Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln (and of Charles Darwin too; they were born within hours of each other). Given the bicentennial, it might be fitting and proper to explore some of Lincoln’s writings.
This blog has already shared the Gettysburg Address on another occasion; it is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language, and has few peers in any language. His Second Inaugural Address (Wikipedia article, with text) is another excellent and short piece of oratory, and is highly recommended. The peroration is a classic, and is probably familiar to many, even if they can’t place it:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
But many of Lincoln’s lesser-known speeches are likewise excellent. To select just one, I highly recommend an address that he delivered in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 30 September 1859. The speech as a whole is most excellent, and the full text is available here, among other places. The topic of the speech is progress, primarily technological, which in Lincoln’s day meant better plows, new fencing technology, railroads, canals, and the like. Again, the peroration is excellent, and alone was worth any admission price:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
The above is a sentiment that I try to keep in mind. I also try to remember what Lincoln wrote circa 1854 about the nature and purpose of government:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, the government ought not to interfere.
Only John Stuart Mill has come close to so excellently summing up the raison d’être of government, and we’d be much better off if more shared the sentiment. In that same fragment, Lincoln concludes “it appears that if all men were just, there would be some, though not so much need of government.” (Cf. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”—Federalist No. 51) It is only with great regret that I omit the remainder of that item for purposes of space.
Another interesting short item contains Lincoln’s musing on slavery, again circa 1854, which seems to echo Kant’s categorical imperative, involving reasoning that can—and should—apply to far more than simply the peculiar institution:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
Finally, consider what is possibly the most extraordinary missive ever sent from a head of government to one of his generals in the field. In a letter dated 26 January 1863, shortly after General Joseph Hooker was given the most important command in the army at a pivotal point in the Civil War, Lincoln addressed him as follows:
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. … I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. … Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories. Yours very truly
History shows that Hooker did not become dictator; despite being a good general, he didn’t live up to his potential as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by Gen. George Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg.
In any event, I hope you will spend some time today to consider Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments and what we each can do to achieve and cherish a just and lasting society, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Just when you thought the human rights situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get more outrageous: two men in said country now face possible execution, and four others have been jailed, for the crime of… translating the Qur’an. Frequent readers of this blog will no doubt recall the case of Parwez Kambakhsh who was first sentenced to death and then had that commuted to 20 years in jail for discussing women’s rights. His case is still pending.
The present case involves Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai who translated to Qur’an from Arabic into one of Afghanistan’s several local languages for people who can’t read the document in the original language.
Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It’s a particularly sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God’s word.
The clerics said Zalmai, a stocky 54-year-old spokesman for the attorney general, was trying to anoint himself as a prophet. They said his book was trying to replace the Quran, not offer a simple translation. Translated editions of the Quran abound in Kabul markets, but they include Arabic verses.
Most English-language editions of the Qur’an include the Arabic text side-by-side with the English, and since books written in Semitic languages (including Hebrew) read back-to-front (from out point of view) you turn the pages of such books from left to right, not right to left. Editions of the Qur’an without the Arabic are often considered to not really be the Qur’an, by some Moslems, but merely interpretations thereof, thus Marmaduke Pickthall’s well-known translation (as we would call it) is titled The Meaning of the Glorious Koran instead of just The Qur’an.
I can find no source indicating what, if any, errors or mistranslations the mobs in question are upset about. Quite possibly, this is just an excuse for the imams to exercise power to keep people in line and for and the crowds to demonstrate their loyalty thereto.
All the men charged are pleading ignorance: the publisher didn’t read the book, the imam who signed a statement of support for it was tricked into doing so, Zalmai didn’t know it’d be a problem to omit the Arabic text. Hopefully this case will garner international attention and the central government, led by Hamid Karzai, will be able to work something out. Like they did with that convert to Christianity who, instead of being executed, was declared insane and allowed to flee the country.
The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to determine the validity of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment approved by 52% of the state’s voters last November. Prop 8, which this blog is not a fan of, overturned a previous decision of the state’s high court that required the state to recognize and allow same-sex marriage.
The argument brought by opponents of the measure is that it violates not the Federal Constitution but certain provisions of the State Constitution, which contains several different amendment mechanisms including initiatives, which can be placed on the ballot by petition, and revisions, which can only be put on the ballot by a super majority of the state legislature.
The plaintiffs argue that a measure eliminating fundamental rights from a historically persecuted minority amounts to a revision of the Constitution and exceeds the power of initiatives.
A revision can be placed on the ballot only by a two-thirds legislative vote or by delegates to a state constitutional convention. The court has upheld such challenges to initiatives only twice in its history, in 1948 and 1990.
Opponents of Prop. 8 also argue that it violates the constitutional separation of powers by stripping the judiciary of its ability to protect a minority group. Attorney General Jerry Brown has sided with opponents of the measure and argues that it is invalid for another reason: that it abolishes “inalienable rights,” guaranteed by the state Constitution, without a compelling justification.
The plaintiffs clearly have a tough case to argue and, as a matter of law, I’m not sure if they’re correct about the measure constituting a serious revision. I didn’t think they had a case at first, but now I think they may. Imagine if a simple majority of the electorate could revoke the right of women or of African Americans to vote. Or if 50% +1 could take away the presumption of innocence or freedom of religion. (All of these are protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights, but the point remains.)
Keep in mind that the entire point of a Bill of Rights is to keep the majority from doing what it wants. If it can be overturned by a simple majority, then what’s the point? It’s just a speed bump, not any sort of true impediment to the mob or protection for political minorities.
Even if Proposition 8 is permissible under that wonderful document that is the California Constitution, it shouldn’t be. Amending the Constitution should take more than a few signatures on a petition and then a simple majority of the electorate. A simple majority to ratify an amendment proposed by a super majority of the legislature is fine; that’s what almost all, if not all states allow. But an amendment proposed by petition, if allowed at all, should have to secure 60% of the vote, I think.
The lead case is Strauss vs. Horton, S168047. The Court will also be hearing arguments concerning whether the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed prior to the amendment was approved are still valid. I imagine they would be, but the state just couldn’t recognize them—if Proposition 8 is upheld. The lead attorney for those seeking to overturn the amendment and limit marriage rights is Kenneth Starr, the former investigator of President Clinton.
Michael Steele has just been elected Chairman of the Republican Party. This blog is pleased with this result and has supported Steele’s candidacy since the beginning. A simple majority (85) of the 168 votes was needed to win.
Mike Duncan, who President Bush tapped to head the party, bowed out after the third ballot.
Steele had 51 votes after the third round, having increased his support in each round. After four rounds Steele had 60 votes, trailing only South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson, who had 62. Just before the fifth ballot former Ohio Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell dropped out and endorsed Steele. In that round of voting Steele captured 79 votes, just six shy of being elected in the then three person field; Dawson had 59. The sixth round was down to just Steele and Dawson, Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis having dropped out after the fifth ballot. In that final round, Steele got 91 votes fo Dawson’s 77.
Mr. Steele is well qualified to lead the U.S. Republican Party. He was Chairman of Maryland’s Republican Party before serving as Lt. Governor of that state from 2003-2007. He was the failed U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland in 2006, doing better than expected in a poor year for Republicans and in a heavily Democratic state. Since then he has been chairman of GOPAC, which raises funds and supports Republican candidates at the state and local level. He is familiar with the national media and talk show circuit and is an excellent communicator; Slate was right when they called him the best speaker among all the chairman candidates.
Not only is the President of the United States now an African American, but so is the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. How about that? Steele is the first black person to hold said post.
Steele, age 50, is a lawyer by training, though he spent three years as a Roman Catholic seminarian and considered taking holy orders. See his Wikipedia article (which, incidentally, I started) for more information about him. This blog wishes Mr. Steele all the best as he leads the Republican Party for the next two years.
The Economist has an interesting short article criticizing manned space exploration and praising the Obama administration for appearing ready to reprioritize America’s goals in space.
Mr Obama’s transition team had already been asking difficult questions of NASA, in particular about the cost of scrapping parts of the successor to the ageing and obsolete space shuttles that now form America’s manned space programme. That successor system is also designed to return humans to the moon by 2020, as a stepping stone to visiting Mars. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s administration is wondering about spending more money on lots of new satellites designed to look down at the Earth, rather than outward into space.
These are sensible priorities. In space travel, as in politics, domestic policy should usually trump grandiose foreign adventures. Moreover, cash is short and space travel costly.
The article recommends using space probes and robots, like New Horizons (going to Pluto), Cassini (already at Saturn), and Mars Pathfinder to explore our Solar System.
While nothing is as cool as people in space, I wholeheartedly support investing our scarce space dollars in robotic and remote exploration instead of for crewed (“manned” is a bit androcentric) missions. For instance, NASA’s Moon Base proposal, despite being very modest, will still cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And it is unlikely that the knowledge and experience that we gain from such a base will justify the expense. The last Apollo missions were canceled and we haven’t been back to the Moon since the early 70s precisely because the place isn’t all that interesting. (For a good critique of NASA’s moon base idea, see “Moon Baseless“, an article by Gregg Easterbrook, who has been following the space program for decades.)
By contrast, excellent science is being done by our newest space probes and robots—and for far less money. New Horizons will have a total mission cost (from planning through the end of operations) of just $650 million; the total cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission is about $3.26 billion (including $1.4 billion for pre-launch development, $704 million for mission operations, $54 million for tracking and $422 million for the launch vehicle). Telescopes are also very cost effective. The Sptizer Space Telescope itself cost just $800 million and the planned James Webb Space Telescope will have a total cost (including planning, launch, and operation) of about $4.5 billion.
In short, for the cost of a Moon base we can explore the entire Solar System with probes and robots and explore the depths of space across all portions of the spectrum via orbiting and ground-based telescopes. If funding were unlimited things would be different; but it’s not and they aren’t. We have limited money for science, so we should spend it wisely.
In a new poll released today by the Guardian, if the United Kingdom held elections for Parliament today 44% would vote Conservative, 32% for Labour, 16% for the Liberal-Democrats, and 8% would vote for another party.
Across the poll, Labour is flatlining – the charge once thrown at struggling Conservative leaders who could not lift their party’s support below the low 30s. Labour has been on 31%, plus or minus two points, since August in ICM polls.
The prime minister can draw comfort from the fact that this new support has come almost entirely from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Labour support is down only one point, and at 32% is well above the low points in the mid-20s it hit in the early summer last year.
But that simply suggests the party is on course for a big defeat rather than a calamity. One estimate suggests that the Conservatives would win around 360 seats on today’s figures, a majority of about 70. Labour could expect to win around 240, 30 more than it did at its nadir under Michael Foot in 1983.
The results seem largely driven by economic concerns.
Elections must be held on or before 3 June 2010, as the maximum length of a Parliament is five years; however, Prime Ministers typically call elections after four years—unless they’re guaranteed defeat and think they can turn things around if given another year. If elections are held this year, 4 June is a likely date, as they would then coincide with elections for the European Parliament.
This blog, which is more favorably predisposed to the Conservatives, predicts that Gordon Brown will not call elections this year and will let the current Parliament expire, or come very close to it before elections are held next year. Furthermore, it is likely that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, will probably be the next Prime Minister.
Former Prime Minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu says he will expand Israeli West Bank settlements if he becomes Prime Minister again after February 10th’s elections. Based on current opinion polls, it appears likely that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will secure a plurality of seats in the Knesset and be able to form a government.
“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements.”
Israel’s West Bank settlements, constructed on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are probably illegal under international law and are certainly a major obstacle to a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians. It is therefore unfortunate that Netanyahu is willing to allow them to expand.
Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel’s settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.
Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu’s positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.
The settlements (see Wikipedia article) are home to about 280,000 Israelis and make it harder to the Palestinians to form a viable state. They also require significant security infrastructure due to violence against them from Palestinians. While the violence is deplorable, the anger which motivates it is understandable—how would you feel if foreigners came into your country and effectively claimed permanently as their own by building cities there? Also keep in mind that about 40% of the land on which the settlements are built is privately owned by (unremunuerated) Palestinians. Additionally, it is not simply the land on which they sit that Palestinians are deprived of; the settlements effectively cut up the West Bank, making travel and transport through the area difficult.
There are a lot of passions involved with the Israeli-Palestinian situtation. For a possibly less charged example of a similar sort of activity, consider the Chinese policy of trying to tightly wed Tibet, which they conquered militarily, to the People’s Republic by settling ethnic Chinese people there.
These settlements make Israel less secure, not more secure. They are furthermore one of the biggest obstacles to peace, right up there with continued Palestinian violence. They are increasingly costing Israelis the good will of their allies, including, quite possibly, the United States under the new Obama administration.
Kadima party leader and Prime Minister candidate Tzipi Livni has vowed to dismantle the settlements, if elected. This blog very much hopes that she will get that chance.
Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting new piece out, “The myth of Israel’s strategic genius,” which attempts to analyze the wisdom of that nation’s strategic decisions since its founding. The author, Stephen M. Walt, concludes that while Israel gets a lot of credit for making good decisions, its actions have not helped it achieve long-term security and, indeed, some, such as supporting Hamas in the 1980s, have done much to imperil the country.
The article looks at pretty much every major armed crisis involving Israel since the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, including the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all the way up to the current Gaza action.
From the article’s conclusion:
In virtually all of these episodes — and especially those after 1982 — Israel’s superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters — Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu — are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?
The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces. In fact, Israel’s strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s — beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel’s friends — both Jewish and gentile — to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem’s actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.
Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action. Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress — speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that’s unlikely to happen, because Israel’s supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel’s actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.
Also touched on briefly are some of the failed peace initiatives, including the Camp David meetings presided over by Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into detail about the proposals and their perceived deficiencies.
The article additionally mentions the West Bank settlements.
More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the [Six Day] war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a “greater Israel.” Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel’s settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as “a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.
As I blogged about previously, Israel’s West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to peace and should be dismantled immediately if Israel is interested in a workable, long-term peace deal.