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Book Review: Our Republican Constitution (2016)

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Taking account of the United States Constitution, Georgetown University scholar Randy Barnett, whom I interviewed about ObamaCare after it became law (read it here), makes the case that this historic document is essentially republican in his simply titled new book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People.

The author proves his thesis. It’s worth mentioning the book’s problems, however, which, in general, are to be found with works by most right-wing, libertarian intellectuals: the intended audience appears to be fellow libertarians and conservatives, so the assumed context of knowledge may not apply to the leftist, liberal or general reader. Also, given the dense material, certain sections are uneven. Barnett writes like the legal scholar he is, so the back and forth can be exhausting. And, as he did in our interview about ObamaCare, Barnett declines to name the correct moral premise of his argument.

With the republic urgently at stake, though, Our Republican Constitution is extremely informative and Randy Barnett makes a powerfully important case for activism in order to save the American republic. He accomplishes this by reducing multiple ideas, if circuitously, to the rights of the individual.

As he observes in the introduction:

At its core, this debate is about the meaning of the first three words of the Constitution: “We the People.” those who favor the Democratic Constitution view We the People as a group, as a body, as a collective entity. Those who favor the Republican Constitution view We the People as individuals.”

From here, incorporating the ideas of John Locke, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Barnett tells stories based on facts, quotes and history, of American government in decline, from major mistakes during the nation’s founding to the suspicious Supreme Court decision to uphold ObamaCare, in which he notes that “it was reliably reported” that the nation’s Chief Justice—conservative John Roberts—switched his vote on the individual insurance mandate, possibly due to intimidation.

The central conflict in Our Republican Constitution is between these two opposing views, the Democratic Constitution—”first comes government, then come rights”—tied to Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, which Barnett eviscerates, and the premise of the Republican Constitution: “first come rights and then comes government.” After outlining his case with ample historical sourcing and documentary evidence, the author sets it up, asking the reader: “Were the founders really against democracy? You bet. They blamed the problems in the states under the Articles of Confederation on an excess of democracy.”

Differentiating between both sides’ views of popular sovereignty, which he acknowledges are both consistent with the idea of representative government, Barnett breaks down the story of slavery in the United States, which he develops throughout the book. He points out that Democrats defended slavery as a form of socialism, as against capitalism, because, Democrats argued, slaves are cared for from cradle to grave. He digs into details and aspects of whether, “given the sovereignty of the people as individuals, the people cannot be ‘presumed’ or ‘supposed’ to have confided in their legislature any power to violate their fundamental rights.” The answer is No.

Not according to Democrats, of course, who believe that a majority of the people gets to speak for everyone (President Martin Van Buren’s idea of democracy, he writes, was close to Rousseau’s: “He ‘seems to have conceived of the democracy almost as a unified body with a single true will’). Barnett adds: “And the majority, if it wishes, can even authorize the enslavement of the minority!”

Along the journey, which is in turns jaw-dropping, illuminating and, given today’s political context, terribly depressing, the reader learns about an Ohio senator who, in 1854, demanded to know “[w]hat kind of popular sovereignty is that which allows one portion of the people to enslave another portion? Is that the doctrine of equal rights? Is that exact justice? Is that the teaching of enlightened, liberal, progressive Democracy? No, sir; no! There can be no real democracy which does not fully maintain the rights of man, as man.” Or that the Civil Rights act of 1866 granted that:

citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude…shall have the same right…to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens…any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.

Midway through Our Republican Constitution, it is evident that that’s not the civil rights act that today’s students learn about in state-controlled U.S. history classes (to the extent American history is taught in government schools) and the state of the union today might be very different, which is to say better, if they did!

Piling on shocking tales of early American acts of anti-capitalism, Barnett goes on. Democratic Constitution proponents include Democrats, Rousseau and Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Barnett demonstrates believed that “if there exists anyone who is rational and fair who thinks that a measure is constitutional, then it is.” Other arch-opponents to a republican Constitution were Woodrow Wilson, who sought to subject America to parliamentary rule, and Theodore Roosevelt who once said of the judiciary: “our prime concern is that in dealing with the fundamental law of the land, and assuming finally to interpret it, and therefore finally to make it, the acts of the courts should be subject to and not above the final control of the people as a whole.”

After establishing the arguments for and against and setting the contrast, the Georgetown University professor sums up the cold, hard truth that America’s “system of voting does not [in fact] allow the sovereign people to ‘rule,’ and it is a pernicious myth to claim that they do.”

Though he never fundamentally, philosophically challenges “the social compact” or General Will, it’s easy to apply the detailed, persuasive points of Barnett’s thesis to today’s ominous possibilities. The prospect of Donald Trump‘s proposed strongman rule comes to mind as Barnett quotes Montesquieu, who explained that: “There is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

Barnett delivers a good explanation of the rise of the omnipotent state, closing the loop with an excellent summary and warning from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas:

we have too long abrogated our duty to enforce the separation of powers required by our Constitution. We have overseen and sanctioned the growth of an administrative system that concentrates the power to make laws and the power to enforce them in the hands of a vast and unaccountable administrative apparatus that finds no comfortable home in our constitutional structure. The end result may be trains that run on time (although I doubt it), but the cost is to our Constitution and the individual liberty it protects.”

To his credit, Barnett, who has written several Constitutional volumes and whose new book includes a foreword by George Will, is aware that this thoughtful, timely and intelligent book isn’t exactly what you’d buy for reading at the beach—after one section, he admits that “perhaps you had difficulty even following it”—but he doesn’t identify the ends where we’re heading, merely referring to “whatever progressive political agenda may be at any given time”. Our Republican Constitution would benefit from stronger connecting of the dots, as Barnett himself seems to grasp. For instance, perhaps sensing that an outright socialist such as Bernie Sanders might follow the disaster of a Trump or Clinton presidency, he rightly observes that “[f]or our modern-day progressives, what matters is the end, not the means. Social justice, not democracy.”

Though he does not spell out what this really means in practice, let alone demonstrate why socialism is evil, a chronic libertarian deficiency, and in the following chapter, he magnifies the minutiae, Randy Barnett leaves the reader with an abundance of historical facts and useful intellectual weapons with which to fight for Our Republican Constitution, all but daring the reader to use it or lose it with the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “We live in an age of science and abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them.”

And, while his defense manual for “securing the liberty and sovereignty of We the People” was undoubtedly written before the rise of the orange-haired, state-bred crony and the impending end of the Republican Party, Barnett clearly anticipates danger ahead. Referring to Coolidge’s above quote on freedom as the precondition for progress, Barnett boldly concludes that “we need a Republican Party that can say this, understand this, and truly believe this once again – and, if not the existing Republican Party, then a new one to replace it.”

With an index, extensive notes and a poignant acknowledgment of his father, a victim of Alzheimer’s—”this book is dedicated to the memory of the man who had the greatest influence on my political convictions: my father and personal hero, Ronald Evan Barnett — who was a true “Republican” as I am defining the term”—Our Republican Constitution is a thoughtful Father’s Day present and an eye-opening self-defense for the rational American which offers historical enlightenment about America’s true origins.

The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Apollo 13 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

On Saturday, February 27 (check local listings), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs Universal’s 1995 box office hit, Apollo 13. As with all its featured movies, TCM will air the movie unedited and without interruption.

This is at once an engaging, intelligent and intimate movie, one of both director Ron Howard’s and leading man Tom Hanks’ best pictures, and well worth seeing once and again.

I remember first seeing it in a movie theater in Glendale, California with a friend. I still recall the experience; the theater was packed and everyone seemed affected and moved. Only 10 years later, upon a second viewing and reflection on assignment for a movie review, did I think twice about the experience. Read my 2005 review, including thoughts on the anniversary DVD edition, here.

Apollo13PatchBesides the review, I also added a feature article about the Apollo space program to the archives. It was an article I started writing after seeing the movie again and attending a Universal press junket at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Because my thesis was (and remains) that it’s an excellent movie if viewed a certain way and that its theme is troubling at best, I began to think about, challenge and question why Hollywood’s only major feature films about manned space programs were generally either negative about manned space flight or focused on what goes wrong.

What I discovered during my research about the press coverage, cultural attitudes and responses to America’s historic space program—which was denounced by an American president—helped me to better understand today’s culture, the antipathy toward heroism and the rampant anti-heroism in movies. Read the article, “Measuring the Apollo Missions”, which includes links to the NASA history, pictures and a detailed chronology of Apollo 13’s events, here.

In retrospect, my 2005 coverage of Apollo 13 and the manned space program shaped my own negative views on NASA and its Space Shuttle program, which was established by President Nixon and is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Apollo program. The motion picture industry and the space program are both fabulously successful examples of the manmade which are uniquely catapulted by extraordinary advancements in technology. Movies, such as The Martian, can give audiences a vision of the future of space exploration which is possible to mankind, and it is up to scientists to make such visions realistic and relevant to people’s lives and it is up to philosophers to explain why it matters, as Ayn Rand did when she attended the 1969 launch of Apollo 11 and wrote about it afterwards. With private space travel becoming reality, it’s worth noting that Hollywood visionaries have yet to make a movie that depicts the great, strenuous effort that goes into getting science and space exploration exactly right—not merely fixing something when it goes wrong.

In the meantime, Apollo 13 and The Martian will have to do.


Related Links

Movie and Anniversary Edition DVD Review: Apollo 13

Measuring the Apollo Missions: A History and Analysis (2005)

 

Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.

The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.

Glencoe, Illinois waiting station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.

These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.


Related

Murder in Kenilworth

Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

Sheridan Road: My First Intellectual Activism

Sheridan Road: Former State Senator Roger Keats

Sheridan Road: Interview with Kathryn Cameron Porter