Tuesday, January 15, 2019

James Madison was an idealistic dipshit

I'll admit that during the years when I was supposed to be getting an education I was much more concerned with looking cool and getting laid. Everyone who was around me at the time can attest to my failure at both of those, but they were still my preoccupations. Otherwise I would have come to this opinion much sooner.

To be fair to all the boneheads like me, and all of the others who accepted the world as they found it and got on with their personal ambitions, the country was turning 200 years old when we were in our school years. We'd beaten the Nazis and were holding the Commies at bay. We were growing up in the greatest country that had ever existed, and it had nowhere to go but up. Wasn't everything worked out already? Sure, there had been slavery, but the Civil War stomped that out. Sure, there had been civil rights problems, but that was getting sorted out, too. Cynics could say what they wanted about corruption and incompetence, but the country was fundamentally great.

My nearsighted eyes scanned the world through prescription rose-colored glasses.

Now here we are with it all falling apart. And I come to find out, from this handy article in The Atlantic, that the defects were all built in purposely, by our revered Founding Fathers, who turn out to be a bunch of idealistic dreamers. This country badly needed some cynics back while there was still time for the cure to work.

Lots of things leaped off the page at me, but this one was especially poignant:

"The best way of promoting a return to Madisonian principles, however, may be one Madison himself identified: constitutional education. In recent years, calls for more civic education have become something of a national refrain. But the Framers themselves believed that the fate of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. Drawing again on his studies of ancient republics, which taught that broad education of citizens was the best security against “crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty,” Madison insisted that the rich should subsidize the education of the poor."

The poor bastard had no idea that the crafty and dangerous encroachments on public liberty would be the absolute aim of the rich. The rich had no need for democracy and individual liberty. The term globalism might not have been coined yet, but rich people everywhere share one unifying philosophy: become richer.  Once the war of independence was done and dusted, the rich could get back to commerce. The nation itself was just a vehicle for ensuring that power remained concentrated in the right hands. Sure, the concept of liberty meant that a commoner could join their ranks through the right combination of education, experience, acquaintances, and luck. But no one had to take seriously the opinions of tradespeople and farmers unless they had managed to make their commercial endeavors sufficiently lucrative.

Or maybe he wrote the whole thing with a twinkle in his eye, as a sop to any among the rabble who might be able to read and reason a little bit. Many of our public documents scan really well. But then the Soviet Union had a nice constitution, too. And the very same US Constitution was used to justify racism and to combat it. It brought us Roe v Wade and might take it away as well. It's all subject to interpretation. Laws are only as good as their enforcement. If it was all cut and dried, no one would bother to become a lawyer.

The very concept of a republic unabashedly favors elitism. Those are your choices: the mob rule of direct democracy, or the elitism of a republic. The idealists who penned our owner's manual at the end of the 18th Century believed that an enlightened elite existed and would continue to exist. They believed that some concept of inclusive, socially responsible virtue would naturally accrue through education and good breeding. They had faith that the concept of the republic of free men would have such eternal appeal that the rich and powerful would revere it for generations.

Perhaps the fact that it was a republic of free men made its odds seem much better. Viewed through that lens, it becomes a joint business venture in which all the major shareholders get a voice unlimited by hereditary aristocracy or an overbearing monarch. The United States of the founders' vision was a nice private club. Too bad they didn't have the wit to write their charter a bit more exclusively from the outset. It would have saved us a lot of grief. Of course if you happened to be a slave or a woman or a native, things would have stayed as bad as they ever were. Careless writing set the stage for centuries of bloodshed. I blame the pot. You know those plantation owners grew hemp and wacky weed. I can just see them, sitting around in a cloud of smoke, holding in a cough:

"Gentlemen: Imagine a country in which the only limits on a man are his own initiative and the gifts God has given him." Coughs through his nose, loses it, the whole room breaks up laughing.

I'm sure they meant well. But every concept can be twisted, and some concepts lend themselves much more easily to it than others. The United States was designed to depend on the good faith and intentions of its most powerful and influential people. And yet what do they say of power? It corrupts. Even the desire for it corrupts. We have no fail safe mechanism to filter out the greedy and the grandiose from the truly selfless and dedicated. And why should we have to depend on our leaders being saintly? If that sort of behavior wasn't rare, we wouldn't have saints. We would just have people, being routinely good.

The America of the modern ideal, say the 1960s, depended on a sense of shared struggle and shared reward. That supposedly drove the country during the Second World War, and evolved into the antiwar and social justice fashions of the 1960s and '70s. But it was crumbling by the end of the 1970s, and took fatal blows in the 1980s. 

I used to believe that human nature was fundamentally good. Then I started to believe that maybe some people were fundamentally bad. Now I believe that the concepts of good and bad depend entirely on your point of view. I know what I think is good and bad, but the world has demonstrated time and again that it doesn't care what anyone thinks. Evolution merely tallies the totals from every category and spits out a result.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Bump stocks and bombs

After a couple of nice, quiet years, the neighbors have started blowing things up again.

When I moved here, the mountain behind me was entirely covered with mature forest. There was one house across the road. There were other neighbors, but the next nearest occupied house on my side of the road was hundreds of yards away. Except in hunting season, no one seemed to venture into the woods up the mountain, or explore the flood plain toward the river. There was a little cabin right next door, but the owner was elderly and seldom got to come to it anymore.

I had good relations with my neighbors. When hunters cut a trail across the elderly neighbor's land, I contacted him to make sure that they did not have permission and then confronted them when they showed up to use their unauthorized access on opening day of deer season. When a timber thief showed up and started cutting where it was easy instead of where he was being paid to cut, I alerted the neighbor and had a few conversations with the logger until he gave up and moved his operation to where it belonged. But, for the most part, good relations consisted of quiet coexistence, appreciating the natural setting we were fortunate enough to inhabit, and seeing little of each other.

Incrementally, houses pop up. Some rich guy started a "shooting preserve" on what had been a beautiful parcel of undeveloped floodplain. It had been cleared for ill-advised development in the 1980s, and then abandoned when the scam went belly up. It was a beautiful place, thick with blueberries and wildflowers. Now it is closed off to the public and it makes its money letting paying groups shoot at pen-raised exotic birds. Bang b-bang bang bang pop pow b-bang bang. But they're not the bombers.

Guns are a fact of life (and cause of death) everywhere. When the cellist is in Baltimore she hears gunfire, and its intent is usually homicidal. Up here, the projectiles are usually aimed at animals and birds, or at various inanimate targets. The river valley is an amphitheater. Sound carries a long way. You start to get a sense of who shoots what where, as the years go by.

A few years ago, my elderly neighbor with the cabin finally died. He had no children, but apparently left the property to a nephew or something. The new owner subdivided the lot and logged the half farthest from me. He sold that piece to some people who built at the back of it, sticking a house into what had been the lower skirts of the mountain's little wilderness. They have some animals and poultry. Occasionally someone will come charging out of their driveway on a racing ATV and zoom up and down the road in front of my house. It seems like a test run after working on the machine, perhaps. As much as I detest motorized recreation, I have to tighten my gut and let it happen, because they have every right to waste fuel and spew pollution to get their jollies in this free country of ours. Clean air and quiet are the casualties, the lesser rights that are easily trampled by noisy, smoky people's right to whoop it up.

Not long after these new neighbors settled in, we started hearing explosions quite close at hand. Maybe they have a cannon. Maybe they're experimenting with fertilizer bombs. I don't know. There would never be any warning. The blasts could occur at almost any hour, but seldom very late at night. We would just tighten our guts a little more, and try to get our breathing back down, and hope that one day we would hear ambulances arriving for them after one of these explosions.

One evening, several years ago, the blast was so powerful that the shock wave actually made our house bounce. The wave and the bang came out of nowhere. I felt it compress my chest as the floor dropped momentarily. It was the kind of sound you would expect to be followed by screams as a fireball billowed up into the night sky, but instead there was only blackness and silence from over there. That was a bit disappointing.

The size of the blast prompted me to call the state police to ask politely how large an explosion private citizens were allowed to enjoy before they had crossed some legal line. That prompted the staties to swing by and find out a little more from me. They may have talked to the neighbors after that, because it did usher in this long period free of bombs. From time to time I might have to put up with a little small arms fire, but that is one reason people move to the country, to be able to set up a little range and fire away. It was pretty nice.

That ended last night.

Pop pop bang bang. Bangbangbangbangbangbangbangbangbang. ....silence....BOOM 

I went out onto the deck and heard the cackling and yeehawing from next door. Years before, the staties had questioned whether I could be sure where the sound came from because of how noise travels in the river valley, with the mountain as a reflector. There was no doubt last night. It hadn't been as big as the house-shaker, but it did have a punch to it.

Some of the smaller noises could have been fireworks, but others were either firearms, or fireworks carefully created to mimic firearms. And in the bursts the rate of fire was faster than the human finger can twitch; not quite the speed of full-auto, it still marched with a quick, relentless cadence. I did not count how many rounds it was, but it was more than a few. Gunfire has a more directed sound than fireworks. You can sense that the detonation is coming out of a tube rather than simply bursting in air.

Forces gather in our troubled land, celebrating the impending abandonment of civilization. They consider themselves realists, these people who build and promote that reality instead of trying to seek a different, equally possible path. Human nature is incorrigible, they tell us. Face the fact that humans are killers and survival depends on your skills and equipment for defense. Human evolution is best represented by the evolution of our weapons, and our ability to view their effects without horror.

No thanks.

I no longer believe that humans will get their shit together and start treating each other decently. We gave up on that notion almost immediately after it reached peak popularity in the early 1970s. And even at its peak popularity, it had a long way to go to start actually making meaningful inroads on the prejudice and paranoia that shape most human interaction. But I refuse to join the forces I cannot beat. I simply spared any future generation from my loins having to live through the coming times of pain and destruction. Every bang, every boom brings a little thud of pain and sadness. I can't help a feeling of regret that my species loves violence and destruction more than anything else. But that appears to be the case. Bang. Boom. Rev. Zoom. Fire. Smoke. Cut. Dig. Grab. Consume. Discard.

I continue to support the other way, without the faintest hope of success. Just because it's losing doesn't mean it is wrong.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

I hate the government

Here in the United States we have citizen government. As much as it has become a tool of the wealthy to impose their priorities on the rest of us, it does reflect the values of Americans. United we stand, in squabbling disunity.

Ordinary citizens could take control if we could agree on common values and insist that they be promoted. Unfortunately, the majority values its freedom not to pay attention, and to dislike each other factionally more than it wants to overthrow the influence of concentrated wealth. The problem is not the government. It is us.

I hate the government. I hate how the need to keep an eye on it intrudes on my pleasures. I hate how it has evolved to be hostile to oversight as much as I hate having to be that oversight. I'm terrible at paying attention to what elected representatives and government agencies are doing. But we do have access -- for now -- to those who govern.

The yellow vest protests in France are presented as an example of what committed, bold citizen action can accomplish. True, they pressed the Macron government for concessions, but two questions arise. How did it get that bad in the first place? And will there be meaningful change after the two sides stand down and the news cycle needs to move on to other things?

We have representative government to free up the majority of citizens to do other necessary work. It also provides a filter between the whims of a sometimes volatile majority and the actual implementation of long-term policy. But representatives have power as well as responsibility, which makes them susceptible to corruption. Some are truly incorruptible. Others arrive pre-corrupted. Voters have to decide who is worth keeping. Detailed information can be hard to get. The information itself can be tainted by an underlying agenda.

I hate it. But it's human nature. Even government by a computer system would only be as good as its programmed parameters. And it might be very hard to overthrow. You can pull the plug, but only if you can get to the plug.

The show ponies who run for office are well suited to their roles in show biz. Some of them are as stupid as a box of rocks, but they've all managed to win the reality show contests we call elections. The best ideas in the world do no good if they can't find a champion who can actually get elected. The process is most visible at levels high enough to attract mass media coverage. But it's happening all the way down to little dinky towns scraping together a budget to keep a handful of roads paved, and send their kids to school. Down where most of us actually live, decisions are made at public meetings by people we know, if we happen to be able to take the time to attend.

Time. Citizen government demands your time. As an ordinary voter, you have to dig out the information you need to make what seems like a good choice. As an actual official, you have to perform the duties of your office. In some places, you're expected to do it for free, so you still have to grub for money in the outside world while paying proper attention to the people's business in your governmental capacity. In a country that glorifies wealth for its own sake, that means a constant battle against inflation, and against competitors who would be all too happy to sink you.

Many hands make light work. If a really solid majority of citizens wanted to get involved and take turns doing the mundane, tedious bullshit of governing, it would become a communal activity instead of turning "the government" into this alien overlord run by idiots and scoundrels. How likely is that? No one wants to be in the handful of suckers who get stuck having to sacrifice their time for an ungrateful populace that automatically assumes they're up to no good. And we're all either too busy working or too busy looking for work to devote our best attention to the needs of government. That's how you end up with independently wealthy people and energetic profiteers holding office. No one else can afford to. So back we come to oversight.

Take a short time as soon as possible to jot down a list of what you would like from your government. Brainstorm it. Write down everything that your ideal society would have. If the list is "no government," write down what you're going to have to get from other sources: roads, energy, health care, defense... Then figure out who is going to provide it and how you all are going to pay for it.

Deep inside all of us in the modern world lives a hunter gatherer wondering what the hell happened. What happened was evolution. As much as we still get the desire to roam as happy nomads across a relatively pristine environment, the only way to get back to that is to destroy all that came after it. And it was other parts of our own nature that made us evolve into our current condition, simultaneously pampered and stressed out. We can't go back. We can only go forward, trying to improve.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

In appreciation of those who govern

Everyone complains about the government, but how many of you really want to do that job?

Especially at the local level, willing talent can be hard to find. While the corrupt local boss is a stock character, the benevolent wise village elder is as much so. Both of them provide security by perennial consistency. They free up the other citizens to do other work.

In more than one social media comment thread, contributors have said that they believe elected officials should receive little or no compensation, "to keep them from becoming professional politicians." Who among you is willing to run for office and take that deal? How good a job would you do when you have to spend most of your time earning your actual living at something else?

If your actual living is related to the needs of government, you can blend your efforts, but you will frequently cross the line into conflicts of interest. This is true of developers on zoning and planning boards, lawyers in legislatures, and business people in any elected position. You may think that you are bringing your informed perspective to the discussion, but how often does that informed perspective willingly accept a disadvantage in a proposed policy?

There's no way to sift out all of the personal interests from everyone  -- or anyone -- who stands for public office. The synergy of those personal interests is supposed to yield the best result. It fails when the personal interests do not include things we call intangible because they can't be valued monetarily, but the fault lies with the participants, not the process.

A guy showed up on our zoning board several years ago and immediately irritated one of our longest-serving members. The new guy was outgoing and inquisitive. He went to training sessions offered at the state level, and researched town matters. The older board member had also taken training courses, and was familiar with town issues from long residence here. The enmity got pretty thick for a while, but both of them are still involved in town government. The new guy has gone on to the board of selectmen. That's a tippy throne in this town. For a small place, we have some strong political divides. Elections really do come down to one or two votes. For now, he seems to be trying to modernize our standards for maintaining infrastructure, which is the town's biggest expense. The other guy has returned to the zoning board after recovering from a stroke. He continues to provide a reliable conservative pillar around which to build our decisions, whether we agree with him or not.

I have never wanted to be in charge of anything. I don't even want the positions I hold in town government. But I have never been opposed in an election for the zoning board, and the conservation commission is appointed gratefully from among whoever shows up to volunteer. I do not have the broad vision and deep curiosity that makes a good leader. I have no urge to schmooze. I do not socialize. So I am really grateful for the people who do. I recognize their value in keeping us connected.

If everyone was an introvert, we would never have had a war, because no one would want to get together to form an army. But we would never have gotten together to form anything else, either. While that might be better for the environment, we passed that exit a long time ago. Our species has these divergent personality traits, for better or for worse. Our challenge is to try to maximize the better and eliminate the worse. "Accentuate the positive..."

When I see the eager beavers of government, I wonder if they were like that in school. Are these the kids who were on the student council? Class president? The new selectman admitted that he was. But his working career was not in law or government. He was middle management in a manufacturing corporation. He's more of a working guy than a boardroom guy. But he did have that interest in how things work. Me, I never did. I'm much more likely to bushwhack up a stream to find out where it came from than to dig into rules and regulations and shake a lot of hands and talk to a lot of people to find out how all that works. So I really appreciate the people who like that stuff and do it well. Do their decisions always please me? Hardly. But I'm glad that they're willing and able to engage in the personal and public interaction necessary to govern at all.

Positions of responsibility are also positions of power, so they attract applicants whose motives are not helpful. Money and power are usually conjoined. Because it's always more comfortable to be rich than poor, especially in a failing society, corrupt leaders whose focus is money will do little to keep a government from degenerating, as long as their own wealth, and that of their benefactors, remains secure. We're in the advanced stages of this at the national level. Because any set of characteristics can be used for good or ill, the same energy and social ability that makes a good government entity works just as well to facilitate the connections and operations of a bad one. The major difference would probably be the dark side's willingness to double cross anyone they have to, if it brings them more money or power.

Treachery is the dark side's strength and weakness. The ruthless ability to destroy things without remorse gives evil a short term edge that can last a long time. Evil forces good to play the game on evil's terms when the violence and destruction get so far advanced that they can only be met with countervailing destructive force. But you don't want to stop a strip mine by dropping bombs on it. You can't protect the environment while you are blowing it up. A minefield and razor wire would protect a wetland, but they're hardly the best methods for it. A lot of things can't be settled by a contest of force.

At the local level, in tiny rural towns like the one I live in, things are seldom that dramatic. But because we are working from a smaller bag of money, issues like a six-figure bridge and road contract, or standards for environmental protection have much more visible personal consequences. If anyone ever figures out how to get outright rich off of government corruption in this town, we will all be simultaneously outraged and impressed. But we're not immune to cronyism. Human nature resides in the individual human. People play favorites. It may not be right, but it's common. That's why we have to make a point to critique -- not just bash and disparage -- decisions our representatives claim to be making on our behalf. It can be hard, especially when some blockhead proposes  -- or the elected body of blockheads enacts -- what we see as a stupid decision.

It's enough to make you give up on government entirely. But some form of government would reassert itself because the personalities that created it in the first place would still exist. The only way to get rid of government would be for a relentless corps of introverted assassins to hunt down those chirpy extroverts and kill them off until the genes were eliminated forever. First of all, that's impossible. Secondly, we would no doubt discover what we missed about them. Third, would a species entirely of introverts even be able to sustain itself? No one would ever ask for a date, let alone take it any further.

We're stuck with government until artificial intelligence takes over and turns us into a herd of domesticated animals kept in line by robot guards. So we have that to look forward to as we muddle along, trying to find good people to run things while most of us do our best to avoid being one of them.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Troubleshooting Scrooge

As the holidays approach and some regions already have winter thrust upon us, the misunderstood character of Ebenezer Scrooge will take to the seasonal stage.

Scrooge’s offense was not that he thought that the holidays are bullshit, it’s that he was a chintzy employer and an exploitive landlord and lender. Amazing how he is embraced as a great guy when he softens and starts sharing some of his customers’ own money with them in the form of Christmas largesse.

Largely viewed as a misanthropic cheapass, Scrooge was living a low budget lifestyle because he couldn’t see the point of living more extravagantly. This is completely legitimate. So is your festive brightness and cheer, if you choose. Just bear in mind that large indoor gatherings with lots of hugging and shared food are the reason that the season ushers in the plagues of colds, flu, and contagious vomiting illnesses.

Dashing through the snow
To a toilet or a shrub —
Hope I’m not too slow.
I ate some tainted grub.
Was it the hors d’oeuvres
or maybe bad eggnog —
Aunt Alice didn’t look too good;
I thought it was the grog.

Jingle bells, this was swell
Parties are great fun —
but I’m green around the gills
and so it’s time to run...

It’s all in your outlook, of course. I have enjoyed many holiday events and jolly festive times. I’ve also been a casualty. If this is when you can get the gang together, and that's what you're up for, do it. But the short days also favor solitude. Mentally if not actually, I try to find a high and lonely place in which to squint toward the distant sun barely giving us a nod as it flies low across the southern sky. It doesn't even need altitude if it has a good sweep of horizon and sky. A nice beach or coastal marsh will do quite well.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Safety depends on consent

A piece on NPR this morning about Squirrel Hill and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting mentioned that it was a "safe" neighborhood.

The devotees of armed force like to remind the rest of us that no place is safe. And they are right. Unless you are in some super-fortified safe room -- in which you are a prisoner of fear -- you may encounter an evil person any time, anywhere. But the odds are better in some places than in others.

I lived in a safe neighborhood in West Annapolis in the 1980s. Just a few doors up the street, someone was murdered in their home. As I recall, that was a spousal murder. It was still a murder. A couple of years later, on a slightly sketchier residential street in Edgewater, the guy next door wigged out on PCP and fired off a few rounds at something imaginary before sprinting up the street stripping his clothes off. Years before that, in Coral Gables, Florida, I found a .32 slug from our crazy neighbor flattened against the wall of our house. She was a drinker, who kept the pistol at the head of her bed. Good thing the houses in that neighborhood had thick masonry walls. We never heard a shot. She could have done it any time, even before we moved in. Just another day.

Mass shootings and ideologically motivated murder have increased in this country since the mid 20th Century, adding to the ongoing death toll that merely stems from the ugly side of human nature. Our own citizens subscribe to enough homicidal ideologies to supply us with atrocities that require no invaders or sneaky terrorists from abroad. We rate the safety of a neighborhood on its record of crime and violence. But ideological violence leaps over the local customs between neighbors, the consensual agreement to live and let live.

Safety depends on consent. The residents of a place agree that they will work with and around each other without resorting to forceful confrontation. They will respect each other's boundaries. In the best cases, they will enjoy the experience and expanded point of view brought to them by a diverse population. But even lacking a diverse population of residents, people can cultivate a peaceful attitude if enough of them choose to do so.

All this is for nothing, the armed and dangerous crowd tells us. The only path to peace is through the threat of mutually assured destruction or by eradicating everyone who holds an opposing viewpoint. Anything less is cowardly.

For decades now, the promoters of an armed society have been telling us that anyone must be prepared for a gunfight. As the rhetoric creates an ever more paranoid and volatile population, their prophecy fulfills itself. I see armed men all the time, just going about their lives: shopping, gassing up the truck, serving on town boards, with at least one gun visible. With permitless concealed carry, they could have a couple more tucked in various crevices on their person. A couple of weeks ago it was a scrawny young dude with a 12-pack of beer under one arm, and a handgun bigger than his skinny thigh almost pulling his jeans down as he climbed into his truck.

The Second Amendment cancels out the First, if the threat of armed response is what makes people shut up and ignore each other's behavior. Flip the bird at someone who drives like a sociopath and you may find out just how much of a sociopath he is. It was always true. Anyone might have a gun, regardless of the laws. But the more we enable and encourage the idea that deadly force is normal, the more of it we will see. Deadly force may be a last resort, but feel free to hop right to it with only the briefest glance at other options on your way by. Homicidal ideology plus an arsenal of firearms leads you right to Squirrel Hill, or a grocery store in Kentucky. It breaches the agreement of safety wherever it arrives.

Every time I've considered carrying a gun I've decided that it would probably make a situation worse rather than better. Because we do not yet live in an actual war zone, by the time you know that deadly force is justified you have probably already lost that battle. Our stereotypical movie cowboys of the mythical old west weren't fighting off muggers. They were calling each other out in duels. Or the sodbusters were engaged in guerrilla warfare with the ranchers. Or the gang of outlaws would sweep down on the town, where the brave sheriff and his deputies would pick them off. In every case, the participants knew that they were in a defined conflict. It was right there in the fictional script.

The racists and antisemites in this country who want to eliminate people they deem undesirable are eager to define the conflict and declare war. They have no use for conventions of safety. Perhaps they would feel differently if they were immersed in a lengthy conflict that destroyed a lot of property and killed a lot of their friends, but you'll never convince them of that by imagination alone. They imagine glorious victory and rivers of blood from their enemies. The same optimism has ushered in every war since the first pre-human picked up a stick and showed his tribe-mates how great it was to bust heads.

That first war led to the proliferation of sticks. A secret weapon is only a secret until you use it. Then everybody wants one. And no one imagines themselves on the receiving end of it. That reality sets in later, when the glorious conflict turns into a quagmire. And people start to yearn for peace, rest, and safety.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A drunken preppy snot on the Supreme Court

Only the people in the room at the time know the absolute truth about what happened between Christine Blasey (Ford) and Brett Kavanaugh. Each side has its adherents. One side is wrong. There is no debate.

Setting aside that specific issue, the crisis served as a pressure test that the nominee failed. He demonstrated that he is not impartial or dignified or resistant to stressful confrontation. Perhaps that explains why he was comfortable as a law clerk and then on the bench, because in neither case does he have to face adversaries in argument. He was doing research, running errands, and then, after he was appointed to his first judicial position by George W. Bush, he got to sit up there in the black robe and preside over the lowly combatants presenting their arguments before him.

The expensive incubators of the leadership class in this country can't help but foster a climate of unquestioned entitlement to rule. Your Type A achievers already have more than a little of the psychopath in their makeup, just to have a strong enough ego to play to win all the time. You will sometimes win in spite of yourself, but if you want to make a habit of it you must feel that you deserve to prevail. You have to convince yourself that you are at least as good as everyone in the field. When that field has been distilled from the most powerful families, over multiple generations, your ego has to be that much more aggressive. You hope that they're driven to do things society finds beneficial, because they're going to do them anyway.

My own experience as a preppy snot was limited to two years in a fairly minor boys' school in Maryland, after two years in the school just down the road from it, that was coed through sixth grade, and girls-only through 12th. That school was trying to go coed, so they added boys to a grade at a time going up. I could have attended with the first class of boys that went on to graduate from there. Instead, I did as the boys had done in prior years: I went up the road to the one that bolstered the masculine image.

It sucked. I hated it. But it was a good experience to have had. The entire student body seemed to fit itself into a bullying hierarchy. That was educational.

Abused people become abusers. No doubt some of my later actions through the years, the ones I look back on with the most shame and chagrin, stemmed from trained responses I had to the world view created by a culture of bullies and their subjects -- not to say victims. Victim is a very specific role defined by the amount of helplessness and degree of damage suffered. I was miserable, and suffered a lot of symptoms of stress, but most of the immediate oppression went away when I finally snapped and punched somebody in the face. That sums up the boy/man view of interpersonal relations completely. Punch somebody. Repeat as necessary for the relief of whatever is bugging you.

My older brother attended that boys' school for four years, graduating in 1971. He told me about how the boys in his class who lived nearby would go home and drink alcohol at lunch. Their weekend and vacation parties were legendary. We didn't hear anything about gang rape or contrived ways to get young women to have sex with them, only that young women did. The Sexual Revolution was intensifying rapidly from 1967-'71 (and beyond), so a lot of young women were up for more adventure than might hitherto have been the case. It's the alcohol that stands out, given the role of that liquid in the recent shameful circus in the Senate.

My father had been a scholarship student at Browning from 1939 to about 1943. He has never told me stories of underage drinking there -- he saw more of that from fellow Eagle Scouts when he worked for the Boy Scouts of America in New York. He did recount visits to the homes and Long Island "cottages" of some of his classmates who extended some degree of friendliness -- but never equal status -- to this funny little guy from Paris, who got in not because he was connected, but because he was merely smart. Smart doesn't get you shit unless you can convince the privileged people that you can do something to make them more so. He was unable to do this. Classmates of his went on to do things like inherit the New York Times.

In my own teen years in public school, I knew that some of the kids were having very wild parties and going to bars with fake IDs. It's a teen thing, not just a preppie thing. What sets the prep culture apart is their assumption of superiority. Even if an exlusive school requires community service, it's reaching down to help, not pitching in on a struggle that they share in any way.

People can and do learn from their past mistakes and become better people as a result. Or they settle in and become better at being the kind of jerk they were then, only with more experience.

The newest addition to the Supreme Court destroys forever our longstanding illusion of an impartial judiciary. Law is about interpretation. No jurist can be impartial, because the very act of deciding depends on point of view. A result may run counter to expectations, but always for an interpretive reason ultimately formed by ideology. No matter how convoluted the connection may be, any decision they hand down has to satisfy their philosophy. Everything that this young man passes judgment on will pass through the filters of his education, experience, mentors, and vision for the world. There's no longer any point in trying to guess how he will fulfill his duties. From now on we have to deal with how he actually does.