Notes From Babel

Archive for August 2010

It’s all downhill from here

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One of my co-workers turned 40 today, and while we were ribbing him about getting older, someone exclaimed, “It’s all downhill from here.”  Now, either this person was charitably undertaking to ease up on the geezer jokes and highlight the joys of growing older, or this was malapropism of an already limp expression.  The saying really means that difficulty is behind and easier going is ahead, no?

But the saying appears to be understood almost as well for two completely opposite meanings.  Worse, many people seem to think the expression can and does mean two disparate things at once.  Here’s a gem:

I believe the saying is meant to indicate that the downhill part of any journey, whether it be physical, emotional, or philosophical, is easier than the journey on the way up. It doesn’t suggest that the journey is over, but that the struggle to reach a goal may be.
On the other hand, “downhill” can also suggest a slippery slope so that one may still require sure footing, a helping hand, or any other metaphor that would suit the situation. It suggests that there is still the opportunity for a fall. So be careful and watch out!

Apparently, the admonition here is, stay away from hills altogether.

For my part, I submit the expression refers to an endless pile of goose feathers.


Written by Tim Kowal

August 31, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Language

Why Isn’t Everyone a Progressive?

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E.D. Kain explains why he no longer considers himself a conservative.  He gives a lot of reasons, some prompting one to ask why he ever considered himself a conservative.  But testimonials of anyone publicly “switching sides” always interest me, and prompt me to re-examine just why it is I find the left such a non-option.  And I think I can plow through all the unimportant things down to a couple of the core psychological-emotional motivating factors that defines whether any given person will identify himself as “conservative” or “liberal.”

One of those things is whether you truly believe a “conservative” or a “liberal” political worldview is sustainable.  I admit I am intrigued by the notion of having every necessity of life guaranteed by the state, particularly when “necessities of life” include things like high-speed internet access and hip organic cuisine—one just cannot survive with the stigma of being unstylish or out of touch with leftist fads.  And I am aware that Europe’s experimentation with this sort of indulgent welfare state is, by certain accounts, going quite well.  But forgive me if I just don’t believe it.  While I’m sometimes tempted by the idea of packing up and heading to a generous European welfare state and living it up while the ship goes down, my gut reaction is that the ship is in fact going down.  I don’t think one can ever not be a fiscal conservative unless one is convinced that the new-math of welfare-state economics can actually work beyond a few generations.  And I’m not [convinced].

Another deep-seated psychological reason I cannot throw my lot in with liberals is that I don’t have compassion for the most of the would-be beneficiaries of their social safety nets.  Some, sure.  But I’ve come to the realization that what I might consider terribly unpleasant, others consider perfectly tolerable.  Take one example:  My wife, though conservative, is a filmmaker and photographer, and thus has a long list of Facebook friends on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.  When a video went around the internet a while back profiling an Orange County, California family living in a motel room, the liberal bloc of my wife’s Friends noted the travesty of conservative OC governance that would let something like that happen in such a relatively wealthy area.  But this family was paying approximately $800 a month to live in a motel room.  While Orange County is still an expensive place to live, it’s not so expensive that apartments can’t be found for that amount.  Moreover, when the interviewer asked the family why they don’t move somewhere, perhaps out of state, where the cost of living is much more affordable.  The family responded they had no interest in moving out of temperate and beatific Orange County.

This epitomizes the majority of accounts of the impoverished that I’ve been exposed to in my lifetime.  Discomfort, yes.  Dire straits, hardly.

Anyone who harbors an over-abundance of concern to provide the kind of comfort they can’t imagine living without to those who, given the choice, might take it or leave it, is going to gravitate toward progressivism and its generous safety nets.  The rest of us who are concerned with true “sustainability”—not just the vogue environmentalist kind, but true long-term political survival—will tend toward conservatism.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 31, 2010 at 8:09 am

Reason on the Individual Mandate

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I cannot commend this Reason video highly enough to anyone interested in how smart people can disagree about anything having to do with the Constitution; not to mention anyone interested in why Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 28, 2010 at 8:53 am

Friday Oughts Rock

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Sensefield started way before the oughts—in 1990—but kept plugging away through around 2004.

I couldn’t find songs off my favorite album, Building.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Music

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Precedent and the “Unprecedented” Individual Mandate

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Randy Barnett defends his claim that Obamacare’s individual mandate is an “unprecedented,” and what that is likely to mean in the challenge of the mandate’s constitutionality under the Commerce Clause. The “unprecedented” argument will have particular import addressed to Justice Kennedy, who while conservative-leaning at times, does not adhere to originalism or any other articulable model of jurisprudence.  Precedent means a lot to Kennedy. See his opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, including a long love letter to the doctrine of stare decisis, e.g.:

Only the most convincing justification under accepted standards of precedent could suffice to demonstrate that a later decision overruling the first was anything but a surrender to political pressure and an unjustified repudiation of the principle on which the Court staked its authority in the first instance.  Moreover, the country’s loss of confidence in the Judiciary would be underscored by condemnation for the Court’s failure to keep faith with those who support the decision at a cost to themselves.

On the other hand, at other times precedent means very little to Kennedy.  See his opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, overruling Bowers v. Hardwick just 17 years earlier:

In the United States criticism of Bowers has been substantial and continuing, disapproving of its reasoning in all respects, not just as to its historical assumptions…. To the extent Bowers relied on values we share with a wider civilization, it should be noted that the reasoning and holding in Bowers have been rejected elsewhere. The European Court of Human Rights has followed not Bowers….

Whatever consolation the vagaries of the European Court of Human Rights provide to “those who support the [Bowers] decision,” surely it does not rise to the level of “only the most convincing justification under accepted standards of precedent,” which Kennedy in Casey deemed would be necessary to overturn precedent.  Surely the fluctuations in the cultural currents of foreign lands could not be believed would prevent “the country’s loss of confidence in the Judiciary.”

As Justice Scalia sharply noted in his dissent, “To tell the truth, it does not surprise me, and should surprise no one, that the Court has chosen today to revise the standards of stare decisis set forth in Casey. It has thereby exposed Casey’s extraordinary deference to precedent for the result-oriented expedient that it is.”

Nonetheless, Kennedy must still be taken at face value when he expresses his concern for “the Court’s legitimacy” when abandoning earlier precedent.  Thus, if there’s no precedent for upholding the individual mandate, that’s will make it a bit harder for Kennedy to uphold the individual mandate for its novelty in constitutional jurisprudence.  Whether he can get the rest of the way to finding that it violates the Commerce Clause may depend largely on the state of his digestion.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 26, 2010 at 11:48 pm

A nation of laws, yes, but also a nation of people

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…a people of values, and a people whose institutions, including their legal-political institutions, reflect those values.  Plato taught that the order of the soul and the order of the polis, though of different types, were yet unable to be separated entirely.   The evolution of laws criminalizing suicide and assisted suicide, as a more modern example, was based on long-standing history and tradition carried over from England’s common law as contemptible evils, punishable by confiscation of the offender’s property by the state.  Later developments in the law, however, recognized that any purported punishment against the offender’s “lifeless clay” was, in reality, a sanction inflicted against the offender’s hagridden offspring.  And yet even today, the act itself is still criminalized.

And rightly so.  Suicide is a deeply profound, private, moral affair bearing on the order of the human soul itself.  But it is precisely for this reason that a state purporting to govern human souls cannot fail to recognize it and share in and reflect its governed’s contempt for the act.

A rough analogy may be made in the case of marriage.  A legal-political institution that purports to govern a people mustn’t fail to recognize and reflect in its tenets the principal method its governed employs to organize their families, their communities, their activities, their very lives.  Marriage cannot be removed altogether from the legal-political institution without sacrificing some quality of its connection with the people it means to govern.  And to the extent marriage continues to appear in the legal-political institution, it is a reflection, a “read-only” copy of the institution as it actually exists in the culture of the governed.  It thus cannot be redefined from the vantage of the political-legal institution without causing a greater rift with the governed than if marriage were disregarded by that institution altogether.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Creeping Progressivism

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Allan Bloom on the almost century-long intellectual hijacking of the American right of self-rule:

The reaction to this problem [that enforcement of legal equality did not result in enforcement of social equality] was, in the first place, resistance of the notion that outsiders had to give up their “cultural” individuality and make themsleves into that universal, abstract being who participates in natural rights or else be doomed to an existence on the fringe; in the second place, anger at the majority who imposed a “cultural” life on the nation to which the Constitution is indifferent.  Openness [i.e., the deconstruction of absolutism, and thus, unwittingly, of rights] was designed to provide a respectable place for these “groups” or “minorities”—to wrest respect from those who were not disposed to give it—and to weaken the sense of superiority of the dominant majority (more recently dubbed WASPs, a name the success of which shows something of the success of sociology in reinterpreting the national consciousness).  That dominant majority gave the country a dominant culture with its traditions, its literature, its tastes, its special claim to know and supervise the language, and its Protestant religions.  Much of the intellectual machinery of twentieth-century American political thought and social science was constructed for the purposes of making an assault on that majority.  It treated the founding principles as impediments and tried to overcome the other strand of our political heritage, majoritarianism, in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.  In particular, the intellectual minority expected to enhance its status, presenting itself as the defender and spokesman of all the others.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.

Written by Tim Kowal

August 24, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Posted in Progressivism, Quotes