Sunday, January 29, 2017

Take Action on the Muslim Ban: Stop Sessions

The Administration has handcuffed legal American residents and detained them without charges as part of the President's pointless, lawless Muslim ban. It's a great moment to protest, an even better moment to donate to the ACLU and CAIR. But also be sure to call both your senators on Monday and demand that they make Jeff Sessions explain his position on this. If the President will not follow the Constitution or the law then we need an Attorney General who will.

Call both of your senators' offices. Speak briefly and politely. Ask that the Senator not vote to confirm Sessions as Attorney General until Sessions tells Congress whether or not the ban is legal. If you have time, add that you are concerned that Sessions's long-time aide, Stephen Miller, helped write this ban. The committee vote on Sessions is Tuesday; make sure to call before then,

Attorney General is THE key position for any administration that wants to dismantle our democracy, or to keep it from being dismantled. After World War II, when many future Iron Curtain countries in Europe had coalition governments combining Communists and non-Communists, the Communists always made sure that they got the position comparable to Attorney General: the Interior Minister, who controlled the internal police and security functions. Then the pro-Soviet Communists used their control of the police and the counterintelligence services to take control of the country, so there were no more coalition governments. In Czechoslovakia, the Communists took the Interior Ministry and the leader of the democratic mainstream party took the more prestigious role of Foreign Minister. Then the Communists threw the Foreign Minister out a high window and the security police ruled it suicide. The Secretary of State can't start a coup, or stop one. The Attorney General could do both.

The Attorney General controls the FBI, oversees voting rights, prosecutes all federal crimes, supervises our efforts to catch foreign spies. The Attorney General could lay off prosecuting spies from particular foreign governments. The Attorney General can simply choose not to prosecute crimes committed on the Administration's behalf. It's an extremely dangerous position in the wrong hands.

On the positive side, a principled Attorney General helped bring Richard Nixon down. A good Attorney General can save our country.

Stopping Jeff Sessions is one of the most important things we can do. If he gets confirmed anyway, but has to publicly repudiate one of Trump's policies to do it, that could also be very valuable, because Trump will be angry and we want their working relationship to be as damaged as it can be. An Attorney General who won't do Trump's dirty work for him is what we need.

Call both of your senators, please. Trump has made it clear that he intends to govern lawlessly and unconstitutionally. But he has made a mistake by moving too obviously, too soon, before he had his Attorney General and Supreme Court pick in place. Let's make him pay for that mistake, now, before he can solidify unlawful power.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, January 16, 2017

Barack Obama: American Stoic

If the Founding Fathers had a chance to meet Barack Obama, they would of course be shocked. Even the most enlightened of them were not prepared to imagine an African-American President. And what they would think about his policies is anyone's guess: the Founders' political philosophies were shaped by their political environments, and they wouldn't fit easily into today's debates. But I'm pretty confident that they would be impressed with President Obama's personal bearing, which sometimes seems to have more in common with their ideas of deportment and decorum than with our generation's ideas. The Founders would never have expected Obama, but they would have understood him. It's not just that Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would have been able to smell what Obama is cooking. It's that Obama is cooking from the Founders' favorite menu.

Barack Obama behaves in many ways like a Stoic. By that, I don't just mean someone quiet and uncomplaining, the way we use the word "stoic" today. I mean that Obama acts very much like a follower of the Stoic philosophy followed by many classical Greeks and Romans. The Stoics taught that you should master your emotions through reason and self-discipline and focus on living a virtuous life. They also taught that virtue, reason, and discipline could free you, psychologically, from the impermanence and unpredictability of the world around us. The Stoic definition of virtue was both personal and civic, and the test of virtue was your actions, not your feelings. The point was not to feel righteous or spiritually exalted, but to live a good and just life day to day. By definition, that meant being a virtuous citizen of your community.

I have never seen or heard Obama using the specific language of Stoicism, but he certainly acts like one, and for the real Stoics that's the test. (Someone who "believes in" Stoicism but lives corruptly, or in thrall to intemperate emotions, is not a Stoic. Someone who has never heard of Stoicism but walks the walk meets the most important standard.) Obama's behavior since the election has been one very illuminating example: being Obama, he has put his personal feelings aside and focused doing what seemed best for the country, and at certain moments his behavior seems at odds with what he's presumably feeling. If "what seems best" has varied over the last few weeks, it has been because of new information or changing events, not because of Obama's mood. It is not about his mood; "No-Drama" Obama considers his own mood the lowest priority, and would see it as a serious moral failure if he let his mood interfere with his duty.

The Founders would recognize and applaud this immediately. It's almost exactly the way they conceived of virtue. The other Founders loved and admired Washington because they saw him as a man who had been born with strong natural passions (not least his naturally ferocious temper), who subordinated those passions under iron self-control. (When Washington's mastery of his temper did slip, as it sometimes did during the setbacks of the Revolutionary War, the results could be volcanic.) Washington exemplified the reason-over-emotion approach that his era held up as the ideal.

And Washington's favorite work of literature, bar none, was Joseph Addison's play Cato, a historical tragedy about a Roman statesman and his Stoic civic virtue. Washington actually put on a production of Cato at Valley Forge, because it was a good example of how to put moral virtue and duty over merely physical problems like hunger, cold, and fear. In fact, Cato was a huge favorite among many of the Founders; Washington and Franklin are always quoting it, although we no longer recognize those lines as quotes. Nathan Hale's famous line, "My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country," is straight out of Cato.

It is not a surprise that someone like Obama, who reads widely in history, philosophy, and literature, would absorb some Stoic ideas. Those ideas have been steadily passed down. The Renaissance saw a huge revival of interest in Stoicism, and the 17th and18th centuries, with their love of reason and order, borrowed freely from Stoic thought. (Joseph Addison didn't write a play about Cato for no reason.) Stoic ideas have found their way into our wider tradition. And the Obama's Stoicism-without-the-name has clear antecedents in the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to civil disobedience. That non-violent civil disobedience is, in practical terms, straight Stoicism: the protestors used their intellect and self-discipline to overcome danger, fear, and anger, so that violence, fear, and anger could not be used to control them. John Lewis sacrificing his body on the bridge at Selma, willingly allowing himself to be beaten rather submit to wrongful authority, is practical Stoicism of the highest order. Stoicism understands self-discipline as a synonym for freedom. If you can master yourself, you are free from other masters.

But Stoic self-control has so far out of fashion that we have trouble understanding it, trouble even calling it by its proper name. When most of us hear about someone subordinating their emotions to their reason, we tend to think of terms like "repressed" or "inhibited," terms that suggest that the person doesn't have full access to his or her feelings, or is too fearful to express them. We usually think that such a person needs to loosen up and become less inhibited, to express their emotions more. This started with the Romantic movement in the early 1800s, which prioritized emotional intensity above all, and was consolidated by psychoanalysis's attempts to free patients from genuine repression. At this point, a huge chunk of our popular culture is built around the proposition that everybody would be happier with less impulse control. We love stories about maverick-y cops and maverick-y fighter pilots and maverick-y scientists (all professions where mavericks can be genuinely dangerous). We watch reality TV, which deliberately showcases people who respond irrationally and hysterically to the most trivial challenges. We imagine a character like Mr. Spock, whose project superficially resembles the Stoics', as unable to feel, unable to name his feelings. When we have a Broadway hit about one of the Founders, we choose Hamilton, the one who was most volatile and out of control. (I love that show, but it only has a second act because Hamilton self-destructed.) And Key and Peele joke, hilariously, about President Obama's need for an "Anger Translator," who speaks the truths that Obama is imagined as unable to speak or to recognize.

All of this badly misunderstands Stoicism. Mastering your passions with reason and discipline does not mean being passionless. (George Washington did not need any Anger Translator. George spoke anger very fluently, and could release a poetic torrent of rage if he liked.) It does not mean lacking emotions, or lacking access to emotions. In fact, real self-control usually demands some serious self-knowledge. You cannot master your feelings if you do not know them. The difference between Stoicism and repression is that a repressed person cannot choose to express an emotion, even if they would like to, while an accomplished Stoic chooses whether and how to express something. From the Stoic perspective, a repressed man and a hysterical "maverick" are two sides of one debased coin: one cannot choose to express a feeling and the other who cannot keep himself from expressing it, but neither has any real control over their emotions. Obama's public performance over the last decade testifies both to his self-control and to his self-knowledge. He has more self-control than we are used to seeing in politicians, but also brings a sense of emotional authenticity, or genuineness, that few other politicians can match.

Obama's successor, of course, lacks anything like Obama's discipline. He seems to have given himself over entirely to uncontrolled passions. From a Stoic point of view, he is (as Hamlet puts it) "passion's slave." Because the President-Elect has no -- and apparently seeks no -- mastery of his own emotions, he is mastered by them, in the thrall of every momentary impulse or upheaval. On a profound level, he is not free. He is unable to govern his own emotional responses or his own behavior. He is the subject of a tyrant, and his response is to try to exert tyrannical control over those around him. But, tyrant that he may be, he is also exceptionally vulnerable to control and manipulation by others. Certainly, some of his advisers play on his emotional weaknesses. And although it is startling for the President-Elect of the world's most powerful nation to be under the thumb of a lesser foreign power's leader, this President-Elect's inability to govern his emotional life renders him, as the Stoics would expect, naturally servile.

The Founders, like the Roman Stoics before them, believed that only individual self-control, the ability of citizens to discipline their own passions and impulses, could make self-governing republics possible. Self-government is only possible through self-government, and when the citizens can no longer rule themselves through their reason and self-control, they will lose their collective ability to govern the republic or, worse, give that power away. It is the nature of the unmastered soul to seek a master elsewhere.  

This President-Elect is also a product of our wider culture, which has come to misunderstand "authenticity" as self-expression unfettered by decorum or reason. Only that fundamental misunderstanding allows the President-Elect to be misunderstood, by part of the public, as a person capable of leadership. The question for America, and for us as Americans, is whether we can regain the personal and civic discipline to keep our Republic free.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Your Public Domain Update for 2017

Happy New Year all! As every year, I'm writing a blog post for Public Domain Day, listing all of the old books, movies, pieces of music, and works of art that are leaving copyright to join the public domain today. And, as every year in the United States, that list contains nothing at all. Public Domain Day is for people in other countries. Instead, we get Congress repeatedly extending the copyright terms to keep lobbyists for big media companies happy, so that virtually nothing has entered the public domain in the United States since January 1, 1978. So, as every year, I have to write a post about what would be entering public domain today.

Copyright in this country originally had a 28-year maximum, which gradually got doubled to 56 years (originally it was 14 years, renewable for a second 14, and then 28 renewable for 28 more). In the 1970s, Congress extended the term of copyright, freezing the public-domain clock so that nothing created after 1922 would become public for decades. That clock has never been restarted: just before the newer, longer copyrights could expire at the end of the 1990s, Congress extended them again with the Millennium Copyright Act, sometimes called the Sonny Bono act for one of its sponsors. The Constitution specifically forbids perpetual copyright; it only gives Congress the power to grant patents and copyrights for a "limited time." But Congress has gotten around this by simply granting one "limited" extension after another, so that Mickey Mouse (for example), stays in private ownership forever.

So, what are we missing?

If Not for the Millennium Copyright Act:

Citizen Kane would enter the public domain today. Let's just leave that one there for a minute: Citizen Kane

Also in the movies, we would get public rights to Dumbo, The Maltese Falcon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Babes on Broadway, Charlie Chan in Rio, Abbot and Costello classics Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost!, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Devil and Miss Jones (the Devil got a lot of work in 1941, and not just in Hollywood), Hellzapoppin', High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, Major Barbara, Meet John Doe (which is feeling pretty topical right now), Moon Over Miami, Pimpernel Smith with Leslie Jones as the fearless Scarlet Pimpernel, The Road to Zanzibar with Hope and Crosby, Sergeant York, The Sea Wolf, The Shadow of the Thin Man, Sullivan's Travels, Hitchcock's original version of Spellbound, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Tobacco Road, and The Wolf Man. Oh, and lest we forget, 1941's Oscar winner for Best Picture, How Green Was My Valley. (Better luck next time, Orson! Maybe your cinematography should have been more innovative!)

Wonder Woman should be leaving copyright today, free for anyone to write and draw. (So that someone, for example, could create a version of the world's mightiest woman who was not dressed like a streetwalker.) So would a host of Golden Age comic heroes, including Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Green Arrow, Aquaman, and lesser-known heroes such as Starman and Dr. Mid-Nite. (If you don't know who those are, well, my brother would never let me hear the end of it if I left them out.) Bad guy the Penguin would join Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker, who would already be in the public domain, so someone writing public-domain Batman would be able to add a Penguin storyline.

Beloved children's books Curious George and Make Way for Ducklings would become public domain today. So would Mother Courage and Her Children, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, The Screwtape Letters, Evil Under the Sun, Between The Acts, My Theodosia, and What Makes Sammy Run? So would two personal favorites of mine: Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths and Nabokov's first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

In music, we would hit another motherlode of American standards: "Blues in the Night," "Baby Mine," "Chattanooga Choo-choo" and "The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy," "All That Meat and No Potatoes," "God Bless the Child," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "I Could Write a Book," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Knock Me a Kiss," "Introduction to a Waltz," "Let's Get Away from It All," "So Near and Yet So Far," "Winter Weather," and, of course, the song that I believe should be our national anthem, "Take the 'A' Train." And for classical music fans, works by Bartok, Barber, Britten, Copland, Messiaen, Rachmaninoff and Schumann would all become free for public use.

But clearly, Congress has decided that works created in 1941 just haven't been under copyright long enough. Has anybody made any money off "Take the 'A' Train" yet? Or off Wonder Woman? We're just going to have to wait another twenty years for these intellectual properties to become public properties, or to have Congress pass another law keeping them private. The smart money is on the extension.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird would enter public domain today under the laws that governed its initial publication. So would Updike's Run, Rabbit and Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. Likewise The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, Sylvia Plath's Colossus and Other Poems, and Walter M. Miller's science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. It would be a banner year for public-domain drama: Rhinoceros, A Man for All Seasons, Pinter's The Caretaker, Albee's The Sandbox, and the stage version of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. 

But it would be an even bigger year for classic movies: Spartacus, Psycho, The Apartment, La Dolce Vita, BUtterfield 8 and The Magnificent Seven would all enter public domain. So would Inherit the Wind, The Alamo, the original Ocean's 11, Exodus, The Bad Sleep Well, Elmer Gantry, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Hell Bent for Leather, the Vincent Price House of Usher and Roger Corman Little Shop of Horrors, The Swiss Family Robinson, Where the Boys Are, and The Unforgiven.

Plenty of Broadway musicals would enter public domain this year, too: Camelot, Oliver!, Bye-Bye Birdie, The Fantasticks, Flower Drum Song, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (That, Lin-Manuel, is what a Tony awards night with some suspense looks like.)

A huge number of pop hits would also become public domain today, exactly as they were expected to when they debuted. Crooner favorite "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" would leave copyright along with "Chain Gang," "Apache," "Calendar Girl," "Cathy's Clown," "I Gotta Know," "I'll Be There," "It's Now or Never," "Money (That's What I Want)," "Only the Lonely," "Spanish Harlem," "You're Sixteen," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "When Will I Be Loved," "The Twist," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Pretty good jukebox. Also the novelty songs "Alley-Oop," and "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," for anyone still interested in them. There would also be a good deal of interesting classical music, maybe most importantly Shostakovich's string quartets 7 and 8 and Messiaen's Chronochromie.

But all of those works will stay firmly in the hands of Sony, Disney, Time Warner, etc., until at least 2056. Someone needs another 39 years of royalties from Camelot, evidently, which would clearly be more productive than just letting people do Camelot, or even alter Camelot.

The good news is that the public domain clock, which has not ticked since January 1, 1979, is set to start ticking again two years from today, on January 1, 2019. On that day, if Congress does not intervene again, works published in 1923 will become free to the public. (Whose woods these are I think I know: They'll likely keep them private, though). Expect a bill to be before Congress before 2018 is over, and write to your representative and senators to tell them that sometimes, art has been in private hands long enough.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog