The two solitudes

Canadians used to speak about their society as “the two solitudes,” after a 1945 novel by Hugh MacLennan that lamented the cultural separation of English- and French-speaking citizens. They lived in the same physical country but because they made their art, politics and news in different languages - alas - they couldn’t comprehend each other at all.

We Americans seem to be able to get the same result without having to resort to bilingualism. For Presidents Day, C-Span and the conservative warhorse National Review Online each conducted a survey to rank U.S. presidents. C-Span’s grilled 65 presidential historians and got what you might call the standard mainstream lineup, with Lincoln at the top and poor, incompetent, pigheaded James Buchanan at the bottom. There was room for raised eyebrows, in a historians-conference sort of way. Harry Truman at No. 5! George W. Bush a full seven spaces from the bottom! Eisenhower edging out Woodrow Wilson! But nothing that could really raise your resting heart rate.

At NRO, meanwhile, the various conservative stalwarts asked to name a “favorite” president were not, let’s say, so beholden to conventional wisdom. James K. Polk, said John Hood: He made only a few key promises and kept them, and then died quickly after leaving office, “thus saving taxpayers the expense of a lengthy retirement.” Millard Fillmore, said Bill Kauffman: After leaving office, “he founded the Buffalo Historical Society and read Shakespeare to toiling shop hands.” William Henry Harrison, said Jacob Sullum and Gregory Schneider: By dying not quite 31 days into his term, “Harrison’s administration was brief and to the point.” Hmmm. Is there a pattern here?

But as with the mainstream historians, NRO’s chosen pundits tended to reach back to the Civil War for greatness. Some - the unimaginative - chose Lincoln. H. W. Crocker III ultimately chose Teddy Roosevelt, but did pause for this lament: “I wish I could say, for controversy’s sake, that my favorite president was Jefferson Davis, but I’m afraid I can’t: He was an admirable man in many ways, and undoubtedly the most underrated politician in American history.” And he freed the slaves!

Science loses one to “superstitious nonsense”

There’s a reason you don’t see many high-school courses in geocentric astronomy, humoral pathology, the use of mandrake roots in casting spells, or methods of clearing Thetans. It’s not that they wouldn’t be interesting. But we have an unspoken method of rationing the scarce blackboard space and teacher time we make available to students in the United States: what you might broadly call scientific consensus. This doesn’t work so well with literature, perhaps, but with the social and hard sciences, we let in mostly what experts in the field, using what rigorous standards are available, think is most likely true. If we didn’t - if we opened up the gates and let in all ideas - schools would be a cacophany from which no critical mind and perhaps no sane individual would ever emerge. Like science or hate science, it is the thing that gives American curricula coherence and structure, like the Koran gives coherence and structure to those Taliban Madrasahs. You can, of course, take your pick.

Last week a federal court in California ruled that a Dr. James C. Corbett had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by saying, in the Advanced Placement European History course he was teaching, that Creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” The ruling actually says, “The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.” To which I ask, what context? In the eyes of science - of the overwhelming consensus of science, of all the evidence of microbiology, epidemiology, paleontology and taxonomy - old-fashioned Creationism, which asserts no familial relationship uniting the branches of animal, plant, fungal and micro-organic life, is superstitious nonsense in any context. It doesn’t matter that large numbers of Americans believe a form of it, no more than it would matter if they believed in a flat Earth, or that Saddam Hussein had ordered the Sept. 11 attacks. I’ll go on to say, as U.S. District Court Judge John Jones did a few years ago in a Dover, Pa., case, that Intelligent Design, the rouged-up, bespectacled version of Creationism, is not science. To say so within the walls of an institution organized around the methods of science - to wit, an American school - should be as unassailable as saying that Abraham Lincoln was president from 1861 to 1865 or that electromagnetism is a force. If it isn’t, the school ceases to make sense, along with our goal of equipping young Americans to think critically and scientifically.

This is dangerous and - if you’ll permit me - astonishingly stupid jurisprudence. As Eugene Volokh says in a typically long and subtle post on the California ruling, “What if a student says that the Earth is 6000 years old because that’s what the Bible says; [does this ruling mean that] a public university or high school teacher [is] constitutionally barred from dismissing that theory as ‘nonsense’?”

Don’t see us at our new location

The Washington Post reported this week that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is physically moving from a Justice Department conference room (about which we know little) to a super-secure new courtroom (about which we know almost equally little) in the District of Columbia’s federal courthouse. The move was prompted by a FISA judge’s idea that a judicial venue would give the court more independence from the Executive, or at least the appearance of it. In its new home it will continue to review secret warrant applications to spy on U.S. citizens and residents - about which we will continue to know little, although statistics to which we are privy show that in 2007 the court reviewed 2,370 applications, modified just 86 of them and denied only three. Chief Justice John Roberts appoints the FISA judges. A couple of federal law enforcement agencies bring warrant requests before it. And basically no one else outside the brand-new metal doors and biometric scanners knows anything about it.

Call me pre-9/11 - or even pre-1978, when the court was created as a methodone treatment for an FBI that was spying on Americans without any warrants at all. Humans being humans, a star chamber like this can’t help but be abusive. The FISA judges that we know of appear to be honorable people, and I’m sure they strive to do a responsible job, but when you must decide how to balance the civil liberties of Americans while literally locked inside a secret chamber, the bells and whistles of national security all around you, and your decisions are never waved in the open air where someone can point out the flaws in them, you’ve got to begin to show some signs of sensory deprivation.

Take one example from the Post story. All the FISA judges said the job exhausted them, but former FISA Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth went so far as to weep when he told the Post reporter about an Executive Branch briefing on a terrorist threat to the district. “My wife and friends live there,” he said. As things stand, we’ll never know if he was reacting properly to a truth the rest of us can’t handle, or showing the frayed edges that isolation and fearmongering can inflict on any man or woman - even a judge.

Defining taserability down

They use electric prods to keep cattle moving, because cattle are (by our lights) dumb animals beyond our respect and the appeal of reason. But as the Christian Science Monitor reports, stories are emerging across the United States of human beings being tasered because they were disruptive at political rallies, or they collapsed and began to sob when a policeman wanted them to walk to his patrol car, or it was closing time at the university library and they didn’t willingly go. Ah, the Taser. I’ve written elsewhere about the surprising number of people who’ve died after being zapped with this non-lethal device. The Monitor article focuses instead on the relatively luckier people who’ve simply been shot with 50,000 volts of electricity because a law officer rolled his eyes and thought, “I don’t have time for this.” They may have suffered no permanent harm, but they certainly must have longed for the days when nuisances were treated as nuisances rather than opportunities to unleash the heavenly power of Zeus. In those days, everything took longer - it might take tens of minutes to get a heckler out of a rally or a nerd out of the library - but the world didn’t smell like it had been singed. Of course this was the flaw in the idea of the Taser to begin with: It was sold as a way of ratcheting force down - letting police keep their handguns holstered in marginal situations where they might have used them before. But human nature being what it is, it became a wonderful excuse for ratcheting force up: Why do I have to rely on wits, patience and humanity when I’ve got this handy non-lethal little zapper?

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