Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 14, 2007

Churchill’s Ghost(writer)

One can react in various ways to the unearthing by a Cambridge University researcher of a never-published 1937 article by Winston Churchill. This article, entitled “How The Jews Can Combat Persecution,” may actually have been, we are told, the work of a pro-fascist ghostwriter named Adam Marshall Diston.

One can, for instance, be disappointed to find out that Churchill used ghostwriters. Et tu, Winston?

One can accept Churchill’s use of ghostwriters but still wonder: a fascist ghostwriter? In 1937? And even if for some inexplicable reason Churchill saw nothing wrong with this, why on earth would he have asked such a person to write about the Jews?

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One can react in various ways to the unearthing by a Cambridge University researcher of a never-published 1937 article by Winston Churchill. This article, entitled “How The Jews Can Combat Persecution,” may actually have been, we are told, the work of a pro-fascist ghostwriter named Adam Marshall Diston.

One can, for instance, be disappointed to find out that Churchill used ghostwriters. Et tu, Winston?

One can accept Churchill’s use of ghostwriters but still wonder: a fascist ghostwriter? In 1937? And even if for some inexplicable reason Churchill saw nothing wrong with this, why on earth would he have asked such a person to write about the Jews?

One can reflect that if Diston really wrote the article, he made a genuine effort—knowing what Churchill’s views were—to appear even-handed. True, he attacked Jewish sweatshop owners. True, he wrote that, by being “different,” the Jews “have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer.” But he also condemned Nazi policies toward the Jews and called them “as cruel, as relentless, and as vindictive as any in [the Jews'] long history.”

One can even entertain the possibility that Diston was faithfully reflecting Churchill’s opinions. We know by now that decent men before and even after the Holocaust were capable of thinking things that we would consider anti-Semitic today. When Harry Truman, whose immediate recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 was heroic from a Jewish point of view, wrote in his diary in 1947 that Jews were “very, very selfish” and that “neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog,” he was simply reflecting prejudices that many Americans of his generation took for granted—prejudices that they would have been startled to be told were prejudices.

But there is yet another way of reacting to the judgment expressed in Churchill’s article that the “separateness of the Jew[s]” is one of the causes of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the article was simply saying something self-evidently true.

After all, Jewish looks aside—and many religiously observant Jews do make a point of looking different—who would deny that Jews often do “think differently,” have “a different tradition and background,” and “refuse to be absorbed?” Aren’t these all things that not only religious Jews, but proud secular Jews too, like to think about themselves? Aren’t these the qualities to which they attribute their survival? And if so, why should it be anti-Semitic for them to be pointed out by non-Jews?

To be continued in my next post.

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The Return of the Second Amendment

Seven years ago, in an article for COMMENTARY called “Yes and No to Gun Control,” I briefly endorsed the views of constitutional scholars who argue that the Second Amendment’s right “to keep and bear arms” actually imposes practical limits on gun-control laws. The article generated a storm of criticism in our letters section, and I replied at length. With the Second Amendment now in the news, thanks to last week’s federal appeals court ruling striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, the case against what the New York Times editorial page calls “the right to ban arms” is very much worth rehearsing. Here are the relevant sections of my December 2000 reply to critics:

A noteworthy feature of the letters from Michael Beard of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Eric Gorovitz of the Million Mom March Foundation is the complete absence of any mention of the Second Amendment. Indeed, as far as the organized gun-control movement is concerned, this part of the Bill of Rights is completely irrelevant to the present-day policy debate, and imposes no limits of any kind on the sort of legal restrictions that may be placed on firearms and their owners.

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Seven years ago, in an article for COMMENTARY called “Yes and No to Gun Control,” I briefly endorsed the views of constitutional scholars who argue that the Second Amendment’s right “to keep and bear arms” actually imposes practical limits on gun-control laws. The article generated a storm of criticism in our letters section, and I replied at length. With the Second Amendment now in the news, thanks to last week’s federal appeals court ruling striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, the case against what the New York Times editorial page calls “the right to ban arms” is very much worth rehearsing. Here are the relevant sections of my December 2000 reply to critics:

A noteworthy feature of the letters from Michael Beard of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Eric Gorovitz of the Million Mom March Foundation is the complete absence of any mention of the Second Amendment. Indeed, as far as the organized gun-control movement is concerned, this part of the Bill of Rights is completely irrelevant to the present-day policy debate, and imposes no limits of any kind on the sort of legal restrictions that may be placed on firearms and their owners.

The usual rationale for this dismissive attitude is neatly summarized by [letter writer] Daniel C. Smolens, who suggests that “the words of the Second Amendment . . . tie the right [to firearms] to an individual’s obligation to serve as a member of a common defense force;” now that our national security “has been entrusted to a professional army,” this right has been completely deprived of meaning. The language to which Mr. Smolens refers, of course, is the following: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

In rejecting this view of a somewhat obscure corner of the Bill of Rights—and in asserting the existence of a fundamental and abiding individual right to firearms—I was relying upon an impressive body of legal and historical scholarship that has developed over the past two decades. This scholarship has been the work not of paid agents of the NRA but of dozens of independent researchers and established academics, including such luminaries of the liberal legal establishment as Laurence Tribe, Akhil Reed Amar, and (among the letter writers above) Sanford Levinson. I cannot do justice here to their conclusions, or the sources upon which they draw, but their arguments basically proceed along two tracks.

In the first place, and from a strictly textual point of view, the expression “right of the people” is used throughout the Bill of Rights to refer to the fundamental privileges of individuals, as in the First Amendment’s “right of the people peaceably to assemble” and the Fourth’s “right of the people to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Admittedly, the Second Amendment differs because of its peculiar preamble about the militia, but to condition “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” on the existence of such a body is to reverse the order of things: even if the primary purpose of the right is to make possible a “well-regulated militia,” the right itself is plainly paramount. Imagine, by way of analogy, how the religion clauses of the First Amendment would be understood if they were preceded—as well they might have been, considering the deeply felt Protestantism of the early republic—by the words, “Vigorous, independent churches, being necessary to the moral well-being of a free state . . . ” Were this the case, I somehow doubt that the religious liberties of Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants would today be interpreted any less expansively.

As a historical matter, moreover, it is a mistake to view the militia in narrowly military terms, as nothing more than a tool of the state governments or as a (now superannuated) back-up for the regular federal army. Alarming though it may sound to modern sensibilities, the 18th-century militia was universally considered an essential popular check on government power—and a reflection, ultimately, of the people’s sovereignty and indefeasible right of self-defense. As George Mason put it during the debate over the Constitution’s ratification, the militia consists in principle “of the whole people.” James Madison agreed, stressing in The Federalist that a key safeguard in the event of federal tyranny was “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation”—a view evident in his later sponsorship of the Bill of Rights.

Nevertheless, as Sanford Levinson observes (and as I argued in my article), the fact that the Second Amendment protects a fundamental individual right does not mean that it should be read “as an absolute prohibition of regulation.” Here is where the gun enthusiasts among my correspondents take sharp issue with me. Larry Pratt of the Gun Owners of America—a group that prides itself on standing to the right of the NRA—rejects every sort of control, including background checks, as the equivalent of having to “request permission” to exercise a constitutional right. Stephen W. Borgess and John F. Brinson seem to believe that the Constitution entitles them to virtually limitless firepower. And David I. Caplan and James H. Fink, while conceding in the abstract that some degree of regulation is legitimate, suggest that most of today’s gun-control laws are in fact unconstitutional.

I do not pretend to have a definitive answer to the technical legal question of precisely what kind of “scrutiny” the judiciary should apply to Second Amendment cases. It does appear to me, though, that any number of public-safety-minded restrictions on how guns are acquired—and even, up to a point, on what kinds of guns are allowed to be sold—are perfectly compatible with the full exercise of Second Amendment rights, just as reasonable limits respecting time, place, and manner are not thought to interfere with constitutionally protected speech. Indeed, there is something perversely incongruous about gun owners complaining of an ongoing assault on their liberties at a time when Americans possess some 230 million firearms and are easily the most heavily armed people on earth.

What, then, should be the practical effect of the right “to keep and bear arms?” If taken seriously by the courts—something that has yet to happen—the Second Amendment would, I think, prevent banning the most commonly used handguns and long guns, whether through outright prohibition or draconian regulatory schemes. And, yes, to answer Mr. Levinson’s query, I would expect such a right to have force against the states as well as the federal government, since the “incorporation” cat, however dubious its pedigree, is now very much out of the bag.

No less important perhaps, especially for moderating this most heated of policy debates, would be some recognition of the Second Amendment by the gun-control movement itself. Paranoid though the gun lobby may be at times about the ultimate intentions of the “gun-grabbers,” the fact remains that all the major gun-control groups either endorse far-reaching bans on firearms or refuse to rule them out as a future goal.

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Fiscal Chicken Littles

Some news about the federal budget deficit: the sky still isn’t falling.

It was only a few short years ago that the deficit was held up as evidence of the Bush administration’s fiscal recklessness. From nearly every corner, someone was arguing that the end was nigh. Fortune called the deficit “staggering.” Tim Russert, while interviewing the President, referred to his “deficit disaster.” Andrew Sullivan was convinced that “soaring deficits” necessitated a new gas tax. Even Alan Greenspan went to Europe and told reporters that the U.S. budget deficit was “out of control.”

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Some news about the federal budget deficit: the sky still isn’t falling.

It was only a few short years ago that the deficit was held up as evidence of the Bush administration’s fiscal recklessness. From nearly every corner, someone was arguing that the end was nigh. Fortune called the deficit “staggering.” Tim Russert, while interviewing the President, referred to his “deficit disaster.” Andrew Sullivan was convinced that “soaring deficits” necessitated a new gas tax. Even Alan Greenspan went to Europe and told reporters that the U.S. budget deficit was “out of control.”

Yesterday, with little fanfare, the Treasury Department reported that the federal deficit fell from October to February, down 25.5 percent from the same period last year. This is consistent with the dramatic fall in the budget gap over the past two years. The White House projects the deficit will be $244 billion by the end of the year. The Congressional Budget Office is even more optimistic, forecasting a deficit of $214 billion. If the White House’s more conservative estimate is right, the deficit will be around 1.7 percent of GDP. The average federal budget deficit over the past 40 years has been 2.4 percent.

I won’t pretend that a single quarterly announcement on deficit figures means that much. But surely it’s time for the legions of economic doomsayers to admit that they were wrong. Or maybe it’s simply an evergreen of American politics to talk about budget deficits as if they were a sign of the end of life as we know it. The country was full of such talk during the 1992 election, when the Concord Coalition was predicting all sorts of horrible fiscal scenarios. Four years later, the country was running a budget surplus. And here is an article from Time that does all the usual hand-wringing on the subject. It is a classic of the genre, peppered with generous citations of the Brookings Institution and containing the apparently essential line: “Some economists are frankly afraid that the nation’s budget is out of control.” The article appeared in 1972.

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