Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

When Bill Moyers speaks, I listen. Ever since reading his wonderful collection of interviews World of Ideas I have been an unabashed admirer of the man and his work. Recently he interviewed Jeffrey Toobin on his pbs show The Journal. (If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and tune in.) Toobin is a lawyer who writes popular law books. His book The Nine was listed as one of the ten best books of 2007. During the interview with Moyers, Toobin explained the importance of the upcoming election for the Supreme Court; the next president will either finish the conservative sweep of the majority begun with Roberts and Alito or nominate Dems and maintain the tenuous balance. I decided I wanted to get better informed.

The Nine writes like a collection of small biographies. Each of the justices is introduced in both a personal and political context. Toobin clearly has his favorites. Thomas and Scalia are both portrayed as arrogant and reactionary. Toobin argues--and I agree--that Scalia's insistence on neutrality and originalism is bullshit. He is an activist judge who is blinded by his convictions. The liberal judges clearly hold a priveledged position in Toobin's judicial perspective.

A central message to this book is the partisanship of the judges. The theory of law held by each judge is ultimately an elaborate justification for their political views. Scalia, the States' rights warrior, quickly overruled the Florida Supreme Court to assist Bush in the 2000 election. Thomas' aversion of big government doesn't hinder his support for a legal restriction on women's own bodies in abortion. How does Rehnquist reconcile his position in favor of state legislated Christian groups with his position against state legislated affirmative action? Simple. They are both on the Republican agenda.

I think the lesson is that the ability to nominate a Supreme Court justice should be taken from the president. The political influence has proven too great. There is no other way to conclude after witnessing the Court overturn many of its recent precedents not through a change in argument or public opinion but simply through the placement of two new judges.

I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an introduction to the judges. There is another book, A Court Divided, by Mark Tushnet that also does a good job in this respect. What is missing in both of these books is a thorough look at the important cases of the Court. The emphasis is more political and personal than legal. Rehnquist's History of the Supreme Court was a good read for somebody interested in becoming familiar with the cases that have provided the context and precendent for today's legal battles.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Profiles in Courage

This book has been on my list for a long time. It won the Pulitzer, deals with American history, and was written by JFK. Good enough for me.

The chapters of Profiles in Courage are short essays on American Senators. Each in his own way was faced with a challenge and stood firm on his principles. The stories of these men were fascinating. It was fun to get a close look at how decisions were made that affected generations of people. It was also very easy to get a picture of the difficult responsibility that scale of power requires. Is it right to always voice the sentiments of your consituents, validating their right to self-governance? Or is the elected representative better guided by voting his conscience?

There is no black-and-white mandate outlining the best course of leadership. If you ignore public opinion the democratic process is threatened. I could respect a Senator who decided to humble their perspective in honor democracy. However, there are several factors that cloud this decision. We have imperfect knowledge regarding a diverse public's wishes. Any decision based on a perceived majority at home would be a guess. Further, as a Senator you must think about national consequences and the local public is largely thinking locally. Finally, and most important, strictly following the opinions of the majority means that our leaders are not leading. At times it is necessary to move beyond common understanding and step forward. The great leaders of the past did not achieve greatness through echoing platitudes, but by making courageous decisions.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

Dark. Really Dark. Typically when I watch an old movie or read a classic the story comes across quaint. Not that I think today's media is done better--I don't--but the scandalous and violent scenes from previous generations simply don't have the same impact on us as they had on our parents. I would be hard pressed to imagine a modern teen being shocked by Elvis's dancing, Rhett Butler's kissing, or finding out it was Sidney Poitier who's coming to dinner. With all that said, I was slammed by A Streetcar Named Desire. It was as if I expected to walk into a clean and comfortable hotel room and instead walked into my parents having sex.

Like with all stories worth recommending, I am reticent to give too much away. What is the right balance between disclosure and silence? The measured development of this slow, Southern tragedy is worth discovering on one's own. Suffice to say that the crescendo hits hard. Tennessee Williams compels us forward with an eloquent vernacular that is believable and beautiful. The characters and their interplay capture both New Orleans culture and tell a universal tale. I loved this play.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Omnivore's Dilemna

This book will change your life. To say that sounds admittedly dramatic, even pretentious. If someone were to recommend a book to me along those lines I would imagine a tear-soaked novel centered on love and the meaning of life. I would assume the novel was an implicit test of my sensibilities. Did I get it or was I too mundane to appreciate what it had to offer? Too much pressure for me. Fear not: this book is about food. And, yes, it will change your life.

It would be hard to follow Michael Pollan through Omnivore's Dilemma and not come out with different eating habits. His examination of industrial agriculture raises serious concerns about the health, ecological consequences, and morality of this practice. The critical review is powerful on its own but we have seen it before in The Jungle and Fast Food Nation. What separates this book from the others is Pollan provides the political history behind our current agricultural practices. The loss of small farms and diversified crops has been official governmental policy since Nixon. Also, most importantly, Pollan juxtaposes industrial agriculture with alternative methods of production. This shift transforms the book from shock therapy to inspiration for a new, better way to eat and live.

Pollan's reverence for earth's bounty is contagious; I found myself wishing to accompany him on his mushroom forages--and I hate mushrooms. A good chunk of the book deals with the time he spent on Polyface farm. This small organic farm clearly represented to Pollan the best of current practices. The farm was efficient, diverse, treated animals humanely, and the food tasted great. Instead of relying on artificial inputs Polyface utilized nature's ability to regulate itself. While this might sound hokey, if not naive, Pollan argues that the complexity and efficiency arrived at through evolution is far more effective than anything we have come up with so far. Chickens, cows, pigs, and plants have symbiotic relationships that lead to healthy lives.

I am really excited to attempt to integrate more conscious eating into my life. I have tried before, and failed. In fact, I am writing this while eating a microwaveable pot pie. A successful transition requires a change in lifestyle that I was unable/willing to make before. What is clear is that sacrifice is the wrong word to describe the change. When I think of the fast-food eater next to the health food nut I do not pity the healthy guy. So here I go...right after I finish this pot pie.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rising Tide

Wow, what a book. My understanding of New Orleans and our country just doubled. Author John Barry is ambitious as hell in his portrait of the South. The grand scope of this book envelopes personalities and politics from over a century and stretches from Louisiana to Washington. The flood of 1927 proves to be a great tool for examining the era of industrialism can-do, lingering racial tensions after Reconstruction, and the corrupt power politics of the moneyed South.

I have read John Barry before. His book The Great Influenza is an equally impressive examination of an American catastrophe. He does an excellent job of developing the characters in both works. That is probably the greatest strength of his writing, that the reader feels he is listening to a story about somebody he knows intimately. It is like watching a baseball game and your best friend is pitching.

After giving life to the major participants, Barry lets them loose in the midst of critical events in our nation's history. Undeniably important, for some reason the Great Influenza and the flood of 1927 aren't part of our collective memory. They should be. Or perhaps it is just Barry's writing that carries such weight. A good storyteller can make all the difference. Either way, Rising Tide is a can't miss for all the non-fiction junkies.