Thursday, August 25, 2005

Iraq War - Should We Mend It? Or Can We End It?

OK, We've been hearing this refrain ever since that "Mission Accomplished" speech. "I opposed the war, and I think it was a bad idea, but we're there now, and we can't pull out!"

Which begs the question, "Could we pull out?"

Do we have to wait until Iraq is a happy democracy to return our troops home? If we pulled out, would that simplify matters for the Iraqis, and let them actually get about setting up a democracy themselves? Or is our conventional wisdom accurate, that competing strongmen would carve the country into warlord fiefdoms, some controlled by radical Islamists, others just by secular thugs?

Friday, August 12, 2005

NARAL to ACLU - "Watch your backs!"

Just kidding, mostly.

NARAL is understandably opposed to the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. This is perfectly understandable, since it is hardly implausible that he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, their enthusiasm has led them a bit astray. Their no-holds-barred approach led them to run an ad that, taken to its logical end, could set them at serious odds with the ACLU.

Here's what happened in 1989: John Roberts, as a solicitor for the GHW Bush administration, wrote an amicus brief stating that a federal law aimed at curbing Klan activities did not, as written, apply to abortion protestors. The law, passed in 1871 makes it a federal crime:
If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws
Roberts argued that Operation Rescue, in opposing the act of abortion, was not violating this particular law. His reasoning took two parts. The first was that since the original law was aimed at the KKK, it was therefore aimed at racial discrimination, not sex discrimination. This is bogus. Nowhere in the law, or at least the part that I read, does it exclude any class of persons from receiving 'equal privileges and immunities'. His second argument is the one that is, at least legally, defensible. He argued that the abortion protesters were uninterested in who was getting the abortions, but instead were opposed to the practice of abortion overall. Therefore while the effect of their protest might have been discriminatory towards women, their purpose was not depriving 'equal protection and immunities' to any specific group. Any pregnant men who showed up would have been equally protested. By a decision of six to three, the Supreme Court agreed with this second argument.

One of the litigants in this case was a convicted abortion bomber, Michael Bray. NARAL's ad indicates that arguing that a federal law does not apply to a protest amounted to supporting the protestors' violent actions. Specifically, they feature Emily Lyons, a nurse severely injured by one of Eric Rudolph's bombs in 1998. Now let me be the first to say a big "Fuck you!" to abortion bombers. However, stating that one federal law does not apply to an abortion protest is not the same as supporting anti-abortion violence. Indeed, there had been successful litigation against the protestors in state courts under state law in this case. All Roberts was doing was arguing that it wasn't shouldn't have been made a Federal case, under the specific law that they were citing.

It is worth considering what Roe v. Wade actually said, as well. It did not grant the right to get an abortion. It banned the government from the invasion of privacy that would be required to enforce an abortion ban. Therefore abortion protestors are not violating a right, as the right is not to the abortion itself but to not have the government interfere in such a private health decision. It is in this way that a civil-rights law cannot be applied to private protestors. This is not to say that state abortion-clinic access laws are invalid, and the existing state laws at the time were not invalidated by this decision.

Demonizing anyone who argues for the rights of those we oppose politically is shaky ground. Its part of what makes the ACLU's job so thankless. The ACLU has in fact supported Klan chapters' right to protest, and may someday represent anti-abortion groups in similar rights. If so, will NARAL demonize them, too, as supporters of violence and abortion-clinic bombings?

My point here is not that NARAL would actually turn on the ACLU. It is that an impartial lawyer will almost invariably have made a legal argument that benefits someone we don't like. This is the way of things if you're going to defend everyones' freedom. There's more than enough reason for NARAL to argue against Roberts simply based on his ambivalence to Roe v. Wade.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

NC Trip Part I - Vegas for Flanderses

So perhaps a full explanation of the NC trip is in order. My friend Casey is currently in the process of travelling from Dallas, Texas to Hanover, New Hampshire to start the MBA program at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. Along the way, he's stopping to meet/stay with his various extra-Texas friends. One leg of his journey was to take him from Memphis, Tennessee, to La Grange, North Carolina. My family's got a house in Brevard, NC, which is conveniently halfway in between.

I don't get to Brevard nearly as often as I'd like, so I took the excuse to make a trip that way, and show off one of my favorite places. So I took off Wednesday evening, and headed for Little Rock. I took a room at the somewhat overpriced Travellodge near the Little Rock airport. If I get access to a scanner, I will blog further on their toiletries. The following morning I was up pretty early and headed for Memphis. Coordinating via cell-phone, Casey and I met up at the Old Country Store, a kind of Cracker-Barrel-on-steroids in the 'Casey Jones Village' tourist-trap (more of a tourist-bug-zapper) in Jackson, TN. On the way I got a good overflight by an AH-64 Apache, which seemed to be slinging four FFAR pods (gotta let my techno-geek out and play sometimes, right?).

We cruised on through and made Knoxville by dinner time. (I should also interject that a C-130 came in on final passing low over the I-440 loop road in front of us as we passed Nashville. Still a techno-geek.) Pouring over the atlas at a Wendy's, we decided to ditch the interstate and try some more back-roadsie, uhh, roads. So we decided to take 441, which ran over to the base of the Great Smokies, and then pick up 321 up to where I40 heads into the mountains. The drive along the base of the mountains would be nice in the setting sun, was our thinking. Before heading out, Casey pointed to the town where we'd turn north and asked, "Where have I heard of Gatlinberg?" This was a fateful question, and it was only my poor memory that just said, "Well, there's something like a ski resort thingy there called 'Uber-Gatlinberg', maybe that's what you've heard of..." It wasn't.

Gatlinberg, and the adjacent Pigeon Forge, are home to Dollywood, and the Great Valley metastasism of red-state Branson excess. Now most of my gentle readers (all two of you) will know that I am an elitist and a sort-of conflicted countrified red-state liberal snob. But I want you all to know that I felt more strangely horrified-fascinated than when I first floated past the guy who sits next to the Guadeloupe River in a folding chair with a camera and a cooler, leering out at passing females from under a banner reading "Tits - 4 - JelloShots". Even the gramatical anomalies of his sign are as nothing to the spectacle of mile after mile of Alabama-themed theaters, "Kountry Bears Revue" (or sommat like that), mini-golf, bungie jumps, arcades, and family-themed restaurants. Scurrying between them were a strange assortment. The whole family in matching pink mini-skirts were distracting in a 'did I just see that?' sort of way. I'm assuming that it was just an optical illusion that the dad was also wearing one, but I can't say for certain.

Then we got into Gatlinberg proper. This is not a place for the faint-of-heart. A genuine pedestrian district for the red-state crowd. But for a place with one street through town, navigation is a nightmare. Two professional geographers took atleast 20 minutes to find the place where 321 turned north. Needless to say, if anybody from the Highway Department, or in a position of authority in Gatlinberg, a proper highway intersection sign would not go amiss.

Once we finally got out of the Gatlintrap, we made our way on over the hill(s) to Brevard. Driving into town I called Casey to make sure he rolled down his windows to smell the Kentucky Bluegrass. There's no other smell like it.

Tha Moon Rulez!

I'm pretty sleepy today. Yesterday I awoke in Brevard, North Carolina, and slept in Dallas, Texas. This required a hefty drive during the intervening time, which meant that I didn't arrive at my bed until well after 2AM. Add to that the lingering effects of too much caffiene consumed in the later stages of the drive, and that sort of weird effect where you get so tired that you're too uncomfortable to sleep, and I didn't get much sleep last night.

The drive across Arkansas took me through the hours between dusk and midnight, and this afforded me an opportunity to observe the moon. As the sunset faded, and the stars began to shine, the waxing moon formed a solid cresent in the western sky. Immediately below its tip was a small star, just bright enough to see through the glow surrounding the moon. Being somewhat bored now, as I was a good ten hours into the drive home, I hit upon an idea for a little astronomical experiment. Stars, of course, are relatively fixed in the sky. They move only with the rotation and revolution of the earth. The moon, however, is in orbit around the earth, so it is moving through the sky in its month-long orbit. Therefore it might be possible to see the motion of the moon relative to the star over the course of the evening.

The moon is approximately 1/2 of one degree in angular width, and the star was approximately 1/4 of the width of the moon away from the tip of the crescent when I first noticed it, along a line through the two horns of the crescent. Over about two hours, the star appeared to lie along a line tangential to the moon's edge, parallel to the line through the two horns of the crescent. (If I could draw a diagram and get it on here easily, I would, but it would be a bit of a pain.) So the moon moved approximately 1/4 of a degree relative to the star. Now, the moon orbits the earth in 28 days, or 672 hours. In doing so it traverses a full 360 degrees. This means that the moon should move approximately 1/2 of a degree per hour. I'm a little disappointed that I couldn't get my observed moon motion to match up with my back-of-a-napkin estimation the lunar orbit. If anyone wants to check my math, feel free. But quantitative results aside, it was really cool to observe the motion of the moon.

In other news, the NC trip was good. I rained pretty much every day I was there, but it was still a welcome change from August in Dallas. And a welcome change from working. I really really hate being left in charge.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Filibuster v. Recess

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth about Senate obstructionism in the process of confirmation of presidential nominations. This has shifted from one side of the aisle to the other, depending on which way the wind was blowing in the White House.

I am of the opinion that partisan political opposition to a candidate's views are not a good idea. Especially starting with the Bork nomination, this has been a real issue. The Bork nomination process may have kept one conservative off the bench, but it means that now no one will even get nominated if they have opinions. Only the blandest or most inscrutible will survive the nomination process. No one who has shown genuine scholarship could make the bench, because scholarship would require expression, and expression is selected against. Thomas's appointment went forward partly because he was black, but also because his opinions were largely unknown. So I am not a supporter, in general, of political obstructionism by the Senate of presidential nominees.

By contrast, I believe that Senators' opposition to John Bolton's appointment are founded partly in his politics. But there is also a widespread belief that his combativeness with his own subordinates and lack of results as head of the nuclear-weapons-decomissioning program make him unqualified for the job. There is a big difference between saying "I don't like what he would do," and "I don't think he will do the job well." It is clearly the Senate's job to make sure that candidates can at least carry out their duties competently. There is reason to doubt that Bolton could do so in a diplomatic post, and therefore the Senate's opposition is wholly appropriate.

As for the Senate "unfairly" denying Bolton "an up-or-down vote", this is a tactic that the Republicans used often during their long tenure as the opposition party in the legislature. Allowing minority-party disruption of a dominant party's plans seems a sensible balance, in the best tradition of American democracy. Keep the filibuster flying.