This perfect book

Ira Levin should be remembered for his dystopian novel This Perfect Day, which ranks alongside Brave New World and 1984

Posted on November 16, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Is America’s nanny state growing?

Despite bans on smoking and trans-fats, we're not necessarily less free.

Posted on October 15, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Is America’s nanny state growing?

Despite bans on smoking and trans-fats, we're not necessarily less free.

Posted on October 15, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Is America’s nanny state growing?

Despite bans on smoking and trans-fats, we're not necessarily less free.

In the Washington Post, Anita Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I've thought a lot about in discussions of our growing "nanny state":

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines... . It is true that in 1960 US automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under "blue laws," most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90% income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we're progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. "People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed." Plus, "the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves."

That's a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it's not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking and fatty foods is that we're adults; that we're endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we "read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill."


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Posted on October 15, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Politics,The Guardian,World news

Taking Marxism to China

Vermont socialists are trying to revive socialism in formerly communist China

Marxism is a bore in China, but tie-dyed American socialists are trying to revive it. Apparently it's easier to believe in socialism if you haven't actually tried to live under it.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

It isn't easy teaching Marxism in China these days.

"It's a big challenge," acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than "Das Kapital." The students say he isn't the problem.

"It's not the teacher," said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. "No matter who teaches this class, it's always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts."

Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: "In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution."

Chinese students are forced to learn the official ideology - or, I should say, they are forced to sit in classes where the official ideology is expounded - few of them seem to be listening any more. And yet, students say, it's still hard to find anyone who will openly criticize communism - partly because it's still very helpful to be a member of the Communist Party and partly because it's dangerous to criticize the official ideology of an authoritarian government.

Fortunately, just as China's Marxists begin to deal with their terminal despair at the decline of Mao's Good Old Cause, a couple of "veteran Vermont activists" are riding to the rescue. Ellen David-Friedman and Stuart Friedman--she's a self-described Marxist, an organizer for the Vermont teachers' union, and vice-chair of the Progressive Party, he's a clinical social worker at Central Vermont Hospital--are leaving their jobs in the People's Republic of Vermont to teach the Chinese about the horrors of capitalism. Communist Party apparatchiks and overseers at Guangzhou University have never attempted to censor her or Stuart's teaching, David-Friedman tells the Vermont weekly Seven Days. "We can say anything we want to in the classroom," she notes - perhaps because these radicals are in fact teaching the official ideology, and it's so hard to find people who want to do that these days!

Communism is always such a disappointment in practice. You'd think by now even romantic communists would have given up on it. But no--neither the activists nor the Seven Days reporter is ready for that:

China's communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party "has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers," she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world's largest country back on the track toward socialism.

The LA Times concludes,

Talking over tea at the Education Ministry's modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today's students.

"They don't believe in God or communism," he said. "They're practical. They only worship the money."

That sounds a lot like the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel's 1971 book Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun. Has the liberal-capitalist revolution begun in China?


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Posted on July 5, 2007  Posted to Asia Pacific,China,Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Politics,The Guardian,Vermont,World news

Taking Marxism to China

Vermont socialists are trying to revive socialism in formerly communist China

Posted on July 5, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Asking too much of DNA

Genes can't tell us if US president James Madison fathered a child with a slave.

Posted on June 13, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Asking too much of DNA

Genes can't tell us if US president James Madison fathered a child with a slave.

Several years ago newspapers reported that a study of DNA proved that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Now some African-Americans want a genetic history to prove that they are descended from James Madison, the father of the US constitution. But DNA can't prove what they want.

The Washington Post reports that Bettye Kearse, an African-American physician, wants to confirm her family's oral tradition that they are direct descendants of Madison. This past weekend she attended the Montpelier slave descendants reunion at the fourth president's mansion. "Working with Bruce Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories," Kearse wants to:

compare the Y chromosomes - which are identical across generations - of male descendants in Madison's family to the Y chromosomes of some of Kearse's male cousins. Jackson and Kearse have been searching for Madison relatives in England but recently located a descendant of one of Madison's brothers in North Carolina.

The Kearse family's oral history:

begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse says was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father. The child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison's child, whom she named James Madison.

So there's your problem. Even if Kearse and her genetic consultants manage to find a match between the DNA of her African-American cousins and that of Madison family descendants, it would only prove a genetic link between the two families. It would not prove that President Madison himself fathered a child with one of the Kearse ancestors. Indeed, since the Kearse family's oral history claims descent from both Madison and his father, there would be no reason to assume that President James Madison junior, rather than his father, James Madison senior, had provided the Madison DNA to the Kearse family.

The Washington Post reported:

Jackson, speaking to attendees Saturday about how genetic research is conducted, noted that if Kearse's claim proves correct, it would mean Madison's only living direct descendants are African American.

But since Jackson is a geneticist, it seems likely that he was not saying that a DNA match would prove that, but only that a DNA match plus some other form of evidence could prove such a claim.

A few facts about Madison's family point away from President Madison. James Madison had no children with his wife Dolley. His father, on the other hand, fathered 12 children. And some of Madison's brothers had children, whose descendants are being sought for the DNA testing. Dolley Madison had two sons with her first husband. So we know that Madison's father, brothers, and wife were fertile, yet he himself fathered no known children. It seems quite possible that he was infertile.

This story is reminiscent of the 1998 bombshell about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Apparently confirming two centuries of rumors and accusations, the November 5, 1998 issue of the journal Nature ran an article bearing the headline, "Jefferson fathered slave's last child." The article was more cautious: it reported that DNA analysis pointed conclusively to some member of the Jefferson family having fathered at least one of Sally Hemings's children, and argued that the historical evidence (it cited oral history) pointed to Thomas Jefferson.

As the Jefferson historian David Mayer wrote in a critique of the research and the media coverage of it:

A more accurate headline, of course, would have been "A Jefferson - not necessarily Thomas Jefferson - fathered" Sally Hemings' youngest child.) The article on the DNA test results was accompanied by an article "Founding father," co-authored by Professor [Joseph] Ellis, which proclaimed that the DNA analysis "confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children."

But in fact all the DNA analysis could confirm was that some of Sally Hemings's descendants were also descended from a male Jefferson. Sally's children could well have been fathered by Jefferson's brother or nephews. There is much debate over whether non-DNA evidence - the Hemings family's oral history, the accusations in Federalist newspapers, the ages of Jefferson and his relatives, their whereabouts nine months before the births of Sally's children - tends to point to Jefferson, his brother, or his nephews as the most likely fathers. But DNA can't prove more than the family connection.

Does any of this matter? It matters to the people who might be descended from Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. It's a common human trait to take pride in one's ancestry. It matters because truth always matters. And it seems to matter to some people in that it takes Thomas Jefferson down a peg. (The Madison story is new and much less discussed.) It makes him less the hero of the marble statue, or even the loving and lustful husband of the musical 1776, but rather a man of normal, even salacious, appetites - a man who (allegedly) engaged in sexual relations that were not just outside marriage but possibly outside the bounds of decency. Some have argued for a genuine love affair between the brilliant older man and the beautiful young woman who was the half-sister of his late wife. But most of us cannot escape the feeling that sex between a master and a slave is uncomfortably close to rape. Can a slave withhold her consent? So it matters because it lessens our admiration for Jefferson (or Madison), which is exactly what some critics want.

On the other hand, do we really need this story to point out to us the flaw in Jefferson's character? The cognitive dissonance endured by the man who declared, "All men are created equal," yet owned some men as slaves? Jefferson and Madison produced some of the greatest writing on freedom in history. We owe to them the theory and the institutions of American liberty. And yet they owned slaves. What can we say about that? That all men are imperfect, that most of us fall short of our ideals, but that the ideals still matter. We are all - white Americans, black Americans, people in other countries - better off because Jefferson and Madison fought for American freedom and wrote the documents they did.

As Mayer wrote:

Jefferson's place in American history - his central role in our nation's founding and the evolution of its system of government - justly derives from his ideas. As I see it, genealogy is irrelevant: the true "children" of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His lasting legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government.

The same is true of Madison. If we found that - as with the claims about Shakespeare - the Declaration of Independence and the constitution were not really written by Jefferson and Madison but by some tradesman lost to history, it would not change the power and importance of those ideas, though it would of course change our view of Jefferson and Madison as men. So it is with these possible revelations about their personal lives.


guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted on June 13, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Genetics,guardian.co.uk,Human rights,The Guardian

Asking too much of DNA

Genes can't tell us if US president James Madison fathered a child with a slave.

Posted on June 13, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies

Posted on June 8, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

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