaskans are simply out of their goddamned minds.

Russian Submarine Accident

[ 0 ] November 9, 2008 |

And people wonder why I was concerned about the ability to Peter the Great to make it to Venezuela and back:

More than 20 people were killed and another 20 injured when a fire extinguishing system was inadvertently activated aboard a Russian nuclear submarine in the Pacific Ocean, the Russian navy said Sunday.

“During sea trials of a nuclear-powered submarine of the Pacific Fleet the firefighting system went off unsanctioned, killing over 20 people, including servicemen and workers,” said Captain Igor Dygalo, the navy’s spokesman.

The accident did not apparently affect the submarine’s nuclear reactor. “The submarine is not damaged, its reactor works as normal, and background radiation levels are normal,” Dygalo stated.

Time for a new entry in the “Soviet Submarine Disaster of the Day” series. The submarine is on its way back to port. Custodian at ID wonders whether this was the submarine intended for lease to India. Russian Navy Blog has a bit more.

Russia Navy Blog has a more substantial update.

John Kyl’s Profound Respect for Tradition

[ 0 ] November 8, 2008 |

John Kyl, April 2005: “For 214 years it has been the tradition of the Senate to approve judicial nominees by a majority vote. Many of our judges and, for example, Clarence Thomas, people might recall, was approved by either fifty-one or fifty-two votes as I recall. It has never been the rule that a candidate for judgeship that had majority support [nice dodge to write the Abe Fortas filibuster out of history!–ed.] was denied the ability to be confirmed once before the Senate. It has never happened before. So we’re not changing the rules in the middle of the game. We’re restoring the 214-year tradition of the Senate because in the last two years Democrats have begun to use this filibuster…This is strictly about whether or not a minority of senators is going to prevent the president from being able to name and get confirmed judges that he chooses after he’s been elected by the American people. And it’s never been the case until the last two years that a minority could dictate to the majority what they could do.”

John Kyl, this week: “Kyl said if Obama goes with empathetic judges who do not base their decisions on the rule of law and legal precedents but instead the factors in each case, he would try to block those picks via filibuster. [What does this even mean? How can judges apply law and precedent without considering particular facts of the case?–ed.]”

That didn’t take long! I suspect that Andy McCarthy is about to re-discover that the Constitution does, in fact, permit filibusters within a couple months as well. As, I’m sure, will George Will.

This is What Happens When People Who Fetishize Reputation Go to War with One Another

[ 0 ] November 7, 2008 |

Just good clean entertainment:

As Kristol used column after column to boost Sarah Palin, suspicions built inside the campaign that Kristol and McCain staffers close to him had written off McCain and were now determined to salvage Palin as a vehicle for Republican politics in the future, possibly the Republican nomination in 2012. Michael Goldfarb—who left Kristol’s Weekly Standard to work on communications for the McCain campaign—also repeatedly came under suspicion among McCain insiders for his close ties to Kristol and his “manic zeal” in fending off questions over the Palin candidacy.

At this point, the fighting has nothing to do with the political quality of Sarah Palin. These folks are the kind of people who think it’s worth fighting pointless wars that kill thousands in order to demonstrate “toughness”; they aren’t going to back down from an intra-party fight just because Sarah Palin is well on her way to becoming the biggest joke of 21st century American politics. Abandoning the fight now would demonstrate weakness, and would call into question the judgment of the Grand Kristol, and that, for so many reasons, can’t be allowed to happen.

But hey, as long as it keeps the Sarah Palin Project humming, I can’t complain.

Friday Cat Blogging

[ 0 ] November 7, 2008 |

This is clearly Palin’s fault:

The large cat that’s been popping up around Anchorage over the past weeks has been captured alive by a man using a dipnet, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The animal was at first thought to be a serval, a wild, medium-sized African cat that is illegal in Alaska. Turns out, it is a savannah cat, a mix of a serval and a domestic cat that is legal, said wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott.

The cat, whose name is Simon, had actually been missing since last spring from its owners home in the Kincaid Park area, Sinnott said.

Depending on how many generations removed the animal is from its original cross, a Savannah cat can apparently run anywhere from $2000-4500.

Henry, by contrast, cost me $10 in 1994 ($14.75 in 2008 dollars). That’s one inflation-adjusted dollar per year for this sort of semi-daily entertainment:

Audrey’s reaction?

“Henry? What are you doing to my bear?”