Friday, June 24, 2005

"Liberal" Justices Turn Back Clock ... To the Year 1215

You no longer own your own home or have the right to buy one. This is due to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, approved June 23.

No, this amendment didn't pass both houses of Congress and three fourths of the state legislatures, in what is whimsically termed "the amendment process." Rather, our Constitution was amended in the usual way, by judicial fiat. In essence, five Supreme Court justices -- John Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy -- voted that you no longer own your own home.

That's the result of Kelo v. City of New London, in which, according to dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas: "The court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution."

That's right. A whole Constitutional clause, a clause that protected your property from arbitrary government expropriation, erased by five justices. At least with flag burning, the issue is undergoing the official amendment process.

But to understand Kelo, let me first give you some historical background. Back in olden days, all land was owned by a "sovereign," that is, a king, tsar, pope, or emperor. This sovereign leased his land to vassals, i.e., lords, barons, knights, and other titled nobility. Vassals could use the land so long as they served the sovereign. (See the bargain struck in the movie, Excalibur.) Because the sovereign owned the land, he could always repossess it.

In 1215, the English nobles decided this was a bad deal. They asked King John to sign Magna Carta, restricting his ability to reclaim the land. King John agreed, mostly because the nobles had brought plenty of swords. Peasants still owned no land, but the times, they were a changin'.

A big change occurred in 1776, when Americans decided that "the people" were sovereign, owning the land and the powers to govern it and themselves. In 1789, they delegated some of those powers to the government via the Constitution, while also restricting those powers through the ten Bill of Rights. For instance, the Fifth Amendment says: "No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

Thus, "the people," being sovereign and owning all the land, can, through their elected representatives, take your property, but only if (1) the taking is for a "public use" (traditionally, a road, school, or other public project), and (2) you're paid "just compensation" (theoretically, fair market value).

With Kelo, according to Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court "erased" the Public Use Clause. Now government can take your property for any reason at all.

In Kelo, the city of New London, CT, had condemned 15 homes so that private developers may build offices, a hotel, pricier homes, and a pedestrian path along the Thames River. The homeowners sued the city, trying to save their homes by arguing that private development was not a public use. The city said it was, because offices and pricier homes would generate more tax revenue.

The Supreme Court agreed with the city.

Justice Stevens wrote: "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government. ... [T]here is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose."

But if private use is a public use, and public use is a public use, then everything is a public use -- and the Public Use Clause has no meaning. As Justice O'Connor said in her dissent: "Who among us can say she already makes the most productive or attractive use of her property? ... Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded. ... Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Is she right? With the Public Use Clause erased, what will prevent the state from replacing any home or business with a "nicer" business? Nothing but the good intentions of back room politicians. Seriously. According to Justice Stevens, the very cities and states condemning the land can best determine "local public needs," and their judgements are "entitled to our deference."

That's like letting the accused decide whether he's guilty.

The result is that politically-connected developers can now use state muscle to force those of modest income to sell their homes at below market rates, while wealthy homeowners are protected by their own political clout. (I say "at below market rates," because if developers paid homeowners their asking price -- the true definition of "market rate" -- there'd be no need to condemn land, as every owner has his price). As Justice O'Connor put it: "The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."

So it seems the times are a changin' again. Only now we're going backwards, to about 1215, when only nobles could protect their land from the king, the peasants at the mercy of both. And ironically, it's the more "liberal" justices who are turning back the clock.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A Nation of Assimilated Immigrants

Immigration is a contentious issue because it perturbs many people's self-image and sense of acceptance. "Do I belong here? Am I as American as you?" Few say it like that, yet those are the unspoken undercurrents fueling the fear and anger over the issue. Yet immigration also raises legitimate concerns about the allocation of limited social services (education, health care), taxes, unemployment, wage depression, crime, and the environment. How to address those issues without sounding like a racist hiding behind those issues?

Some politicians and pundits hide behind the mantra: "Legal immigration yes, illegal immigration no," a neat way of both supporting and opposing immigration, while avoiding the real question: "What should be legal?" How many do we admit, how quickly, using what standards, what consequences for those here illegally and what of their children? If legality were the real issue, we could solve the problem overnight by legalizing everyone.

I'm going to avoid those questions too, because I have no easy answers. (At least I am blatant about it.) Instead, I propose we focus on a proven solution to all our past immigration problems: Assimilation.

To say America is a nation of immigrants is like saying the sky is blue. It's both true and irrelevant. Every nation is a nation of immigrants; people have been migrating across the globe ever since we left Africa. Nor did the thirteen largely English colonies mean to establish a nation of immigrants. Many did not welcome America's first large Catholic influx in the 1840s, and Emma Lazarus's poem ("Give me your tired...") did not grace Lady Liberty until 1903.

More importantly, to say we are a nation of immigrants is an incomplete truth. A fuller truth is that we are a nation of immigrants who assimilated--who learned English, did not rely (through most of our history) on government safety nets, and sought to "become Americans" (a once-popular phrase).

Assimilation is not homogeneity. Marines and hippies, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Morrison, are equally American. Assimilation is not conformity to Norman Rockwell, but an erosion of tribal empathy for one's ethnicity and former homeland as one feels increasing attachment for the host culture and its people. Assimilation is the reciprocal price the immigrant pays for the benefit of acceptance. (Reciprocal, because contrary to the stereotype of discrimination always being a white or American thing, immigrants from all nations import their own share of prejudices.) Assimilation is thus the opposite of both rightist nativism and leftist identity politics; the former rejects the newcomer, the latter rejects the host.

America's strength has never been its diversity, but its ability to overcome diversity through assimilation. "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One) refers to the thirteen colonies, but could as easily describe our melting pot.

It is no insult to other cultures to say that America has its own. We say we are a multicultural nation because we worry it may offend to say otherwise, but also because it appears true from our surface diversity (skin color, food, clothes music). Yet American diversity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Beneath the surface most Americans share a sense of nationhood and fundamental values (even if Reds and Blues accuse each other of betraying those values). That sounds vague because, like obscenity, American culture is easy to recognize but difficult to define. Yet its truth becomes apparent to any American traveling abroad, many of whom say they've never felt so American as when visiting their ancestral homelands.

Surface diversity is enriching, but deep diversity can be dangerously divisive. Despite their more homogeneous surfaces, diversity runs so deep in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Mideast, and the tellingly "former" Yugoslavia that people have murdered one another to assure the dominance of their religious or ethnic group.

America too has suffered deep diversity, Jim Crow being only one recent example. Yet like the Borg, American culture continues to assimilate everything so it belongs to everyone. Chinese take-out and Italian pizza are not evidence of our multiculturalism, but things we've all come to know and share in. We speak a common language, we increasingly vote and marry outside our ethnicities, and we have at least a passing familiarity with most elements in our common culture. For example, I've only seen a handful of Star Trek episodes beyond the original series, and none featuring the Borg. Yet American culture is so pervasive, I know enough of the Borg to use them in an analogy.

Another reason Americans confuse themselves for a multicultural nation is that identity politics conflate race and culture. Shown a multiethnic group photo, many will thoughtlessly exclaim, "Oh, how multicultural!" But unless culture is genetically transmitted, an ethnically Chinese girl raised in Germany is culturally German, just as an Italian boy raised in China is culturally Chinese. Likewise, families raised in America are culturally American. Yet by confusing race and culture, Americans are dissuaded from promoting their own culture lest they appear exclusionary by celebrating something they've been convinced immigrants are genetically incapable of sharing in. (No one puts it like that, but those are the implied undercurrents of identity politics.)

This false notion of immutable identity fuels much mutual antagonism. Identity politics leftists encourage immigrants to be fearful and defensive over expressions of an American culture they portray as inherently hostile. Closed-borders rightists aggravate those fears, even as they themselves fear a hostile influx bringing poverty and revanchist fantasies. Assimilation disempowers both sides, depriving the left of a constituency, and the right of a problem. It does so by making immigrants more economically productive, while instilling in them a sense of national belonging that fosters cooperation and respect for American laws and customs. Thus does assimilation alleviate immigration's economic and social problems.

America owes nothing but offers much to those wishing entry, and makes no onerous requests; far less is required to assimilate into the U.S. than into most any other nation. Learning English is the big first step leading to all others, and most immigrants already wish to take it. Programs discouraging English (multilingual schooling, ballots, and documents) should be substituted for efforts to teach English. People concerned with immigration might consider voluntarist ways to assist the assimilation process. (Ironically, it may help to know a foreign language; I've begun studying Spanish.)

Between the extremes of identity politics and nativism lies the moderate assimilationist center. It's rooted in the American experience and it works.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Tammy Bruce Down on Libertarians

Heard Tammy Bruce on the radio just now, talking about her lifetime political journey. Right now she's very pro-Bush. She also said, "I tried being a Libertarians, didn't like that too much."


I remember when PURPLE RAIN, the Movie, came out some 20 years ago. But I only this year saw it.

The film was okay, but nothing special. Prince plays a young Minnesota rock singer struggling to "make it" in the music industry without "selling out" his musical vision. At the same time, he's struggling with his personal issues: his father's abusive past and his own sexist attitudes.

In the end, Prince "makes it" while maintaining his integrity, he comes to terms with his father, and he learns to be more sensitive to women.

The strength of the film is not the story, but the music, which is quite good. But MY BIG QUESTION: Just WHAT IS PURPLE RAIN?

I've listened to the lyrics, and I can't figure it out. Is it a metaphor for something? If so, for what? Or did he just call it Purple Rain because it sounded like a cool thing?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Five Families of the GOP

A guide to the various camps in the GOP:

(1) Neocons. The real power in the driver's seat. They want war & empire, and they're getting it. They like big government and deficit spending. Very pro-Israel. Includes some Big Oil interests.

(2) Moderates. What some call RINOs or Country Club. They also include some Big Oil interests, but moderates want cooperation with other nations.

(3) Social Conservatives. Very opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Very pro-Israel. They have no power and get only a symbolic bone now and then. So the GOP made much noise over Terry Schiavo? Big deal.

(4) Libertarians. The GOP is screwing them big time. Libertarians want peace, foreign non-intervention, civil liberties, and less government spending, but they're not even getting the occassional symbolic bone. At most, they get empty rhetoric.

(5) Traditionalists. Aka Paleo-Conservatives. Many voted for Perot or Buchanan. Some care about abortion, but many do not. They're mainly concerned about national sovereignty and America First. Hence, they oppose foreign wars, foreign aid, immigration, and free trade. The GOP screws them most of all. They don't even get rhetoric.