Archive for October 25th, 2012

Jacques Barzun, RIP

You would think that a death so long anticipated wouldn’t have much effect, but it doesn’t work that way.  Jacques Barzun, cultural historian, iacademic, intellectual, and evangelist for Western culture, died today just a month short of his 105th birthday, and it still seems a shame.  He was part of that glorious mid-Century intellectual atmosphere that not only sought to think, but to think publicly and to make its thinking accessible to the public at large.

Many of Barzun’s books are scattered about the house, in various parts of the library.  I’ve read some, and will read the rest.  I worked my way through his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence when it came out, when he was a mere 93.  I nibbled at The Culture We Deserve.  I’ve read most of his essays in A Reader’s Companion, (brilliantly reviewed by Joseph Epstein).

I have a first edition of his 1959 critique of the suicide of American intellectuals, The House of Intellect, along with two reviews of it, one by Harold Rosenberg and the other by Daniel Boorstin, future Librarian of Congress, no pikers they.  When you merit having your books reviewed by them, you know you’ve arrived.

I have an unerring appreciation for books despised by their prolific authors.  From what I can tell, Peter Robinson would just as soon forget Postcards from Hell, about his time at Stanford Business School, and Richard Miniter has never responded to my compliments for The Myth of Market Share.  For some reason, I always figured that Barzun felt the same way about God’s Country and Mine, an appreciation of the culture of mid-Century America as only an immigrant can appreciate it.  (Clifton Fadiman liked it, which may by itself be enough to spark a re-appraisal on my part.)  Latino immigration may have changed this, but for about a century, more of us were descended from Germans that from any other European race, a fact not lost on Barzun, the French American-by-choice:

Our popular culture Germanic? Yes. It is not merely that at Christmas time we all eat Pfeffernusse and sing “Heilige Nacht,” nor that our GIs in the last war found ever country queer except Germany….

One could go on forever; our appalling academic jargon bears a deep and dangerous likeness to its German counterpart; our sentimentality about children and weddings and Christmas trees; our taste in and for music; our love of taking hikes in groupsm singing as we go; our passion for dumplings and starchy messes generally, coupled with our instinct for putting sweet things alongside badly cooked meats and ill-treated vegetables – all that and our chosen forms of cleanliness (every people is clean in different ways about different things) show how far a characteristic culture has spread from the three or four centers where Germans first settled.

Barzun first came to my attention in high school, not for his academic work but for his Modern Researcher, which he continued to update for decades.  He kept it updated for decades, but the brilliance of the book isn’t in the technologies it describes, but in the basic fundamentals of the detective work, and how to keep your notes and mind orderly enough to make sense out of what it is you’re finding.  When you’re done researching, keep Simple and Direct on your desk, open, next to Strunk and White.  There’s a video of him discussing writing a couple of years ago with a small group in San Antonio, where he lived.  Folks, this is a video of a 102-year-old man, and there are days when I don’t feel as lucid as he is in this video.

One of the gifts that Barzun’s long life bestowed on us was an embarrassment of mature work.  Consider that when he wrote God’s Country and Mine, he was 47, one year older than I am now.  This is the book of a mature man, and almost all the work I have from him is later than that.  A huge percentage of what he wrote came with a lifetime or more of experience and seasoning.  When he defended the value of the Western intellectual tradition and culture against the barbarians, he knew what we were in danger of losing.  This wasn’t a political defense; it was born of an understanding that the West said things that had never been said before or since, and to abandon that tradition was in a very real sense criminal neglect of some of mankind’s greatest, most liberating ideas.

He could stand neither Marxism nor the self-loathing of American that it brought to academia.  It’s only justice that as long as the execrable Eric Hobsbawn lived, Barzun, 10 years his senior, outlived him.  Bully.

As I’m writing this, obits are being prepared all over academia, and Arts and Letters Daily will hopefully have a round-up of them tomorrow.  I’ll pick out the best and link to them here.

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A Retention Vote for Morris Hoffman

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I usually vote against retaining judges.  It’s not out of any personal animus, of course.  For citizens who are asked to keep track of so much when they vote, it’s almost impossible to learn enough law, let alone enough about every judge, to make a truly informed decision on a given judge.  But we have retention votes for a reason, and it’s helpful to judges to be reminded every so often that the law belongs to the people, not to the lawyers, or even to the legislature.  As long as the retention voters weren’t close, a No vote was a reasonably safe protest vote that would only tip the scales if other, well-known information about that particular judge pushed a lot of other people to vote the same way.

But times have changed, the retention votes have gotten closer, and it’s important now to reward judges who’ve actually done a good job on the bench.

So I’ll be voting to retain Morris Hoffman as a Denver judge, and I would ask all those voting in Denver to do the same.

I had the pleasure of sitting in Hoffman’s court eight years ago as he decided Common Cause v. Davidson – an attempt by Common Cause and other Democrat groups to hijack the voting rules in Colorado in order to prevent certain basic ballot security measures – and was impressed with Hoffman’s humor and ability to keep things moving without cutting people off.  The opinion is readable even by laymen – not an easy thing for a judge to do when time is short and the pressure to be right is long.  And the ruling itself was a model of understanding both of the role of judges and of the nature of voting.

I quoted some of the salient bits at the time, but they’re worth quoting again:

But the Court has also recognized that the right to vote, unlike some other individual rights that are exercised in essential opposition to the state, is a right that has meaning only in a highly regulated social context. A vote is not merely one individual’s casual expression of political opinion at any particular time on any particular subject. Votes count, and because they count they must be sought and given in a structured environment that allows the votes of all other proper voters to count….

Maximizing voters’ access to the process is just one part of the compelling interest the state has in regulating the architecture of elections. Preventing voters from voting more than once, preventing otherwise ineligible voters from voting, and preventing other kinds of election fraud, is part and parcel of this same compelling state interest, as the Burdick Court expressly recognized when it included the words “fair and honest” at the very beginning of its litany of state interests in structuring elections. Professor Chemerinsky had it only half right, and perhaps not even that, when, in the aftermath of the controversy of the 2000 election, he wrote “What good is the right to vote if every ballot isn’t counted?” (Erwin Chemerinsky, Fairness at the Ballot Box, 40 TRIAL—APRIL 32 (2004).) A complete description of the state’s interest in regulating elections should have included something like, “What good is the right to vote, even if every ballot is counted, if the votes of duly registered voters are diluted by the votes of people who had no right to vote?”

It may or may not be true, as Plaintiffs claim, that as an historical matter actual voter fraud has been rare in Colorado. But the state has a legitimate, indeed compelling, interest in doing what it can to make sure that last month’s fraudulent or no-longer-eligible registrant does not become next month’s fraudulent voter. Ms. Davidson and local election officials testified that once a fraudulent regular ballot is cast, and the voter’s identity forever divorced from the ballot, there is no way to remedy the fraud. The fraudulent vote will count. That is, election fraud must be detected before fraudulent regular ballots are cast and fraudulent provisional ballots are counted.

Nor do I think it likely that Plaintiffs will be able to demonstrate that the identification requirement is discriminatory or will have disparate impacts…. Plaintiffs’ suggestion that the identification requirement will “chill” people without identification may be true (though there was absolutely no credible evidence of that), but then again it may also “chill” fraudulent voters. Whether one kind of chill justifies the other is precisely the kind of public policy choice that must be made by legislators, not by judges legislating under the cover of strict scrutiny.

In what must surely qualify as one of the understatements of the year, even Plaintiffs’ own witness, a Denver election official, testified that allowing voters to vote in any precinct they wished “could be problematic.”

…At the moment, if I were to try to design a system that maximizes the chances that fraudulent and ineligible registrants will be able to become fraudulent voters, I’m not sure I could do a better job than what Plaintiffs are asking me to do in this case—allow voters to vote wherever they want without showing any identification.

(My own emphasis added throughout.)

For better or for worse – and probably for the much worse – courts across the country haven’t accepted these basic tenets of how a voting system ought to work, but that doesn’t make the reasoning here any less correct.

I don’t want to go overboard here.  We’re talking about one decision, one data point, in a much longer judicial career.  But given the stakes of the case, it’s a pretty large data point, and it’s one more than most of us will have on most of the judges.  Let’s reward it.


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