Saturday, August 26, 2006

Honoring Earl Warren

I just read an advance copy of Justice for All, a new biography of Earl Warren by Jim Newton, a reporter for the L.A. Times. It's a good piece of work and quite a fascinating story.

I learned many things I never knew--for example, that Warren's father was an eccentric recluse who was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant during Warren's career as a California district attorney. As Newton points out, when you combine this fact with Warren's subsequent career on the Supreme Court as the justice who helped craft, among other controversial opinions, the Miranda decision that immeasurably strengthened the legal protections afforded criminal defendants, it gives the lie to the glib definition of a neoconservative as "a liberal who's been mugged." If anyone would have had a good excuse for becoming a fire-breathing advocate of "lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" policies, it would have been Earl Warren.

The most impressive story in Newton's book is the tale of how Warren stage-managed the landmark Brown decision that ended school segregation. The case landed in the court's docket just weeks after Warren's arrival (and actually prior to his confirmation by the Senate, since Eisenhower's nomination of Warren was a recess appointment). Thus, it was the first big test as to how he would handle a sharply divided court--an art his predecessor Fred Vinson had never mastered.

The initial survey of opinions among the nine justices made it clear that a 5-to-4 majority favored an end to segregation. But as an experienced politician, Warren knew that a split decision wouldn't truly settle the matter. Instead, it would only encourage southern resistance. So rather than rush to issue a decision, he took months to schmooze, cajole, reason with, and pressure the pro-segregation justices, including Stanley Reed, Thomas Jackson, and Felix Frankfurter. His bottom line: We have the votes to end segregation. But are we going to do it in a way that will divide the country, or are we going to try to unite it? In the end, after much diplomatic arm-twisting and many drafts of the wording of the historic decision, Warren was able to announce--to the astonishment of the world:
We unanimously conclude that in the world of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
As everybody knows, the unanimity of the Court didn't prevent the white South from resisting integration. But who knows how much worse the subsequent struggles might have been had the Court spoken with a divided, equivocal voice?

The story illustrates Warren's greatest strength. Like Lincoln, he was a remarkably effective reformer--a man operating within the system, flexible in his tactics but firm in his principles, who kept his eye on the main goal and pushed patiently and relentlessly toward it.

One more observation. It's astonishing to read how, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, rising Republican pols like Warren and Richard M. Nixon (whom Warren despised, by the way) routinely decribed themselves as "liberals"--because in those days, they had to if they hoped to get elected. And in the run-up to the 1956 election, before Eisenhower announced his willingness to serve a second term, Earl Warren was widely regarded as the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination--after the start of his career on the Supreme Court and the issuance of the Brown decision!

Today, half a century later, no Republican interested in a presidential bid will dare to mention the name of Earl Warren except as an epithet.

This summer, the media has reacted with hysteria to the idea that the Democratic party might purge politicians who don't toe an ideological line. Why don't they exhibit the same tender concern over political diversity in the Republican party? Because the Republicans completed their purge thirty years ago--and have been enforcing it ruthlessly ever since.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Word From Izzy (Part 2)

The estimable Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly puts in a good word about The Best of I. F. Stone (link to his post about it here.)

Now, here is another excerpt from the book. This comes from an essay Stone published in his newsletter on May 19, 1969, under the title "In Defense of the Campus Rebels." I suggest it reads very much like a defense of today's netroots by a smart, tough leftist--someone who might not agree with the language or tone of everything written by excitable, angry bloggers but who also sees through the smokescreen of tut-tutting about "civility" that conservatives try to use to enforce silence and squelch dissent. Here's how Stone put it:
There is a wonderful story of a delegation which came here [to Washington] to see Franklin D. Roosevelt on some reform or other. When they were finished the President said, "Okay, you've convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me." Every thoughtful official knows how hard it is to get anything done if someone isn't making it uncomfortable not to. Just imagine how helpless the better people in government would be if the rebels, black and white, suddenly fell silent. The war [in Vietnam] might smolder on forever, the ghettoes attract as little attention as a refuse dump. It is a painful business extricating ourselves from the stupidity of the Vietnamese war; we will only do so if it becomes more painful not to. It will be costly rebuilding the ghettoes, but if the black revolt goes on, it will be costlier not to. In the workings of a free society, the revolutionist provides the mopderate with the clinching argument. And a little un-reason does wonders, like a condiment, in reinvigorating a discussion which has grown pointless and flat.
So rant on, Digby and Kos, Atrios and Yglesias and Alterman. We need a few firebrands to put heat on the moderates and make it more painful for them not to stand up to Bush.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Airport Profiling: Clap Your Hands and Shout, "I Believe"

In the wake of last week's announcement about the thwarting of a supposed terrorist plot aimed at airliners flying from Britain to the US, calls for racial, behavioral, and personal profiling of travelers are once again on the rise.

Never mind that the actual evidence for last week's plot now appears to be increasingly shaky. Never mind that airport profiling actually played no role whatsoever in uncovering the plot. (The arrests were based on good old-fashioned police work, the kind that John Kerry was blasted for advocating by Republicans who insisted that invading Iraq was far more relevant to keeping our skies safe from terrorists.) Never mind all of that. The calls for profiling aren't based on logic. They're based on the undoubted fact that no one likes having shampoo and hairspray barred from their carry-on bags. Wouldn't it be easier for all of us good guys if the bad guys could simply be detected by TSA personnel with magic x-ray eyes, like the ones they have in Israel?

Well, according to today's New York Times, the TSA is indeed working to develop those magic x-ray eyes:

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

So far, these specially trained officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide, including Dulles International Airport here outside Washington, and they represent just a tiny percentage of the transportation agency's 43,000 screeners.

But after the reported liquid bomb plot in Britain, agency officials say they want to have hundreds of behavior detection officers trained by the end of next year and deployed at most of the nation's biggest airports.

"The observation of human behavior is probably the hardest thing to defeat," said Waverly Cousin, a former police officer and checkpoint screener who is now the supervisor of the behavior detection unit at Dulles. "You just don't know what I am going to see."
Unfortunately, the techniques being employed by these so-called SPOT teams seem highly dubious, even to those who developed them. The psychology professor who helped the TSA set up the program using facial clues he developed says, "It may be the best that can be done now, but it is not nearly good enough." The Israeli security expert who helped train the SPOT officers says that the TSA's program focuses too much on supposedly magical facial-reading techniques and too little on smart questioning of suspects: "If you don't do the interviews properly, you are missing what is probably the most important and powerful part of the procedure." And even the officer charged with administering the program (and defending it to reporters) admits it's more of a random search technique than some kind of laser-precise spotlight:

"It is like throwing a big fishing net over the side of the boat: You catch what you catch," said Carl Maccario, an agency official helping manage the SPOT teams. "But hopefully within that net is a terrorist."
Yeah, hopefully. But if not? No matter--it'll only be suspicious, mostly dark-skinned people who get swept up in the net, not good people like you and me.

But, again, logic is not behind the demands for profiling. I wonder how many of the profiling advocates have ever grumbled--as I certainly have--about the apparently low qualifications for TSA personnel. Now we're supposed to believe that the same workers whom we find annoying when they have trouble scanning our bags or wanding our bodies correctly are going to develop super-human mind-reading abilities. Somehow I don't find this plausible.

In his latest New Republic screed demanding profiling, Martin Peretz admits as much: "It is hard to imagine the current crop of Transportation Security Administration employees deployed in U.S. airports performing this delicate function." But Peretz desperately wants to believe it's possible. So he falls back on the example of Israel and the allegedly miraculous x-ray vision employed by its security personnel. Here's the story he tells to demonstrate it:

Do you remember the days when student air discount tickets were available for almost anybody not obviously in middle age? Well, some twenty years ago, a friend of mine, an American who was living in Rome and working in advertising, was to meet me in Israel. He had purchased a bootleg El Al student ticket. When he arrived at Da Vinci Airport, he was greeted by a genial security officer. She looked at his passport and then his ticket. "Oh, you are a student," she exclaimed. "What do you study?" Fishing out of nowhere and quickly, Bill said, "Architecture." "So, tell me," asked his questioner, "when was Palladio born?" He did not get on the plane till the next day when his innocence of malevolent intent was vouched for and proven. Now that is security.
Excuse me, but how is this a story of effective security? Peretz's friend was not a terrorist. He was an ordinary, harmless traveler who was nervous for a trivial and unrelated reason. Detaining such a man, disrupting his life, and perhaps panicking family and friends who were waiting for him is not a triumph of brilliant police work. It's a stupid mistake--the kind of mistake that will happen by the thousands if we set SPOT squads loose on the two million passengers who travel by air in the US every day.

My apologies to all those who want to believe in magic, but this is a solution that is worse than the problem.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Word From Izzy (Part 1)

After all my years in publishing, and all the books I've been associated with, I still get excited when a new baby arrives on my doorstep, brought not by the stork but by the postal service in a weighty brown paper package.

Today's arrival is one I'm especially proud of. My friend Peter Osnos asked me to edit a selection of articles by the great I. F. Stone, and here it is--The Best of I. F. Stone, coming soon to a bookstore near you from Public Affairs (click here to order your copy).

There is so much I could say about the importance of Izzy Stone and the qualities that made him an exemplary journalist--his wit, his immense learning (so lightly worn), his doggedness in pursuit of a story, and, above all, the passion for truth and justice that drove him to seek out and expose hypocrisy, lies, and treachery wherever he found them (but especially in our nation's seats of power). However, rather than talk about him, I will quote him. Here is the first installment in "A Word From Izzy," a series of brief excerpts from The Best of I. F. Stone, chosen for their special relevance to today's political and social scene.

This is from "Farewell to F.D.R.," an essay Stone published nine days after the death of Roosevelt--a president whom Stone had often criticized but whom he also deeply admired. The following two paragraphs sum up the horrific shocks America lived through in the 1930s and 40s, while also evoking the spirit of confidence with which Roosevelt infused the nation.

The Roosevelt era, for folk who scare easily, was a series of scares. Just before [F.D.R.] took office, when the bonus marchers were driven out of Washington, revolution seemed to be around the corner. There was the banking crisis. The NRA [National Recovery Administration] was suspected of being the beginning of fascism; one of my friends in New York cautiously erased his name from the volumes of Marx and Lenin he owned; he felt the men with the bludgeons might be in his apartment any day. The Supreme Court knocked one piece of reform legislation after another on the head, and Mr. Roosevelt, when he set out to fight back, showed a deplorable disrespect for the constitutional amenities [a reference to the infamous "court-packing" scheme, of course]. There were the Chicago massacre and the Little Steel strike. There was Hitler. France fell when our armed forces were in good shape for a war with Nicaragua. The Japs sank most of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a lush era for Cassandras.

Somehow we pulled through before, and somehow we'll pull through again. In part it was luck. In part it was Mr. Roosevelt's leadership. In part it was the quality of the country and its people. I don't know about the rest of the four freedoms, but one thing Mr. Roosevelt gave the United States in one crisis after another, and that was freedom from fear. Perhaps his most important contribution was the example, the superlative example, of his personal courage. Perhaps some of us will feel less gloomy if we remember it. Perhaps some of us will be more effective politically if we also learn from Mr. Roosevelt's robust realism, his ability to keep his eye on the main issue and not worry too much about the minor details.
Contrast Stone's eulogy for F.D.R. to the spectacle of the current administration, led by a man so insecure and yet so narcissistically desperate to preserve and enlarge his own power that he cravenly exacerbates the nation's fears whenever he can.

That's the difference between a great leader and a pathetic pipsqueak. Thanks for the reminder, Izzy.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Naked Truth About John Kerry

Check out this great quote from Yousuf al-Qaradhawi, the well-known Sunni Muslim scholar who hosts his own program on al-Jazeera TV. I love his notion that Kerry lost the presidential election because he was supported by "homosexuals and nudists." Where on earth did al-Qaradhawi get the idea that nudists are a voting bloc in the United States?!

Of course, it's fun to chuckle about the goofiness of those wacky furriners when they try to opine about America. But it's also a reminder that many of the ideas we have about Islamic culture and politics are probably equally ridiculous. And unfortunately our government is trying to enforce their ill-informed ideas using tanks and bombs.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

My Forty Days and Nights in the Wilderness

. . . are over. By which I mean that I finally have returned to the twenty-first century, with telephone service, cable TV, and an Internet connection--after six weeks without them and a good two-and-a-half weeks after they were originally supposed to be installed. (I can't begin to count the number of confused, indifferent, arrogant, and seemingly dimwitted people from several companies that I have spent hours talking with over the past eighteen days--to say nothing of the computerized "help menus" that had me punching in the same information, over and over, only to finally cut me off without an answer to my problem. Only the continuing power of monopoly could make it possible for phone and cable companies to get away with their appalling level of customer service in this day and age.)

I hope to resume blogging at something close to a normal rate in the days to come. Meanwhile, for those who've missed my scintillating insights and have been wondering what to think about the major events and personalities of the summer, here is a handy checklist:

Hezbollah attacks on Israel: Bad, but what do you expect?
Israeli attacks on Lebanon: Worse than I expect.
Joe Lieberman: Clueless.
Ned Lamont: Impressive.
Warren Buffett: Awesome.
Newt Gingrich: Scary.
London Metropolitan Police: Professional.
Department of Homeland Security: Pathetic.
David Wright: I'm in love.

And while I have you on the line: Am I the only person to find the new Hummer commercials not only repulsive but of questionable efficacy? One shows a young mom buying a Hummer after her daughter is shoved out of line at the playground; another shows a man buying a Hummer after feeling frustrated over buying tofu at the supermarket (probably on orders from the wife) while the next guy in line is stocking up on steaks and spare ribs.

Are Hummer customers so full of hostility and insecurity that they willingly identify with these losers? Personally I find these ads insulting. They practically shout the message, "Hey, sucker--if your life is a wretched mess, buy a Hummer! It won't actually fix anything, but it's an empty, expensive gesture that might make you think things are better!"

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