Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 21, 2014


37 Lyndon Johnson 3x4

For Christmas, my brother-in-law gave me Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson. I started reading it earlier this month, triggered, I think, by the many posts, op-ed pieces, and news stories surrounding the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I have not read any part of the first three volumes of Caro’s series, but starting at the beginning is for rookies. That said, I began reading Passage of Power at Chapter 18, at a point in the narrative shortly after November 1963, where Caro is discussing the Senate and the Southern Strategy whereby the southern Democrats used filibusters and procedural tricks to block civil rights legislation. Mainly, reading this part of Volume IV, with its discussion of tactical maneuverings in the Senate, has made me want to go back and read Volume II (Means of Ascent) and Volume III (Master of the Senate). I’m now also looking forward to Caro’s next volume, which should go into the blow-by-blow account of passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, etc.

One feature of the American constitutional regime is that the independent election of the president means that a politician can rise to the office of chief executive without substantial support in the legislative branch or even experience in the workings of Congress. In parliamentary systems, like the UK and Israel, for example, a prime minister reaches that office through years of working with fellow legislators and gaining the support of a coalition of peers within the parliament. Americans, on the other hand, have a tendency to elect governors and generals who, as a rule, have never served in Congress. Even when we do elect a member of Congress — like Kennedy or Obama — the president-elect tends not to be a legislative leader, like a majority leader or Speaker of the House.

In this, Lyndon Johnson was an exception: a man who rose to the American presidency after extensive time in Congress, including time as Majority Leader of the Senate. (I think that he may be the only Senate Majority Leader to become president.) It is all the more surprising to hear, therefore, that LBJ had a plan to use a career in Congress as a route to the presidency, as Caro maintains (p. 5):

Lyndon Baines Johnson, born August 27, 1908, had mapped out a path to that goal, and he refused to be diverted from it.

The path ran only through Washington–it was paved with national, not state power — and it had only three steps: House of Representatives, Senate, presidency. And after he had fought his way onto it — winning a seat in the House in 1937 is a desperate, seemingly hopeless campaign — he could not be persuaded by anyone, not even Franklin Roosevelt, to turn off it. In 1939, the President offered to appoint him director of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The directorship of a nationwide agency, particularly one as fast-growing, and politically important, as the REA, was not the kind of job offered to many men only thirty years old, but Johnson turned the offer down: he was afraid, he said, of being “sidetracked.” in 1946, he was urged by his party to run for the governorship of Texas. If he did, he knew, his election was all but assured, and at the time his path seemed to have reached a dead end in Washington: stuck in the House now for almost a decade, with little chance of any imminent advancement to its hierarchy, he seemed to have no chance of stepping into a Senate seat. In the 435-member House, he was still only one of the crowd… . But he still wouldn’t leave the road he had chosen as the best road to the prize he wanted so badly. The governorship, he explained to aides, could never be more than a “detour” on his “route,” a detour that might turn into a “dead end.” (Some years later, when his longtime assistant John Connally decided to run for the governorship, Johnson told him he was making a mistake in leaving Washington. “Here’s where the power is,” he said.)

In the years since LBJ, as we have seen Governor Carter, Governor Reagan, Governor Clinton, and Governor Bush all rise to the presidency, it is a bit surprising to hear the governorship described as a “detour” from the path to the Oval Office. And LBJ came of age (politically) during the presidency of another former governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In any case, the popular narrative is that Johnson’s experience and skills at working individual senators and the Senate as an institution were key to his many landmark legislative achievements in the mid-1960s — the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid. And there is a fair amount of truth in this popular narrative, I think. Johnson’s skill set was practically ideal for dealing with the US Senate as it was in his particular time. He was legendary for his talents at working his fellow legislators, especially older senators (p. 6):

Watching Lyndon Johnson “play” older men, Thomas G. Corcoran, the New Deal insider and quite a player of older men himself, was to explain that “He was smiling and deferential, but, hell, lots of guys can be smiling and deferential. Lyndon had one of the most incredible capacities for dealing with older men. He could follow someone’s mind around and get where it was going before the other fellow knew where it was going.” These gifts served Lyndon Johnson better in small groups — men marveled at his ability to “make liberals think he was one of them, conservatives think he was one of them” — since that tactic worked best when there was no member of the other side around to hear. It worked best of all when he was alone with one man. “Lyndon was the greatest salesman one on one who ever lived,” George Brown was to say. These gifts had gone largely wasted in the House, whose 435 members “could be dealth with only in bodies and droves,” but the first time Lyndon Johnson walked into the Senate Chamber after his election to that body, he muttered…that the Senate was “the right size.”

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell

Johnson with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia), longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leader of the coalition of conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate.

All that being said, John Dickerson makes a good case that even LBJ would not be as successful today as LBJ was in the 1960s — the political, media, and social climates have changed too much. Even if an LBJ-like figure could get into the White House in this day and age, he (or she) would not be able to “work” Congress the way that Johnson did:

But let’s imagine that someone with Johnson’s skills could sneak into office. He’d have a tough time working his magic. He would find it difficult to engage a willing partner in such a partisan age. Lyndon Johnson had a pool of Republicans who felt a moral pull to pass civil rights legislation. There was no such large group that wanted to pass universal health care so much that they were willing to buck their party. Members of one party who might want to work with the opposite party have to worry about the outside groups—often backed by wealthy donors—that punish collaborators. In Johnson’s day, on most legislation he was working to get 51 votes. The increased use of the filibuster has raised that bar to 60.

In the 24-hour news environment Johnson’s little payoffs and punishments would be exposed immediately. It’s not just that the microscope is more powerful. The public takes a dim view of legislation used for personal reasons rather than the good of the country. Others think the government can never work for the good of the country and see inside dealing as feather-nesting, not a necessary tactic to break a deadlock and produce effective government. When Obama tried to buy the vote of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson on health care, the “Cornhusker kickback” was discovered, publicized, and removed from the bill.

As Scott Lemieux has said, even LBJ wasn’t LBJ.

And even LBJ couldn’t be LBJ today.

Image Credits: (1) Detail of portrait photo of Lyndon Johnson, March 1964. Photo by Arnold Newman, White House Press Office. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with Sen. Richard Russell, 17 December 1963. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (Image Serial Number: W98-30) via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 21, 2014

Free Speech

A public service announcement from xkcd:


Fairly basic, but now and then it is necessary and useful to restate basic points.

More here.

Image Credit: used under a CC BY-NC 2.5 license.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 17, 2014

Holy Week Art Blogging

El Greco - The Agony in the Garden - WGA10484

El Greco, The Agony in the Garden, circa 1590.

Note the approaching soldiers on the right.

Compare El Greco’s treatment of this scene (based on Luke 22:43) with another treatment of the same scene, below.

George Richmond - The Agony in the Garden - Google Art Project

George Richmond, The Agony in the Garden, 1858.

(What time of day is it in that painting?)

Happy Easter, y’all.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 17, 2014

Blast from the Past, Gethsemane Edition

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2007-0203, Jerusalem, Garten Gethsermane, Ölbaum

The Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, 1914.

Image Credit: Photographer unknown. Photo from the German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0203, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 (German) license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 16, 2014

Scalia in Tennessee

Justice Antonin Scalia Speaks with Staff at the U.S. Mission in Geneva (2)

“The beginning of wisdom is that a lot of stupid stuff is not unconstitutional.”

At lunchtime on Tuesday, Justice Scalia gave a speech at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He gave a version of his “stump speech,” as he calls it — a basic defense of originalism as a judicial philosophy and guide for constitutional interpretation. Much of it was pretty familiar to anyone who had a working knowledge of originalism or recent Supreme Court history. (I don’t think there are any transcripts of Tuesday’s speech, but this speech is very similar; see also here.)

Some take-aways and observations from Scalia’s talk:

  • “The beginning of wisdom is that a lot of stupid stuff is not unconstitutional,” he said. Courts should not stretch the meaning of a constitutional provision to invalidate a statute just because they think the statute bad policy or because they dislike the result. Originalism implies a circumscribed role for the judiciary, which should show a great deal of deference to the legislative branch. (Shame Scalia didn’t show more deference to the legislative branch in Shelby County.)
  • Scalia provided the fifth vote for the majority in Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 case that affirmed that the First Amendment protected flag-burning. “That was my understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment. You’re entitled to criticize the government, and you can use words, you can use symbols, you can use telegraph, you can use Morse code, you can burn a flag. It’s all expression, and it’s all covered by the First Amendment.” Supposedly, the morning after that decision was released, Scalia came downstairs and heard his wife humming “It’s a Grand Old Flag” as she prepared breakfast.
  • During his prepared remarks, Scalia said that one of the opinions of which he is proudest is Crawford v. Washington, dealing with hearsay testimony and the confrontation clause. (Scalia apparently thinks that opinions like Crawford should make him a “pin-up” for the criminal defense bar. Whatever.) But during the Q&A session later, when a student asked the justice to identify the decision of which he was most proud, Scalia identified Heller.
  • The one thing Scalia said that surprised me a little was that, in his estimation, he and Justice Thomas are the only “thoroughgoing originalists” on the the Court today. Impliedly, then, Alito and Roberts are not thoroughgoing originalists. That seemed an interesting point to this Court-watcher.

Image Credit: Justice Scalia at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, July 2011. Photo by Eric Bridiers. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 13, 2014

The 1815 Volcanic Eruption That Led to a New Cholera Strain

1815 tambora explosion B

Mount Tambora is a stratovolcano on the island of Sumbawa, in the south-central part of the archipelago of mordern Indonesia. The 1815 eruption of Tambora was possibly the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. Some 100,000 people died in the immediate neighborhood of the volcano, but the effects of the thick ash that the eruption hurled into the atmosphere had more widespread and long-lasting consequences. Indeed, the ripple effects were global in scale.

In anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the event, Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Prof. of English, Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) has an excellent post looking at the cascading effects of the eruption. An excerpt (emphasis added):

… With the help of modern scientific instruments and old-fashioned archival detective work, the Tambora 1815 eruption can be conclusively placed among the greatest environmental disasters ever to befall mankind. The floods, droughts, starvation, and disease in the three years following the eruption stem from the volcano’s effects on weather systems, so Tambora stands today as a harrowing case study of what the human costs and global reach might be from runaway climate change.

Tambora’s greatest claim to infamy lies not in the impact it had on what was then the Dutch East Indies (which were terrible enough), but its indirect effects on the disease ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather system, for the following two years.

Drought brought on by the eruption devastated crop yields across the Indian sub-continent, but more disastrously gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera. Cholera had always been endemic to Bengal, but the bizarre weather of 1816-17 triggered by Tambora’s eruption – first drought, then late, unseasonal flooding – altered the microbial ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The cholera bacterium, which has an unusually adaptive genetic structure highly sensitive to changes in its aquatic environment, mutated into a new strain. This met with no resistance among the local population, and it spread across Asia and eventually the globe. By century’s end, the death toll from Bengal cholera stood in the tens of millions.

Just as the biological disaster known as the Black Death defined the 14th century in Europe and the Near East, so cholera shaped the nineteenth century like no other calamity. Much of our medical science, and our modern public health institutions, originate in the Victorian-era battle against cholera.

Interesting read.

Image Credit: Map showing the thickness of volcanic ashfall (red areas) from the 1815 Mount Tambora eruption. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 13, 2014

Third Circuit Reverses Hacker’s Conviction, Ruling Venue Was Wrong


The Third Circuit has reversed the conviction of hacker Andrew Auernheimer on the grounds that the federal prosecutors brought the case in the wrong venue: “Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer was in Arkansas during the time of the hack, his alleged co-conspirator was in California, and the servers that they accessed were physically located in Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. Prosecutors therefore had no justification for bringing the case against Auernheimer in New Jersey…”

You can read the opinion here (pdf, 22 pages).

Orin Kerr, who argued the appeal for Auernheimer, has a post about the decision at the Volokh Conspiracy. As Prof. Kerr notes, since the panel reversed the conviction on venue grounds, the Court of Appeals largely did not address questions of the reach and interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

See also this post by Leigh Beadon at Techdirt and this post by David Kravets at Ars Technica.

Here is one key passage from the conclusion of appellate court’s opinion (p. 22):

Venue issues are animated in part by the “danger of allowing the [G]overnment to choose its forum free from any external constraints.” Salinas, 373 F.3d at 169-70 (citing Travis, 364 U.S. at 634). The ever-increasing ubiquity of the Internet only amplifies this concern. As we progress technologically, we must remain mindful that cybercrimes do not happen in some metaphysical location that justifies disregarding constitutional limits on venue. People and computers still exist in identifiable places in the physical world. When people commit crimes, we have the ability and obligation to ensure that they do not stand to account for those crimes in forums in which they performed no “essential conduct element” of the crimes charged. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. at 280.

Late last month, shortly after oral arguments before the Third Circuit in the Weev case, seasoned criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield wrote a post about how the venue question could be crucial in this case:

While the hacker community was far more interested in, and concerned about, the way in which the 3rd Circuit will interpret the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as the broad interpretation applied in Weev’s case would essentially criminalize what the InfoSec wing does daily, the court spent far more of its time and focus on the question of venue. Arcane and legalistic, this question has even broader implications for all of us.

Weev hacked AT&T while physically in Arkansas. AT&T servers were in California [sic] and Georgia. Gawker, who received the information about AT&T’s security flaw and posted it online, is located in New York. So naturally, the prosecution was brought in New Jersey, with the government arguing that an FBI agent read the Gawker article there.

“I would urge the court to not go narrow on computer crimes,” the prosecutor said. One judge interjected: “[That would mean] every computer crime at every computer in America would be in all 50 states.”

This would suggest that the concept of venue, mentioned twice in the Constitution, would cease to exist for computer crimes. Whether it’s the federal district that is most convenient to the government, or the least convenient to the defendant, any computer crime could be prosecuted in any of the 94 districts of the United States. When is the last time you hung out in Anchorage?

Also (emphasis added):

It strikes me as inconceivable that a smart Assistant United States Attorney can’t comprehend the workings of basic code designed to repeat an internet query, particularly since there were numerous amici briefs dedicated to explaining in the simplest possible terms what was done, how it was done, and why it was little more than what all of us do every day, even if unwittingly because the shiny button performs many of the functions for us automatically. After all, if the buttons work, someone has to know how to program them.

Rather, the government’s argument…is an appeal to ignorance. It’s in the government’s interest to perpetuate the myth that computer technology is some unfathomable magic performed within boxes that mere mortals, judges, can’t possibly understand. This voodoo is done only by shamans, or as Motherboard describes him, ”the notorious internet troll who seems to be equally celebrated and reviled,” Weev.

Fortunately, it seems that the Third Circuit did not fall for the government’s obfuscations.

Image Credit: Self-portrait of Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, June 2010. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 9, 2014

Wednesday Link Encyclopedia, and Thoughts on the Passing Scene

1. The staff of Ars Technica select their least favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes. There’s no surprise that a lot of season 1 episodes make the list — most of the episodes of the first season display a various mixtures of clunkiness, cheesiness, and preachiness. But there were candidates in other seasons too. For example, “Darmok,” the second episode of season 5 (all emphasis in original):

The setup is unexceptional: Picard is captured by a race of aliens that the Federation is unable to communicate with, and he is placed on a hostile planet with the alien captain, Dathon. Normal aliens can be processed by the universal translator, but not these ones. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” Dathon says, leaving Picard nonplussed.

Of course, our esteemed captain realizes that the aliens speak in metaphor and reference. Darmok and Jalad fought a common foe together at Tanagra, just as he and Dathon must fight the monsters on the planet they’re stranded on. Dathon is killed, Picard is rescued, and the communications breakthrough is made. The aliens aren’t necessarily friends… but they’re not enemies either.

So look, here’s the thing. This is just nonsense. It doesn’t work. For an allusion to a story to communicate anything, both parties must know what the story is. And that means telling the story. It means verbs and nouns and adjectives and all the normal words.

You know: all the stuff that the universal translator can cope with. And in fact does cope with, thereby enabling Picard to tell Dathon a brief summary of the epic of Gilgamesh. The entire premise of the episode is complete crap, and we see them undermine it and demonstrate it to be drivel before our very eyes.

I will confess that I have a soft spot for “Darmok” simply because of Patrick Stewart’s recitation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But I readily agree that the premise of the alien language in this episode was half-baked and does not stand up to even moderate scrutiny.

2. I went to see the new Captain America movie on Saturday. I went into the theater with no especially high expectations, and so I was pleased. It seemed like a good action movie, a decent super-hero flick. They managed to make Falcon not-lame, and the Captain’s use of his shield as a weapon was well done. Most of all, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow got more screen time, more development, and generally more stuff to do than in The Avengers — Johansson’s portrayal was probably the best part of the film. And I liked the small notebook where Steve Rogers lists the cultural references he needs to learn for living in 21st Century America (e.g., “Nirvana (band),” “Rocky,” etc.).

I’m sure I could list come critiques of the movie as a whole, but not without venturing into spoiler territory. (I never saw the first Captain America film, so I can’t compare; some people have told me the first one was a stronger movie.)

3. I’ve noticed a few different restaurants adding mango to various dishes lately. Is this a new trend, or is it just that I am only now noticing it? (Or maybe it’s just new to East Tennessee, and has been trending for a while elsewhere?) Avocado too, it seems. I like mango and avocado, so I don’t mind — no complaints here — just wondering if this is a recent development.

4. Dana Stevens: why do teens love dystopian fiction like Divergent and The Hunger Games? Because “post-apocalyptic societies governed by remote authoritarian entities and rigidly divided into warring factions” remind them of high school.

See also Laura Hudson in Wired, “The Divergent Movie Is Social Commentary for Simpletons.”

And Ari Laurel looks at the diversity of the heroines in Young Adult dystopian novels.

Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845 (location map scheme)-en

5. Paul Musgrave: “The Successes of the Failed State of Texas” (emphasis added):

From the vantage point of the United States, the history of territorial expansion is rather boring, even foreordained. The U.S. got rich; it attracted immigrants; and it expanded into lands occupied by Indians and weakly held by the Mexicans after a short and relatively forgettable war. But this omits practically everything interesting in the case. In my dissertation, I focus on the domestic politics of expansion, in particular why the U.S. congress was so loath for so long to support presidents like John Tyler in their expansionist policies. (There’s an even more interesting question about why a great many people–including almost all Northern Whigs–resisted most or almost all expansionist schemes, but that’s a post for another day.) In putting that case together, however, I had to learn something about Mexico. And when we look at the history of North American geopolitics from the standpoint of the other post-colonial federal state on the continent, the history looks rather different.

If we think of the real story of the nineteenth century as the disintegration of Mexico and consequent opportunistic predation by the United States, we are now a little closer to the truth. But still, actually, not quite there. Mexico did disintegrate, and the United States did engage in opportunistic predation. But the story isn’t quite as simple as a nefarious U.S. government deciding to aggrandize its country at the expense of Mexico. The causal chain begins with internal Mexican strife, which led to the Anglo-Texans’ decision to secede. The initial Texan victory was surprising. It’s altogether possible that a slightly luckier Mexican general, or a rather less competent Texan general, would have resulted in a rout of the Texan army and the removal of the American settlers from Coahuila.

The Texas government was brittle, bankrupt, and disordered. But it wasn’t the only potential breakaway republic. The Republic of the Rio Grande and the Yucatan were equally interested in secession and independence. Yet the Republic of the Rio Grande was defeated and the Yucatan eventually reconciled to Mexican rule. Why did Mexico fail to retake Texas? We might think the answer is military. Its militia proved capable of competent defensive operations. But its real defenses against Mexico were diplomatic (the shadow of U.S. intervention and the increasing interest of London and Paris in preserving a bulwark against U.S. expansion) and, even more, the failure of the Mexican federation to create a durable state capable of sustaining popular operations.

Interesting throughout.

6. Joe Hardenbrook on the rationale behind book deselection in academic libraries.

7. Translating Manuel José Arce.

8. Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney.

Image Credits: (1) Trees, somewhere near Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Jason Brackin, March 2005. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Source: Flickr. (2) Political divisions of Mexico 1836-1845. Map by Giggette. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 8, 2014

Recent Poll Shows Scottish Support for Leaving the UK at 47%

Bla Bheinn - - 744022

In the campaign leading up to the Scottish referendum on independence (scheduled for this coming September), the Yes side is gaining ground. This is surprising: six months ago, it looked like support for the Yes vote had plateaued at around 30%. Now the Yes and No sides are statistically neck-and-neck.

I guess the Tory Party’s carefully crafted campaign strategy of alternately badgering and threatening the Scots has not had the desired results. And now members of the Tory leadership are starting to point fingers at each other to assign blame for the way the situation has developed.

Image Credit: Photo by Iain Lees, September 2007, and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | April 8, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging


Granite sphinx of Pharaoh Taharqo, 25th Dynasty. From a temple at Kawa, Sudan (located between the Third and Fourth Cataracts of the Nile, across the river from the modern city of Dongola). Currently housed in the British Museum, London.

Taharqo was the fourth pharaoh (or fifth according to some lists) of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt, which we might also call the Nubian Dynasty or the Kushite Dynasty, since the pharaohs of this dynasty came from the Nubian Kingdom of Kush, south of the Egyptian heartland and roughly corresponding to the northern part of modern Sudan.

Piye, the founder of the dynasty, conquered Egypt* around 730 BC. Taharqo, Piye’s son and third successor (after a brother and an older son), reigned from 690 to 664 BC. (The dynasty then fell from power in 656, under Taharqo’s nephew Tantamani; the Assyrians and their client Egyptian dynasty cooperated to force the Nubians from Egypt.)

National Geographic had a story about Piye and his dynasty — “The Black Pharaohs” — in its February 2008 issue.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

* Piye’s father had previously conquered much of Upper Egypt (around Thebes); Piye completed his father’s work by conquering Memphis and Lower Egypt. So, some lists of the 25th Dynasty begin with Piye, and some include his father, Kashta.

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