News 'n Stuff

Permanent Webstand VIII.

The Webstand in the right sidebar is a list of articles that I recommend to read. You can get a complete listing of all news quote posts on the original Permanent Webstand post.

Resolved: Fix the Filibuster, Walter Mondale, New York Times, January 1, 2011.
Reducing the number of votes to end a filibuster, perhaps to 55, is one option. Requiring a filibustering senator to actually speak on the Senate floor for the duration of a filibuster would also help. So, too, would reforms that bring greater transparency — like eliminating the secret “holds” that allow senators to block debate anonymously.

Our country faces major challenges — budget deficits, high unemployment and two wars, to name just a few — and needs a functioning legislative branch to address these pressing issues. Certainly some significant legislation passed in the last two years, but too much else fell by the wayside. The Senate never even considered some appropriations and authorization bills, and failed to settle on a federal budget for all of next year. Votes on this sort of legislation used to be routine, but with the new frequency of the filibuster, a supermajority is needed to pass almost anything. As a result the Senate is arguably more dysfunctional than at any time in recent history.
4 more after the jump.

Chewing Gum for Terrorists, David Cole, New York Times, January 2, 2011.
I argued just that in the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project, which fought for more than a decade in American courts for its right to teach the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey how to bring human rights claims before the United Nations, and to assist them in peace overtures to the Turkish government.

But in June, the Supreme Court ruled against us, stating that all such speech could be prohibited, because it might indirectly support the group’s terrorist activity. Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that a terrorist group might use human rights advocacy training to file harassing claims, that it might use peacemaking assistance as a cover while re-arming itself, and that such speech could contribute to the group’s “legitimacy,” and thus increase its ability to obtain support elsewhere that could be turned to terrorist ends. Under the court’s decision, former President Jimmy Carter’s election monitoring team could be prosecuted for meeting with and advising Hezbollah during the 2009 Lebanese elections.
Let's stop pretending the Constitution is sacred, Michael Lind, Salon.com, January 4, 2011.
Beginning with the adoption of the federal Constitution, some Americans have sought to promote reverence for this particular Constitution, while others have emphasized the power of the Constitution-making people. Thomas Jefferson thought that laws and constitutions should be updated frequently, while his friend and ally James Madison thought that constitutions and laws should be changed only infrequently in the interest of stability. John Adams thought that the founders of constitutions should be revered, as in ancient Greece and Rome.

Madison and Adams won the argument. The folk culture of American constitutionalism blends themes from 17th-century English Protestantism and 18th-century neoclassicism. From Protestantism comes the rejection of the "Catholic" idea of an evolving scriptural tradition interpreted by an authority -- the Vatican or the Supreme Court -- in favor of the idea that the Christian or American Creed is in danger of corruption if it strays too far from the literal words of the original, perfect revelation. According to the Washington Post, one Tea Party member in Louisiana "has attended weekend classes on the Constitution that she compared with church Bible study."

From 18th-century neoclassicism comes the idea that citizens of a republic must be taught that their constitutions are perfect and were handed down by superhuman lawgivers or "Legislators" -- Solon in Athens, Lycurgus in Sparta -- and must be preserved without alteration as long as the republic endures.

The blending of Protestant fundamentalism and neoclassical Legislator-worship explains the semi-religious reverence with which the Founders or Framers or Fathers of the Constitution have long been discussed in the United States. Other, similar English-speaking democracies -- not only Canada, Australia and New Zealand but modern Britain itself -- achieved self-governance or universal suffrage generations later, when these Protestant and neoclassical traditions had died out in their domains. The Canadians do not revere their first prime minister, John Macdonald, and to this day the British do not even have a formal, written constitution. Our Anglophone peers regard American constitution-worship as bizarre and quaint, like our fondness for displaying the national flag.

English-speaking democracies tend to be stable and free even when, like Britain, they lack a written constitution. But Latin American republics have been afflicted by dictatorship and civil war for generations in spite of having formal constitutions modeled on that of the United States. The contrast demonstrates that the true security for freedom is a culture of constitutionalism, not a particular constitution, or any written constitution at all. The details of a particular democratic political system -- presidential or parliamentary, bicameral or unicameral, unitary or federal -- are ultimately less important than the unwillingness of the citizens to resort to violence when they lose an election, unlike the Confederate ancestors of so many of today's white Southern Republicans, who tried to destroy the country upon losing an election.
"Spiritual Doorway in the Brain": The science of near-death experiences, Katherine Don, Salon.com, January 12, 2011.
First things first: What's the deal with the tunnel and the light?

The tunnel is easy to explain. Much of the near-death experience is caused by low blood flow to the brain and to the head. When this happens, the eye fails before the brain fails. The outside field of vision goes first, but the center is preserved until the very end, so you develop a tunnel-like sensation. This sensation is also common in people who are about to faint.

As for the light, when your eye loses blood flow, light might become all that you're capable of seeing. Another reason for the light is the REM system, which is the "rapid eye movement" state of sleep. When the eye and the retina shut down, the remaining control system for vision is the REM system -- this is why you can see things when you're dreaming, and this type of vision might be activated during a near-death experience and cause a person to see light.

U.S. News and World Report found that as many as 18 million Americans have had a near-death experience. Must you be on the actual verge of death for this to happen?

People don't realize that fainting -- a common experience -- produces symptoms very similar to a near-death experience. Most people who say they had a "near-death experience" were not actually near death, but their experience was the same as those who were. In one experiment, scientists actually induced fainting episodes in the test subjects, and many of them had an out-of-body experience while they fainted, which also commonly occurs during real near-death experiences. So in fact, many individuals know what it's like to have a near-death experience.
Nice Speech, But We Won't Be Coming Together, John McWhorter, The New Republic, January 13, 2011.
The call for us all to just “get along” founders on two things Obama is surely aware of.

One is that when it comes to how to run a nation, disagreement may be profound, based on diametrically opposed philosophical visions. More to the point, those visions may be starkly distinct enough that opponents see one another as working counter to the very philosophical foundations of the republic itself – i.e. Republicans’ “socialist” charge or Democrats’ accusation that Republicans do not understand the Constitution as they claim to.

This is tough stuff. The quest for the good life, the quest for the best way to run a society – these are challenges that found the entire liberal arts tradition. And the idea that the conflict between different preferences will occasion no anger, impatience, misunderstanding, or name-calling is one proposing that we are a different species than we are.

Certainly some citizens seek to rise above this as much as possible, such as Phyliss Schneck, the Republican grandmother Obama mentioned who had come to hear Giffords out anyway. But for every Phyliss Schneck there are plenty of ordinary citizens who cheer along with Sarah Palin or Paul Krugman. Partisanship feels good – you get intellectual clarity, a sense of morality, and the warmth of fellowship all in one.

It was ever thus, and there is an element of ahistoricism in the idea that American politics is uniquely “broken” today. The period in our history in which politics was reflective, courteous and nuanced is elusive. Congressmen like Daniel Webster, enshrined as an august orator in portraits, was nakedly on the take. For most of the twentieth century, bigoted Southern senators essentially ran the country from their committee posts (Mississippi’s James Vardaman: “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched”).

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