URLs du Jour

2016-12-24

Happy Christmas Eve to all. Here are some links I've enjoyed recently. As usual, "read the whole thing" is implied.

  • The Cato Institute filed one of the more hilarious amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court recently, in the matter of Lee v. Tam, on whether disparagement of "persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols" can be a basis for denial of a trademark application. "Lee" is Michele Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). "Tam" is Simon Shiao Tam, "founder of the world's first and only all-Asian American dance-rock band, The Slants". And the issue is whether "The Slants" should be a trademarkable name, because disparagement.

    Cato's brief is in support of Tam; one of the contributors is P. J. O'Rourke. To pick a paragraph at random:

    Finally, band names are also chosen to convey valuable information about the music the band plays. It should come as no surprise that the Queers are not a Lawrence Welk cover band, the Revolting Cocks are not a string quartet, Dying Fetus does not play jazz standards, and Gay Witch Abortion would never open for Paul Anka. Similarly, The Slants have chosen a name that, through its insouciance, expresses something about their music—and the government’s jejeune label of “disparaging” fails to capture the many levels of communication inherent in that name.

    The key question, as posed by Cato: "Does the government get to decide what’s a slur?" It's hard to see how anyone could answer "yes" after reading the brief. But then again, I'm not a Supreme Court Justice.

  • Reason magazine was, and is, understandably critical of Donald Trump. But John Stossel likes some of Trump's cabinet picks. And gets off this instant-classic:

    A Washington Post headline: "Ayn Rand acolyte Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with fellow objectivists." This is absurd. Trump likes capitalism, but he's no objectivist. Objectivists have firm principles.

    I anticipate we'll see plenty of examples of unprincipledness in the coming year.

  • Jay Nordlinger is a tireless advocate for victims of totalitarian tyranny. In "The Art of the Kowtow" he reminds us:

    Norway and China have restored normal relations. Beijing cut off such relations in 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a leading Chinese dissident. The ruling Communists arrested Liu in 2008 and have imprisoned him ever since. They are also keeping Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under a brutal house arrest.

    I'm told my ancestral heritage is 100% Norwegian, but now and then I'm reminded why it was such a good idea for my ancestors to get the hell out of there.

The Servile Mind

How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life

[Amazon Link]

One of those "I wish I was smarter, to understand it better" books. But it's also one of those "I wish it was better" books. I believe I put this on the TBR pile a few years back, perhaps due to this National Review review. Or maybe this one at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The latter calls the book "clear and incisive". I disagree: I thought it was turgid, rambling, and a tad cranky. I'm willing to believe that I'm wrong, though. In any case, thanks be to the Interlibrary Loan folks at the library at the University Near Here for arranging a copy be shipped up from Boston U.

The author, Kenneth Minogue, died in 2013. This 2010 book was his last. (He was in his 80s, so perhaps I was uncharitable about deeming him cranky—once you hit 80, you're entitled to be as cranky as you want.)

Minogue's argument is not so much with "democracy" per se as implied by the book's subtitle. Instead it's a subtler argument about the Western democratic states falling into a "politico-moral" mindset. Governments have moved away from viewing themselves as protectors of individual freedoms, and toward implementing a moral crusade for social justice. At first glance, this is admirable: Minogue admits that the movement, in its opposition to poverty, bigotry, war, ignorance, and oppression, occupies the "moral high ground".

But the cost is high: when individuals under such states are enlisted in these crusades, their own personal projects are deprioritized. Shifts in language encourage individuals to take less responsibility for their own lives—why should you, when the state's project is to view you as (potential) oppressed victim in need of rescue? Hence, "democracy" becomes not a servant of the sovereign people, but the (hopefully benign) master of a servile collective.

I don't want to be overly critical: the book has valuable insights and pithy observations scattered throughout. (Longtime fans of National Review will welcome his discussion, around page 268, of Eric Voegelin's concept of "immanentizing the eschaton".)

But, on the other hand, Minogue's style can throw up speed bumps to understanding his argument. For example, around page 70, we have his description of Lockean rights: they "express a ludic conception of how people live". At which point I needed to hustle to the Google to find out what "ludic" meant. And as it turned out, the word didn't add that much to the discussion.