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Posts Tagged ‘liberty’

In a huge victory for free speech, the Supreme Court of the US today struck down a law that banned recording, possession or distribution of videos featuring animal cruelty. The Supreme Court concluded that as written, the statute is overbroad and limits all sorts of speech that the Court believes is protected by the First Amendment.

The decision also strikes down the notion of “serious value” as a legitimate criteria for determining if certain offensive speech is worth legal protection. However, as Eugene Volokh notes, by the same logic, the obscenity law should also go. Will that happen anytime soon? Volokh opines, and I agree that it is very unlikely the Court will go that far. Weight on tradition will probably prevent the Court from overturning Miller and declaring all obscenity legal.

This naturally still leaves the question: How can all this be reconciled with the use of “serious value” as part of the obscenity test? I think that as a matter of logic it can’t be. But the Court isn’t just after logic; among other things, it also gives some weight to tradition, and the obscenity exception is very deeply rooted in American law.

Still, I dare hope. For this court has given us Heller, Citizens United and Stevens — three great decisions in favor of liberty in a span of two years. So maybe, just maybe, it is not completely absurd to hope for a day when the Supreme Court declares the obscenity law unconstitutional. (And such an occurrence will surely make the NY Times readership’s collective head explode. After fiercely criticizing the ‘right-wing’ court for Heller, Citizens United, and to a lesser extent Stevens, they will be flummoxed about what to do with a ruling that the progressive base will applaud and the conservatives will despise. What fun!)

Update: A NY Times commenter, clearly in the minority, expresses exactly what I feel about matters of free speech.

Thank God. The point of freedom of speech isn’t to protect the content that everyone agrees is acceptable or even desirable–there’d be no purpose to an amendment that protected what everyone agreed was worth protecting.

The point of freedom is speech is to protect the content that exists at the margins of society; the things that many people find to be objectionable or even reprehensible.

Without such protections, core values of our civil society are at risk (namely, the free flow of ideas and information).

As a practical matter, it is also worth remembering that the tables can quickly be turned on what is ‘acceptable’ vs. ‘unacceptable’ discourse–in a matter of a few years, the good can become the bad and the bad can become the good. The 1st Amendment offers protections against these vicissitudes of social norms.

In short, despite the terribleness of dog fighting–and I agree, it is a terrible and immoral sport–this was an excellent decision. No, wait, let me change that a bit: BECAUSE of the terribleness of dog fighting, this was an excellent decision.

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Judge Stevens has announced his retirement from the Supreme Court of the US.

He had a long career on the bench, spanning 35 years. His most prominent opinions include the following.

  • He wrote the majority opinion in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica, 1978, in which he held that the FCC has the power to ban ‘indecent’ speech in radio broadcasting.
  • He dissented in Texas v Johnson, 1989, the case where the Supreme court held that flag-burning as a means of political protest is protected under the First Amendment. In his dissent, an embarrassingly incoherent and ad-hoc piece of writing in my opinion, Stevens claimed that because the ideas of liberty and equality are worth protecting, the flag (which uniquely symbolizes these ideas) is also worth protecting.
  • He wrote the majority opinion in Kelo v City of New London, 2005, the egregious decision which handed the government the right to seize private property from individuals and hand it over to privately held corporations.
  • He dissented in D.C. v Heller, 2008, the landmark case which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for private self-defense.
  • He dissented in Citizens United v FEC, 2010, where the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the right of incorporated organizations (which includes NGOs, labor unions and companies) to fund independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. In my opinion, this case was the biggest victory for free speech in the last five years.

As the above examples make clear, Judge Stevens was on the wrong side of individual liberty in some of the most important cases of his time on the bench. Yes, some of his other opinions did further the cause of liberty, typically cases that involved detainee rights. But on the whole, this libertarian is glad to see Judge Stevens go.

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I think that Scientology is a creepy, over-commercialized enterprise that feeds on people’s irrationality and does not do any good to anyone. In fact, I think the same about all religions and most quasi-religions.

But what was it that a great Frenchman said once? I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to death

To the point.  A French court has sentenced two Scientology centers of “fraud in an organised gang” and slapped a fine of almost a million dollars.

Here’s a link. They are a bunch of other links on the same story, easily accessible through Google, and the stunning thing is that they all use words like “pressured”, “harassed” and so on. Apparently some former members didn’t like all the money that the Church convinced them to spend on vitamins and such like, and so they sued.  No, they were not coerced in any way, nor were they shown a forged copy of  Nature containing a made-up paper on the virtues of Scientologistic vitamins. Merely “pressured”, and we are not talking about vulnerable body parts either.

I think this is a ridiculous case. But I subscribe to rather quaint notions of free speech and individual responsibility. I happen to believe that individuals and organizations should be allowed to say whatever they wish about heaven, hell or the spiritual succor obtained by eating  round bananas. I also happen to think that a conviction for fraud should meet an extremely high threshold of material misrepresentation of facts; for example by selling a handkerchief belonging to Nancy Pelosi to the customer who had asked for one used by Madonna. Short of such objective misrepresentations, irrational nonsense — whether spouted by religious organizations, new age spiritualists, ideologues, vegans or extreme environmentalists — should never be censored or prosecuted. One ought to take responsibility for one’s choices, and following a belief-system is a choice.

That’s my worldview, and I like to call it freedom. France, as I never tire of pointing out, lost sight of the concept a long time ago. I am glad I don’t live there today, and I do not ever plan to either.

(Here’s a related short piece on soothsayers and fraud I wrote a while back.)

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iran-full

I had to share this. Politicians are generally fools, and Mausavi is probably only marginally better than his opponent, but there is no reason to doubt his assertion that “these masses were not brought by bus or by threat, they were not brought for potatoes; they came themselves.”

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Honestly. Can this be real?

A criminal case was filed in a court on Thursday accusing Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh with ‘hurting’ fans by staying away from the Padma awards function.

Dhoni and Bhajji were to be honoured with the Padma Shree by President Pratibha Patil in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Senior advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha filed the case in the court of the CJM Ramdarash seeking to book the cricketers under sections 499 (defamation), 500 (punishment for defamation), 503 (criminal intimidation) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace).

Ojha alleged that the two cricketers insulted fans and dishonoured the prestigious award by staying away from the function.

The comment section is depressing to read. This one, by someone called Kapil Sapre, is probably my favourite:

This is not insult of fans but this is insult of our Honourable President who honours the celebrities with such awards. It is also insult of our nation. Showing such attitude those have made our country to fall on face at international level. No celebritiy henceforth should be allowed to do so and to prevent this those should be fined in terms of money like 25 crores as they also earn that much and imprisonment for at least 3 years. There should be no case and nothing direct punishment. Why because such people are idols of rising youth. If they do so, youth will also tend to do so.

(Hat Tip: Aristotle the Geek)

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[...] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[...] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.

***

And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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Ski helmet poll

This poll depresses me. The state by state breakdown is revealing though. New Hampshire, Colorado, Montana and Oregon are red as I expected, though I am a bit surprised to see California that blue.

Anyway, motorcycle riders have resisted mandatory helmet laws in more than twenty American states despite overwhelming public support for such laws. So perhaps there is still hope.

And besides, this news indicates that Swiss skiers almost unanimously believe helmets and such should not be compulsory. Heh.

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A thought just struck me. All those dashing moustachioed South Indian actors, yeah the ones who beat up the bad guys and gyrate with the voluptuous ladies with equal panache, should write a letter to their adoring fans. They should tell those young fellas that they can do something really great this Valentine’s day; form vigilant squads and protect the couples who decide to go out. Of course, it is difficult to take up the cause of over-happy lovers, but surely these fellas (who presumably have no significant others) will do that much to abide by the wishes of their favourite superstar?

So there you go young fans, you know it is right to woo a pretty lady (your hero does it all the time) and it is also right to beat up a villain soundly (your hero excels at this too) — why not help both happen this 14th? Go out and thrash any Ram Sena activist you see on the street — Rajnikant will bless you.

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This is pathetic.

I hope the guy has a forgiving temperament, because if it was me, the `ex-girlfriend’ would have very bad things happening to her for the rest of her life. I can comprehend murder, abuse or theft for revenge or gain. I can comprehend the most terrible act of tyranny for a selfish cause. Of course I do not condone them, but at some level, I do understand — without necessarily sympathising with — those things and recognize the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. 

Using the force of law to take away another’s liberty just because you think that would be good for him I cannot understand. Or ever forgive.

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I am a long time reader of Radley Balko’s outstanding blog, The Agitator, and I have seldom seen him this jubilant.

From yesterday’s post:

Credit where it’s due: Well done, Mr. Obama. I’m sure we’ll have our differences, but afer your first 40+ hours on the job, this libertarian couldn’t be happier.

The tally:

  • Obama rescinded Bush’s 2001 executive order allowing former presidents, vice presidents, and their heirs to claim executive privilege in determining which of their records get released to the public. Even better, he’s requiring the signature of both his White House counsel and the attorney general before he can classify a document under executive privilege.
  • Issued a memorandum to all executive agencies asking them to come up with a new plan for open government and complying with FOIA requests. [...]
  • Put a freeze on the salaries of top White House aides.
  • Suspended the military trials at Gitmo, and is expected to issue an order closing Gitmo as soon as today.
  • Said this:

    “For a long time now there has been too much secrecy in this city.  [...] The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and holding it accountable. I expect my administration not only to live up to the letter but the spirit of this law.”

  • Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

    That’s something even a cynic like me can celebrate.

    And today:

    Rock ‘n’ Roll:

    President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. [...]Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

    It’s worth emphasizing again here these steps Obama’s taking effectively limit his own power. That’s extraordinary.

    [...]

    In that regard, if I may borrow a phrase: mission accomplished.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say mission accomplished. But these are certainly very important steps and ones that libertarians ought to applaud the president for. 

    I have criticized Obama on several occasions on this blog. Undoubtedly I’ll do so on many more. His basic economic philosophy is some kind of pragmatic statism, his ideology stresses on sacrifices and obligations rather than liberty and he displayed some disturbing tendencies towards censorship during the campaign. But he is also a sensible and highly intelligent person and his actions so far have been far more friendly towards freedom than his rhetoric has been (that’s a trade-off I’ll happily take).

    So credit where credit’s due. Well done.

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    It is a controversial, much maligned organization. Lots of people find their work loathsome. What they do is illegal in almost every other country of the world.

    Dignitas. It’s a beautiful name. And they do beautiful work. To me, they represent freedom as few other things do. Imagine a world where organizations like Dignitas aren’t an exception but a common sight in every major city. A world where the concept has been taken even further: anyone capable of coherently expressing their wish can end their life with dignity at the time of their choice for any reason whatsoever.

    Such a day is far away. So, till then, let us celebrate the existence of a group of professionals who care enough about others that they help them exercise their most fundamental right; one that society has always denied them.

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    (Post updated)

    In my earlier post on this theme, I expressed my opposition to using coercive legal means to advance social goals and my moral abhorrence for laws which censor expression, ban consensual behavior or limit freedom of association. I wrote:

    Any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that laws [which restrict individual liberty] are immoral.

    To give another side of the issue, I am also surprised when people think that it is ‘unlibertarian’ to attempt to modify other people’s behavior — for good or bad — through non-coercive means. A controlling husband who does not want his wife to dance with other men, a guy who ‘makes’  his girlfriend eat healthy foods, a friend who tries to emotionally pressurize you to give up smoking or a lover who makes you give up something you love as a precondition of being with you are not in any way violating the non-aggression principle. Such behavior can be sensible or irrational, helpful or counter-productive but as long as they do not involve actual coercion, they are neither libertarian nor unlibertarian.

    Let me focus on the cases when the controlling behavior is generally seen as bad or unfair. In those examples, the offending party may not often act in an understanding or considerate manner. However they certainly have the right to be inconsiderate. I most definitely have the right to demand that my partner do things in a certain way. The partner also has the right to refuse. At that point, each of us has the right to suggest a compromise, let the other’s wish prevail or end the relationship. As a general principle, I think such controlling behavior is a terrible idea because even if the other person acts as you wish, she will usually resent it and if you do it often enough, end the relationship with you. However, simply because an idea is terrible does not mean it violates another’s liberty. When private, consensual relationships are involved, everyone has the right to stay in it strictly on their terms.

    For instance I would never date a deeply religious person. I would also prefer that my partner’s tastes and convictions are compatible with mine. I might attempt to persuade her to do things in a certain way if they are important to me, even if those things are essentially her personal matter. If the matter is core and non-negotiable, I would even make it clear that we cannot be together if she does not change. These actions may or may not be the best thing for the relationship but they certainly are a natural consequence of my liberty to live my life (which includes my associations and relationships) on the exact terms I wish.

    Libertarianism deals with the legal and the political. The meme that it also governs one’s behavior in a purely social or personal setting  is misguided and display a lack of understanding of the underlying philosophical principles. That is not to say that social and personal behavior is not important or that the pros and cons of a particular kind of behavior should not be discussed; merely that such discussions (or any ethics/principles underlying it) are distinct from the principles that underlie individual liberty. Using pressure and emotional leverage to make a friend change his behavior is fundamentally different from having a law that mandates this behavior change. Social pressure is on an entirely different plane from legal coercion. Friendships, marriages and relationships can be ended by either party for any reason, rational or irrational; an oppressive law can never be escaped from.

    The personal is not the political. Period.

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    If you wish to effectively advance liberty — yes the kind of liberty that I talk about in this blog — or just make a real difference to the life of someone in need, who should you donate to?

    Check out this great list by Radley Balko. Liberty can thrive only if people who care enough about it do something, and surely a check of $25 or so won’t pinch you too much. Radley’s list include key libertarian organizations, charities that actually work and people who have been unjustly persecuted by the state.

    Among the entities that Radley lists, I currently donate to Reason and the Institute for Justice; excellent organizations both. Once I stop being a poor grad student and get a real job (hopefully in six months or so), I hope to significantly expand my giving for liberty. But those of you reading with a real job already, you really have no excuse ;-)

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    What’s so special about Carmen?

    For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

    “If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

    Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

    Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

    The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

    Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

    (Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

    It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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    I went to see the LA Opera production of  Carmen today.

    What can I say about Carmen that hasn’t been said before? I had been waiting to see it for three years. Too often when your expectations are that high, you end up disappointed. Not so with this one.

    It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. It was the most worthwhile $20 I have ever spent.

    When you combine a great story with absolutely magical music you get Carmen. I could of course nitpick. The tenors weren’t that great, Carmen could have been prettier. But the music alone was worth it. Carmen’s voice was fabulous.

    And who would have guessed that the opera with the most perfect music ever would also have as its central character a seductive, fiercely independent woman who fears neither heaven nor hell but only believes in freedom and prefers to choose death than compromise on her liberty?

    Embedded below are my favourite pieces from Bizet’s masterpiece. Enjoy.




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