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Saturday, May 11, 2002
Never surrender
Eugene Volokh argues that if the Supreme Court fully supports the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, that this could help proponents of gun control:
And the right, if firmly accepted by the courts, may actually facilitate the enactment of modest gun controls. Today, many proposals, such as gun registration, are opposed largely because of a quite reasonable fear that they'll lead to D.C.-like gun prohibition.

But if the courts can make clear that the Constitution takes such a prohibition off the table, this slippery slope concern may become less serious. And some people may thus become willing to support compromise legislation, precisely because the core of the right will be protected--just as the radical and alarming Bill of Rights commands.
It's an interesting theory, but Rand Simberg disagrees...
While this may be true for "modest gun controls" in general, I don't think that it will have much effect in terms of resistance to registration. Even with a formally-recognized right to own guns, many will still view registration as a potential prelude to a rapid and preemptive confiscation, because any government that contemplates consfiscating guns is likely to be indifferent to Constitutional concerns.
...and I think he has the stronger point. In fact, I'd go further, arguing that even the "modest gun controls in general" would lead to furious fights.

We have an empirical data point to work with: abortion. Abortion has been constitutionally protected for three decades, through the terms of five Republican and two Democratic presidents. The right has been upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court, even though almost the entire Court has turned over since Roe v. Wade was decided (with only Chief Justice Rehnquist remaining). In sum, it's about as settled as a controversial Supreme Court ruling can possibly be.

And yet, this has not led to the end of the abortion debate. It has not led to the acceptance of "modest abortion controls." Every restriction, no matter how small, is treated as the camel's nose in the tent. Whether the issue is parental notification or "partial birth abortions" or a waiting period or mandatory counselling, the fight over abortion rights is as vicious as it ever was.

Why hasn't the Supreme Court's definitive stance ended the acrimony? Maybe it's because the abortion debate -- not just abortion itself -- is an industry. There are too many people, too many groups whose existence depends on the fight. The first rule of bureaucracies is that they're self-perpetuating. The National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the Pro-Life Action League, the National Right to Life Committee -- these groups all have employees and vast fund-raising apparatuses. Sure, the 24-hour waiting period may be a relatively trivial issue, but if NARAL didn't make a mountain out of the molehill, what else would it have to do?

Similarly, on the gun control debate, you have the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, the Violence Policy Center, the Brady Campaign, Americans for Gun Safety, and others. If the Supreme Court "settled" the gun control debate, and if both sides accepted it, what would these groups do to raise money? What incentive would the Violence Policy Center have for supporting only the "modest gun controls" Eugene Volokh mentions? How would the NRA stay in business unless it kept a high profile by fighting the "compromise legislation?"

We shall see.

Friday, May 10, 2002
That explains Noam Chomsky
The Department of Education released the results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, this one in history. And American students, particularly high school seniors, don't really know much of anything about it.
Only one in 10 high school seniors scored well enough on the exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to be considered proficient in American history, while 17 percent of eighth graders and 18 percent of fourth graders reached that level.
Diane Ravitch suggested one possible explanation -- that teachers don't know history:
Officials also were hard-pressed to explain why the overall results were so poor. Ravitch said they could reflect the fact that 54 percent of public high school students have history teachers who did not major or minor in the subject in college. In many schools, "the way they spell history teacher is c-o-a-c-h," she said.
Still, I have another theory: a culture which refuses to judge people honestly. If you read the study, the testers graded the short answer questions using the terms "Inappropriate," "Partial," "Essential," or "Complete." The worst one can do, if one completely screws up the question, is to give an "inappropriate" response. Whatever happened to "Incorrect"?

Or, on the other hand, maybe Americans are just stupid.

Second prize is two seats on the commission
The Bush administration, won a legal victory on Thursday, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled unanimously that President Bush gets to appoint a member to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission has exactly zero authority, and slightly less importance than that. They issued a disputed report on the 2000 presidential election in Florida, which nobody cared about (probably because the result was preordained: "Republicans racist. Republicans bad. Democrats good.") And if you can name one other thing they've done, you need to get out of the house more. They issue reports from time to time, always finding racism. (Samples: "Racism's Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska" and "BRIEFING ON BIOTERRORISM AND HEALTH CARE DISPARITIES ")

As it happens, the Commission has another vacancy, but there appears to be some confusion about this one, as well. The Washington Post says:
With one seat open, to be filled by the Senate president pro tempore, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Republicans have gained an additional voice in Kirsanow but are still unlikely to tip the balance of the commission.
But the New York Times says:
The four Congressional appointments to the panel rotate between Democrats and Republicans, meaning Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader, will select Mr. Redenbaugh's successor.
Lott, Byrd, whatever. One of those guys.

Thursday, May 09, 2002
Throwing tantrums
Silly me; I thought that the idea of a pro-Second Amendment administration supporting the Second Amendment would be a big yawner of a story. But the New York Times and the Washington Post treated it as big news, and today, the Times' Bob Herbert froths at the mouth in his rush to condemn John Ashcroft. That's easy for Herbert, because Ashcroft represents everything Herbert hates.

The first rule of bashing politicians for supporting the Second Amendment is to mention the National Rifle Association as much as possible (six times in one column, for those of you scoring at home). If you gave Herbert a choice between the NRA and NAMBLA (which promotes sex between men and boys), he wouldn't have to think very long before choosing the latter. So not only does Herbert mention the NRA, but he argues, quite ludicrously, that Ashcroft only took the "transparently political" position because the NRA "just happened to have been a major Ashcroft campaign contributor." As if there were something wrong with taking political positions, and as if there were no supporters of the Second Amendment until the NRA came along. And this exemplifies Herbert's biggest failing as a pundit: he simply cannot accept -- in fact, cannot comprehend -- the idea of honest policy disagreement. Politicians who disagree with his views are not just wrong, but venal, greedy, stupid, selfish, and/or racist.
The N.R.A. has seldom had a better friend in government than Mr. Ashcroft. That was proved again on Monday when the Justice Department, in a pair of briefs filed with the court, rejected the long-held view of the court, the Justice Department itself and most legal scholars that the Second Amendment protects only the right of state-organized militias to own firearms. Under that interpretation, anchored by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939, Congress and local governmental authorities have great freedom to regulate the possession and use of firearms by individuals.
Leaving aside Herbert's misrepresentation of the 1939 Miller ruling, I don't know how Herbert knows what "most legal scholars" think on the subject; it's certainly not a universal view, and there are very prominent legal scholars, including liberals like Lawrence Tribe, who would disagree.

But even that isn't enough for Herbert, so he goes on to become the latest person to play politics with the war on terrorism:
How weird is it that in this post-Sept.-11 atmosphere, when the Justice Department itself is in the forefront of the effort to narrow potential threats to security, the attorney general decides it would be a good idea to throw open the doors to a wholesale increase in gun ownership?
How weird is it, Bob? Perhaps that's because the Second Amendment is not a threat to security, but a guarantee of security?  It was despicable when Ashcroft accused Democratic critics of Bush of being treasonous, and it's despicable of Herbert to insinuate that protecting the Second Amendment is somehow promoting terrorism.

But guns are evil, and Ashcroft is evil, and Herbert doesn't want to let anybody forget that.

Insult to injury
What is it with the anti-Israel Los Angeles Times? Everything that goes wrong in the Middle East is the fault of Ariel Sharon:
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke off his visit to Washington by essentially saying "forget it" to diplomacy after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis near Tel Aviv. No matter how reprehensible such bombings are--and they are terrorism--the Bush administration cannot allow itself Sharon's spiteful luxury.
Self-defense is a "spiteful luxury"? There we have it: sure, the bombings are "reprehensible," but. There's always that "but."
Only a sustained effort by other nations will force Israelis and Palestinians to the conference table.Los Angeles Times will again call the attacks "reprehensible. Which will be great comfort to the families of the victims.

Not taking it lying down
William Safire goes on the offensive, insisting that the Iraq-Mohammed Atta connection is still valid. He says that Atta did meet an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, and that the CIA is covering it up in order to cover their own asses over their screwups and their "inability to conduct covert operations."

Now, I don't have any way of knowing who's correct, but, as Safire says, the people saying the meeting did take place -- i.e., the Czech government -- have no apparent reason to lie, while the CIA does. Moreover, the fact that nobody in the Administration will deny it on the record speaks volumes.

Of course, in the end it shouldn't matter; Saddam needs to go, as soon as possible. Whether he was specifically involved in 9/11 is beside the point. He's an aggressive expansionist tyrant actively searching for weapons of mass destruction. So the only thing that this information can be used to accomplish is to quiet the Europeans down when they explain why we can't and shouldn't invade. But there's no possible way to shut them up, anyway, and even if we had absolute proof of Iraq's involvement, there would be plenty of European objections to our actions.

A second marriage
In Slate, Warren Bass argues that the popular new idea of building a fence around the West Bank won't solve Israel's security problem. He makes a three part argument: first, that it's technically too difficult to build an effective fence, partly because the border is too long and the terrain is rough, and partly because organized groups can always find ways around it. Second, that an effective fence will do more to stop trade, and thus destroy the Palestinian economy (sic), than it will do to stop terrorism.

And third, he argues that it isn't a diplomatic solution:
And that, ultimately, is the biggest reason to worry about the enthusiasm for a fence: It reinforces unilateralism and helps defer indefinitely the only possible solution—negotiated partition—that has any reasonable chance of bringing peace. Unilateral disengagement by Israel would replace the land-for-peace premise of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 with land-for-violence; gut the long-standing Israeli insistence that negotiations are the lone legitimate way to resolve Arab-Israeli tensions; encourage Palestinian militance; reinforce Hezbollah's crowing insistence that force works and talks don't; and make Jerusalem and the rest of the new frontier into a new front line.
Someone once described a second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. What on earth would lead anybody to believe, at this point, that a negotiated solution has any chance of bringing peace? Land-for-peace is a fraud. What that formula always meant was land for the promise of peace. But there isn't anybody Israel can negotiate with for peace; there's nobody whose promises are worth anything to Israel.

Of course, Israel will still need to decide how to handle the settlements, but to argue that a fence won't work because it will "encourage Palestinian militance" is insane. Is the Middle East suffering from a lack of militance right now?

Wednesday, May 08, 2002
Media bias demonstrated
A recently-introduced feature of the search engine Google is a news search engine. Google gathers the most prominent headlines from around the web, sorting them by story, so you get several choices for most prominent events. Since Google displays them by headline, one of the cute features is that you get to see how different sources describe the same story. It struck me as worthy of comment today, as I happened to see the following headlines relating to a study about pesticides on organic food:

(Note that this is a snapshot at a given moment; the google page and/or the stories themselves may change by the time you read this.)

Note the different slants that different sources choose. The Globe and Times choose the most pro-organic spin, describing the food as having "far less" pesticides. The Mercury declines to editorialize, saying merely that the organic food has "less." And the Tribune takes the opposite approach, focusing on the negative side of organic food, that it isn't pesticide "free".

I don't know what was going through the minds of the editors who wrote those headlines, but it's hard to imagine that it's just a coincidence.

Guns are bad. The New York Times says so.
The Justice Department submitted briefs to the Supreme Court on Monday that said that the Second Amendment protected an individual right, not just a collective right, to bear arms. That the current administration believes this isn't news, of course, but the Times felt the need to mention that John Ashcroft had previously announced his position to the National Rifle Association. Actually, mentioning the NRA wasn't quite enough, so the Times had to elaborate: he wrote a "letter to the rifle association's chief lobbyist."

And then the Times had to try to prove that this is a novel theory, that John Ashcroft was going against established law. Unfortunately, since he wasn't, the Times had to make something up:
The Supreme Court's view has been that the the Second Amendment protected only those rights that have "some reasonable relationship to the preservation of efficiency of a well regulated militia," as the court put it in United States v. Miller, a 1939 decision that remains the court's latest word on the subject.
Actually, this cleverly clips the Supreme Court quote in just the right part so that she can paraphrase it incorrectly. The Supreme Court's view in Miller is that the Second Amendment protected only those weapons that have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia. (The actual quote:
In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.
One is free to agree or disagree with the Supreme Court's interpretation -- though not in a news article -- but one should at least make an attempt to describe it accurately.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002
Palestinians score major military victory over pool hall!
At least 15 people killed, and 60 more wounded, in a homicide bombing on a pool hall near Tel Aviv. Is it just a coincidence that there was a major terrorist bombing soon after Arafat was let out of isolation? Is it just a coincidence that this happened while Sharon was in Washington meeting with President Bush? Yeah, right.

This happened soon after a deal to end the Bethlehem siege fell apart, a deal which would send some of the terrorists wanted by Israel to Italy, since nobody bothered to ask Italy and Italy doesn't really want them. And apparently the Palestinians, other than Yasser Arafat, don't like the idea either. Hey, I have an idea -- maybe Israel and the U.S. should insist that Arafat be replaced with someone who actually represents Palestinians.

Monday, May 06, 2002
Has anybody checked the chads?
Well, Jacques Chirac smashed his opponent, Jean Le Pen, in today's runoff presidential election in France. There was no hidden base of support for Le Pen, as he got only a slightly higher percentage of the vote (18%) than he did in the initial round of the election. Voters really did prefer the corrupt to the extremist.

But not quite as strongly as the media would like us to believe:
Turnout was estimated at about 80 percent, higher than in the first round April 21, when about 28 percent of voters stayed home. That high abstention rate, and the large number of votes going to minor candidates of the far left and far right, led to Le Pen's strong finish.
If there was higher turnout and Le Pen got essentially the same percentage of the vote this time as he did last time, then obviously the high abstention rate did not play a significant role. And moreover, higher turnout and the same percentage means that Le Pen got a million more votes in this election than the last.

So, there's a half-full/half-empty glass here: on the one hand, Le Pen was overwhelmingly rejected, with 82% of the population voting against him. On the other hand, Le Pen got 18% of the vote. One-fifth of the population of France supported a candidate widely considered to be extremist, if not fascist. What does that say about the French electorate?

And of course, the French wouldn't be the French without controversy:
The idea that Chirac, having won with many votes from the left, is now set to roll back much of the left's legislation implemented during its five years in power, has Socialists and their labor union allies fuming. No sooner were the results announced than leftists began taking to the streets, protesting not against Le Pen, as they had for the last two weeks, but against Chirac.
Don't these people have anything better to do with their time?

Sunday, May 05, 2002
Ultimately they're both French
The big French election is tomorrow. Everyone seems convinced that Le Pen is going to be slaughtered. Le Pen certainly seems resigned to it now; he has started with claims of "fraud" before the polls even open. But he has made an attempt to appear more moderate:
Mr Le Pen appeared to play down his extremist reputation on the eve of polling, telling Israeli TV that French Jews had nothing to fear from his election.

The National Front leader once referred to the Nazi genocide of the Jews as a "detail of history".

But he assured Israelis that he had condemned recent anti-Semitic violence in France and said he would be happy to visit Israel.
(And actually, come to think of it, that's more than Chirac has done.)

Still, I'm with Glenn Reynolds on this one: my rational side says that Le Pen is repugnant, so no, I don't want him to win. But there's a bit of schadenfreude here. The French are fond of being so superior, so fond of telling us how "simplistic" we are compared to them, and yet someone far more extreme than any major American candidate is a finalist. Maybe if he does well, without winning, it will be a lesson to them.