Monday, December 22, 2014

Should lawyers be barred from lawmaking?

Lawyers dominate the political landscape. According to one estimate, "Out of a total of 435 U.S. Representatives and 100 Senators (535 total in Congress), lawyers comprise the biggest voting block of one type, making up 43% of Congress. Sixty percent of the U.S. Senate is lawyers." A legal reform site says:
Since the time of de Tocqueville (1841), students of American government have noted the over representation of lawyers in American politics (se e.g., Hyneman 1940; Hurst 1950; Matthews 1954, 1960; Schlesinger 1957; Derge 1959; Eulau and Sprague 1964; Keefe and Ogul 1989: 117-18). And it seems that the more important the political office, the more lawyers who occupy that office.
I can't find equivalent data for state legislatures but they are probably more or less the same.

The percentage of lawyers holding legislative office doesn't tell the whole story. Every Senator and Congressman has at least one lawyer on the staff to draft bills or try to figure out the meaning of bills introduced by others. It would not be surprising if most legislators who go before a committee to argue for or against a proposed law had to be briefed beforehand to have the thinnest concept of what's in it.

There's more. The U.S. government was designed to have three branches that, it was hoped, would check and balance one another -- legislative, judicial, and executive. One hundred percent of judicial officeholders are lawyers. Currently, the clown who looks in his mirror and imagines he sees a president is a lawyer.

Lawyers win their reputations in combat against the other side in legal cases. (The exceptions are those who write wills and contracts, but they are generally not political candidate material.) That's not a criticism: it's their job to defend the interests of their clients aggressively. It can get ugly, but it's probably the best system that can be devised given human nature.

But what works for court cases does not work for the national good. A predilection for verbal mud wrestling works against sensible legislation based on reasonable accommodation among conflicting interests. In the past, legislative debate often took place between educated lawyers who knew about the history of government and could quote Solon, Cicero, and Gladstone. They made cases for opposing ideas. Today their rhetoric has degenerated into insulting other politicians.
Worse still, lawyers in government tend to live in a mental world where words substitute for content ("I would remind the honorable Senator that this bill includes language that specifies ... "). Language is the alpha and omega, rather than thought about the real-world consequences of legislation.

Lawyers are taught that the law is a society's defense against tyranny. Mmmm, yes and no. Good, sensible laws lubricate daily life and minimize friction. But laws per se are neither good nor bad. They can be stupid and put sand in the gears. And they can be way surplus to requirements. It is often noted that there are so many federal, state, and local statutes on the books that none of us can go a day without violating several of them. Most aren't enforced, of course -- unless a prosecutor wants to kneecap us.
Almost by definition, lawyers think passing new laws is progress. The opposite is true. We should have a principle that to institute a new law, an old one needs to be scuppered. There should be fewer, not more, laws.

But the lawyer mentality has seeped into the minds, if you can call them that, of the journalistic cabal. How many times have you read something like, "Congress failed to pass ... " as though not passing a bill, or rejecting it as bad policy, is shameful? 

Naturally, lawyers aren't going to vote themselves out of access to the trough, any more than they will go for term limits. Such reforms can only happen should there be a major upheaval in our national life. But the idea ought to be kept alive in case that happens.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Message in an electronic bottle

Still trying to get permission from the owner of our new, rented house in Fredericksburg to have Verizon Fios connect us with the outside world. Meantime, no phone, no internet, no TV. (This is written on a library computer.) It's a good thing I like to read. I have hooked up systems to play CDs and DVDs, which helps meet my felt need for entertainment.

As for Reflecting Light, I am pawing at the track to return to normal publication. With a spot of luck it won't be long.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

News from Planet Fredericksburg

The move is over but not done. A house full of boxes that grudgingly allow people and cats to make their way by. Complications with Verizon Fios -- they can't decide whether they need to run an optical fiber cable from the street, and since the house is a rental, I told them I would have to get permission from the real estate management. They, in turn, are hard to reach (especially with only a cell phone).

Still driving up to the old house in Falls Church several times a week to collect leftover stuff from the basement and clean up.

Very tedious to be without home Internet (I'm writing this at the library). It will get sorted out at some point. Meanwhile I have little idea what's going on in the world (although a couple of days ago at a wi-fi hot spot I checked Lucianne on my iPad and it seemed like nothing much has changed). The same boring old doom.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On down the line

The long-anticipated time has finally arrived. My wife, the cats, and I will quit our home of 12 years in Falls Church, Virginia (a near-in suburb of Washington) and resettle in Fredericksburg, about halfway between D.C. and Richmond. Not that far in miles; but what a difference in, uh, just about everything. I expect to write several postings about the new locale.

I'll miss the culture available in D.C.; not that much else. It will still be feasible to drive to Washington to visit a Smithsonian Museum or hear a concert, but a right pain to get there and back. It involves a round trip on the Hell Road, otherwise known as Interstate 95, not only choked with cars piloted by demonic drivers, but a 50-mile construction site. Maybe the road work will improve motoring conditions, maybe it's a payoff for unions supporting some troglodyte politician. Probably both.

Those who know the history of The War (in 'Burg, you don't have to specify which) are aware that two ghastly battles took place in and near the town, in 1862 and 1863, respectively. The second was at Salem Church, now in the midst of suburban development; we will be living a couple of miles from there.

For me, besides the usual turmoil of a house move, this has a kind of existential quality about it. Clearly it is a shift from one phase of life to another. I know it will be a major change, to possibly the last place I will inhabit in this lifetime. We'll see how it goes. But for sure, my wife won't have to navigate the 95 anymore to get to her work. Thank God.

Reflecting Light will go "dark" (as they say in the theater) for at least a week, possibly longer, till I get my internet connection set up again. I hope you'll check back. So long for now.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Herbert Blomstedt's Bruckner 8th

To  relieve the tedium and stress of shifting house, I got me a recommended recording of Bruckner's Symphony no. 8. (Even for Bruckner, the piece has an especially complicated history of revisions, including some made long after the composer had passed from the scene; this seems to be the pure Robert Haas edition -- as if I could tell).

The recommendation was by Stephen Chakwin, in the May/June 2008 American Record Guide. To my way of thinking, Mr. Chakwin is the best reviewer of classical music in the business today. (He has another business -- he's a lawyer.)

The recording is of a live concert with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. It was his farewell as the music director after several years of leading the orchestra in the '90s. I was in the audience for this same crew in Tucson when they were on tour.

My reaction on hearing it for the first time was a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment. The orchestra is world-class, although many other first-rate ensembles have played the symphony. Blomstedt is a gifted musician who doesn't indulge in eccentricities or exaggerated point-making. Many felicities of the score have been carefully polished. Strings and horns are partners, not adversaries, their colors mixing in extraordinary ways. For once, the harp in the Adagio actually seems to be part of the fabric of the music, not embroidery.

So what was disappointing? Comparisons are odious, but who can avoid them? My favorite versions have been Furtwängler (1944) and Karajan (1988), both -- interestingly -- with the Vienna Philharmonic. God bless Maestro Blomstedt, but he is no Furtwängler and he is no Karajan. Blomstedt's style struck me as stern, with too much stop-and-start even for music that incorporates pauses as a key element.

Of course I often change my mind after a first listen. I was keen to play the recording again after two days, a good sign.

Sure enough, I had a sudden insight that came to me long after it should have, much later than I expect most Bruckner enthusiasts have rumbled it. Bruckner lived and worked in the Romantic period of the late 19th century, but he is not a Romantic composer. (Even Symphony no. 4, nicknamed "Romantic," is at most so only in comparison with Bruckner's others.) The musical landscape at the time was divided into opposing camps, followers of Brahms and followers of Wagner. Bruckner, as I have read many times, practically worshiped Wagner. But the stylistic association somehow always escaped me.

You can play Bruckner in a romantic way, as Karl Böhm (also with Vienna!) and Bruno Walter did, and achieve wonders. But I've finally "gotten it" that Bruckner modeled his expression after Wagner. There is a difference, though: Bruckner absorbed Wagner's brilliant dramatism, but overlaid it with a spiritual dimension that was deeply important to him.

A good deal of Blomstedt's interpretation snapped into place the second time I heard his recording. Still, the great Adagio is too insistent and unloving -- if only he had treated it with the sweet delicacy he brought to the trio (the soft middle section) of the Scherzo! In a performance like this, we need relaxation and gentility in the midst of the rocky climb to beatitude.

The recording is remarkably true, especially considering it was taken in a live performance, probably one performance (many live recordings are patchworks from different nights). As Mr. Chakwin says, "You will have as close to a Bruckner orchestra in your home as your sound equipment can deliver."

The producer has insisted on the typically idiotic practice for live recordings of including applause -- both before and after the concert. At least he had the decency to put it on separate tracks so you can program it out.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cat scratch fever

Our forthcoming house move is probably going to be upsetting for the cats. Unavoidable, but there it is. We are abandoning some old furniture as not worth hauling and will be getting, at the least, a new sofa. And we'd just as soon les chats would refrain from sharpening their claws on it.

My wife bought a scratching mat for them at Trader Joe's, of all places. I thought cats liked upright posts to keep their claws in condition, but this item is a horizontal box that lies on the floor; the interior is made of cardboard in a miniature honeycomb pattern.

Also supplied was a bag of catnip -- organic, if you please, and I hope gluten-free -- which the instructions said to place on the box to get the animals in the mood. We sprinkled some of the catnip as directed, then left to take some boxes of stuff to our soon-to-be residence.

Returning a few hours later, we found that Matisse had gone for the catnip in a big way. Not only did he apparently clean out the box, but found the bag with the remainder, knocked it off a shelf, and enjoyed another helping served on the floor.

Cosette exhibited more decorum. She does not seem to care to scratch the box, but it is now a favored location for her to sit and watch the world go by.