Monday, March 19, 2018

A Democratic Activist Asked for Concrete Policy Suggestions

So here's some concrete policy suggestions addressing three important areas. Such policies, if put in to practice, would garner huge support for the Democratic Party.
  1. Racial justice. Have the DOJ monitor state and local police departments for racist conduct, in particular deaths at the hands of officers.  Monitor local prosecutors.
  2. Labor. Make the NLRB work again; it has become nearly impossible to form a private-sector union in the USA. Repeal Taft-Hartley. Have the SEC go back to forbidding most leveraged buyouts, or at least require an evaluation of their effects on employment. 
  3. Housing. Enforce and extend the legal prohibitions on mortgage fraud and servicing abuse.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On the Electric Twitter Machine

"Trump's rise has shown that purported principles of conservative ideology meant virtually NOTHING to the conservative masses. […] The NYT's commitment to "intellectual diversity" doesn't go THAT far -- not far enough to expose its readers to that reality"– blogger David Roberts (@drvox) link.

"I’ve interviewed countless journalists in dictatorships, from Belarus to Thailand, who risk their lives to bring a sliver of truth & accountability to their societies. They are heroes. Trump’s attacks on the press endanger them while endangering our democracy too." – Dr. Brian Klass (@brianklass), London School of Economics, link.

"You are lying. Marijuana is not a gateway drug." – Assistant Professor Joshua B. Grubbs (@JoshuaGrubbsPhD), link.

"Mercia has a 20000 pounds of silver deficit with North Sea kingdoms (mostly THE SNEAKY DANES). BAD AND WRONG. Just goes to show what bad leaders have done to undermine Mercia. We will bring that geld back!" –  Donaeld The Unready, (@donaeldunready), link.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review: Blitzed!

Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books, 2017. Review also posted at Goodreads. Copies available at Powell's and other fine bookstores.

This book covers an area of historical research I had not even thought of before: the effects of psychoactive drugs on war.

The book is broken into four sections: “Methamphetamine, the Volksdroge,” a short history of the German pharmaceutical industry’s development and marketing of psychoactive drugs, “Sieg High,” on the use of methamphetamine as a battlefield performance enhancer during the Blitzkrieg, “High Hitler: Patient A and His Personal Physician,” about Hitler and his personal physician Theodor Morell, and “The Wonder Drug,” about the end of the war as an amphetamine crash, and desperate attempts to create new and more powerful drugs.

Every chapter covers something I had not heard of before. Giants of the pharmaceutical industry turn out to have been founded on psychoactive drugs – Merck on morphine, Bayer on heroin as well as aspirin, and the less-widely known but major Temmler (they are now part of Aenova Group) on the drug they called Pervitin, a methamphetamine-based pharmaceutical. “Sieg High” covers how the Blitzkrieg, where Guderian and Rommel raced through France to the sea, was fueled by sleepless soldiers relying on Pervitin. In passing, one thing this chapter makes clear – it is not news, I expect, to any historian, but I was not aware of it – was just how incompetent a military leader Hitler was. Guderian and Rommel were responsible for the success of the Blitz, and Hitler ordered Goering to change his strategy midway through the Battle of Britain, possibly losing the Battle. Popular English-language accounts of the Battle of Britain focus on Churchill’s determination, but it would have gone worse for Britain had it not been for Hitler’s foolish interventions; likely there would have been no Dunkrik boatlift.

“High Hitler” is a novelistic account of Hitler’s relation with his personal physician Theodor Morell. Morell was most of a crank, pushing various organic concoctions as medicine (vitamins! animal glands! bull’s testicles!) but as the war wore on, and Hitler’s health, energy, and mood deteriorated, Morell began injecting Eukodal, a Merck oxycodone-based drug, and, probably, later Pervitin. Ohler’s account of the deterioration of Hitler’s health, perhaps as a result of drug abuse, or perhaps for other reasons, is grim.

And, finally, “The Wonder Drug” covers the end of the war and the death of Hitler, as ever-more-desperate attempts are made to find drugs that will keep soldiers, sailors, and Der Fuehrer fighting in the face of defeat.

The book is a short and straightforward popular history; 368 pages, of which perhaps 25% are bibliography and notes. I judge it well-researched; the bibliography overwhelmingly cites primary sources. But, oh, the questions it raises! Surely the largest historical question is “To what extent are psychoactive pharmaceuticals factors in history and, especially, war?” I know vaguely about cocaine in World War I, heroin in Vietnam, and other drugs in Central America (the book brought to mind James Tiptree, Jr’s. savage “Yanqui Doodle”), but is there a broader story to be told? To what extent is this still being done?

Beyond that, it is an often-asked historical question: “How could the Nazis have been so cruel and crazy?” Part of the answer may be that they drove themselves crazy with methamphetamine, inducing rigid singleness of purpose and paranoid delusions.

A number of science fiction writers have incorporated technologically created super-soldiers in their stories: Heinlein most famously, but also Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) & Joe Simon (Hymie Simon) created the superhero Captain America. Kirby and Simon had it that there was also a Nazi super-soldier project. I wonder if these authors were aware of the Nazi use of Pervitin during the Blitz? It certainly intimidated the French – they couldn’t imagine how the Germans kept going with no sleep. [Added: here is a 2013 William Saletan piece, "The War on Sleep," about military uses of Provigil (modafinil.)]

And, finally, the picture of Hitler himself. The English-language popular imagination of Hitler owes much to Nazi propaganda and the enormous efficacy of the drug-fueled Blitz, but H.G. Wells 1941 description of Hitler as “that screaming little defective in Berlin” turns out to be more accurate. I have no trouble seeing our modern fascist leaders as similar – racist, health cranks, more than a bit crazy. In a broader focus, I wonder if prescription drugs now widely prescribed as treatments for the conditions of old age are affecting the thinking of older voters.

So, an interesting and important book, which raises good questions. If you have the stomach for it, go read it.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Rohingya Genocide Background Links

This is outside my usual wheelhouse, but a friend asked for some research, so here are some English-language links on the Rohingya genocide.

For a historical overview, I found this Al-Jazeera article:
  Myanmar: Who are the Rohingya?

For an overview of the status of the genocide, Amnesty International's 2017/2018 report:
  Myanmar 2017/2018

The best in-depth English-language coverage seems to be at Juan Cole's web site, Informed Comment:
  Rohingya Genocide: Why isn’t the World Community Doing Something?
  Informed Comment Myanmar page
  Informed Comment Rohingya search

Birthright citizenship seems to me more and more one of the best ideas ever to come out of US history.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Worst Supreme Court Since Taney

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that immigrants, even those with permanent legal status and asylum seekers, do not have the right to periodic bond hearings. – NPR

And so, legal immigrants, at least who have not been naturalized, may now be detained indefinitely without trial. Soon it will be naturalized citizens (ICE already claims the right to revoke naturalization), and then perhaps then natural citizens.

The bail questions before us are technical but at heart they are simple. We need only recall the words of the Declaration of Independence, in particular its insistence that all men and women have “certain unalienable Rights,” and that among them is the right to “Liberty.” We need merely remember that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause protects each person’s liberty from arbitrary deprivation. And we need just keep in mind the fact that, since Blackstone’s time and long before, liberty has included the right of a confined person to seek release on bail. It is neither technical nor unusually difficult to read the words of these statutes as consistent with this basic right. I would find it far more difficult, indeed, I would find it alarming, to believe that Congress wrote these statutory words in order to put thousands of individuals at risk of lengthy confinement all within the United States but all without hope of bail. I would read the statutory words as consistent with, indeed as requiring protection of, the basic right to seek bail. — Supreme Court opinion in Jennings v. Rodriquez, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, dissenting.

We now live in a country where people can be disappeared. The door is wide open to a police state.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"A Well Regulated Militia" - postscript

This took an unexpected amount of time to write, over a decade from my discovering the phrase "a well regulated militia" in Fletcher, to my tying all the pieces together. I could not have done it without all the diligent researchers who have spent much more time on this than this dilettante bird and the internet itself, which made it possible for me to easily locate crucial documents.

I do hope that this is a useful addition to the reams that have been written on this subject and that it will lead to changes in our thinking that improve our lives.

Again, here is a list of all the parts, with links:
Part 1 - From Renaissance Florence to The Constitution of the United States
Part 2 - The Classical Republican Militia: Machiavelli in Florence
Part 3 - Scottish Republicans
Part 4 - Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton: the Second Amendment and the Militia Acts
Part 5 - Summation: Whither the Second Amendment?

"A Well Regulated Militia" - part 5

Summation: Whither the Second Amendment?

The republican militia was an anachronism at its conception in Florence. The Second Amendment and the 1792 Militia Acts mandated an unworkable system for raising a military for the new republic that was quickly abandoned. In law and custom, the Second Amendment has led to much mischief. Fletcher’s “well-regulated militia” has often degenerated into an ordinary and ill-regulated paramilitary force. As Bogus[27] pointed out, it became part of the slave system, indeed may even have been written into law to bolster the slave system. When the South seceded, it was the South Carolina state militia that threatened Fort Sumter. Racists, terrorists, and the criminally violent have been persuaded that the Second Amendment is an unlimited firearms license, while weapons makers use it as an excuse to sell vast numbers of battlefield weapons to civilians who do not need and often abuse them.

What remains after it is admitted that Fletcher was wrong? To say that Fletcher’s militia was a proposal for a system that has only rarely been successful and has at times been a great tool of oppression? Jefferson’s description of the militia in his first inaugural address is a far cry from the hopes of the classical republicans for a replacement for regular military. Four other ideas accreted to the the Second Amendment: (1) Federalism, the idea of the state militias as a check on Federal power, analogous to Fletcher’s belief in baronial power as a check on royal power,[30] (2) the idea that the Second Amendment granted a right to form informally organized paramilitaries without any legal sanction, (3) the individual right to own weapons for self defense as mentioned in Burgh and which I daresay most of the Founders and any Scots highlander would have recognized,[31] and, covertly, (4) the individual right to act as a vigilante armed with lethal force, so important and terrifying in the South. It is worth expanding on the racism of (4): older versions of Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee law specifically refer to white men.[32]

Now, as in Renaissance Italy, even well-regulated militia can seldom overcome regular military; they are unseasoned and outgunned. The Federalist hope that the state militia would be a check on the vast standing army of the 21ˢᵗ century United States is forlorn. Even less effective are paramilitaries. There seems no satisfactory answer to that challenge: widespread availability of battlefield weapons to civilians creates the opportunity but does not grant the ability to organize into an effective force. Few modern uprisings in the USA and elsewhere have succeed in doing anything but killing in numbers ranging from small to vast. In addition, the widespread availability of battlefield weapons is itself a source of danger, enabling terrorism and increasing the lethality of violent crime.

Paramilitaries of varying degrees of regulation, however, have over and over become a part of US history: they became the infamous, murderous slave patrols of the slave states. The slave patrols later became Confederate soldiers, and still later the brutal racist terrorists of the segregated South. The regulated militia, the National Guard, after the civil war, also became a tool of capitalism at its worst, used against strikes and, indeed, any sufficiently unpopular organized political activists.

The personal right to self-defense with arms was mentioned by Burgh:

No kingdom can be secured otherwise than by arming the people. The possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave. He, who has nothing, and who himself belongs to another, must be defended by him, whose property he is, and needs no arms. But he, who thinks he is his own master, and has what he can call his own, ought to have arms to defend himself, and what he possesses; else he lives precariously, and at discretion. And though for a while, those, who have the sword in their power, abstain from doing him injury, yet by degrees he will be awed into submission to every arbitrary command.”[33]

This right has often claimed by 21ˢᵗ century firearms advocates as part of the Second Amendment, was not part of the Second Amendment, as the prefatory clause “A well regulated militia…” shows. It was a part of common law; no 18ᵗʰ century gentleman (and certainly no Scotsman) would be denied that right. Madison, who had read Burgh, did not include it in the Second Amendment and, of the original 13 states, only Pennsylvania had such a right in statute law. That right was a matter of swords, unreliable single-shot pistols, muzzle-loading muskets, and early slow-to-load rifles. The Colt revolver emerged decades after the Second Amendment was passed, and the modern rifle and semi-automatic pistol after that. The laws codifying a right to self-defense were also written later; in three states the right was granted only to white men.[34] In the wake of recent white supremacist terrorism enabled by easy access to firearms, this is an area of law in dire need of updating.

It seems to me important to align our thinking on the Second Amendment with the actual history of the amendment. The current governing Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller,[35] is based on invalid history; republicanism is mentioned neither in the decision or the dissents. Racism also is not, yet it certainly was a factor. The earlier United States v. Miller[36] does at least allude to republicanism, but it would have been well had it said more.

It is hard for any people to say that any of their founding principles are wrong, yet it seems that is what is called for here. If many republican ideals remain powerful, yet others must be set aside. Even in its own time, the militia ideal was an unrealistic anachronism. Suggesting the repeal of any of the amendments of the Bill of Rights is risky; one amendment having been repealed, others might follow. Instead, a more historically accurate interpretation of the law seems sensible; modest weapons for self-defense and sport and membership in the various state Guards and militia for people who desire to serve. A strict liability standard for firearm users and owners seems sensible,[37] as do requirements for the inclusion of various safety technologies in civilian firearms.[38] At the strongest, a case could be made for the restriction of the right to keep arms to members of a well-regulated militia – that is, members of one of the State Militias or National Guards.

This is not going to be achieved quickly. Yet lethal violence has become a commonplace in the USA and the easy availability of firearms enables it, as it does more organized terrorism. We need to change our thinking and our laws.

Notes on Part 5

[30] Fletcher, Discourse, pp. 6–9

[31] There is some doubt as to whether the highlanders recognized any obligation to service at all. Andrew Fletcher sourly commented, "Nor indeed can there be a thorough reformation in this affair, so long as the one half of our country, in extent of ground, is possessed by a people who are all gentlemen only because they will not work; and who in everything are more contemptible than the vilest slaves, except that they always carry arms, because for the most part they live upon robbery.” – Andrew Fletcher, "The Second Discourse Concerning The Affairs Of Scotland." Fletcher, Andrew. Two Discourses Concerning the Affairs of Scotland, 1698. The Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Accessed October 15, 2017.

[32] Eugene Volokh. “State Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms Provisions.” Texas Rev. of Law & Politics 11, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 192–217.

[33] Burgh, Political Disquisitions Vol II, p.390.

[34] Volokh, cited above.

[35] Justice Scalia. 2008. District of Columbia v. Heller (Justice Scalia, Opinion of the Court) U.S. Supreme Court.

[36] J. McReynolds. 2016. United States v. Miller. 1939. United States v. Miller. U.S. Supreme Court.

[37] Jim Wright. 2015. “Bang Bang Sanity.” Weblog. Stonekettle Station. 26 June 2015. Accessed 12 July 2017.

[38] Hemenway, David. 2004. “Ch 10: Policy Actions.” In Private Guns Public Health, 209–23. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.