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Archive for the ‘News and Current Events’ Category

The News Makes You Dumb

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, Writing on August 19, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Public Discourse.

A pernicious notion seems to have settled into the minds of my generation (I’m 37) when we were little boys and girls. It’s now an unquestioned “fact” that “staying informed,” “staying engaged,” and “following the news” are the obligatory duties of sensible, responsible people.

They’re not.

Reading and watching the news isn’t just unhelpful or uninstructive; it inhibits real learning, true education, and the rigorous cultivation of serious intellectual curiosity.

Simply Gathering Information Is Not Educational

When I was a child, my parents, quite rightly, restricted my television viewing. I could not, for instance, watch television after 5:00 p.m. or for more than an hour on weekdays. (Saturday morning cartoons ran for a permissible two hours, before my parents arose from bed.)

The glaring exception to these rules was “the news.” Watching the evening news was for my family a ritual in information gathering, the necessary means of understanding “current events.” Whatever else people said of it, the news was, by all accounts, educational.

Was it, though? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously refused to read newspapers. In The Theory of Education in the United States, Albert Jay Nock bemoaned “the colossal, the unconscionable, volume of garbage annually shot upon the public from the presses of the country, largely in the form of newspapers and periodicals.” His point was that a societal emphasis on literacy was by and large ineffectual if the material that most people read was stupid and unserious. Does one actually learn by reading the cant and carping insolence of the noisy commentariat?

“Surely everything depends on what he reads,” Nock said of the average person, “and upon the purpose that guides him in reading it.” What matters is not that one reads but what and how one reads. “You can read merely to pass the time,” the great Harold Bloom remarked, “or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock.”

The heart beats only so many beats; in one life, a person can read only so much. Why squander away precious minutes reading mediocre scribbling or watching rude, crude talking heads debate transitory political matters of ultimately insignificant import, when instead, in perfect solitude, you could expand your imagination, nurture your judgment and discernment, refine your logic and reasoning, and purge yourself of ignorance, by pursuing wisdom and objective knowledge, through the canon of great literature, with a magnanimous spirit of openness and humility?

Why let obsequious, unlettered journalists on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC shape your conscience, determine your beliefs, or develop your dependency on allegedly expert opinion, as if you were a docile creature lacking the courage to formulate your own ideas, when you could, instead, empower yourself through laborious study, exert your own understanding, and free yourself from the cramped cage of contemporary culture by analyzing past cultures, foreign places, difficult texts, and profound ideas?

The Demise of Journalism

When I was in college, not so long ago, you could still find semicolons in The New York Times. I’m told they surface there every now and then, but journalistic writing, as a whole, across the industry, is not what it once was. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, and am not so pedantic as to link semicolon usage with across-the-board journalistic standards. Besides, the Kurt Vonneguts of the world would have been pleased to be rid of semicolons. All I’m saying is that popular media should be more challenging if it’s to have far-reaching, salubrious effects. Newspaper writing, print or online, seems to have dumbed down to the point of harming rather than helping society writ large, and the opinions aired on television and radio seem to have attached themselves to one political party or another rather than liberating themselves from groupthink and stodgy consensus.

Reading as an activity should lift of us up, not drag us down. It should inspire and require us to improve our cognitive habits and performance. The same goes for listening: how we listen and what we listen to affects our basic competency and awareness.

Not only have the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax displayed in “the news” diminished in sophistication, both in print and on television and radio, but also more generally the principal subject matter has moved from the complex and the challenging to the easy and simplistic. Media coverage focuses predominantly on contemporary partisan politics that occasion minimal cognitive energy.

There’s a reason why so many people pay attention to politics: it just isn’t that difficult to think about or discuss. It doesn’t demand rational labor or arduous engagement. It can be passively absorbed. Ratings of television news would not be so high if its content weren’t so simplistic and easy to process. People watch the news to take a break or relax, or to get a rise out of eye-catching scandals and circumstances. The distinction between journalism and tabloid journalism has blurred beyond recognition. In short, journalism is a dying art.

Dangers of a Digital Age

Smart phones and social media are part of the problem. Every age has anxieties about technology. We shouldn’t blame smart phones and social media for human sins. The discourse, not the medium through which it circulates, ultimately is the problem. Yet it’s a problem that smart phones and social media have enabled in a way that past technologies could not. To air an opinion, anyone anywhere can simply tweet or post on Facebook without channeling the message through editors or other mediators.

Digital and smart devices have accelerated editorial processes. The never-ending race to publish “breaking” news results in slipshod work. Online reporting is full of typos and errors. A few clever reporters employ terms like Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, or Dickensian to give the impression of literacy, but the truly literate aren’t fooled.

Have journalistic practices and standards declined as literacy rates have risen? Does an increase in readership necessitate a reduction in quality? Do editors and publishers compete for the lowest common denominator, forgoing excellence and difficulty in order to achieve broad appeal?

Demanding stories and accounts that enrich reading habits and exercise mental faculties aren’t merely salacious or sensationalized clickbait. So they’re difficult, these days, to find, unless you already know where to look.

In the 1980s, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. could write with confidence that newspapers assumed a common reader, i.e., “a person who knows the things known by other literate persons in the culture.” Neither journalists nor their readers today, however, seem literate in the traditional sense of that term. The culture of literacy—true literacy, again in the traditional sense of that term—has come under attack by the very scholars and professors who should be its eager champions.

Our popular pundits, mostly hired guns, supply unqualified, cookie-cutter answers to often manufactured problems; their job is not to inform but to entertain a daft and credulous public. “The liberally educated person,” by contrast, is, according to Allan Bloom, “one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”

Seek Wisdom and Discernment over Politics and Personal Preference

If we wish to consume the news, we should treat it as junk food. The human body cannot healthily sustain itself on candy bars alone. It requires a balanced diet, nutrition, and exercise. So it is with the mind. Fed only junk, it’s malnourished.

Every now and then we may indulge the vice of chocolate or soda without impairing our overall, long-term health. Likewise we may watch without permanent or severe detriment the screeching cacophonies of semiliterate blatherskites like Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Tucker Carlson, Jake Tapper, or, heaven help us, the worst of the worst, Chris Cuomo.

Just know that during the hour spent watching these prattling performers present tendentious interpretations of fresh facts, militantly employing tedious details to service ideological narratives, you could have read an informative book that placed the applicable subject matter into illuminating historical and philosophical context. The facts may be simple and quick, but interpreting them requires knowledge of the past, including the complexities and contingencies of the relevant religious movements, geographies, anthropologies, governments, literatures, and cultures. Devouring ephemeral media segments and sound bites in rapid succession is not learning. It is gluttonous distraction.

Do not misunderstand me: I do not advocate a Luddite lifestyle or a withdrawal from society and the workaday world. I just mean that too many of us, too much of the time, are enthralled by fleeting media trifles and trivialities, and ensnared in the trap of mindless entertainment disguised as vigorous edification.

Let’s stop telling little children what my generation heard when we were kids. They should stay away from the news lest they fall prey to its mania, foolishness, and stupidity. They should read books—difficult books—and be challenged to improve themselves and refine their techniques. Rather than settling on easy, preferred answers, they should accept tensions and contingencies, suspending judgment until all angles have been pursued and all perspectives have been considered. Let’s teach them to become, not activists or engaged citizens necessarily, but intelligent human beings who love knowledge and learning, and who pursue wisdom and discernment before mundane politics.

Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, and the Dissemination of Fake News

In Arts & Letters, News and Current Events, Politics, Rhetoric on May 8, 2019 at 6:00 am

We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. Until I was its victim, I was skeptical about the extent of its existence.

Now I understand why trust in the media is so low and why news networks are associated with leftist bias. I have learned, as well, that fake news does not necessarily consist of flagrant, outright lying; it can involve exaggeration, subtle distortion, fabrication, deception, insinuation, innuendo, opinion dressed up as fact, and guilt-by-association.

Here’s my story.

Last November, I gave a lecture about decentralization to the Abbeville Institute, an organization whose stated purpose is “to critically explore what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.” The full text of the lecture, from which I read verbatim, is available here. The lecture was filmed and recorded and is available here. It does not mention secession, race, or the Confederacy. The focus of the conference was political secession and decentralization—controversial topics, to be sure, but important ones in light of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Brexit, and recent separatist movements in Eritrea, Quebec, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Kosovo, Angola, Catalan, Cyprus, China, and elsewhere. Of the speakers at the conference, only Dr. Donald Livingston, the president of the Abbeville Institute and a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, and I were Southerners. The other speakers represented diverse political commitments and came from different geographic backgrounds.

Six days after my talk, ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, ran an article by Mr. Casey Michel titled “Neo-Confederates have failed for the past 150 years. Now, they have a new ally.” The article features my photograph beneath this title, beside the photograph of Mr. Larry Secede Kilgore, a man I have never met, do not know, and had never heard of before reading about him in the article. Displaying my photograph prominently beneath the label “Neo-confederate” gives the impression that I am the face of that movement—or that I am the new ally of the so-called Neo-confederates referred to in the title. The article features two photographs of me but not of four of the other seven speakers at the conference (a separate article that Mr. Michel wrote about the conference, published on November 11, 2018, features a photograph of Mr. Michael Boldin, the executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center). Nor is there a photograph of Mr. Marcus Ruiz Evans, the principal subject of Mr. Michel’s piece and a young Mexican American who touts himself as a progressive advocating California’s secession from the United States of America.

The opening line of Mr. Michel’s article calls the Abbeville Institute conference “a conclave for neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and members of the fringe far right,” and there I am, pictured front and center, standing at the podium, the ostensible leader of the moment if not the movement. Without directly calling me a neo-Confederate or a white nationalist, Mr. Michel and the editors at ThinkProgress portrayed me as one.

I am not a neo-Confederate. In fact, I have written that “Confederate cultural values have been discredited.” Had Mr. Michel researched me, moreover, he would have found my scholarship that both analyzes and condemns white supremacy.  As just two representative examples among many, he might have read “Haunted by History’s Ghostly Gaps: A Literary Critique of the Dred Scott Decision and Its Historical Treatments” (published in 2009 by The Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives) or “From Natural Law to Natural Inferiority: The Construction of Racist Jurisprudence in Early Virginia” (published in 2013 by PEER English: Journal of New Critical Thinking). I have, moreover, been at the forefront of criticisms of the American Bar Association and state bar associations for their regulations that disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and reduce diversity in the legal profession.

My spouse is not white; my children are mixed race. It is deeply offensive and hurtful to me to be misrepresented and mischaracterized as sympathetic to white nationalism, an extremist ideology that would denounce and disparage my own family.

On August 25, 2017, after the tragic events in Charlottesville, I signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today.”  This letter, the terms of which I still affirm in their entirety, states,

Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not.  Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.  And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination.  What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

The letter goes on to state,

Racism should be denounced by religious and civil leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

I continue, as always, to denounce racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy, all of which conflict with my sincerely and deeply held Christian faith.

Mr. Michel states that I once worked as a staff attorney to Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court.  That’s true.  The article fails to note, however, that I left that position when, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Moore issued an administrative order to Alabama’s probate judges directing them not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Mentioning my former employment with Chief Justice Moore is a textbook example of the guilt-by-association, ad hominem fallacy that professional journalists should avoid at all costs, it being a mode of inferior logic and unsophisticated argumentation.

As most journalists are aware, moreover, the political views of law clerks and the judges for whom they clerk are not necessary similar. In many cases they differ drastically. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, reportedly hired at least one law clerk per term who identified as “liberal” because he wished to cover blind spots that his own jurisprudence prevented him from seeing.

Mr. Michel’s article claims that most of the Abbeville Institute conference attendees “were already graying,” and that “almost all of [them] were white.” What to make of this overt ageism? And who were these non-white attendees? Why did Mr. Michel deprive them of a voice? Would they have agreed with his description of the conference as a place where “white supremacy [was] simmering just below the surface” and there was “a lingering presence of neo-Confederacy”? If so, why were they there? Does Mr. Michel’s failure or refusal to interview them unwittingly reflect an inchoate or unconscious racism predicated on an assumed sense of superiority, on a paternalism in which Mr. Michel plays the role of cultural better tasked with analyzing his less sophisticated subordinates who are in need his enlightened assistance? Has Mr. Michel instantiated the “white savior” complex? Wouldn’t an account of the multiethnic nature of this conference have been more interesting, nuanced, and instructive than Mr. Michel’s simplistic depiction of a homogeneous group of likeminded “people preaching tired ideas”?

Mr. Michel’s article violates journalistic ethics and standards, calling into question not only his integrity but also the integrity of his employer, ThinkProgress, and its editors.

I wrote the editors of ThinkProgress to request a retraction or revision of Mr. Michel’s article—if not for me, I stated, then for the sake of ThinkProgress’s credibility as a journalism outlet.  Doing so, I added, might save them from embarrassment. Mr. Michel responded by asking, “Would you like to send a statement for the recording [sic] clarifying your opposition to being associated with white nationalism, or would you prefer that we quote from your email?” But I don’t just oppose being associated with white nationalism; I oppose white nationalism, an odious ideology that I condemn. At least Mr. Michel has acknowledged in writing that he associated me with white nationalism. He might have denied that erroneous association to avoid exposing his dishonesty.

Ms. Kiley Kroh, a senior editor at ThinkProgress, echoed Mr. Michel’s offer to include my perspective or statement in the article, but if I agreed to that, I would have validated the article, which was unworthy of validation. So I did not settle with Mr. Michel’s or Ms. Kroh’s offer, which seemed to me less like a sincere concession and more like a deceptive tactic. Instead, I sent Mr. Michel several questions—for the record.

My questions concerned the journalistic integrity of his article, in particular regarding the verifiability of his sources and the unprofessionalism of his methods.

Anyone can show up at a place and claim to have heard there all kinds of unflattering, objectionable conversations. A journalist can allege that some person or another said this or that if he or she does not document his or her sources. Absent the names of the individuals Mr. Michel quotes, there’s no way to track them down; his readers are left to take him at his word. He identifies only two interviewees by name: Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kurt Burkhalter. (In a separate article about the conference, he also identifies Mr. Tom Glass, whose brief remarks were delivered publically to the entire audience—in other words, who was not interviewed by Mr. Michel, as I confirmed with Mr. Glass by phone.)

I tracked down Mr. Burkhalter, whose name, contrary to Mr. Michel’s reporting, is Karl, not Kurt. We emailed and spoke by phone. He told me that Mr. Michel did not identify himself as a reporter or a member of the press or even introduce himself to Mr. Burkhalter.  He doesn’t remember speaking to Mr. Michel. Nor did Mr. Michel ask Mr. Burkhalter to speak for the record. If Mr. Burkhalter was recorded, it was not to his knowledge.

What if Mr. Michel’s multiple unnamed sources do not exist? What if they aren’t real people? What if their remarks and conversations never occurred? What if Mr. Michel just invented them out of thin air to demean his subjects? Mr. Michel did not respond to my request for information about these people; nor did he state whether he identified himself as a journalist to them (if they exist) or recorded their remarks (if they occurred). And were there “roughly 60 conference attendees,” as Mr. Michel claims here, or “some 75 participants,” as he claims here?

Mr. Michel quotes one unnamed attendee as saying, “I can’t believe we’re in Texas and there’s no grits! …. Y’all been invaded by Yankees.”  I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could track this person down or prove that he or she exists. He has not responded.

He alleges that unnamed attendees “complained that ‘diversity’ was lowering the average IQ of Harvard,” and, at lunch, “swapped stories of supposed ‘Muslim-controlled no-go zones’ in the U.K. and support for British proto-fascist Tommy Robinson.” I was present at this lunch and heard no conversations to this effect. I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that these attendees actually exist. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that an unnamed attendee stated, “You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that this statement was actually made or that this attendee actually exists. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that “one of the organizers” of the conference “hollered that Confederate flags would be referred to as ‘Freedom Flags’ and were available to any interested attendees.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that this conference organizer actually exists. He has not responded. Dr. Livingston, however, has informed me that he, Dr. Livingston, was the only conference organizer, and that he hollered no such thing about Freedom Flags.

Mr. Michel’s interviews, if or to the extent they occurred, were with only attendees, not any of the speakers at the conference. Is that because the speakers had multiple graduate degrees among them, because their responses would have been measured and sophisticated and, thus, incompatible with the narrative that Mr. Michel wanted to tell? Is it because the speakers are real, traceable people who could be reached for comment or rebuttal?

Mr. Michel alleges that attendees at the conference loathed Abraham Lincoln. I asked him, for the record, if he could provide evidence for that claim or whether he interviewed any attendees about Lincoln. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that speakers at the conference “had waxed poetically for Dixie.” I didn’t see any speakers do such a thing; therefore, I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify or document his claim. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel calls nullification “a discredited legal principle supposedly permitting states to disregard federal law.” Because he provides no attribution for this claim, I take it to be his own. When I asked him how he squared this opinion with the fact that certain states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in contravention of federal law, he did not respond.

*

On November 20, 2018, I emailed the other speakers at the conference to forward them my written correspondence with Mr. Michel.  Mr. Evans responded later that day claiming that Mr. Michel had previously written false or misleading information about YesCalifornia, the political action committee with which Mr. Evans is affiliated and which promotes California’s secession from the United States. So I decided to take a closer look at Mr. Michel’s claims about YesCalifornia in the article that I felt had targeted me.

This article claims, without providing or citing evidence, that YesCalifornia is “a Kremlin-backed group” that “has acted as one of the most obvious fronts for Russian interference efforts over the past few years.” I asked Mr. Michel whether he could verify or substantiate this claim. He has not responded. Curiously, however, he has written elsewhere that “[n]o evidence has emerged of direct Kremlin funding for the Calexit initiative, or similar endeavors in the United States.”

Mr. Michel also states that YesCalifornia was “reportedly helped by the architects of Russia’s social media interference efforts—one of the few American organizations directly linked to the types of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that meddled in U.S. politics the past few years.” The words “linked directly” hyperlink to a BBC News article (“‘Russian trolls’ promoted California independence,” November 4, 2017) that does not claim a direct link between Russian social media accounts and YesCalifornia. Rather, the article states that social media accounts banned by Twitter due to ties to the Internet Research Agency—“a St. Petersburg-based ‘troll factory”—were pushing #Calexit hashtags and linking “to other social media accounts advocating the secession of California from the United States.”

I asked Mr. Evans about this BBC article. He wrote back that Mr. Michel “fails to point out that the article he links to directly contradicts the narrative that he is pushing, which is that Calexit is mostly, or nothing but a Russian backed social movement.” He clarified that, “although the FBI was instructing all technology companies to shut down all social media counts linked to the Russian government, the YesCalifornia Twitter and Facebook page have been untouched and are still active at this time, proving that the FBI itself confirms that YesCalifornia is an actual organic group.”

Mr. Michel is quoted in the BBC article as saying that the Anti-Globalisation Movement “received funding from the Kremlin to organize this conference to pay for the travel and lodging of American and European secession movements,” and that Louis Marinelli (a cofounder of YesCalifornia) spoke at an Anti-Globalisation conference. Mr. Michel provides no citation or evidence to back up his claim that the Kremlin helped to subsidize this conference. The fact that Mr. Marinelli spoke at a conference hosted by an organization with which he is not affiliated, moreover, hardly qualifies as a “direct link” between YesCalifornia and Russian interference in U.S. politics. In fact, Mr. Michel told a reporter for Playboy that “there’s no indication Marinelli himself has received funding from the Russian government,” adding, however, that “Yes California received rent-free space for its ‘Embassy’…provided by the Kremlin funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.”

I know little about YesCalifornia or California secession movements, and even less about Russian meddling in U.S. politics. I cannot affirm or deny Mr. Michel’s claims about them. That, however, is precisely the problem: an educated reader ought to be able to evaluate the truthfulness of claims in articles that are published for a mass readership. Such claims should be fact-checked and scrutinized before they reach print. Journalists must be careful to distinguish fact from opinion, and possibility from actuality. They must clarify when they are speculating and when they are registering uncontroverted data. It isn’t fair to the general public for the media to convey vague or unsubstantiated allegations, placing the burden on skeptical readers to affirm or deny reported claims. Most readers are not lawyers or journalists trained and equipped for such rigorous undertakings. They don’t have time systematically to discredit every journalist who raises suspicions.

*

As a lawyer, I could be reprimanded, maybe even disbarred, for the kind of professional misconduct that Mr. Michel has demonstrated in his intemperate reporting about the Abbeville Institute’s conference. Shouldn’t journalists be held equally accountable?  Arguably, at least in certain circumstances, their capacity to harm society is greater than lawyers’, given that their writings are immediately available worldwide whereas the actions of most lawyers most of the time are confined to their jurisdiction and the parties to a case. If I could be removed from my profession or disciplined for actions similar to those of Mr. Michel in this instance, why shouldn’t he be removed from his?  Will media companies, including those that employ him, care about the flaws in his reporting?  Will they continue to feature his writings or air his opinions on television? Will his other work be scrutinized to ensure that it has truthfully conveyed verifiable facts to the general public? And what will happen to him if concerned readers discover a pattern of professional misconduct in his work, or that he has misled the public?

Mr. Michel’s coverage of the Abbeville Institute is hardly bold. It’s not an example of the little guy standing up to some big, bad, powerful corporation. The Abbeville Institute has comparatively little money and resources.  According to 990s available online, the Abbeville Institute reported year-end net assets or fund balances of $360,854 in 2015, $213,060 in 2014, and 178,760 in 2013. Its reported total revenue was $138,041 in 2015, $97,873 in 2014, and $56,291 in 2013. By contrast, in 2016, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported net assets or fund balances of $4,225,946 and total revenue of $7,751,090. (According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) may, unlike a 501(c)(3), “further its [tax] exempt purposes through lobbying as its primary activity without jeopardizing its exempt status.”) The Abbeville Institute is tiny by comparison.

Nor have I found anything published by the Abbeville Institute that could be described as “white nationalist,” which is defined as “the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.” The Abbeville Institute’s archives include favorable portraits of Jimmy Carter and civil rights, and its authors have characterized white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan as anti-Southern or as breaches of the Southern tradition. Vietnamese, Jewish, and an African-American authors have contributed to its blog. Mr. Michel cites this Abbeville Institute blog post as evidence of thinly veiled racism, but fails to note its celebration of ethnic diversity in the South.

No doubt scholars associated with the Abbeville Institute have expressed views with which I disagree. That would be the case with nearly any organization, given that my idiosyncratic opinions make me difficult to categorize along a simplistic left-right spectrum or within conventional political taxonomies. Because I believe in the merits and benefits of decentralization, I agreed enthusiastically to discuss this topic before a captive Abbeville Institute audience. Because I believe, moreover, that the American South is not a categorically bad place, that its history is, among other things, complex and worthy of serious study, I have been an associated scholar of the Abbeville Institute for many years. That fact alone should not disqualify my views, which deserve to be heard on their merits.

I remain friendly with academics, writers, and journalists on the left.  I take their ideas and writing seriously and engage them in constructive, civil, and good-faith dialogue so that I may better understand their views while refining and revising my own.  We have mutual respect for one another.  For many years, I myself was a man of the left. I still hold certain views with which self-identifying progressives would agree.

When progressives who know me read Mr. Michel’s article, they will, I suspect, immediately question his credibility and sincerity, even if they also question my judgment for speaking to the Abbeville Institute, a group with which they would not align themselves. It would seem to me that ThinkProgress would wish to attract a wider readership in states like Alabama, where progressives are few in number.  By associating me with white nationalists and neo-Confederates, however, ThinkProgress may drive away reasonable, level-headed moderates in Alabama whose vast presence here revealed itself with the election of Doug Jones to the United States Senate. In short, ThinkProgress risks, with the publication of Mr. Michel’s article, mainstreaming what it seeks to depict as extreme and alienating the very audience it seeks to attract—all because one reporter did not do his homework or adhere to professional standards of reporting.

I am not familiar with Mr. Michel’s larger body of work, but I wonder whether his publishers should revisit his writings to ensure that they contain verifiable facts, identifiable sources, proper attribution, and appropriate context. Mr. Michel has demonstrated, with his coverage of the Abbeville Institute conference, that he’s capable of distortion and unprofessionalism. Might he have been unprofessional in his previous writings?

Journalism as a profession depends upon the public trust, its chief function being to disseminate reliable information for public knowledge. People should make informed decisions whenever possible; the accurate and extensive communication of uncontroverted facts enables them to do so. The consequences of unprofessional reporting are potentially far-reaching and wide-ranging: What would it mean if the public, en masse, lost faith in the media, if there were no reliable fora for information gathering and transmission, if the definition of “information” was itself subverted beyond recognition?  How would we make informed decisions?  How could we knowledgeably mobilize ourselves into purposeful communities with shared values and commitments?

I believe that a diversity of thought and opinion is essential to the flourishing of society, and I admire ThinkProgress for standing up for ideas that fulfill and promote its core mission. I believe strongly in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and worry daily that they are under threat. That is why I cannot tolerate journalistic error and mischaracterization that cause harm to me and my family—and to honest journalists everywhere. Because the freedom of speech and the press is vital, it must not be cheapened or undermined by lies, fraud, or unprofessionalism.

This is not the story of some hack scribbler dashing off a dubious hit-job or smear piece. It’s bigger than that; it’s an illustrative example of the more general decline in journalistic standards, ethics, and accountability that contributes to widespread distrust of the media.

I am a human being, not some online robot or avatar.  My wife, my two children (aged seven and five), my mother and father, my elderly grandmother, my siblings—they are all living, breathing human beings who know me and love me, and who have been demoralized, disturbed, and disheartened by Mr. Michel’s article.

And guess what? If any of them trusted the media before, they don’t now. And they’ll applaud President Trump every time he attacks the media for “fake news.” And if there are others like them across America who are likewise victims of bad or unethical reporting, who do not believe that the media fairly informs the public about matters of general concern, then anger at the media will spread; trust in journalists will diminish; “news” will no longer be considered news.

Claas Relotius’s fabrications over several years validated growing skepticism about an impartial news media, as did numerous media statements about the Covington Catholic High School students that video footage later contradicted. I can add Mr. Michel’s reporting of me to the list of reasons I am skeptical about the truth of many stories the news media disseminates.

It is incumbent upon journalists to avoid unethical reporting and unprincipled methods that demean their profession and undercut the good-faith work of responsible reporters who strive to provide accurate information and verifiable data. The stakes are high in this “Information Age” in which we do not yet fully understand the effects and potential consequences of our new technologies on society. When in doubt, it’s best to bear in mind the ancient proverb: “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” For we’ve had enough troubles in these troublesome times.

Journalists should stick to facts and not seek to destroy their ideological opponents with reckless words. And we, all of us, left and right, should unite to hold them accountable if they don’t.

Civics Education and the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty

In Academia, Civics, Conservatism, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 26, 2017 at 10:49 am

A version of this piece will appear in Faulkner Magazine. 

Our country has suffered a decline in civic literacy.  From 2006 until 2011, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) conducted annual studies that evaluated the civic literacy of students and citizens.

The results were discouraging. Most Americans were unable to pass a basic test consisting of straightforward, multiple-choice questions about American heritage, government, and law. One of the ISI studies suggested that students knew more about civics before they began college than they did after they graduated college.

It’s not just students and ordinary citizens displaying civic ignorance. Our political leaders have demonstrated that they lack the understanding of law and government befitting their high office.

Judge Arenda Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently began an opinion by stating that the Constitution declared that “‘all men’ are created equal.” This line appears in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

Senator Chuck Schumer told CNN that the three branches of government were the House, the Senate, and the President. He not only failed to mention the judicial branch, but also treated the bicameral legislature in which he serves as if it were bifurcated into separate branches of government.

Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, while criticizing the alleged unconstitutionality of proposed legislation, claimed that the Constitution was 400 years old.

These anecdotes suffice to show the extent to which Americans no longer respect their founding principles or the framework of government established in our Constitution.

That is why the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty was founded at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. We seek to promote the principles of the common-law tradition and American constitutionalism so that the next generation of civic leaders will make informed, thoughtful decisions about the future of our country.

Ordered liberty in the United States has rested on a commitment to religious faith and pluralism, fidelity to the rule of law, and ancient liberties grounded in the conviction that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. These values characterize the American experiment. Our society is built upon them, and its continued vitality depends upon maintaining and promoting our commitment to them.

Therefore, the Blackstone & Burke Center will educate students, teachers, judges, and political leaders in the areas of religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and economic freedom. We will coordinate educational programs, research initiatives, and judicial conferences that examine the norms and nurture the institutions of ordered liberty.

We believe that the principles and ideas of the American Founding are worth conserving and celebrating. Our vision is to help renew an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.

The Blackstone & Burke Center has recruited of board of advisers consisting of internationally recognized thought-leaders such as Judge Andrew Napolitano, Senior Legal Analyst for Fox News; Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Dr. James R. Stoner, Hermann Moyse Jr. Professor and Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University; Professor F. H. Buckley, George Mason University Foundation Professor at Antonin Scalia Law School; Dr. Don Devine, former Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the Reagan Administration and Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies; Dr. Ingrid Gregg, past president of the Earhart Foundation; and Dr. Daniel Mark, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Professor at Villanova University.

In our first few months of operation, we organized and hosted a reception featuring a Library of Congress traveling Magna Cart exhibit, which was displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court for three weeks.  Judges, business and university leaders, lawyers, students, teachers, and the general public attended the reception to commemorate and learn about Magna Carta, and Acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart of the Alabama Supreme Court and Judge William “Bill” Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered remarks about Magna Carta.

The Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from Liberty Fund, Inc., to gift the entire Liberty Fund book and media catalog to the law library, as well as a grant from the Association for the Study of Free Institutions to bring a prominent speaker to our campus next fall.

The Blackstone & Burke Center also established a formal affiliation with Atlas Network and, through Atlas Network, partnerships with such organizations as the Acton Institute, American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Cato Institute, Center for Competitive Politics, Claremont Institute, the Federalist Society, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Freedom Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Independent Institute, Institute for Justice, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University, Liberty Fund, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Mont Pelerin Society, National Review Institute, Pacific Legal Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Reason Foundation, State Policy Network, Students for Liberty, the Fund for American Studies, Young Americans for Liberty, and more.

Finally, the Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation under the auspices of the Philadelphia Society to direct a professional development conference on academic freedom at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Pennsylvania. Attendees included graduate students and university administrators from across the country who shared an abiding interest in the meaning, purpose, and characteristics of intellectual exchange in university settings.

We at the Blackstone & Burke Center look forward to a promising future as we inspire and educate new leaders in the principles and foundations of ordered liberty. To learn more about the Blackstone & Burke Center, visit our website at www.blackstone&burke.com.

Interview with Hubert Crouch

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The South on July 29, 2015 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared in Southern Literary Review.

Hubert Crouch

Hubert Crouch

AM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Southern Literary Review about The Word, your second novel. Jace Forman, the protagonist of your first novel, Cried For No One, is back in this novel. How has your experience as a trial lawyer shaped Jace’s character, if at all? Is it even possible to identify where your legal background has shaped your character development?

HC: I leaned heavily on my experiences as a trial lawyer while creating Jace Forman. I actually know how it feels to try “high-stakes” lawsuits – the intense pressure, the sleepless nights, the perpetual gnawing in your stomach – because I have lived through them. What a trial lawyer goes through in his professional life has a profound impact on his personal life – again, I felt I was able to portray that realistically with Jace because personal experience was a good teacher. I am not saying Jace is autobiographical – he’s not. That being said, my ability to create his character was, in large part, the result of having been a trial lawyer myself.

AM: I’m not out­-of­-bounds in supposing that readers of Cried For No One will, like me, associate Ezekiel Shaw and the Brimstone Bible Church with Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which is featured in the book. Is there a deliberate connection?

HC: I taught Free Speech and the First Amendment to SMU undergraduates. One of the cases we discussed in class was Snyder v. Phelps. There were some lively exchanges between students over whether the Supreme Court got it right when they threw out the multi-million dollar judgment awarded to the Snyders. Had the Court gone too far in protecting free speech? Had the Court allowed a zealous sect to trample upon the rights of a family to bury their loved one in peace? Our classroom debate inspired me to change the factual scenario, inject a different religious issue and pit the conflicting positions against one another in a fictitious lawsuit.

AM: What made you decide to incorporate Leah Rosen and Cal Connors into the plot? Did you envision them at the outset, or did they come later, after you had already begun writing?

HC: Cal and Leah were characters from my first novel, Cried for No One. Leah continues her investigation into Cal’s legal misdeeds in the stand-alone sequel.

AM: As someone who has never attempted to write a thriller, I’m curious about how the intricate thriller plot falls into place. How much mapping or outlining do you do before beginning the writing process, and how often is the writing process interrupted by the need to adjust or revise?

HC: Before I wrote a word of the manuscript, I drafted a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline, which went through a number of revisions. Once the outline was finished, I began writing the novel. Some might argue that having an outline is too confining. I get that. But for me, it is important to know where I’m ultimately going to end up before I start the journey. I find there is plenty of opportunity for creativity along the way.

AM: Texas. It’s big on the map and big in your book. You’ve been practicing law there for some time. How far back does your connection go?

HC: A long way. I graduated from Vanderbilt in 1973 and then attended SMU Law School. After receiving my law degree from SMU, I began practicing trial law in Dallas and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Although I grew up in Tennessee, I felt right at home in Texas. As the old adage goes, when you prick a Texan, he bleeds Tennessee blood.

AM: Why did you dedicate this book to your female law school classmates?

HC: One of my close friends and study partners in law school was female. She was brilliant, graduating number one in our class. And yet she received few offers from the top law firms in Dallas. There could be only one explanation – she was a woman. She, along with several other of my female classmates who had encountered a similar fate, took bold action and sued some of the major firms in Dallas. A settlement was reached which opened the door to countless female law school graduates afterwards.

AM: When did you start writing fiction?

HC: Over twenty-five years ago. I wrote a manuscript that has still not been published, although I consider pulling it out of the banker’s box it’s been in for years and giving it a read to see if it’s salvageable. After I shelved it, I was inspired to write my first novel, Cried for No One, by an actual lawsuit I handled involving a macabre grave robbery. I got up early each morning and wrote before going to work. The process took me years before I had a finished manuscript.

AM: Do you know what the future holds for Jace Forman? Can readers expect to see him again?

HC: I have enjoyed creating and getting to know Jace. Based upon the reviews, readers seem to like him and, if that sentiment continues, I will likely keep him around for a while.

AM: Last question, but two parts. How much research into the First Amendment went into this book? And how interested were you in First Amendment issues before you started into this book?

HC: I have studied the First Amendment, and the cases interpreting it, extensively. As mentioned above, I actually taught a course about it to SMU undergraduates. The drafters were so brilliant and far-sighted to come up with such an important enactment. We will forever be in their debt.

AM: Thank you again.

An Issue of Supreme Importance for 2016

In America, Conservatism, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, News and Current Events, Politics, The Supreme Court on April 22, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

The time has come for politicians to announce their candidacy for president. In the following weeks we can expect more names to be tossed into the hat of presidential hopefuls. Already Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul have proclaimed their desire to lead our country. Hillary Clinton made her candidacy official Sunday, and Senator Marco Rubio announced on Monday night.

The 2016 election is shaping up to be the most pivotal in decades, including for reasons not everyone is talking about.

It’s true that Republicans will challenge Obama’s legacy and that everything from Obamacare to payday loans will receive renewed and energetic scrutiny on the campaign trail.

Yet these won’t be the most pressing domestic issues facing the next president. Even more important will be the president’s judicial philosophy. That’s because the probability is high that the nation’s next chief executive administration will nominate at least three candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although confidence in the Court is at an all-time low, voters do not seem particularly concerned about the Court’s future composition. Perhaps the typical voter does not understand the role the president plays in nominating justices. Perhaps the goings-on of the judicial branch seem distant and aloof and out of the purview of our everyday worries. Perhaps most people are too short-sighted to consider the long-term and far-reaching effects that a president can have on the legal system. Whatever the reason, voters should re-prioritize. Conservatives should move this issue to the forefront of the debates.

When the president is inaugurated in January 2017, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, widely thought to be in poor health, will be two months shy of her 84th birthday; Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy will be 80; and Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78. Is it reasonable to expect these justices to serve out four more years under another administration?

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer are considered members of the left wing of the Court whereas Justice Scalia is considered to be on the right. Justice Kennedy is famously known as the Court’s “swing vote.”

If a Republican wins in 2016 election, he could replace two liberal members of the Court, leaving just two other remaining: Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. If Justice Kennedy were also to step down during the next administration, a Republican president could further expand the conservative wing of the Court to seven, making room for a vast majority in contentious cases. If the right wing of the Court enjoyed a 7-2 majority today, for instance, there would be less media speculation about how the Court would decide cases on same-sex marriage, religious freedom, immigration, or campaign finance.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which conducts hearings on presidential nominees to the High Court, currently consists of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Republicans hold a 54-member majority in the Senate, the governing body that confirms presidential nominees to the Court. If these numbers remain unchanged or only slightly changed under a Republican president, that president would have wide latitude to nominate candidates who have tested and principled commitments to conservatism.

Let’s say the presidential election favored a Democrat. A Democratic president could simply replace the departing Justice Ginsburg or Justice Breyer with a jurist in their mold, in effect filling a liberal seat with another liberal. If a Democratic president were up against a Republican Senate, however, his or her nominees would have to appear less liberal than Justice Ginsburg to ensure their confirmation.

Replacing Justice Scalia, arguably the most conservative justice on the Court, with a liberal would be transformative. Although depicted as an unpredictable moderate, Justice Kennedy was nominated by a Republican and more often than not votes with the right wing of the Court. Replacing him with a liberal justice would be a victory for the left. It is possible for the left wing of the Court to gain a 6-3 majority if a Democrat succeeds President Obama.

It’s not inconceivable that in the time he last left, President Obama could name at least one successor to the Court. Barring some unforeseen illness or act of God, however, that is unlikely to happen this late in his presidency. Justice Ginsburg insists on remaining on the Court, and Justice Breyer still has some healthy, productive years ahead of him.

Judges’ and justices’ judicial philosophies are not easily pressed into two sides—conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat—because law itself usually is not reducible to raw politics or naked partisanship, and a judge’s job entails more than interpreting the language of legislative enactments. Law deals with the complex interactions of people and institutions under disputed circumstances that are portrayed and recounted from different perspectives; therefore, law rarely fits cleanly within simplistic political frameworks.

For this reason, among others, it can be difficult to predict how potential justices will rule from the bench if they are installed on the Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren ushered in the progressive “Warren Court Era” even though he had served as the Republican Governor of California and, in 1948, as the vice-presidential running mate of presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. More recently President George H.W. Bush nominated Justice David Souter to the Court. Justice Souter tended to vote consistently with the liberal members of the Court.

The Senate confirmation process has grown more contentious in recent years, and that has made it more difficult for another Souter to slip by the president. But it has also watered down our nominees, whose lack of a paper trail is considered a benefit rather than evidence of a lack of conviction or philosophical knowledge (lawyers are trained, not educated). It has come to a point where if you’re confirmable, you’re not reliable, and if you’re reliable, you’re not confirmable. Chief Justice John Roberts’ acrobatic attempt to uphold the individual mandate in Obamacare on the ground that it was a “tax” reveals just how squishy and unpredictable our justices have become.

There is, of course, the trouble with categorizing: What does it mean to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” judge or justice? Our presidential candidates may have different answers. In January Senator Paul declared himself a “judicial activist,” a label that is gaining favor among libertarians. He appears to have backed away from that position, recently bemoaning “out-of-control, unelected federal judges.” Activist judges, at any rate, can be on the right or the left.

Ted Cruz has not advertised his judicial philosophy yet, but by doing so he could set himself apart because of his vast legal experience, including his service as the Solicitor General of Texas. Two potential presidential nominees, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, are also attorneys, but Rubio’s legal experience, or non-experience, is subject to question, and Graham has been out of the legal field for some time—although he serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has intimate knowledge of the Senate confirmation prospects for potential nominees.

It matters a great deal what our presidential candidates believe about the hermeneutics and jurisprudence embraced by potential Supreme Court justices. In the coming months voters will have the power to force candidates to address their judicial philosophy. The candidates must articulate clearly, thoroughly, and honestly what qualities they admire in judges because those qualities might just shape the nation’s political landscape for decades to come.

Conservatives have much to lose or gain this election in terms of the judiciary. Supreme Court nominations should be a top priority for Republicans when debate season arrives.
Read more at http://spectator.org/articles/62383/issue-supreme-importance-2016

Free Not to Vote

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Politics on October 22, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

The 2014 U.S. midterm elections are coming up, and I don’t intend to vote. A vote is like virginity: you don’t give it away to the first flower-bearing suitor. I haven’t been given a good reason, let alone flowers, to vote for any candidate, so I will stay home, as well I should.

This month, my wife, a Brazilian citizen, drove from Auburn, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, on a Sunday morning to cast her vote for the presidential election in Brazil. She arrived at the Brazilian consulate and waited in a long line of expatriates only to be faced with a cruel choice: vote for the incumbent socialist Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, for the socialist Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party who is billed as a center-right politician, for the environmentalist socialist Marina Silva of the Socialist Party, or for any of the other socialist candidates who were polling so low that they had no chance of victory. Brazil maintains a system of compulsory voting in addition to other compulsory schemes such as conscription for all males aged 18.

Logan Albright recently wrote about the folly of compulsory voting, support for which is apparently growing in Canada. He criticized the hypocrisy of an allegedly democratic society mandating a vote and then fining or jailing those who do not follow the mandate. He also pointed out the dangers of forcing uneducated and uninformed citizens to vote against their will. This problem is particularly revealing in Brazil, where illiterate candidates have exploited election laws to run absurd commercials and to assume the persona of silly characters such as a clown, Wonder Woman, Rambo, Crazy Dick, and Hamburger Face, each of which is worth googling for a chuckle. The incumbent clown, by the way, was just reelected on the campaign slogan “it can’t get any worse.” Multiple Barack Obamas and Osama bin Ladens were also running for office, as was, apparently, Jesus. The ballot in Brazil has become goofier than a middle-school election for class president.

Even in the United States, as the election of Barack Obama demonstrates, voting has become more about identity politics, fads, and personalities than about principle or platform. Just over a decade ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governor of California amid a field of second-rate celebrities while a former professional wrestler (the fake and not the Olympian kind of wrestling) Jesse “the Body” Ventura was winding up his term as the Governor of Minnesota. Today comedian Al Franken holds a seat in the United States Senate. It turns out that Brazil isn’t the only country that can boast having a clown in office.

No serious thinker believes that a Republican or Democratic politician has what it takes to boost the economy, facilitate peace, or generate liberty. The very function of a career politician is antithetical to market freedom; no foolish professional vote-getter ought to have the power he or she enjoys under the current managerial state system, but voting legitimates that power.

It is often said, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” The counterpoint is that voting ensures your complicity with the policies that elected politicians will enact. If you don’t vote, you lack complicity. You are not morally blameworthy for resisting the system that infringes basic rights or that offends your sense of justice and reason. You have not bestowed credibility on the government with your formal participation in its most sacred ritual. The higher the number of voters who participate in an election, the more legitimacy there is for the favored projects of the elected politicians, and the more likely those politicians are to impose their will on the populace by way of legislation or other legal means.

Refusing to vote can send a message: get your act together or we won’t turn out at the polling stations. Low voter turnout undermines the validity of the entire political system. Abstention also demonstrates your power: just watch how the politicians grovel and scramble for your vote, promise you more than they can deliver, beg for your support. This is how it ought to be: Politicians need to work for your vote and to earn it. They need to prove that they are who they purport to be and that they stand for that which they purport to stand. If they can’t do this, they don’t deserve your vote.

Abstention is not apathy; it is the exercise of free expression, a voluntary act of legitimate and peaceful defiance, the realization of a right.

There are reasonable alternatives to absolute abstention: one is to vote for the rare candidate who does, in fact, seek out liberty, true liberty; another is to cast a protest vote for a candidate outside the mainstream. Regardless, your vote is a representation of your person, the indicia of your moral and ethical beliefs. It should not be dispensed with lightly.

If you have the freedom not to vote, congratulations: you still live in a society with a modicum of liberty. Your decision to exercise your liberty is yours alone. Choose wisely.

What Crisis? Law as the Marriage of Science and the Humanities

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy on March 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This week the Association for the Study of Law, Culture & the Humanities convened to consider this question: “How will law and humanities scholarship fare against the pressure of the science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia?”  The question implies an adversarial relationship between science and the humanities, or law-and-humanities.  The division between science and the humanities as academic disciplines, however, is not yet 150 years old; it is misguided to pit “law-and-humanities” (a signifier that did not exist a few decades ago) against the “science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia” (another quotation from the conference program).  We do not have to go back to Plato or Aristotle or Galileo or Descartes or Spinoza or Da Vinci or Locke or Hume or Rousseau or Kant or Newton or Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Thoreau to see that what we call the humanities has not, traditionally, been divorced from the sciences—that, in fact, the humanities and the sciences are mutually illuminating, not mutually exclusive.

In America, more recently, the classical pragmatists—in particular C.S. Peirce and William James—sought to make philosophy more scientific, and in this endeavor they were mimicking the logical positivists in Britain.  Some of the most famous minds of the 20th century worked at the intersection of the humanities and science: Freud, Einstein, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Jacques Lacan, F. A. Hayek, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few.  Lately we have seen scientific thinkers as wide-ranging as Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Leon Kass celebrate or draw from the humanities.

A review of the conference abstracts suggests that most presenters will be considering this question from the political left, but their concerns are shared by many on the right, such as Roger Scruton, who recently took to the pages of The New Atlantis to address this topic in his article “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities.”  Nevertheless, forcing the separation of science and the humanities does not strike me as prudent.

By encouraging the humanities to recognize its scientific heritage and to recover its scientific methodologies, the academy would be correcting decades of wandering.  Science is indispensable to the humanities, and vice versa; the two work in concert.  The findings in one influence the findings in the other.  Evidence of this reciprocity in the context of legal studies is especially striking in America during the late 19th and early 20th century, when the law often was associated with scientific disciplines rather than with the humanities.  At this time, the theories of Charles Darwin and his progeny helped to explain the common law tradition while influencing the way that law was taught in law schools and examined by judges and most notably by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The scientific paradigms in vogue among legal thinkers at the turn of that century were neither uniform nor monolithic.  For instance, Christopher Columbus Langdell’s push to make legal education more scientific was different from Holmes’s use of Darwinism to describe the common law.  Rather than teasing out the distinctions between various scientific approaches to the law during the late 19th and early 20th century America, however, I would look at these scientific approaches as part of the same general project and as a reminder of how the humanities and the sciences can participate to bring about theoretical and practical insights.  It might be that, of all disciplines, law is the most revealing of the participatory nature of science and the humanities and, therefore, provides the best justification for instrumental and scientific approaches to humane studies.

There are groups within the humanities that resent the scientific disciplines for the funding and privilege those disciplines enjoy in the academic marketplace, but at least part of this resentment is misplaced.  The fault lies partially with the scientists who mistake merit for value: it is not that the sciences enjoy more funding and privilege because they have more merit—the academy is not a meritocracy—but it is that they have more value to consumers and the public writ large.  It may well be that the humanities have more merit, but unless consumers begin to value merit, the meritorious will not necessarily prevail in the market.  

Michael Blumenthal Publishes “Just Three Minutes, Please,” with West Virginia University Press

In America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, News and Current Events, News Release, Poetry, Politics, Writing on March 5, 2014 at 8:30 am

Just Three Minutes, Please

West Virginia University Press is pleased to announce the publication of Just Three Minutes, Please: Thinking out Loud on Public Radio, by Michael Blumenthal.

In these brief essays, Blumenthal provides unconventional insights into our contemporary political, educational, and social systems, challenging us to look beyond the headlines to the psychological and sociological realities that underlie our conventional thinking.

What’s wrong with the contemporary American medical system? What does it mean when a state’s democratic presidential primary casts 40% of its votes for a felon incarcerated in another state? What’s so bad about teaching by PowerPoint? What is truly the dirtiest word in America?

These are just a few of the engaging and controversial issues that Michael Blumenthal, poet, novelist, essayist, and law professor, tackles in this collection of poignant essays commissioned by West Virginia Public Radio.

C.K. Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet proclaims that Blumenthal has “The intellect of a scholar, the sensitivity of a poet, the objectivity of a professor of law: it hardly seems possible that so many virtues can be embodied in one book of short talks.”

Dalton Delan, Executive Producer of In Performance at the White House for PBS, declares: “David Sedaris and Ira Glass have a brother from another mother, and his name is Michael Blumenthal. His soulful NPR essays are profound thought-clouds from one of America’s finest poets.”

As a widely published poet and novelist, Blumenthal brings along a lawyer’s analytical ability with his literary sensibility, effortlessly facilitating a distinction between the clichés of today’s pallid political discourse and the deeper realities that lie beneath. This collection will captivate and provoke those with an interest in literature, politics, law, and the unwritten rules of our social and political engagements.

Michael Blumenthal is a Visiting Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Immigration Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law. A former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University, he is the author of eight books of poetry, as well as All My Mothers and Fathers, a memoir; Weinstock Among The Dying, a novel; When History Enters the House, a collection of essays; and “Because They Needed Me”: The Incredible Struggle of Rita Miljo To Save The Baboons of South Africa, a book-length account of his work with orphaned infant chacma baboons in South Africa. His first collection of short stories, The Greatest Jewish-American Lover in Hungarian History, is forthcoming.

To order this book, visit wvupress.com, phone (800) 621-2736, or visit a local bookstore.

Just Three Minutes, Please: Thinking out Loud on Public Radio by Michael Blumenthal
March 2014 / 120pp / PB 978-1-938228-77-3: $16.99/ ePub 978-1-938228-78-0: $16.99

Best Books of 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Novels, Writing on December 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Several publications have announced their list of the best books of 2013, and readers of this site will be interested in the results.

The New York Times, The Ten Best Books of 2013

The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2013 Part I

The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2013 Part II

Huffington Post’s Best Books of 2013

NPR’s The Best Books of 2013

Barnes & Noble’s Best New Books of 2013

Salon’s What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2013

Amazon’s Best Books of 2013

Business Insider’s 10 Best-Loved Books of 2013

Goodreads Choice Awards 2013

Publisher’s Weekly, Best Books of 2013

TheWeek.com’s Best Books We Read in 2013

io9’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2013

The 2013 USA Best Book Awards

The Washington Post’s Best Books of 2013

The New Republic’s Best Books of 2013

Mother Jones’s Best Books of 2013

The Daily Beast’s The Best of the Best Books List 2013

The Kindle Book Review’s 2013 Book Awards

BBC Culture’s Top 10 Books of 2013

Hudson Bookseller’s 2013 Best Books of the Year

LibertarianChristian’s Top 10 Libertarian (and Christian) Books of 2013

History Today’s Books of the Year 2013

CNN Readers’ Favorite Books of 2013

Economic Policy Journal’s Top Book Picks of 2013

 

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Justice, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, The Novel, Transnational Law, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

Allen 2

My forthcoming book, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism, is now available for pre-order here at Amazon.com or here at Rowman & Littlefield’s website.  From the cover:

The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.

Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.

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