Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, January 29, 2007


A Guardian writer is worried about "power vacuum" in the US:

And there, from afar, is the unique problem with an American presidential election race that has, for all practical purposes, started already. Many times past, you juggle the possibilities and see at least one firm peg to hang a few calculations on. After Clinton, Gore; after Reagan, daddy Bush; after Carter, Mondale. There was always a favoured succession somewhere. But this time, on either side, there is not only no evident succession, but also no continuing consensus of conviction. All contestants welcome, and the theme that happens to hit a chord can produce an American idol. The power of the party machines is feebler than ever, because they have no favourite candidate. The direction the country must take, once a heartily despised president departs, is unsettled going on totally uncharted.

It's a vacuum to register with unease. Maybe Britain, in its more fevered moments, is desperate for Blair to go, for Brown to come, for leadership to define and renew and exert itself. The supposed problems of drift are vividly sketched in ubiquitous print. But here's the great power, where most things begin, with two vacant, swilling years to go - and nobody has a blind idea what comes next.

This seems wrong. The Republican front-runner is John McCain; the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Jim Webb and Barack Obama are too inexperienced and have a lot of vulnerabilities. John Edwards will probably turn out to be just another lawyer joke. Meanwhile, on the right, Giuliani won't be able to get past his stances on social issues, and no one else is heavyweight enough to close the lead with McCain. Of course there's some suspense, and that's what makes politics fun. But it will probably be McCain vs. Hillary in 2008.

Also, the "heartily despised" is gratuitous. Yes, Bush's job approval is in the low-30s, but one can disagree with a president while despising him-- or, for that matter, agree with him and despise him. People approved of Clinton as a politician while despising his personal ethics. And Kerry got a lot of supporter from people who despised him-- see


  • Of course, those who call Bush vapid and morally obtuse would probably find the same general manner of behavior heroic and visionary if he acted in line with their worldview rather than the one he actually has. Kerry was not likeable, and Clinton was likeable, but too obviously facile at times for anyone to ignore. Bush, on the other hand, comes across as quite the affable, solid fellow unless you find the content of his actions abhorrent in some way.

    In any case, I hope you're wrong about the Clinton-McCain opposition. I'm so tired of voting with such deep reservations. I could vote for either Obama or Giuliani more or less conscience-clear. Neither are perfect, of course, but they're so much better than what's been available that one almost worries they're too good to be true.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:44 AM  

  • Giuliani would be a pretty good candidate. It you put the social issues to one side most people could agree on that.

    Obama?! The guy has no substance, and the whole point of him is that he has no substance, so he offends no one. If he weren't running for president, I would be willing to wait and see and maybe consider him presidential material in 8 or 12 or 16 years. But I find it insulting that he thinks he's ready to lead the country with such a thin resume, and an ideology even thinner than his resume.

    Hillary Clinton's citing Margaret Thatcher as a political role model made me warm to her for a moment. Sadly, she was talking about style, not-- she specified this-- substance.

    But McCain now, that's another story. What's wrong with McCain?

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 9:03 AM  

  • Don't get me wrong, McCain is a good man and would probably be a great president. The problem is that there would be social-ethical consequences of his election with which I absolutely cannot reconcile myself. Clinton would probably not be such a good president, but I think she'd be fine and her social positions are acceptable to me.

    Giuliani and Obama are both new to this level of politics, but I think both have experiences to recommend them - Obama his internationally-lived life and Giuliani his international city. In Giuliani's case, I've welcomed his willingness to change his mind about things and respond to mistakes. In Obama I see a man who seems to leave his attempts to balance between epistemic humility and the need for action out in the open. That is to say, his subtlety does not appear to just be an attempt to remain a cipher until it's clear which way the political winds blow.

    Perhaps I am projecting here, but I will say that onto no other recent candidates was I able to project such positive interpretations as these. I certainly was never so excited about, say Edwards. I briefly had hopes for Clark, then he opened his mouth. Giuliani and Obama have been talking for a while - and saying things with that talking - without me seeing anything truly worrying. That makes me highly optimistic.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:25 PM  

  • re: "there would be social-ethical consequences of [McCain's] election with which I absolutely cannot reconcile myself."

    How cryptic. What are they? Bans on gay marriage? A Supreme Court that will overturn Roe?

    Of course, even if Roe is overturned, that will only put us where European countries are: the issue will be decided democratically. Even if you support abortion rights, surely it would be a relief not to have a just cause attached to an indefensible travesty of a Supreme Court case? These days I think most of the country is in favor of abortion rights anyway, so a ban would be unlikely even if Roe were overturned.

    If I could understand what Nato means by this, maybe I'd be closer to understanding the Republicans-are-evil meme that has infected a substantial slice of the electorate. It always puzzles me that while very few Republicans regard Democrats as evil, that Republicans are evil seems to be axiomatic for many people. Why the imbalance?

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 2:53 PM  

  • I had no trouble encountering the liberals-are-evil meme back in Colorado Springs.

    In any case, I hadn't really meant to be cryptic about gay and reproductive rights; I just didn't want to try to enumerate the whole list of which those are admittedly two preeminent members.

    Also, I wish I could describe quickly all the different ways in which I find abrogation of abortion rights abhorrent, but it's a long, multi-faceted argument that's difficult to distill into a post comment. Suffice it to say, however, that I view abortion's legal availability a very high and personal moral priority for reasons with which you would not at all agree. I'm not averse to making the argument so you can see what it looks like, but as it is based on more fundamental disjunctures between our worldviews, it's quite certain not to change your mind a bit.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:15 PM  

  • Hmm. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the electorate are ultimately single-issue voters on the abortion issue, on one side or the other.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 7:51 AM  

  • When I try to maintain my objectivity I admit that gay rights stances should perhaps outweigh abortion rights, but being heterosexual makes the fractional effect of reproductive rights on women loom larger in my head most days. I also suspect that my loyalty to humanity in general should make me fear protectionist impulses more than I do. I will say that if a candidate is minimally pro-gay-rights and pro-choice, then I have no problem choosing the candidate over another with firmer stances on the same issue but with a protectionist agenda. Also, it would take a truly socially horrible opponent to make me vote for, say, Nader, despite his positive social stances.

    I suspect most apparently single-issue voters are like this.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:02 PM  

  • To me, Roe v. Wade-- the process issue of whether or not the legality of abortion should be determined by democratic processes-- is much easier than the question of abortion itself.

    Abortion itself is a rare area where I defer to my Church because one has to have an opinion (one must vote, after all) but I have no idea how to figure out the right answer. If the fetus is a person, abortion is murder and should be outlawed; if not, abortion is birth control and should be allowed. But how can one possibly tell whether the fetus is a person? How can one even begin to think about the question?

    In any case, it's perfectly clear that a right to abortion is not "in the Constitution" in any non-ludicrously-sophistical sense. Roe v. Wade is a flagrant judicial usurpation, an attack on democracy and the rule of law. Even if Roe v. Wade is good policy supporters of abortion rights should be ashamed to achieve their ends through such dishonest methods.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 1:26 PM  

  • There is no right to an abortion in the constitution, but there is a right to privacy implicit in the 14th ammendment under the due process clause, and that is why the Texas abortion laws were struck down. There were two dissenting justices that felt that the fetus should have constitutional rights as well, but here is wikipedia's explanation of why that opinion wasn't held in majority:

    "When weighing the competing interests that the Court had identified, Justice Blackmun also noted that if the fetus was defined as a person for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment then the fetus would have a specific right to life under that Amendment. However, the Court determined that the original intent of the Constitution up to the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 did not include the unborn. The Court's determination of whether a fetus can enjoy constitutional protection was separate from the notion of when life begins: 'We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.' The Court only believed itself competent to resolve the difficult question of when a right to abortion begins.

    The decision established a system of trimesters that attempted to balance the state's legitimate interests against the abortion right. The Court ruled that the state cannot restrict a woman's right to an abortion during the first trimester, the state can regulate the abortion procedure during the second trimester 'in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health,' and in the third trimester, which demarcated the viability of the fetus, a state can choose to restrict or even to proscribe abortion as it sees fit."

    Roe v. Wade allows the state to restrict abortion in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters, and indeed there are such restrictions. So what the big debate is really about is the 1st trimester, and it seems to me to be pretty clear that the justices made a wise and prudent decision.

    By Blogger Thomas, at 5:29 PM  

  • Thanks for the Wikipedia text. The Court's reluctance to decide the question of when life begins is understandable, but to pretend that a "right to privacy" which included a right to abortion, of which neither the authors of the 14th Amendment nor any of their contemporaries suspected the existence is absurd.

    If anyone has any doubt that the Court was making up "law" out of thin air, the trimester arrangement, which has no conceptual basis and is completely and obviously arbitrary, should clear it up.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 5:53 AM  

  • Well, I suppose we also have no right to, say, pop a zit because it's not enumerated in the Constitution of the United States.

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:57 PM  

  • There are no laws against popping zits. So yes, you do have a right to.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 1:03 PM  

  • So, say, the City of Zitlove, California could create a law prohibiting zit-popping and my challenge to the law during a defense against the $175 zit-popping fine would rightly be rejected by the courts?

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:50 PM  

  • Well, we'd have to see what argument the court would make to defend a decision overturning the law. Probably there would be a number of plausible grounds. To appeal to a "right to privacy" implicit in the 14th Amendment doesn't seem like an especially promising one, but it would be much more persuasive here than in the case of abortion, since, among other things, laws against zit-popping have not characterized the US for a large majority of its history.

    Please note, though, that the idea of a law against zit-popping is pure fantasy. The democratic process is not so stupid as that. If voters were really that dumb, I might be sympathetic to abrogating democracy in favor of a sort of judicial oligarchy. But as it is, I feel my right to zit-popping is safe in the hands of the sovereign people.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 2:02 PM  

  • "But as it is, I feel my right to zit-popping is safe in the hands of the sovereign people."

    A quote that seems unlikely, outside this comment thread, to ever be repeated in all language use until the end of time.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:16 PM  

  • I get what you're saying, Nathanael, and you are right to an extent. However, I still agree with the supreme court on the issue, and I'll tell you why. It's impossible to tell from looking at a woman if she's in the 1st trimester. Impossible. The only way you could prove that a woman is pregnant that early is through medical examination (or perhaps a pregnancy test, though those aren't always accurate). So, how can you prove that a crime has been committed if a woman has an abortion that early? You can't, unless you have feds soliciting abortions on the street or something (assuming that the safer and healthier alternative of a clinic is illegal and unavailable). The pregnancy status of a woman at that point is her secret to keep, even if we would rather it not be. Heck, there are women that manage to hide their pregnancy status into their 3rd trimester, and at that point, if they somehow managed to "lose some weight", it wouldn't be a crime. Since you can't force someone to reveal their pregnancy status, you can't really punish someone for having an abortion. This is why I think using a flimsy "right to privacy" defense is appropriate.

    By Blogger Thomas, at 8:27 PM  

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