Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Constitution as Authority

I came across a news headline yesterday that interested me:  "The NRA Just Scored One Of Its Biggest Victories In Years."  I hadn't heard anything about this, so I checked out the article, which is on ThinkProgress.org so naturally it isn't going to like anything that benefits the NRA.  What interested (and, I'll be honest, irritated) me was not the content of the article but one phrase that says a recent Supreme Court decision "expanded the scope of that [the 2nd] amendment significantly — effectively creating a whole new area of constitutional law more than two centuries after the Bill of Rights was ratified."

Stop the presses!  The radical Supreme Court has dared to radically expand the meaning of a Bill of Rights amendment!  You might think that the author was a Constitutional originalist, imbued with deep respect for the Constitution as written, sceptical of those who want to modify it with the times.  I don't actually know the author's views on the Constitution, but I know that the side he supports -- "Progressives," as they call themselves, and as the website itself proclaims -- have had absolutely no problem with previous court decisions that modified the Constitution.  Otherwise, they would surely have complained at Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that discovered a Constitutionally-protected right to contraception (nearly 2 centuries after the Bill of Rights was ratified, I might add).  Or Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 decision that radically altered law enforcement across the country by forcing police to inform a suspect of his rights before interrogating him.  (Ironically, the standard formula has become ubiquitous on television programs so that it is hard to imagine anyone who isn't aware of those rights today.)  Or Gideon v. Wainwright, a 1963 case that found a government responsibility under the Constitution to provide legal defense for people who couldn't afford their own.  While the idea of helping poor people mount a legal defense is admirable, you would think some one of the Founders, living as they did in the very generation that the Bill of Rights had been debated and passed, would have realized that it required the government to furnish public defenders.  Or at least that someone in the hundred years since the 14th amendment had been passed would have realized that states have the same obligations as the federal government.

Or, if those cases didn't excite the attention of progressive originalists, what about Roe v. Wade in 1973?  In that case, William O. Douglas found a "fundamental right" to abortion that had somehow escaped the attention of everyone for nearly two hundred years.  And he had to do some digging to find it in “the protected penumbra of specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights.”  If the Supreme Court can find a fundamental right hiding in the penumbra of the Bill of Rights in 1973, it wouldn't be that shocking, one would think, for the Court to enlarge an already existing, well-defined right spelled out in plain terms in the 2nd Amendment.

Or, if one wanted a more recent example, the author must have been appalled at the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which discovered that the government was legally required to license same-sex marriages.  How amazing that this had never occurred to more than a fringe group in the past; how even prominent progressives, including sitting president Barack Obama, had said that government should only recognize heterosexual marriages -- that is to say, "marriages" as they have always been understood until the enlightened 21st century.

What would the author of this article have to say about the Supreme Court's making such a radical re-reading of the Constitution and its amendments so many years after they had been decided?  Or is he only interested in precedent when it supports his own case?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

TED talks

I have been watching TED talks on YouTube recently.  I should immediately qualify myself that many of them are "TEDx" talks, which are just licensed events that aren't organized by the same company, so they don't carry quite the same caché.  There is so much buzz around TED, and the videos I have watched have all had several million viewers (I think I started with a list of 50 of the most popular ones), that I thought there must be something really interesting or useful about them.  With titles like "How to Make Healthy Eating Unbelievably Easy," "How to Retire by Twenty," and "How to Learn Any Language in Six Months," it is easy to be seduced into thinking there is valuable information here.  I have a normal scepticism about outrageous claims, so I don't really expect to accomplish any of these things myself, but I did hope I would learn some valuable techniques from them.

I have been disappointed.  I had the idea that the talks were mostly by experts, and it is true that many of the talks I have seen are by academics or specialists who are well-regarded in their fields.  Some of them have been very interesting, but clearly there isn't much quality control.  One of the worst talks, "How to Stay Calm When You Know You'll Be Stressed," was by a professor who spent a fair amount of time talking about a conversation with his friend "Danny" Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winner.  The speaker seemed intelligent enough, but his talk was an utter disappointment that offered no information on how to stay calm other than making plans in advance.  The speaker was an expert in neuroscience, obviously not in behavioural science.

But most of the talks seem to be by people without special credentials outside of personal experience.  That's fine; I have a healthy respect for personal experience as a source of wisdom.  I reached my limit, however, when watching "The person you really need to marry."  I was thinking I might hear about the latest research into what kinds of matches tend to last the longest or be the happiest.  Maybe it would be about marriage and birth order, or marriage partners and some personality trait that we usually don't associate with it; maybe people who differ in a certain characterstic match up better than those who are the same.  I didn't know what specifically to expect, but it sounded like it might have valuable insights about intimate human relationships.

Instead, I listened to a talk by someone whose qualification was having been divorced three times.  Not what I was hoping for, but it could still be promising.  It would be more promising if she were currently married; after all, if a person's life experience is his main qualification to speak on making a successful marriage match, it would be nice if he had some experience in a successful marriage.  But I suspended judgment.  Clearly she had learned some things from her divorces, so she might have something interesting to say.  But about 5 minutes in, she got to her punchline, which was:  the person you really need to marry is yourself.  At that point I turned it off.

It's not that I don't think she might have had a point.  No doubt self-acceptance is an important part in any relationship with another person, especially one as intimate as a marriage.  But is it important enough to say that the person you really need to marry is yourself?  As I write this, the words don't seem to convey the reason behind my anger at being, as I felt, duped.  Let me express it this way:  Here was a person who had been divorced three times telling me that the secret to marriage was marrying yourself first.  If she had called the talk "How to Marry the Wrong Person," or "How to Have an Unsuccessful Marriage," I would have gone into it with a much different perspective and I would have been much more willing to hear that conclusion.  Having expected to learn something positive about marriage, however, I was disappointed to get something totally different from a person who seemed to have no particular qualifications at all to say what she did.

Maybe the first part of the talk set the stage for my disappointment.  She did open by singing a childhood rhyme about marriage and then saying that she was disappointed when her life didn't turn out like the song.  I'm not opposed to using a well-known ditty as a hook into a talk, but there are ways to do it and ways not to do it.  John Lewis Gaddis opens one of his books with a Groucho Marx joke.  I don't remember the point of the joke, but I remember that he had a point and that I was impressed with how he used it.  By contrast, the speaker made it sound like it was a revelation that her life turned out differently from the song; like this wasn't something everyone learns as he grows up.  Perhaps I was predisposed, based on the weak opening and the speaker's background, to dismiss what she was saying. Then again, if you're going to give your talk a title like that, you're giving yourself a lot to live up to.  Especially for those of us who think we ought to expect something special from TED -- which I no longer do.