Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

 | 

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf
This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Andrew Ferguson speaks ill of the dead here.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on February 12, was a person of intransigent mind, with a well-justified contempt for the intellectual weakness and silliness of his professional colleagues. He was the greatest influence on the Supreme Court in its present period and the Court’s best writer since, perhaps, the 1930s. He was devoted to the idea that the Constitution means what it says, not what a momentarily prestigious legal philosophy thinks it should say. He tried to interpret the Constitution according to its actual words, not according to the results he himself might have preferred. For that reason, his passing is a disaster for everyone who believes in constitutional, and therefore limited, government.

Among other good things, Scalia:

  • Attempted to keep organs of the executive branch from becoming “junior varsity Congress[es],” establishing rules, procedures and “guidelines” that had the force of law.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the power to circumvent the Constitution’s search-and-seizure provisions by the use of new electronic methods.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the right to use claims of “hate speech” to circumvent constitutional rights.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining Americans’ rights to gun ownership in the crucial Heller case, and dissented forcefully when the Court declined to consider more advanced Second-Amendment cases.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining the right to sell ultraviolent video games.
  • Memorably opposed the majority decisions upholding Obamacare: “The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says ‘Exchange established by the State’ it means ‘Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.’ That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.”
  • In connection with the same decisions, stripped the mask of impartiality from his colleagues’ sorry faces: “Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. . . . And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”
  • Provided the deciding vote for freedom and fairness in eminent domain, in the Williamson Country Regional Planning case.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “balancing act” criteria in decisions about constitutional rights.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “legislative history” as a way of qualifying or reversing the explicit meaning of statutes.

This list might be greatly extended. I could also compile a list of Scalia’s inconsistencies and blindnesses. But the fact is that for decades Scalia was the intellectual leader of the Court, whenever it admitted of any intellectual leadership, and the best bulwark of constitutionalists against the ability of modern-liberal judges to make the constitution what their ideology thinks it ought to be.

Scalia was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there.

Many libertarians don’t like Scalia, because of his particular rulings. So be it. But the disagreement often goes deeper. It goes to the philosophy of interpretation that many libertarians maintain. They think the Constitution was written to express broad principles of individual freedom and that its wording must always be interpreted in that light. Like modern liberals, who frequently refer to the Constitution as a “living entity,” the meanings of which are not bound by its actual wording, they want judicial decisions to embody a wide range of rights (i.e., a right to “privacy”) that never come close to being mentioned by the Constitution. If you want a judge to find them there, how can you object when the judge finds a lot of other things that aren’t there, and enforces them? This is what modern liberal jurists have been doing for several generations, and libertarians should not try to wish it away by appealing to essentially the same philosophy.

It was in his opposition to such ideas that Scalia truly distinguished himself. He was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there. He knew he would be despised as unsophisticated, at best, and as a mere advocate of his own bigotries, at worst. He repaid scorn with scorn — and who would not be scornful of the sophistries of Chief Justice Roberts, cynically arguing for the constitutionality of Obamacare immediately after he had argued for its unconstitutionality, or the inanities of the four modern liberal justices, who never saw a modern liberal law they didn’t like? What reflective person would deny Scalia’s contention that "the risk of assessing evolving standards is that it is all too easy to believe that evolution has culminated in one's own views"? When Scalia joined the Court, this idea, though obvious, had been evaded for far too long, with devastating effects on the constitution’s system of limited government. Scalia’s aggressive advocacy of “textualism” gave it new importance, made its intellectual power impossible to ignore.

The truth is that the Constitution, if interpreted in the light of what it says, not of the pleasant emanations we sometimes feel radiating from its penumbra, would give us a world incomparably more libertarian than the one we currently inhabit. It would not be a world governed solely by principles of individual right, because the Constitution was not written solely to do that. But it would be a world so free that it would be a pleasure to suggest the few revisions that would complete the picture — instead of spending immense amounts of time and money fighting off attacks by modern liberals and conservatives who believe in legislating from the bench. And this is what people who care about individual freedom will now have to do, during the long, intellectually dismal period between Justice Scalia’s death and the confirmation of his successor.




Share This


Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

 | 

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Stephen Cox's elegy is here.

Antonin Scalia, longtime associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was a talented writer whose position afforded him innumerable chances to wield his pen in forceful argument for his often curiously shifting but nonetheless deeply felt views. He was also by some distance the most public justice, often giving speeches laying out his judicial philosophy and thoughts on upcoming jurisprudence, sometimes to the point that he had to recuse himself from a case.

Scalia’s pompous blowhardity made him a gleefully divisive figure in the highest court of a land drifting ever farther away from his own conservative, masculinist Catholicism. After Harvard Law and a little while in private practice, Scalia taught for several years at the University of Virginia Law School, and would later return to academia at the University of Chicago. His own jurisprudence bore the hallmarks of his time as a teacher: his opinions—which, unlike many justices, he did not largely hand off to his passel of clerks—were didactic, condescending, and all-too-aware of the distance between his enrobed augustness and all else outside the cloakroom.

As a public figure, Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed. He scarcely met a presidential prerogative he didn’t like, whether the right to order the torture of supposed enemies, deny due process at will, or pursue “interstate commerce” into the individual home. Despite his famed “faint-hearted originalism,” Scalia was never far from trampling over the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in the service of executive might. Even when his decisions favored a broadly libertarian policy, such as eliminations of gun control or overturnings of illegal searches, they often did so in a way that declined to limit future exercises of the power of the state. More often, though, when he looked to the Constitution, he found justifications for his own predilections to expand use of the death penalty even to the mentally disabled, criminalize homosexual acts, and sign onto four separate dissents against gay marriage.

Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed.

It is, in one sense, ironic that the first response of Republican legislators to the death of their originalist hero was to defy constitutional statements clearly allowing the sitting president, no matter how lame a duck he might be, to suggest a replacement for the fallen justice. But it’s certainly not surprising: in this, the GOP is simply following Scalia’s own example (as well as that of basically every other politician), honoring and vociferously upholding the Constitution when it supports their own tribal position, and ignoring it as soon as it suits them to do so.

There remains a great deal to sort out in the wake of Justice Scalia’s sudden death. Any cases for which decisions have not been rendered, even those which have been argued and voted upon, will not take Scalia’s vote into account. In the short term, this means public unions nationwide get a reprieve from right-to-work measures, and President Obama’s climate change plan is likely to survive a little longer. In the medium term, it means a nasty confirmation fight, as Obama tries to get a justice though a Republican Congress with no intention to allow one. (Probably the worst case here, actually, is a compromise candidate in the form of a socially moderate, tough-on-crime-and-terroists type, à la David Barron.) In the long run, the court has lost its most entertaining and most self-consciously intellectual jurist. We could do with a few less like him.



Share This


Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

 | 

On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




Share This


How the Other Half Speaks

 | 

There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.

rsquo;s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller




Share This


Barbara Branden, RIP

 | 

Two weeks ago I received a message from Barbara Branden expressing joy that her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), was now available as an ebook, with a new introduction by her. Nice going! I thought, to have a book in print for 27 years, and to be reintroducing it today, in a form of publication unknown when the book was written.

In her 84 years, Barbara herself passed through many forms and editions, without ever losing her essential being, or her essential spunk. When very young, she and her former husband Nathaniel Branden became acquainted with Ayn Rand — first as inquirers into the philosophic and literary work of an author who was not, at the time, particularly well known; then as virtual family members, the innermost of Rand’s inner circle; then as Rand’s chief publicists; then as her first biographers (Who Is Ayn Rand? [1962]); then as disillusioned former disciples (1968).

Now here is the very unusual thing: both Barbara and Nathaniel repudiated their absurdly flattering and credulous biography and many of the fanatical conclusions that their mentor had derived from her libertarian and Objectivist premises, but they didn’t throw the accomplishments out with the failures. They kept investigating and publicizing the best parts of Rand, her true intellectual accomplishments. And in 1986, Barbara produced the first real biography of her former friend, a work that demonstrated she could not only admire but also distinguish what was worthy of admiration. She showed where her earlier biography had gone wrong, and she had a lot to say about where she herself had gone wrong during the time when she wrote it. No maudlin emotions, no spite was expressed — but a great deal of gratitude for the true things Rand taught.

Very few authors ever repudiate anything they’ve written; even fewer repudiate their writings in a candid and discriminating manner. And very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden. I sometimes think that there would be millions more libertarians if there were only a few more people able to speak like Barbara. She was never interested in rhetorical victories or smart remarks (though she did have a taste for ironic epigram); she was interested in stating a case clearly and smoothly (no “ums” allowed). She succeeded, both in private and in public.

Barbara was a prize speaker at libertarian events, but I can tell you that she was also an excellent listener, one of the best listeners I have ever known among ideologically inclined people. She didn’t debate; she didn’t spar for intellectual advantage; she didn’t pretend to know what she didn’t know; she asked questions, acknowledged contrasting ideas, made suggestions, said things like “I hope you’re right,” and smiled with joy over the human fellowship that real conversation brings.

Very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden.

Memories. I remember sitting on the big couch in Barbara’s apartment in Los Angeles, while she took a day to help me with the research I was doing for The Woman and the Dynamo, my biography of Isabel Paterson. Rand was Paterson’s disciple, and Barbara was Rand’s disciple, and now Barbara was helping me, the latter-day disciple of Paterson. She was completing one of the many circles that libertarians needed to complete. When my book came out, Barbara received it with pleasure, despite the different interpretations it presented of some important things in her own book. Another author would have resented them; she assuredly did not.

I remember attending the party that preceded the auction of some of Rand’s papers, at Los Angeles in 1998, talking with Barbara, and watching her pose for pictures with Nathaniel. She didn’t pretend not to cry; not all the cycles of her life had been pleasant for her, although she was happy to see this particular cycle returning on an upward curve. She did not cry when I talked with her on the phone while she was recovering — oh, this was many years ago — from a cancer that could have claimed her life. I called, fearing to find her at death’s door. Not at all! Her voice was a little weak, but her spirit was confident. “I am learning,” she said, “not to be a cancer-prone person.”

I remember Barbara telling me about the time when she (and Nathaniel, I believe) were arguing with Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher, a man known as a modern liberal. “I don’t think that went very deep,” Barbara said. “When we pressed him about the liberal idea that people should sacrifice to help ‘those less fortunate than themselves,’ he finally said, ‘We have to do it, because otherwise they’ll destroy us.’”

I remember looking forward to visiting Los Angeles so I could go with Barbara to her favorite restaurant (a place with “Hamburger” in the name) and hear more of her stories. I remember Barbara’s healthy appreciation for handsome, hunky men. I remember her humor. And I remember her good humor. Some people are born bitter; others have bitterness thrust upon them; Barbara always refused that gift. She was interested in more vital matters.

I remember so many other things about Barbara . . . but how strange it seems to say “remember,” as if she were actually gone. True, she died on December 11, 2013 — in her sleep, after leaving a hospital where she had been treated, apparently with at least temporary success, for a lung ailment. But no one who knew Barbara Branden will believe she is actually gone.

rsquo; he finally said,




Share This


Remembering Margaret Thatcher

 | 

In May 1996 I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Foundation for Economic Education at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Lady Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker, and William F. Buckley had been enlisted to introduce her and moderate the questions from the audience after her formal remarks.

Buckley was a big cheese himself, of course; it was not his custom to perform the warmup act. But it was a testament to his respect for her, and to her stature, that he accepted the role. His mandate was to keep the questions coming in order to accommodate as many guests as possible. To that end, Lady Thatcher was also encouraged to keep her responses to no more than two or three minutes.

Buckley performed his duties admirably. When Thatcher reached the two-minute mark, he stepped forward to the podium. Graciously Thatcher wrapped up her response and stepped back to yield the microphone, while Buckley recognized the next questioner. This happened twice. The third time Buckley stepped toward the podium, Thatcher did not yield. Leaning slightly toward the guest whose question (about China) she was answering, as though his question were the most fascinating topic she could imagine, she proceeded to filibuster charmingly for nearly ten minutes. Standing at her elbow, Buckley looked like nothing so much as an errant actor entering the stage too soon, unsure whether he should tiptoe back into the wings or muscle forward to cover his folly.

Eventually he chose the former option and backed awkwardly away from the podium. Only then did Lady Thatcher wind up her treatise on China and look back at Buckley disarmingly to invite his return to the microphone. From that moment forward Buckley listened to her remarks instead of watching his second hand, and watched her body language to know when it was time for the next question. The length of her comments varied according to their content, and the two performers worked in tandem beautifully for the remainder of the presentation.

She was an Iron Lady indeed, with an emphasis on “lady,” as she gently reminded William F. Buckley that he was, above all, a gentleman.




Share This


Ronald Hamowy, R.I.P.

 | 

Ronald Hamowy, who honored Liberty by becoming one of its Contributing Editors, died at 11:30 a.m. on September 8, in a hospital in Baltimore. The final cause of death was sepsis. Ronald had suffered for years from heart and kidney problems, and he had been hospitalized for several months.

He was one of the libertarian movement’s most important and vital scholars. An historian of the 18th century, he was known for his impeccable standards of research and writing. To discerning researchers of the Enlightenment — left, right, or center — his word was law. If there was a scholarly myth or illusion, he was the one who was trusted to puncture it. He was the person who meticulously set things straight. Many times, when I have mentioned his name in an academic conversation, the reply has been, “Ronald Hamowy! You know him?!

For libertarians, Ronald will always be recognized as a bright star of the post-World War II generation — but unlike many other grand old men of this or that era, he never became a Grand Old Man. He retained to the end his youthful joy and sense of first discovery. To him, any new fact — or any old movie, viewed on his constant friend, Turner Classics — was a pleasure to be greeted as if it were the first one in the universe. Even when ensconced as chairman of an august intellectual conference, Ronald let his eyes sparkle and his mouth crinkle with laughter, and with some little Count Basie-like verbal gesture he set the whole house laughing with his infectious wit.

Ronald was born in 1937, in Shanghai, China, the scion of a cosmopolitan Jewish family. His father was born in Syria; his beautiful and beloved mother in Egypt. He grew up in New York, where he supported himself with a number of jobs (one of them was running the streets, selling pop records). During his graduate work at the University of Chicago, he co-edited (with Ralph Raico) the New Individualist Review, a lively, beautifully produced libertarian intellectual journal. If you read it today, you will be sure to enjoy every word of it. Liberty — this journal — was consciously modeled on the American Mercury and the New Individualist Review.

The most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him.

Ronald’s advisor at Chicago was Friedrich Hayek, but Hayek contributed little to Ronald’s studies. Hayek was above it all. Ronald was on his own, as students of Great Academics always are. His first dissertation topic required him to do research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where he found the research conditions impossible. Migrating to Oxford, which had resources adequate to another topic in which he was interested, he needed the sponsorship of some Oxford academic, to get permission to exploit the library. He approached Sir Isaiah Berlin, who rebuffed him. Berlin was “taking no more students.”

Ronald, who was only half as tall as other people, looked up at the great Sir Isaiah. “Listen,” he said. “I’m very smart. I’m very hard-working. And I’m funny.” All that was true. Sir Isaiah looked down at the small student in front of him, laughed, and said, “All right.”

Ronald was hard to resist. And he knew it. But he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. If Ronald couldn’t make you laugh, you really weren’t worth the effort. And his wit was always . . . intellectually understood. No vulgarity. No easy laughs. Nothing but fun. But not coy, either.

One person who resisted Ronald was Ayn Rand. As one of the young libertarians (Ronald’s friend Murray Rothbard was another) who were invited to her apartment for intellectual discussions, he was cast into oblivion after a difference of opinion about . . . Rachmaninoff. Guests were asked to say who their favorite composers were, and when Rand’s turn came, she said “Rachmaninoff,” with specific reference to his second piano concerto. “Why?” Ronald asked. “Because he was the most rational,” Rand responded. At which Ronald laughed, thinking it must be a joke. He knew that the composer had dedicated that concerto to his psychiatrist — and anyway, rationality had nothing to do with its greatness. But Ronald’s laughter resulted in exile, and the loss of friends who were dear to him.

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, “I’ll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ronald himself was always a revolutionary. He was outraged by any offense to individualism, so much so that he engaged in a ferocious online conflict with other gay libertarians who regarded the movie Braveheart as a tribute to the heroic individual. Ronald pointed out that the movie was historically ridiculous and anti-homosexual to boot. He argued, convincingly, that works of art really do need to be judged by their fidelity to historical truth, whenever they recommend themselves as historically true. But the most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him. One day, when he and I were discussing various versions of libertarian thought, I asked him where he stood, and he replied (knowing I would not sympathize entirely), “Basically, I agree with Murray” — meaning with Murray Rothbard’s very radical libertarianism.

I believe that the antiwar strain of libertarian thought was important for Ronald. I remember accompanying him, when he visited San Diego, to the Adams Avenue (used) Bookstore (where else would you entertain Ronald Hamowy?). While browsing the stacks, I heard a voice muttering curses, somewhere else in the establishment. I found Ronald in a side room, seated amid stacks of books he was examining, and holding a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in his hand. Tuchman justified British intervention in World War I. “Damned British crap,” Ronald exclaimed, putting the book down as if he were giving long-overdue punishment to a whole school of thought. Which he was.

His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald’s works include The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987), Canadian Medicine: A Study in Restricted Entry (Fraser Institute, 1984), Dealing with Drugs: Consequences of Government Control (edited, Lexington Books, 1987), Government and Public Health in America (Edward Elgar, 2007), The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (edited, Sage Publications, 2008), and many articles, including one that was especially valuable for Liberty, on the intellectual argument about the American Revolution (Liberty, July 2008, pp. 37-42).

After his retirement, Ronald and his companion Clement Ho moved into a pretty, three-story house in the Washington suburb of Rockville, MD. There Ronald completed his magisterial edition of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 2011), which straightens out a great deal that Hayek left, shall we say, unstraightened. Ronald was already in poor health, requiring the use of a cane and, eventually, one of those personal elevators that take you from the first floor of your house to another floor. He had countless near-death experiences — frequently being rushed to the hospital, with only a half hour available to save his life. Yet he bravely undertook a long journey to Greece and Italy, which he enjoyed, and he lived with equivalent bravery from day to day. To see Ronald sitting at his desk, surrounded with computer wires, like a snake-charmer among his clients, watching his computer with one eye and Cary Grant (Turner Classics, again) with the other, was to imagine a cultural world that was, for once, under intelligent control.

Ronald was a combination of supposed opposites. He was a fiery combatant, yet a generous and lenient friend. He was sensitive and nostalgic, often to the point of tears, yet an unflinching judge of the written word. He struggled, year after year, against the uncountable illnesses that racked his body; yet he was always as valiant as a soldier undertaking his first combat mission. But there was no contradiction. His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald is survived by his friend Clement Ho, who was with him every step of the way. Anyone wishing to contact him is invited to do so, at cho@american.edu.




Share This


John Hospers, R.I.P.

 | 

John Hospers, distinguished author and philosopher, first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, and a senior editor of Liberty, died in Los Angeles on June 12. He was 93 and had been in fragile health for over a year.

John was a modest and self-skeptical man, but his accomplishments were legion. Born in provincial Iowa of Dutch immigrant stock, he became an internationally recognized philosopher, editor of The Personalist and later of The Monist — two of the most important academic journals of philosophy — and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. An early organizer of the Libertarian Party, he was its standard bearer in the election of 1972, in which he and his running mate, Tonie Nathan, achieved a vote in the Electoral College, making Tonie the only woman who had ever done so.

John used to laugh about his encounter with one of his academic colleagues in the hallways of USC during the presidential campaign:

“Hello, John. What are you doing these days?”

“I’m running for president.”

“I didn’t know that. President of the APA!” (APA stands for the American Philosophical Association.)

“Oh no. President of the United States.”

John ran a vigorous campaign (and enjoyed it). Many years later, I got him to write the inside story of this episode, exclusive to Liberty. It’s in our June 2007 issue, and includes a good picture of the candidate.

Before the election, John had published a thoughtful book about the idea of liberty, Libertarianism (1971). As editor of The Personalist, he gave many young libertarians, such as Robert Nozick, their first chance to publish. John was an early and regular contributor to Reason, and starting in the early 1990s he contributed many important articles to Liberty. Usually it worked like this: John would make a comment about a topic that appealed to him. Bill Bradford or I would suggest that he write something about it. “Oh,” John would say, “do you really think people would be interested?” “Yes, John,” we’d reply, “they certainly would be.” Then we’d give him our reasons for saying so. “Well, I don’t know,” he’d say. He’d think it over for a while, and about half the time he would write the article.

Bill and I were right: our readers were always interested in what John had to say. It wasn’t just that he was John Hospers and had a historic importance for libertarians. It was that John had a way of combining the provocative with the calmly, steadily rational — a rare intellectual achievement.

From 1960 to 1962, John was an intimate friend of Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher who was one of the greatest influences on modern American libertarianism. John met her not as a disciple (at a time when she engaged with few people who were not disciples) but as a person of independent intellectual development and ideas. Indeed, with the exception of Isabel Paterson in the early 1940s, he was probably the only person who ever debated both amicably and determinedly with Rand. On many occasions, he and Rand stayed up all night, discussing everything in the world, without pretense or intimidation, like Athena and Odysseus sitting together on the shores of Ithaka, plotting the institution of a just society.

John told the story of their relationship, and of its eventual sundering, in an important two-part article in Liberty(July and Sept. 1990). He added another chapter in our August 2006 issue. I think you’ll enjoy those articles.

John’s relationship with Rand ended in one of those disasters that were inevitable with her. I used to wonder how anyone, even she, could quarrel with someone so intelligent, so gentle, so transparently sincere, so sweet as John — or with someone who loved her as much as he did. I’m sorry I never asked him that question, in just that way. Of Rand he told me, with tears in his eyes, “She had so few friends.”

John was a quiet, meditative person, who could sit listening for hours while other people talked, not feeling that the right note had yet been struck for his own intervention. But if you drew him aside, and made just a little effort to draw him out, he was a warm and delightful conversationalist. Personal warmth was important for him. He had it banked up inside him, in his private feelings: his memories of his family, especially of his immigrant great-grandmother, who lived to be a hundred years old, who was kind to him, and talkative about important things; his feelings of disappointment when the Libertarian Party no longer sought his advice, when it failed even to notice him anymore; his concerns about the future of the country, regarding which he was very pessimistic, fearing that the public demand for welfare had become so insistent and so chronic that a truly liberal social order could never be reachieved. He was particularly fearful about the political effects of open immigration, against which he argued with a logic that had been endorsed by every earlier libertarian leader, but that many current leaders of the movement had since repudiated.

I sometimes argued with John. I argued against his pessimism, and he always said, smiling, “Well, I hope you are right.” I argued against his religious agnosticism, and John, who had been brought up in very pious surroundings, always said, “What people don’t understand is that before we argue about God’s existence, we must first define what we mean by God.” My attempts to address the topic by using standard, operative definitions of God — “the creator of the world, who has sometimes intervened in its affairs” — got me precisely nowhere. For Hospers the analytical philosopher, that wasn’t nearly good enough. But I did get him to publish a riposte to my own theism in Liberty’s Jan.-Feb. 2008 issue.

I believe that was, very unfortunately, the last essay John ever wrote. His response to my frequent entreaties to publish something more about his many interests were unavailing. He would say, “I’m not sure I have anything to add. If I do, of course, I’ll send it.” When I suggested that if everyone took that approach, scholarly publication would cease, he enjoyed the joke, but his severe judgment of what it means to “add” to intellectual conversation prevailed. He was, indeed, a modest man.

John could occasionally be acerbic, when he felt that proper definitions, proper philosophic standards, were not in place — although he was never that way in conversing with me, or other people I know. Smiles, and carefully considered comments, and graceful encouragement to continue the conversation, whether he agreed with you or not — those were John’s hallmarks. In his later years, he was the center of a group of friends — including people of all ages, from his own down to the early twenties — who met for regular viewing and discussion of classic films. Enviable group! John had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, and his own taste was not only catholic but insightful and . . . here’s that word again: warm. Beneath the modest, judicious, (not unduly) professorial exterior was a heart full of feeling for any real human accomplishment, for anything that made life pleasant, graceful, witty, noble, or courageous. And John was all those things, himself.




Share This


Alan Bock, R.I.P.

 | 

Alan Bock, contributing editor of this journal, died on May 18 at his home in Lake Elsinore, California, after a heroic fight against cancer. He was 67.

A fine account of his life has been written by Greg Hardesty, his colleague at the Orange County Register, where Alan worked for over 30 years as an editorial writer and columnist. A picture comes with Hardesty's article, and I think it says something about why so many people liked Alan. We at Liberty remember him as an engaging, jovial man — good company — and a writer whose contributions we always looked forward to getting.

If you'd like a sample of Alan's work, pull up our July 1999 issue in the Liberty Archive. On page 23, you'll find Alan's article, "Gateway to Oppression." Our Contents page for that issue characterizes the article in this way: "Alan Bock examines the latest scientific study of marijuana, and wonders: if marijuana kills, why hasn't anyone ever died of it?" Some of Alan's wit comes through in that blurb, but when you read the article, you'll see many other things about him: his steel-trap logic, his mastery of fact, his sympathy for the oppressed, his noble indignation against oppression. By the time he finishes, he's made the definitive analysis of his subject — and the piece is only about 800 words long.

One of the most lovable figures in the American folk imagination is the iconoclastic newspaperman — learned yet colloquial, genial yet incorruptibly just, a man who never gives up on truth and liberty. Alan demonstrated that this figure is not merely a product of the imagination. He was that figure. Everyone who knew him is saddened by his passing; everyone who learned from him remains inspired by his ideals.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.