Archive for July, 2008

A Constitutional Right to Shoot People?

July 17, 2008

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh and Orin Kerr are discussing whether DC v. Heller establishes a “Constitutional Right to Self-Defense.” I’m with Professor Kerr on this one: it doesn’t. My opinion is of course completely uninformed, but when the experts disagree, why shouldn’t the rest of us chime in?

In the Court’s opinion Justice Scalia certainly does talk at length about self-defense. But I don’t think he quite gets to the point of saying there is a Constitutional right to self-defense. I see it coming up in two different contexts, in two different sets of arguments.

The first is in Scalia’s discussion of the phrase “keep and bear arms,” and whether it had an exclusively military meaning, “to serve in an army or militia” or whatnot. Here Scalia seems to be arguing along these lines:

  • There are instances of the phrase “bear arms” explicitly meaning “have weapons for self-defense.”
  • “Self-defense” is not “serving in the military.”
  • Hence “bear arms” does not necessarily mean “to serve in the military.”

Now I disagree with this on a couple of counts, but that’s not important now; my point is that it has nothing to do with any Constitutional right to self-defense. The rest of Scalia’s self-defense references are more relevant. He cites a number of mostly 19th-century sources interpreting the second amendment as “protect[ing] an individuals right to use arms for self-defense.” And his opinion’s first holding is,

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

I can certainly see how someone might find a “Constitutional right to self-defense” there. But I don’t think that’s right. Scalia isn’t justifying a right to self-defense, he’s assuming one. Applying something like his own logic re the Prefatory Clause, I interpret the holding as meaning, “The 2A protects a right to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes,” with the note that one of those traditionally lawful purposes is self-defense.

That may seem silly, but consider another “traditionally lawful purpose,” hunting. Much of the older precedent Scalia cites re self-defense applies equally well to hunting, but I don’t see anyone attempting to find a Constitutional right to hunt in his opinion. There are all sorts of laws restricting hunting, which doubtless annoy hunters, but which as far as I know are Constitutionally uncontroversial. One could argue that DC could put more restrictions on the storage of .30-06s than on handguns, elk-hunting not being a lawful purpose in the city itself.

And I don’t see much in Scalia’s opinion about what exactly a right to self-defense might entail. Presumably it would include shooting someone breaking into your home. But what else? Will someone interpret Heller as guaranteeing a right to concealed carry, so you can shoot muggers on the street? (I’m sure someone will, actually.) Can you shoot an attacker if running away is an option? How much discretion do states an municipalities have to regulate the right? In Texas it’s apparently acceptable to shoot suspicious-looking people in your neighbor’s yard; I doubt that would fly in Massachusetts. If there is a Constitutional right, it’s not very well-codified. (See also Jack Balkin for much better-informed commentary on the subject.)

Now if a self-defense case actually reached the Supreme Court I’m fairly sure Scalia would find a right to it, based on tradition and common law and precedent and other extra-Constitutional sources—not every right is a Constitutional right! He might even find one in the penumbras he generally so despises (it wouldn’t be the first time…). But he hasn’t quite done that yet.

Also in the New Yorker

July 16, 2008

An article (they only have the abstract online) about Garrett Lisi, the surfer dude physicist with the E8 Theory of Everything. My own worthless comments (from before I started blogging) are here. I haven’t thought about it or kept up with new developments (have there been any?) since I wrote that, so I have no updates to make.

The New Yorker article quotes MIT math professor Bertram Kostant:

It is easy to arrive at the feeling that a final understanding of the universe must somehow involve E8, or, otherwise put, nature would be foolish not to utilize E8.

Kostant is practically the Platonic form of “brilliant and eccentric MIT math professor.” I took what was supposed to be a Lie algebras course from him. It turned out to be… I never figured out what exactly. I mostly had no idea what he was talking about, but it was entertaining having it all go so far over my head. At the time he was working on his own Theory of Everything, based (IIRC) on SO(3, 3) and how it sits inside SO(4, 4). SO(4, 4) was nice because of triality (what that might have to do with physics I was never even close to figuring out, and may not have been important to Kostant), and I’m sure there was some beautiful reason to pick the (3, 3)/(4, 4) real forms. “If only I could figure out what to do with the extra two time dimensions…”

That New Yorker Cover

July 16, 2008

2008_07_21_p323 I wish I had seen that New Yorker cover—the one with Angela Davis and Osama bin LadenMichelle and Barack Obama—before I had seen all the outraged reactions, and the bemused counter-reactions. I’d like to know what my own response would have been. Most likely I would have thought it mildly amusing and then immediately forgotten about it.

I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out what there is to be outraged about here. I wouldn’t think there would be too many people who will see the cover and not get the joke, even with the vastly extended audience the furor will have gotten it. The outrage I’ve seen seems to be mostly from the professionally outraged.

Ta-Nahisi Coates (who’s not particularly outraged) makes the best anti-cartoon point I’ve seen:

I think the problem is that it’s very hard to satirize the rumors around Michelle and Barack. Satire needs overstatement. But the cover doesn’t actually overstate the beliefs of the scaremongers.

And given the factoid that 13% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, maybe I’m wrong about people getting the joke.

Suing Bible publishers for bad translations

July 12, 2008

Via Language Log and Religion Clause and a whole lot of other places: the story of Bradley Fowler, who is suing Bible publishers Thomas Nelson and Zondervan “on the grounds of malicious negligence, breach of duty, duty of care, intentional torts, malice, strict liability, and violating [his] civil right according to the U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment.” Specifically, he objects to the use of the word “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and related passages, and appears to think the publishers are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to change the translation capriciously, I suppose with the intent of causing him further confusion and heartbreak.

The post at Language Log has oodles of great stuff, both in the body and in the comments. Religion Clause has links to the hand-written complaints. For rather less useful commentary, here‘s a discussion of the suit in the context of an anti-Barack Obama screed (really!). [My own commentary will also be rather less useful than LL and RC, but in a different way.]

In no sane world could this case have any merit. I would say “it should be laughed out of court,” but really it’s more sad than funny. Mr. Fowler is clearly a disturbed and desperate individual. He might benefit more from anti-depressants than from frivolous lawsuits.

Fowler’s complaints are seriously confused and confusing. His notion of what publishers do seems somewhat muddled. From the Zondervan complaint:

Zondervan Publishing House knowingly implemented the term — homosexual — to its 1982 and 1987 new edition Bibles. Yet elected to revise that text and remove the text from the 1994 editions. Ironically, the 1989 edition didn’t include the term either. Still, Zondervan Publishing neglected to inform the public of their changes.

You get the idea. Earlier in the complaint he cites the New King James version, but the 1982/1987/1989/1994 “editions” he quotes are actually the NIV, the Amplified Bible, the NRSV (you can find it here), and the King James.

As far as the translation itself, the Greek words in question are μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται, malakoi and arsenkoitai, the “soft” and the “man-bedders.” No one is really sure what Paul meant by the terms—well, plenty of people are very sure, but they’re sure of different things—so the translation is necessarily tricky. “Arsenokoitai” is particularly interesting, as this passage is its first known use (and for all I know all the other uses are quoting Paul). He may have been referring to Leviticus 18:22, literally something like “Thou shalt not lie with a man in beds of woman; it is an abomination.” Or not. See the comments at the Language Log post for much better-informed commentary.

My own ill-informed opinion, for what it’s worth, is that “homosexuals” is a lousy translation, as it carries anachronistic cultural connotations. I prefer the King James’ “abusers of themselves with mankind” just for its pungency. But “homosexuals” isn’t obviously completely wrong either. I’m pretty certain Paul would not have approved of homosexuality as we understand it, either as a sexual preference, or as a “lifestyle,” or simply in terms of sex acts themselves. He only barely tolerated sex at all, and then only in marriage.

In any case I doubt this is the most egregious mistranslation in the Bible. Nor is it the most portentous—my nomination for that would be Isaiah 7:14. I think that one goes back to the Septuagint, whose translators would be difficult to sue.

Another Note on The Vision of Gabriel

July 11, 2008

If you’re at all interested in the Vision/Revelation/Apocalypse of Gabriel—and why on earth would you be reading this if you weren’t?—you really ought to read Israel Knohl’s paper that kicked off this last week’s ado. It’s an academic paper, but surprisingly readable even to those of us who know no Hebrew (Hebrew is Greek to me…). Professor Knohl does distinguish between what he’s fairly sure of—messianic/Suffering Servant references, the “by three days, live” resurrection references (from whence he takes the title of his paper), the “background of a bloody confrontation”—and what he admits is speculation depending on reconstructions of lacunae in the text—basically that the “bloody confrontation” was the rebellion in the wake of Herod the Great’s death, and that the resurrected suffering servant was Simon, one of the leaders of the rebellion, known from Josephus and Tacitus. Mind you, I have no idea how conjectural his readings of blurry words really are.

I was struck by another relatively minor point. Knohl interprets a “difficult word” in the text as “white-plastered,” or “whitewashed” or “whited,” in exactly the sense of Matthew 23:27 or Acts 23:3. Apparently that was a common usage at the time. Did Jesus (or Matthew, or whoever) coin the specific phrase “whited sepulchre,” or was that image “in the air”? I should think little things like that can really shed light on the composition of the gospels.

The Vision/Revelation/Apocalypse of Gabriel

July 9, 2008

dss-in-stone The “Vision of Gabriel”1 apparently surfaced a while ago, but has just made a splash this last week; I only heard of it here (where April DeConick wisely counsels caution). PaleoJudaica has lots of links. Here‘s the scholarly article that seems to have caused the stir.

Brief and probably inaccurate recap: the VoG is a piece of stone with 87 lines of difficult-to-decipher Hebrew written on it in ink (not engraved). The text, when creatively interpreted, seems to speak of a Messiah who is to die and be resurrected “on the third day.” As the text seems to date from the first century BCE—I see conflicting reports about whether the evidence is physical or purely linguistic—there is some implication that Jesus (or the early Christians, or the evangelists) were following an established paradigm in the Resurrection story, that the Christian Resurrection story was not novel, and the foundations of Christianity will be shaken to their very core. Or something. Israel Knohl, author of the afore-cited paper, in Time:

The idea of a “dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism,” he says. “But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus.” If so, he goes on, “this should shake our basic view of Christianity. … What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

My own thoughts, which will certainly change once I do more than skim some of what I cited above:

  • The foundations of Christianity will not be shaken to their very core. The vast majority of Christians’ faith isn’t based on anything that can be affected by evidence of any sort (I mean that in both a good way and a bad way).
  • And in fact if the VoG is real and this interpretation is correct—big ifs—it seems to me to confirm the “standard view” of Jesus as “fulfilling the Scriptures.” It’s in the Nicene Creed, for goodness’ sake. See this for more along these lines.
  • If it’s legit it is of course very interesting, possibly as a direct or indirect precursor of the Gospels, certainly as a evidence of what sort of milieu Jesus and the early Christians lived in.
  • It could of course be a fraud. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to suspect this artifact in particular, but there’s lots of reason to suspect anything that allegedly pertains to early Christianity. Making convincing frauds is (relatively) easy and the stakes are high. I don’t know whether the unusual (unique?) ink-on-stone form ought to make us more or less suspicious.
  • The text is full of holes, and as with lots of these things would very likely be obscure even if it were complete. (See a transcription here, from the Biblical Archeology Review). Professor Knohl’s reconstruction and interpretation are of necessity awfully speculative.

1. I think I’d use the word “apocalypse” rather than “vision” or “revelation,” entirely for coolness value—I know no Hebrew, so that’s the only reason I could have—except that “apocalypse” has too much cultural baggage.

Wesley Clark Speaks Truth, Hilarity Ensues

July 2, 2008

When I first heard that Wesley Clark had said “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” my first reaction was something to the effect of “well of course, but that’s an awfully stupid thing to say”; I figured that Clark, not being a real politician, had chosen his words… unwisely. Silly me! I—and you—should know better than to take anything like this at face value. Context really does matter, always. In this case, it seems Clark did not choose those words at all; Bob Schieffer did. Thanks to TPM, here’s the context, followed by some of the more appalling talking-head reactions.

Partial transcript:

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: Because in the matters of national security policy making, it’s a matter of understanding risk. It’s a matter of gauging your opponents, and it’s a matter of being held accountable. John McCain’s never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in Armed Forces as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in Air- in the Navy that he commanded, it wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn’t seen what it’s like when diplomats come in and say, ‘I don’t know whether we’re going to be able to get this point through or not. Do you want to take the risk? What about your reputation? How do we handle it-‘
Bob Schieffer: Well-
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: ‘ -it publicly.’ He hasn’t made those calls, Bob.
Bob Schieffer: Well, well, General, maybe-
Bob Schieffer: Could I just interrupt you. If-
Bob Schieffer: I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean-
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be President.

Are pundits actively dishonest, or just lazy and stupid?