Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "turning points" and "critical junctures"

It is a truism that historical narratives impose a pattern on the past.  Narratives demand a structure, which the messiness of reality resists.  Hence historians' talk of "trends," "major developments," "main events," "phase transitions," "turning points."  Most writers deprived of recourse to these sorts of words and phrases would probably produce something either unreadable or confusing, or both.

Moreover, historians have long understood that metaphors -- tides, winds, take-offs, etc. -- can help make their narratives more vivid.  To take a not-quite-random example, E.J. Hobsbawm, in his chapter on the industrial revolution in The Age of Revolution (Mentor paperback ed., 1962, pp.45-6), borrowed the phrase "take-off" from W.W. Rostow.  Hobsbawm wrote:
...[S]ome time in the 1780s, and for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.... This is now technically known to the economists as the 'take-off into self-sustained growth'.... [C]areful enquiry has tended to lead most experts to pick on the 1780s...as the decisive decade, for it was then that, so far as we can tell, all the relevant statistical indices took that sudden, sharp, almost vertical turn upwards which marks the 'take-off.' The economy became, as it were, airborne.

***

The recognition that history has to be narrated and that most narratives involve the imposition of pattern and order has given rise to at least two sorts of academic controversies, or, to use a perhaps better word, conversations.  Both of these conversations themselves have a long history, but to simplify things we can restrict ourselves to their recent installments. 

One of these discussions has revolved around issues of objectivity and truth.  As recounted by Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015, pp.259-60), a divide emerged or re-emerged in the 1980s and '90s between those historians who, influenced by postmodernism, were inclined to emphasize the subjective dimension of historical narrative, and those who stressed, in the words of the authors of Telling the Truth about History (1994), "the need for the most objective possible explanations...."   Much could be said about all this, but it's not the focus of this post.

A second scholarly conversation, the one with which this post is concerned, involves the question of continuity and change.  Almost everyone agrees that these are not completely opposed categories.  There is no such thing as a completely static social system, and even those that appear to be static are subject to changes or variations in the course of reproducing themselves, as sociologist Wilbert Moore, among many others, pointed out (Social Change, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp.11-16).  The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins put a very similar point this way: "Every actual use of cultural ideas is some reproduction of them, but every such reference is also a difference.  We know this anyhow, that things must preserve some identity through their changes, or else the world is a madhouse" (Islands of History, Univ. of Chicago Press, paperback 1987, p.153).      

The proposition that continuity and change are not cleanly opposed categories, that no change is ever total, doesn't resolve the issue, of course, but simply opens it.  Which changes are more or less important, and how does one decide?  John Lewis Gaddis has endorsed another scholar's suggestion that historians should look for "a point of no return," i.e., "the moment at which an equilibrium that once existed ceased to do so as a result of whatever it is we're trying to explain." (Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p.99, citing Clayton Roberts, The Logic of Historical Explanation, 1996.)

Somewhat more helpfully perhaps, Paul Pierson, a political scientist, has emphasized in Politics in Time (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) that the evolution of societies or institutions is often heavily influenced by relatively small events that happen early in a developmental path; that is, he stresses the "self-reinforcing" character of path-dependent processes.  Pierson cites (pp.52-3) as one example his sometime co-author Jacob Hacker's "analysis of the development of health-care policy in the United States...."  The failure to adopt national health insurance during the New Deal "generated powerful positive feedback, institutionalizing a set of private arrangements that made it much more difficult to make a transition to national health insurance at a later point in time" (emphasis in original).  In other words, the U.S.'s failure to adopt national health insurance in the 1930s was not a dramatic-appearing event, but it had long-term consequences for the direction of future policy.  This is the sort of 'self-reinforcing' effect that Pierson suggests occurs quite often.  

This point that "critical junctures" need not be large-scale, big-bang events -- that they can even be the failure of something to occur, rather than a positive occurrence -- is a significant one, as are, no doubt, some of the other arguments in Pierson's book (I haven't gone through all of it carefully).  But I suspect that, in the end, an element of subjective judgment is inescapably involved in deciding what counts as a critical juncture or a turning point, except for a few obvious instances that would garner wide agreement.  Some may find this a disappointing conclusion, but so be it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Quote of the day

From Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (1973), p.5:
When General Maxwell Taylor admonished the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966 that France had lost its Vietnam war not in Vietnam but in Paris, which he considered to be an important object lesson to the United States, the proper reply might well have been: "Of course; where else should they have made the appropriate decision?"  The French army, which is to say its professional officer corps, was outraged by its government's decision after Dien Bien Phu to liquidate the war, and these feelings were to accentuate the subsequent bitterness over Algeria.  However, Premier Pierre Mendes-France agreed with the common judgment that whatever benefits accrued to France from keeping Vietnam as a colonial dependency were in no sense worth the cost.... Significantly, Mendes-France remained under the Fifth Republic the most respected of the political figures of the preceding regime, an attitude shared even by so nationalistic and imperious a figure as Charles de Gaulle, who in fact followed his example under the more difficult circumstances of Algeria.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Kasich's economics

Announcing his presidential candidacy today, John Kasich said that the way to create jobs is to "balance the books," and he had kind words for the idea of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

It's as if these Republicans are living in a mixture of the austerian 2000's and 1920.  As if the Great Depression never happened and Keynes never existed.

ETA: Remember Nixon's "we're all Keynesians now"? When it comes to domestic policy, Nixon would be derided by today's Republicans as a RINO. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Very brief thoughts on the Iran deal

From what I've gathered from the coverage, the Iran nuclear agreement is a good outcome; Susan Rice, appearing on the NewsHour this evening, did an excellent job of explaining and defending it.  Jeb Bush (according to the opening summary on the same program) called it appeasement, which is a silly remark showing that he is more worried about his right flank in the primaries than he's willing to admit.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An indirect route to the two-state solution

An article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, "The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution") argues that the best way for Palestinians to get their own state "is, paradoxically, to give up on trying to get one."

The authors suggest that one thing Israeli officialdom would like even less than a viable Palestinian state is the roughly 4.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza incorporated into Israel as citizens with voting rights.  Hence Palestinians should push for such incorporation, saying that what they really want is to be Israeli citizens (which is apparently true for much of the younger generation; Rumley and Tibon cite a 2013 poll showing that only 48 percent of the 18-to-28 age group favor two states).  As a result, the two-state solution would appear in a new light to Israelis: i.e., as the preferable alternative to Palestinian incorporation.

Would this approach work? I don't know, and I don't agree with every single statement in the article.  Still, the piece is interesting.  The concluding passage:
In such a situation...this [two-state] outcome could credibly be presented to Israeli voters not as a soft act of justice or charity...but as a hard act of self-preservation.  Dov Weisglass, who was [Ariel] Sharon's chief of staff during the Gaza disengagement negotiations, has said that Sharon presented the pullout to Israeli voters in "fluent Likudish."  Sharon did not conjure up fantasies of everlasting peace; he framed the decision as necessary for Israel's survival.  A pullout from the West Bank will need to be explained in similar terms.  Only then will the threats [or claimed threats--LFC] that come with it stop trumping the supposed opportunities of some distant peace accord.

ETA: On a related issue, Tom Gregory at Duck of Minerva had a post on the UN report on last summer's Gaza war (link to be added later).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

When language, religion, and urination collide

This NYT column from last month (h/t HC) by Tahmima Anam focuses on the shortage of public toilets in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The result has been a great deal of outdoor excretion by men (but not women).  To discourage it, the government has hired an ad agency and covered the walls in Arabic, urging the populace not to urinate on a language most of them can't read because it is the holy tongue (or some such reasoning).  This is beyond stupid.  As Anam writes:
[The program] tells Bangladeshi citizens that it is acceptable to urinate on their own language, but not on Arabic. At a moment when the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism looms large, the subtext of the signage is to declare the conservative religious forces triumphant in this symbolic struggle over language. Predictably, the ministry has been heavily censured. Critics argue that the government should spend its money on building toilets, not painting signs.
No! What a concept! Use the money to build more toilets. Duh. Of course one of the underlying problems is that Dhaka was never designed to be a city of tens of millions of people (it's projected to have 20 million people by 2025, Anam notes; Wikipedia, citing Mike Davis's book (Planet of Slums), says 25 million by 2025).  Anyway, having 67 public toilets, many of which apparently don't really function, in a city of some 15 million people, a fair portion of whom are either working outdoors or scrounging survival on the streets, is absurd.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Scalia: Pres. must not have "uncontrolled mastery" over foreign affairs [cough]

The SCOTUS passport case that came down today (pdf here) reflected mostly a liberal-conservative split (Kennedy writing the majority opinion), with Thomas wandering off on his own.  At issue was a statutory provision requiring the State Dept., on request, to list Israel as the place of birth in a passport of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem.  The majority struck this down, saying it improperly constrained the President's power to recognize foreign governments and noting that the official executive-branch policy is (in the words of the syllabus, i.e. the opinon summary) that it "does not recognize any country as having sovereignty over Jerusalem."

Scalia, writing the main dissent (which was the only opinion I spent any time looking at), was indignant ("nonsense," logic worthy of "Mad Hatter") and professed to have enormous concern for the separation of powers and that the President should not have "uncontrolled mastery" over foreign policy.  Two things: first, Scalia insisted that recognition is "a type of legal act," not "a type of statement," which ignores or glosses over the fact that legal acts of recognition are themselves statements; second, one might be forgiven for wondering whether Scalia would have been so concerned about untrammeled presidential power in foreign affairs if this case had concerned something other than Israel and Jerusalem.

Note: Post edited slightly after initial posting.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another Ataturk?

Margaret Warner on the upcoming Turkish elections (here):
this is an election at which you don’t have at stake the classic issues of war and peace or the economy. It’s really about Erdogan’s wanting to fulfill this lifelong dream of becoming another Kemal Ataturk, the all-powerful Turkish president who founded modern Turkey almost 100 years ago.
Of course, Ataturk founded Turkey as a secular state and Erdogan's party is an Islamic one. Details, details.

The usually perspicacious Ms. Warner also said this:
And so what you have now is, of course [Erdogan] still has a huge base of rural, conservative, Islamic support. And nobody thinks he won’t win most votes or his party won’t win most. But enough voters are telling pollsters that they are worried that, if he gets the kind of huge margin he wants to ram through this constitutional change [increasing executive powers], then he will become very much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in other words, an elected, but authoritarian ruler.
'Competitive authoritarianism' much? Where are Levitsky & Way when you need 'em? [link]

Update (6/10): The election is over and Erdogan did not win by the margin he needed to revamp the constitution.

The just war tradition and sovereignty (book review)

James Turner Johnson, Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives. Georgetown University Press, 2014. 181 pp. (including bibliography and index).

 

James Turner Johnson is an expert on 'the just war tradition,' and in Sovereignty he considers the co-evolution of ideas about sovereignty and just war.  Indeed the book probably should have been called something like The Just War Tradition and Sovereignty, since that would have more accurately indicated its contents than the title it actually carries.
 

Johnson's starting point is a conception of sovereignty that predates the modern state, one that defined sovereignty "in terms of the moral responsibility of the ruler for the common good of the people governed" (p.2).  Johnson is rather vague about what this meant in practice, but at a minimum a ruler's "moral responsibility" entailed meting out just punishments and protecting the political community from external (and internal) threats.  The 'sovereign', a ruler "without temporal superior," was sometimes required to wage war for these purposes.  This particular notion of sovereignty thus developed in tandem with what Part 1 of the book calls the 'classic just war tradition.'  One probably could also make a case, though Johnson does not do so, that this somewhat paternalistic view of authority traces back, at least in the West, to Plato's description of the guardians in the Republic

In any event, one of the book's main arguments is that this older view of sovereignty, in its concern with the quality of rule and the sovereign's responsibility for the common good, has a moral dimension that the modern view, with its emphasis on territorial integrity and non-intervention, lacks.  Yet some writers, such as Robert Jackson in The Global Covenant and Brad R. Roth in Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, have argued that the principles of territorial inviolability and non-intervention have their own moral foundation, inasmuch as they allow, at least in theory, each 'political community' to shape its own destiny with a minimum of external meddling.  Roth's position is that "...international law's highest and best uses remain those given pride of place in the United Nations Charter: the establishment of a platform for peaceful accommodation among states representing a diversity of interests and values, and the protection of weak political communities from overbearing projections of power by strong foreign states"
(Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, p.5).  By contrast, Johnson is less concerned with "overbearing projections of power" from outside and more concerned that existing sovereignty norms often serve to shield bad behavior by oppressive or murderous rulers.  This in turn raises questions about, among other things, the moral status of state boundaries and state autonomy, questions that Johnson tends to answer only indirectly. 

***

Although there is a nod in the first chapter in the direction of Augustine and "the Augustinian heritage," the book's historical discussion really gets underway with Aquinas, who listed "three requirements for a war to be just: the authority of a prince [auctoritas principis], a just cause, and a right intention" (pp.16-17).  The prince's responsibility was to uphold "the moral order itself" and thereby "the divine will," by punishing injustices and those who had committed them (pp.19, 20).  Aquinas distinguished between rulers who acted in the interest of the political community and 'tyrants' who did not; however, he was not consistent on "how to respond to tyranny" (p.41).   

A
quinas's main concern was jus ad bellum, i.e. the grounds for starting a war, rather than what came to be called jus in bello, i.e. the conduct of a war once begun.  The latter considerations entered the tradition via the writing of Honoré Bonet and Christine de Pisan during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) (p.43).  These writers "joined the chivalric 'law of arms'" to Aquinas's jus ad bellum requirements, and the "combined conception was then passed on into the debates over warfare in the early modern period" (p.43).  Thus by the fifteenth century, if not before, 'just war theory' already encompassed two basic questions: (1) Under what circumstances is it just to begin a war? and (2) What constitutes just conduct on the battlefield (and in the treatment of noncombatants, prisoners, etc.)?

After discussing Aquinas and several of Aquinas's Neo-Scholastic successors, Johnson moves on to Luther and some other Reformation thinkers, and then to Grotius.  Grotius (drawing on some previous writers such as Vitoria) shifted "the locus of authority to wage just war...from the prince to the commonwealth," with the prince now seen as the polity's agent or representative (p.82).  Grotius also put more emphasis on defense, especially defense of the polity's territory, as a justification for war (p.84).  The political community's right to defend itself is now seen as derivative of the individual right to self-defense, and the authority to act in the community's defense is delegated from its members to the ruler.  

Johnson sees the Grotian emphasis on self-defense as a narrowing of the earlier conception of just war and sovereignty.  Here Johnson takes the traditional view of the Peace of Westphalia, i.e., he regards it as having laid the ground for the close connection between sovereignty and territory that has characterized the modern state system.  However, this view of the Peace of Westphalia has been quite persuasively criticized in recent years.  Older, 'feudal' notions of territoriality and authority clearly persist in the Westphalian treaties; Johnson neither acknowledges this nor quotes any articles of the treaties.  He does say that the shift in focus from the ruler-as-independent-actor to the ruler-as-the-polity's-agent resulted from reading the Peace of Westphalia through a Grotian lens (p.93), but that's a different point.  There's nothing wrong with accepting the dominant linguistic conventions and retaining the adjective "Westphalian" to refer to the current sovereignty regime (or key aspects of it), provided one notes -- as Johnson fails to do -- that its link to the actual provisions of the Peace of Westphalia is rather tenuous, to say the least.       

In the book's second part Johnson discusses issues of contemporary resonance, namely Islamic views of just war (ch. 6) and 'the responsibility to protect' (ch. 7), taking a broad view of the latter.  He is, however, unduly critical of the UN (p.160).  I'm not going to summarize these chapters in any detail here (so readers who are interested in them will have to consult the book).

The brevity of this book is welcome but it comes at a cost: Johnson does not engage with most of the secondary literature on the writers he discusses.  A fairly standard work like Richard Tuck's The Rights of War and Peace is not in the bibliography; nor is Edward Keene's Beyond the Anarchical Society, which connects Grotius to colonialism.  (Nor, with a couple of exceptions, does Johnson reference recent work on sovereignty and territoriality, though it's admittedly somewhat more removed from his main concerns.)  Still, Johnson's core chapters do provide an overview of some of the main lines of thought on just war and sovereignty in the Western tradition.  Rather than adopting the neutral tone of a textbook or survey, Johnson makes a definite argument, and one that might be questioned on certain points; this book is therefore probably best read in conjunction with other treatments of the same general ground that take a different perspective.
      

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Demography 101

There seems to be a fair amount of misinformation being purveyed in the comment thread to Loomis's post about population, though at least a few of the comments are accurate, such as the one that noted that global population is on track to level off at about 8.5 or 9 billion.  The problem is not the simple one of too many people, but rather, as a few comments noted, how environmental issues, land use, consumption patterns, and maldistribution of resources interact with population density.  The projected impact of climate change on the low-lying areas of Bangladesh (which comprise a large part of the country) is a case in point.  

The fertility trend in many countries has been downward, often sharply so, in recent decades, with sub-Saharan Africa, if I'm not mistaken, being an exception.  One would expect the poorest countries in the world not yet to have completed 'the demographic transition', i.e., birth rates in those countries have remained high while death rates have fallen (e.g., infant and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, although still substantial and unacceptable from a human-rights standpoint, is notably lower than 20 or 30 years ago).  I don't follow these issues all that closely but I believe what I've said here is roughly correct.  The 'demographic transition' is Demography 101, and the apparent absence of reference to it in the LGM comment thread is perhaps indicative of the thread's quality.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What I learned tonight (or is it this morning?) at LGM

(1) I learned that among the sites my old computer can't really handle (too much ad volume, I guess) is a site called The Toast. (I'm still using the old computer because I've been too lazy to do certain essential preliminary things on the new one. Soon [sigh].)

(2) I learned that my friends Ronan and TBA are still regular readers of LGM, which I more or less knew -- I just hadn't been over there for a while. (Btw, thanks for defending me vs. 'troll' charges in that thread, Ronan.)

Have a great weekend, all!

(P.s. For those who may be new to the blogosphere, LGM = Lawyers Guns & Money.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Machiavelli on mercenaries: a note

[Quotations from The Prince in this post are from the H. Mansfield translation, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1998.]

Machiavelli didn't like mercenaries, something that is evident both from The Prince and (I see from a quick glance) The Discourses, where he writes that good soldiers are the sinews of war, not gold, and that it "is as impossible for good soldiers to fail to find gold as it is for gold to find good soldiers" (Penguin ed., 1970, p.303).  

In chapter 13 of The Prince, Machiavelli continues a lecture against the use of mercenaries begun in the immediately preceding chapters.  Among other things he criticizes King Louis XI of France (reigned 1461-1483) for his reliance on Swiss pikemen:
...when he [Louis XI] gave reputation to the Swiss, he debased all his own arms.... For after they [the French] had become accustomed to fighting with Swiss, they did not think they could win without them.  From this it follows that French are not enough against Swiss and without Swiss do not try against anyone else.  Thus, the armies of France have been mixed, part mercenary and part their own.  These arms all together are much better than simple auxiliary or simple mercenary arms, but much inferior to one's own. (pp.56-7)
In referring to French weakness, Machiavelli was thinking of a then-recent event: the French "having been forced out of Italy in 1512" (according to an editor's note in the Skinner & Price edition of The Prince, Cambridge U.P., p.50).  However, Machiavelli does not mention that Louis XI largely owed the Swiss his victory over Charles the Bold of Burgundy at the battle of Nancy in 1477, a  battle that altered the geopolitical landscape of western Europe. [Correction/clarification: It was not really "his" (i.e., Louis XI's) victory; see the discussion in the comment thread.]  Machiavelli says that "a wise prince...has preferred to lose with his own [arms] than to win with others, since he judges it no true victory that is acquired with alien arms" (Mansfield trans., p.55).  Louis XI presumably would have begged to differ.

Postscript: The problem for the Swiss mercenaries, according to Michael Howard (in War in European History, p.28), was their slowness to adapt to changing conditions of war: "...as shot became increasingly important and formations increasingly flexible the Swiss pike phalanxes became left behind like dinosaurs unable to adapt to a new environment, as much of a curiosity in the history of infantry as the English bowman of the later Middle Ages."

Btw, what would Machiavelli have said about how to combat ISIS, or about any other current issues?  Is this question even worth asking?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Paris or San Salvador?

There is an establishment in one of the little malls near where I live called La Baguette de Paris. The stenciled slogan in the window reads: Pan fresco todos los diosJust noticed it last night while walking past it, but I plan to go inside the store soon. I doubt many people's attention is caught by the juxtaposition of languages, but mine was.  As I've had occasion to remark previously, a knowledge of French is useless in my neighborhood, whereas being able to speak Spanish is very useful.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Recalling the USSR's role in WW2

A column/post at WaPo's 'Worldviews' site recalls the Soviet role in WW2; it's a summary of points that are probably already known to most readers here. The piece has generated a great many comments, none of which I have the time (or particularly the inclination) to read.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Noted: 'Burma at the Crossroads'

This hour-long radio program, which I heard yesterday, examines the situation in Burma as it readies for elections this fall. (One can find different aspects of the program split into separate written pieces near the top of the page here.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Reading and other notes

I don't read many novels, nor do I much try to keep up with what's being published. (I get the NY Times Bk Review in my in-box on Fridays but it, more often than not, sits there mostly unread.)

However, I've lately been reading (and am close to finishing) Ian McEwan's The Children Act (2014), which is competently done, a fairly quick read, and fairly absorbing, if not deep with a capital D.  And last night I happened to hear a radio interview with the author of the recently published The Sympathizer (link), which seems to have gotten very good reviews.

I'm also pretty much finished with a non-novel, J.T. Johnson's Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives (2014), and will be posting a review of it fairly soon.

I also finally bought (this aft.) a very-much-needed computer to replace my current one, although, true to form, I have yet to remove it from the box. All in good time.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

That slippery word "liberty"

A perusal of the transcripts of the oral arguments in Tuesday's same-sex marriage case in the U.S. Supreme Court revealed several odd moments, and one of the oddest occurred at the very opening of John Bursch's argument for the state of Michigan. Here is how Bursch began:
This case isn't about how to define marriage. It's about who gets to decide that question.
Is it the people acting through the democratic process,
or is it the Federal courts?  And we're asking you to
affirm every individual's fundamental liberty interest
in deciding the meaning of marriage.
In the language of U.S. constitutional law, a "liberty interest" typically refers (doesn't it?) to a 'negative freedom' -- a freedom not to be interfered with -- not to a 'positive' right to "decide" something. At least, that has been my impression. From this standpoint, it's not surprising that Justice Sotomayor immediately jumped in and said to Bursch that a defeat for his client (the state of Michigan and its ban on same-sex marriage) would not take anyone's liberty away. 

But Bursch seemed not to be referring to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment language about not depriving anyone of liberty without due process. He meant something else. He was asserting that individuals have a "fundamental liberty interest in deciding the meaning of marriage." Can that possibly be right?

In a constitutional democracy (a phrase used by Justice Kagan in the course of the argument), individuals have no "fundamental liberty interest" in deciding policy questions. There is a general right to vote, of course, and there is a right to speak and assemble and to engage in other forms of individual and collective political action, but there is no right to have a direct say on every policy question that governments face, even one as (supposedly) significant as the definition of marriage. After Sotomayor's intervention, the asserted "fundamental liberty interest in deciding the meaning of marriage" pretty much vanished from the argument and the exchanges between the lawyer and the Justices; it may have been so strange-sounding that everyone tacitly let it drop.

Still, behind the odd language about a "fundamental liberty interest in deciding the meaning of marriage," Bursch did have a more intelligible (if not especially convincing) claim: that "the people acting  through the democratic process," not the federal courts, should decide on the definition of marriage. But it's not clear why that should be the case. As Kagan said (though not in these exact words), the Constitution puts limits both on the substantive decisions people can make and on what sorts of questions they get to decide.

No doubt these issues were explored exhaustively in the briefs that were filed in the case (none of which I've read), but the oral argument itself, which could conceivably have turned into a contentious seminar on democratic theory, was too choppy and disjointed to approach anything like that. Plato was mentioned (by Justice Alito at the outset), but the names of no other political theorists, classical or modern, came up in the argument. Maybe their ghosts were hovering around. Or maybe not.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Buried in the wrap-up

Amid the more pressing news of the day yesterday -- the revelations about the deaths of Weinstein and LoPorto; the EU and the migrant crisis -- there was this in the PBS NewsHour's opening summary:
There’s word that North Korea may already have 20 nuclear warheads – and the ability to double its arsenal by next year. An account in the Wall Street Journal says Chinese nuclear experts relayed that estimate in a closed-door meeting earlier this year. North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests in recent years.
Would it matter if the DPRK had 200 nuclear warheads? (I mean, who gives a ****?) Remember all the hand-wringing over the seemingly endless on-again off-again six-party talks? If they were ever to resume, one wonders what kinds of things N. Korea would seek in return for a commitment to dismantle the 20 (or however many) warheads it has. I think, though, the DPRK probably isn't going to give up its nuclear arsenal anytime soon. Its utility is as a (perceived) guarantee of survival, at least vis-a-vis (perceived) external threats. The regime of Kim Jong Un has not much else to crow about. (This reminds me that some weeks ago in a library I ran across an English-language South Korean-based publication that follows developments in North Korea. One of the featured articles on the cover referred, if I recall correctly, to the "alleged" marriage of Kim Jong Un's sister. A bizarre-sounding headline, but I was pressed for time and didn't read the story.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

No 'linkage'

I've said before that I don't think reaching a nuclear deal with Iran means that Iran will (or should) become a U.S. "partner" in the region.  This seems to be a hard point to get across, judging from recent discussions of policy toward Iran that I've encountered (I'm not giving specific refs. now, perhaps later).  A nuclear deal does not imply that the P-5 countries would thereby approve of any aspects of Iranian foreign policy.  A nuclear deal would not legitimize Iranian support of Hezbollah, for instance.  I'm not entirely sure why various people seem to find this so difficult to understand, unless they're pretending not to do so because such a pretense serves their purposes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ISIS now denies responsibility for Jalalabad

Via FP's South Asia Daily for April 22, linking this.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

ISIS claims responsibility for Jalalabad bombing

Here.

(p.s. Haven't forgotten I still owe a comment on previous post. Update: Comment now added.)