Archive for August, 2009

The case of “Hillary: The Movie”

August 31, 2009

You might think it’s only in Iran that supporting or opposing a politician can be a criminal offense.

“Hillary: The Movie” is a documentary film produced by an advocacy group called Citizens United. It lambastes Hillary Clinton. Its distribution has been barred by the Federal Elections Commission (pursuant to Congressional enactment).

Apparently some fine print in the U.S. Constitution has been overlooked: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Or maybe that language is just too ambiguous.

At any rate, the case is now before the Supreme Court. The issue is fundamental: to what extent can the government regulate political advocacy, or even outlaw it? Some argue that such power is necessary or else politics can be corrupted by money spent by, say, corporations.

I share their concern about money distorting politics (and even lament this problem in my recent book). But spending money on, for example, political ads, or documentary films, that support or oppose politicians is certainly a form of freedom of speech — indeed, it is the most important aspect of freedom of speech. The freedom to say you hate Broccoli is not that critical. But the freedom to say you hate Hillary — and to express that opinion in the public square — is absolutely critical to our democratic system. That’s why the Constitution does not say “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, except when it deems such abridgement desirable.” The framers knew exactly what they were doing in writing the First Amendment in such unequivocal language.

This Congress has essentially disregarded in passing laws that subject political advocacy to federal regulations and limitations. Thus, the politicians who run the government, in effect, claim the power to restrict what their political opponents can say about them. For instance, they have placed restrictions on ads that support or criticize political candidates in the weeks before an election. If you form an organization, “Citizens for Free Trade,” and raise money, and want to run an ad before an election saying, “Congressman Charlie Rumpkisser opposes free trade; vote against him” — that can be against the law. In America!!!

And, so far, the Supreme Court has upheld this.

Civil Liberties attorney Floyd Abrams, representing the film-makers, says “Criminalizing a movie about Hillary Clinton is a constitutional desecration.”


August 23, 2009

Abdel Baset el-Megrahi was paroled from prison by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Megrahi had been convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bomber, killing 270, and served 8 years out of his 27 year sentence. Megrahi is dying of cancer; hence MacAskill based his decision on “compassion,” to allow Megrahi to die in his home with his family.

I believe it is proper to allow a man to die at home with his family – if he is not guilty of 270 murders. That ought to be a consideration.

MacAskill could not have given much compassionate consideration to the feelings of the families of the victims – who are, understandably, infuriated by Megrahi’s release.

We seem to have developed the idea that punishment for crime ought not to involve any unpleasantness. Thus MacAskill’s “compassion” toward a man who was probably the worst murderer in his country’s history.

That Megrahi received a 27-year sentence – one year for every ten murders – already bespoke a certain nonseriousness about criminal punishment. I wonder what it would take, in Scotland, to get a life sentence? I won’t even dare breathe the words “death sentence.”

MacAskill’s title is “justice secretary.” Society does not punish criminals for the sake of revenge. It does so mainly because of our deeply-seated human hunger to see justice done. We don’t really believe in divine justice; we believe that if any justice is to be achieved, we human beings must get it done ourselves. That should be the remit of any government functionary with the title “justice secretary.”

Megrahi’s victims numbered not just the 270 killed, but the hundreds, or thousands more, whose lives have been poisoned by the horrific loss of kin and friends. Imprisoning Megrahi till his last breath would have been inadequate to achieve justice for all those victims. But it would have been the very least we could do (if we didn’t have the mortal courage to execute him).


August 20, 2009

“Greed is good,” said villain Gordon Gekko in movie satire. We’ve heard the word a lot lately. Greed is blamed for the recent financial crisis; it’s also invoked constantly in the health care debate.

What, exactly, is “greed”? Some even seem to think anyone with income or wealth above the average (national? global?) is greedy.

In its essence, greed means wanting more. More tomorrow than you had yesterday. More income, more wealth, and hence more of the good things in life that they can buy; as much as you can get. Every normal human being wants more; as much as possible; the best possible life. And that’s not wrong. In fact, it’s a very good thing. We might romanticize an idea of spiritual asceticism that eschews all desire, but really, a human who desires nothing is psychically dead. And the desire for more is what motivates all human enterprise, effort, and creativity. Without that, we’d still be living in caves.

How do you get more? Well, you can steal it. But that is wrong, and most people get more in a totally contrary way: not by impoverishing others, but by enriching others – by devoting one’s efforts to creating and producing things for which others cheerfully pay. Most of economic activity is not a zero-sum game where one’s gain is another’s loss. I recently paid a surprising sum for an art work. Was the artist “greedy” to demand such a price? I would not have paid it if I hadn’t valued her art work higher than the money I paid. The transaction enriched the artist – but enriched my life too.

Similarly, you can get more by working hard at your job, producing goods or providing services that enhance the lives of others.

Only if it’s fed at others’ expense is greed bad. But doing anything at others’ expense is bad per se. It’s not “greed” that’s the problem; it’s willingness to harm others. Of course, we do see that all the time. People behave that way because, sometimes, they can. The Wall Street guys who made off with huge sums did it because they could. It’s just silly to imagine some greed-free world in which people will forego money that’s theirs for the taking. However: human society is organized in such a way that that’s the exception rather than the rule. Most people, most of the time, get more for themselves by giving more to others. And that again is the fundamental driver of progress and improving conditions of life for everyone. In that way, greed is indeed more a force for good than for evil.

Maybe Gordon Gekko had it right after all.

The reality of reality

August 8, 2009

The physicist Ernst Schrodinger proposed this hypothetical: a closed box contains a cat; a random mechanism inside the box can kill the cat, or not; it’s fifty-fifty either way. Schrodinger said that until you open the box and look, both possibilities exist, in parallel universes, equally real, but when you open the box, a “quantum wave of probability collapses.”

However: those probabilities seemed to exist only because the human observer didn’t know the answer. All our knowledge of reality is like that. Just as the cat is actually alive, or actually dead, all of reality actually has certain characteristics. We humans may not know those characteristics until we find out — by opening the box, as it were — or scientific experimentation. What then “collapses” (as Ian McEwan puts it in his novel Saturday) is our ignorance.

Footnote: as for the notion of “parellel universes,” if there is an infinitude of them, then if the cat is dead in our universe, there might be another universe identical to our own in every particular except that the cat is alive. There might also be another universe — indeed, there must be one — identical to ours in every particular respect except that FDR’s middle name was Donald. (If you don’t accept that, then you don’t know what “infinity” means.) But we cannot know anything about those other universes, and nothing concerning them has any bearing on the reality in our own universe.