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We miss you, Frank Drebin

I didn’t know this until very recently, but the late Leslie Nielsen’s breakthrough comic movie, Airplane!, made laugh-riot history through spoofing 1970s air disaster films by effectively making a twisted version of 1950s cinematic disaster dud, Zero Hour.

(Hat tip to S.M. Oliva)

Update: Err … To clarify: I knew about Airplane!. I didn’t know it was a spoofy remake of a ’50s flick.

Gay marriage and the benefits of (un)democracy

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anybody that I was pleased by Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision last week striking down California’s Proposition 8 and clearing the way for gay couples to enjoy the questionable benefits of marriage to the same extent as straight couples. As I’ve written in the past, the maid of honor (title by his own insistence) at my wedding was a gay friend of my wife (and an all-around decent guy), I have more than a few gay and lesbian friends, and I see no particular reason why they should be denied access to the many legal niceties, conveniences and (occasionally) pitfalls that come with obtaining a government-issued license recognizing a supposedly private relationship.

Frankly, by allowing the government to tie so many bells and whistles to state-sanctioned marriage, the public made it inevitable that many people beyond the originally intended audience would not just want, but need access to that official seal of approval. Holy matrimony be damned, it’s about inheritance, joint bank accounts, common property and the simple decency inherent in being allowed to make hard decisions after an unexpected summons to a hospital bed. Mixed-race couples wanted (and got) access to state recognition for their marriages first, and now same-sex couples want (and are getting) the same thing.

But I’ve written about that before. For a change, let’s take a gander at the reaction to Judge Walker’s ruling.

Unelected judge” is the critical phrase most commonly leveled at the San Francisco-based Reagan appointee (along with charges that the allegedly gay jurist is just defending his own). Having lost the legal battle (so far), social conservatives have now become rabid majoritarians, advocates of 50% + 1 as the ultimate arbiter of what’s right and proper. Suddenly, National Review’s Rich Lowry is arguing, “let’s stipulate that Judge Walker is right. In that case, he and like-minded people should come up with, say, Proposition 9 overturning the ban and persuade 50.1 percent of Californians to support it.”

Uh huh. And Lowry has the same take on the recent decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago (PDF), voiding that city’s handgun ban, right? Overturning that law was judicial overreach, too, wasn’t it? Or is that different?

Look, a lot of terrible violations of liberty and equality before the law can be very popular, including various types of discrimination, bans and restrictions of all sorts, censorship of speech critical of charismatic politicians, ad nauseum. Pretty much any type of authoritarianism is capable of commanding the support of the majority given the right time and place for a poll.  Care to guess how a national referendum on the Fourth Amendment would have turned out in the aftermath of 9/11? The founders had a lot of faults, but a lack of awareness about the flaws of majority rule wasn’t one of them. That’s why they were so critical of democracy and put in place restrictions on what the people and their representatives can do.

With his decision, Judge Walker exercised a 21st-century implementation of the long-established power of the judiciary to rein-in the power of the state, even when that power is exercised directly by the majority. In truth, individual rights and limits on state power, and the enforcement of those rights and limits by the judiciary, are fundamentally anti-democratic. And that anti-democratic tradition is a good thing.

A majority of California voters tried to ban the extension of the legal rights attached to state-sanctioned marriage to a group they don’t like — an overt exercise in discrimination. Judge Walker said no. Democracy may have lost in that contest, but liberty triumphed.

Now, if you want to discuss why the government is involved in marriage at all …

I’m going a-roaming

I’ll be on the East Coast until the end of the month, escaping the desert heat by stepping into a swamp. I plan to post while I’m on the road, but I’ll be on a whenever-it-happens schedule.

This also means that I may be a bit slow to approve comments. Be patient. I’ll soon be along with a mojito in my hand.

New: My mildly amusing musings about parenthood

At the risk of mixing oil and water, let me announce here the creation of my new stay-at-home-dad blog, King of the Kitchen (any evocations of Oliver Hardy are purely intentional). With my son about to embark on a new phase of life, in kindergarten, it seems like a good time to start a new forum for unleashing my animal howls of frustration at parenthood, marriage and the non-political aspects of the modern world. My political howls will continue to be found here, and I’ll also still write for When Falls the Coliseum.

Why wouldn’t an anarchist cafe eject a cop?

There are good people wearing police uniforms and there are bad people wearing police uniforms. More to the point, however, people in police uniforms have willingly chosen to take a job in which they act, at best, as enforcers of laws passed by government officials — and often as agents of the whims of those officials. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that the proprietors of the Red and Black Cafe, an avowedly anarchist establishment in Portland, Oregon, asked Officer James Crooker to take his business elsewhere. If you don’t like governments, why would you want to serve people who willingly work for them?

That gut-level, ideological opposition to the role of police officers likely explains the seeming inability of cafe co-owner John Langley to articulate a clear reason he gave the officer the boot at the time of the incident. Crooker is a cop; in Langley’s mind, that was probably reason enough. Langley’s early lack of clarity has been seized upon and mocked by police supporters — generally in poorly spelled and badly reasoned comments that default to mantras about cops being the thin, blue line that stands between decent folk and howling barbarians, even as they threaten arson against the cafe, urge officers to take their time responding to incidents there, and call for the city to have a politicized look at the cafe’s compliance with all rules and regulations.

If you’re an ideological supporter of government power, it’s easy to fall back on unreasoning support for the state’s servants (and, ironically, validate objections to government power in the process).

Given time to ponder, Langley came up with clearer articulation of his concerns:

I don’t have anything against this particular officer and I don’t know anything about him…A police officer in uniform makes people feel unsafe because of previous experiences…

We’re gonna value the people that have been victims of police violence. Some of them have talked about having their belongings being taken away or sprayed with water. It is exacerbated by the situation in Portland right now. The response to the mental health crisis is shooting people and beating people to death.

The anarcho-entrepreneur didn’t pull his reasons out of thin air. Less than a month ago, after a series of police shotings and complaints about the official response, Portland Mayor Sam Adams booted the city’s police chief and took direct control of the police department. In a press conference, he said (PDF), “Despite the extraordinary efforts of the courageous few who wear the badge, the relationship between the citizens of Portland and their police officers is not what it needs to be. Too many Portlanders express concern about their own safety–not because of crime, but rather fear of their own police force.”

Less dramatically, police are clearly working these days less as a thin blue line against crime than as tax collectors who selectively enforce laws with an eye to maximizing revenue for the government. In 2008, the Detroit News found that Michigan police departments were stepping up traffic enforcement solely to increase the money they collected.

“When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement,” Utica Police Chief Michael Reaves said. “But if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That’s just the reality nowadays.”

Officials elsewhere are equally open about their roadside revenue-enhancement efforts. It’s difficult to see a public safety aspect to the use of laws as means for mugging the public. If there’s a thin blue line, it leads directly to people’s wallets — and tags police as, too often, nothing more than agents of state power, for any purpose, good or bad.

Yes, police can do good deeds and often play a legitimate role in responding to crimes against people and property — maybe the critics will be right and John Langley will someday wish a cop were present to deal with a stick-up artist. But he and his colleagues have good reasons, ideological and practical, to object to the presence of a police officer in their place of business.

At least a few people agree with the Red and Black Cafe’s stance — business is reportedly way up since the incident.

On vacation

I know I haven’t been chatty recently, and now I’ll be even less talkative, since I’m off on a much-anticipated family vacation. I’ll be back to rant and rave on June 7. And, I promise, I’ll  become bloggier (if it ain’t a word, it should be) once a big project ends for me in mid-August.

Since the spambots are so super-eager to have their say here, I’ve been moderating all comments. Unfortunately, that means no comments will publish until my return.

Love America? Not unconditionally — and with an option for divorce

Public discussion in this country sometimes seems to degenerate into a competition to see who can declare the greatest unconditional love for America. Immigrants love America, kids love America, and politicians really love America — sometimes several times, at a discounted rate. But in a land that often says, “America, love it or leave it,” I’ll admit that I’m at least willing to consider heading for the exit.

“Love” America? That’s a tall order, isn’t it? It’s a big and diverse place, so if I “love” the whole thing, does that really have to include rush-hour traffic and midwestern food? Or, more seriously, does it have to include the DEA, the NSA, the IRS and the various factions of control freaks that all-so-often dominate the country’s politics?

I love lots of distinct things about America; among them, backpacking in the Grand Canyon, bourbon, jazz and a long tradition of distrust of government and a preference (imperfectly implemented though it may be) for leaving people alone to guide their own lives and make their own choices. That last point is especially important. My family has a history of shopping for places to live where they won’t be hassled.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Marano” which supports oral history suggesting that her ancestors converted under duress from Judaism to Christianity and then fled to Italy to escape the Inquisition. I guess they didn’t love Spain enough.

My maternal grandmother told me that her father came to the United States, in part, to escape the military draft in Austria-Hungary. No love there, either.

In America, my family found more breathing room compared to the countries in which they were born. They had reason to be thankful, since they were more free than they had been in the old country. So, after all these centuries, has the migration at last come to an end?

That’s hard to believe. After all, this column focuses on violations of personal freedom by government agents, and I rarely have to wander across the border in order to find issues to cover. The inclination toward personal freedom that so attracted immigrants to American shores is continuously under attack from politicians from both major political parties. Those officials often proclaim their love for the country, but they seem to want to love it out of all recognition, into a place where travelers are stopped and scrutinized and homes are invaded by armed men over a choice of intoxicants or a taste for games of chance. They love telling us what we can eat, where we can smoke and when we can drink. They whisper their affections while they pick our pockets, constrain our business ventures in red tape (to the tune of $8,164 per household (PDF) in 2000, just to comply with federal regulations) and generally threaten us with laws and regulations we may not even know about.

This is not to say that the United States is especially bad when compared to other countries, which generally suffer under abusive governments of their own. And some things have definitely improved over the decades, such as equality before the law for women and racial minorities, and respect for sexual diversity. But the United States is, perhaps, no longer such a standout performer when it comes to respecting and defending individual liberty. That is, it’s no longer so uniquely enticing if you’re shopping for a place to live based on the local willingness to let you live your own life. To tell the truth, maybe America still looks as … well … OK-ish as it does not by an absolute standard, but only by comparison with the equally flawed competition.

No wonder there’s such an emphasis on unconditional love for America! Frankly, though, unconditional love is appropriate only for babies and puppies. If we stop and think rationally, we may someday decide that the place we now call home is no longer as loveable as it once was, and go shopping for a new address that puts more effort into earning our affection.

Pit bull breakout

I’m a big-time dog lover, just a tad anti-authoritarian and sufficiently well-informed on the subject to reject the demonization of pit bulls as some sort of super-vicious devil dogs, so I find the following very amusing:

Max, a 70-pound pit bull that bit two people earlier this year, cheated death Wednesday and is on the run – with some human help.

The 3-year-old red nose pit bull was stolen from the Alameda Animal Shelter, just hours before he was to be euthanized for being a dangerous animal.

Note that Max does have a history of biting people, which may be a temperament issue, or else a matter of training and circumstance. I sincerely hope there are no further biting incidents, no matter who freed the dog and currently has him in their care. But I applaud the rescue of the dog from an imminent death, and his chance for a new life.

Run, Max, run!

By the way, while there’s not really a standard definition of “pit bull,” a couple of breeds and associated mixes are usually included in that category. Of those breeds, the American Temperament Test Society, a national not-for-profit organization that uses uniform standards for evaluating the temperament of dogs and then breaks the results out by breed, reports that 85.3% of American Pit Bull Terriers and 83.9% of American Staffordshire Terriers have passed its tests.

And no, their jaws don’t “lock.” (PDF)

http://www.atts.org/stats5.html

Now the know-nothings are chasing citizens out of Arizona

My wife — a pediatrician in rural Arizona — is about to lose a valued employee because of the state’s new and brutal immigration law. The employee isn’t Hispanic, but a close member of her family is. With nativist sentiment festering in the state and people with brown skin increasingly being harassed by law enforcement (even legal residents), it’s becoming increasingly attractive for people who fear they’ll be targeted by the police to head for the exits with their loved ones. That means fewer workers and customers for those who stay behind.

The bulk of the enforcement activity is in the Phoenix area where Maricopa County’s own Sheriff Joe Arpaio combats his legal problems by playing to the know-nothing yahoos eager to pledge him their votes so long as the police state he’s building targets dusky furriners. Even before the new law — often referred to as “SB 1070” in shorthand — was signed by Governor Jan Brewer, my wife had Hispanic patients afraid to go to Phoenix to see medical specialists. That’s a problem because our area is too sparsely settled to support highly specialized physicians, and the situation is only a little better in Flagstaff and Prescott. That means a trip to or through anti-immigrant Maricopa County to see specialists in Phoenix and Tucson. Some families swallow their fear; others get lesser care for their children.

But immigrants are also being hassled beneath the radar elsewhere, in smaller communities like Sedona and Prescott, where much of the hard labor is done by Mexican illegals who are welcome in good times but vulnerable to police action when public sentiment turns nasty — like now. Largely unreported by the news, the small-scale efforts of the past in these towns have turned into larger sweeps with more, and more-serious, agents.

For good reason, many of my wife’s Hispanic patients, and at least one employee, now plan to leave the state. At least 100,000 have fled already. And because many people are more willing than the average Arizona voter to cross ethnic and linguistic lines, they’re taking with them perfectly legal, English-speaking relations who don’t want to be separated from loved ones.And all of those people are taking with them their skills, their demand for goods and services and their money.

My wife can probably replace one worker, but with her patients leaving too, that may not be necessary. That doesn’t bode well for the future.

I do not think that word means what you think it means

Maybe it shouldn’t annoy me, but the shorthand misuse of the word “fascist” to mean “I disapprove of this, and all other right-thinking people should do so too,” just bugs the shit out of me. For one thing, it’s an end-run around making an argument — just use the appropriate code word and let group think take care of the rest. And, for another, it dilutes and pollutes the actual definition of a word that has real (and odious) meaning of its own.

Take, for example, David Edelstein’s brief review in New York magazine of the Michael Caine movie, Harry Brown. I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s apparently a British version of Death Wish. Edelstein writes:

The chief problem is that Caine makes a grave, soulful vigilante avenger, and first-time director Daniel Barber gives the film a dank, streaky, genuinely unnerving palette. Moral artists have no business making a fascist, reactionary movie this effective. To hell with them.

Again, I haven’t seen the movie, so I have no idea if I’d like it or loathe it, approve or disapprove of its ideas, or find the film ideologically defensible or  despicable. What I do know is that tales of private citizens taking the law into their own hands and punishing criminals while evading the police can not be credibly termed “fascist” if that word is to retain any meaning. After all, an important motto of the Fascist regime in Italy was “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato” (Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State).

Similarly, an official Italian government publication from the 1930s attributed to Benito Mussolini, said:

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity. …

The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people. …

Bypassing the government’s law-enforcement system as a self-motivated individual to pursue a personal vision of justice very explicitly runs up against the fascist celebration of the omnipotent state.

This doesn’t mean that Harry Brown is a good (or bad) movie or that waging personal war on the neighborhood thugs is necessarily a wise (or terrible) idea. It does mean, though, that it’s damned ignorant to dismiss the movie — or any story celebrating action outside the law — as “fascist.” Harry Brown, good or bad, is about as un-fascist as a movie can be.

And David Edelstein is a lazy reviewer.

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.