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Hanging Out With White Dudes February 27, 2007

Posted by betweennaps in Life, Politics.

This past weekend I attended the Federalist Society Student Symposium, hosted by Northwestern University School of Law.  This year’s theme was “Law & Morality.” 

My thoughts on the Panels/Debates:

Friday Evening Debate: Religion in the Public Square

Michael Newdow, the atheist who challenged the constitutionality of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and the founder of “the First Amendmist Church of True Science (FACTS) debated Kevin Hasson, from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  Michael Newdow’s stance was that “under God,” was religious discrimination against atheists, and it would be the equivalent to Christians of having the phrase “under Allah” in the pledge instead.  He argued that this was different from a Christian holiday like Christmas because that’s historically based, and “under God” was affirmatively asserted into the pledge of allegiance fifty years ago.  Although I disagreed with his conclusion, he definitely had an argument, and wasn’t crazy like I anticipated.

Kevin Hasson argued that since the time of Plato and Aristotle, the question of whether there was a God was a philosophical question, but the question of who that God is is a theological question.  Therefore, the issue of the pledge is a philosophical one, and has nothing to do with religion.  I’d never thought of it that way before, but it seems to make a lot of sense.  I guess I can’t figure out why an atheist would even care.  It’s not like acknowledging an alternative religion will somehow offend a god you don’t believe exists.

Friday Evening Panel: What Is Morality?  The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Moral Debate

This panel was a bit over my head.  Having absolutely no experience with philosophy, when the panelists started referring to Kant, metaphysics, and deconstructionism, I wasn’t able to fully grasp some of their arguments.  One speaker said that there was more than one morality (I guess that means morality is a viewpoint as opposed to an absolute truth), and in Western society, that morality is human rights.  However, the question then becomes whether human rights can survive deconstructionism.  I think that pinpointed what annoys me about human rights advocates so much.  Not that there’s anything wrong with human rights, but I think that it should be a policy consideration rather than a universal morality.  Another speaker differentiated between public morality and private morality.  He described private morality as ethics, and public morality as the social structure which allows people to pursue their own ethics in a crowded world.  Finally, one speaker said that all moralities have a universal elements that are beyond the self.  For example, in a jury system, judgments stem from morality.  This leads to a statement that George Washington made in his farewell address, that although it’s possible to have morality without religion, practically, it’s doubtful whether such a society can be sustained.  I think one need only look to at what happened to the nations under the atheists Pol Pot, Mao, or Stalin to see how true that is.

Saturday Morning Panel: Moral Choices and the Eighth Amendment

I also had some difficulty following this panel.  Discussing the “cruel and unusual” phrase of the 8th Amendment, the first speaker listed three alternative definitions for the word “cruel.”  I can’t remember the first definition, but the second definition was an excessive punishment in comparison to the crime committed, and the third definition was a disproportionate punishment in relation to other crimes and criminals.  Historically, the phrase was put in the 8th Amendment in response to the English monarchy charging excessive bail fines for political opponents.  In light of this and the combination of the terms cruel with unusual, rather than looking interjurisdictionally (at how other nations treat things like the death penalty), it makes more sense to look intrajurisdictionally.  Historically it would be similar to if someone the king didn’t like getting a bail of 100x more than someone who the king liked doing the exact same thing.  This interpretation would fit in with the historical context and with the term “unusual.”

The second speaker argued that because morality is unknowable, rather than judges deciding (what is moral or constitutes cruel and unusual?), it is best decided by a consensus.

The final speaker said that judges either had to decide for themselves (first person) how to interpret the 8th Amendment, or they must decide how other people think it should be interpreted (third person).  Ultimately, as a practical matter, judges must make their own moral judgments, however, this might mean looking at social consensus.

Saturday Morning Debate: Same-Sex Marriage: Marriage, Public Policy, and the Constitution

I was surprisingly impressed by this debate.  The two debaters were friends previously, and I was impressed by how civil and witty the exchange was, as often times the issue of same-sex marriage becomes heated and personal.  The conservative debater, Amy Wax, I was also impressed to learn, holds a bachelors from Yale, M.D. from Harvard Medical School, a J.D. from Columbia, and is the mother of three.

Professor Louis Michael Seidman, arguing for same-sex marriage, started off with a somewhat weak argument that (1) the same scripts don’t work for all people, and forcing them on others causes harm, and (2) gay sex is good because it’s a subset of sex, which is good because it’s pleasurable.  I don’t buy the notion that if something is pleasurable it’s necessarily good.  Professor Amy Wax also pointed out that this is a very self-centered view point, and really doesn’t take into consideration children at all.  The more believable point that Seidman posited was that gay marriage isn’t about abandoning tradition, but it’s about gay people embracing the traditional notion of marriage.  The other funny thing that he said during the question and answer session was “I’m not into anal sex.”  How often do you hear a professor say that!?

From her appearance, Amy Wax looks kind of mean and scary.  However, I was very impressed by how articulate she was.  When Seidman told a story about how a gay man jokingly offered to buy another man flowers in front of his class, and it wouldn’t have been acceptable if the situation were with a man and a woman, Professor Wax told the audience, “I like red roses.  Bring it on.”  Her argument wasn’t so much that we shouldn’t have same-sex marriage, but that we shouldn’t rush into it.  I also appreciated that she said that arguments against same-sex marriage needed to be secular because otherwise debate would be futile.  She essentially argued that there should be a presumption of tradition and we shouldn’t rush into same-sex marriage because (a) infirmity of intellect – people can’t canvas all the ramification of their private actions, and (b) infirmity of will – there’s no check that the change would be selfish.   She also identified three ambiguities that have not yet been resolved that same-sex marriage would bring: (1) the role of reproduction – blended families don’t do as well as single parent families, in fact, they’re as troubled by single parent families.   By definition, same-sex marriages will be blended families.  (2) The role of sex, and (3) The role of sexual fidelity – there’s a difference between erring and completely disavowing the notion of a single partner, and it’s unclear how gay culture will affect traditional marriage.

Saturday Afternoon Panel (I): Government Promotion of Moral Issues

I expected this topic to focus on things like smoking, gambling, and drinking, but I didn’t expect dueling to be frequently mentioned, which it was.  Each of the panelists had a different view, although not necessarily conflicting.  Professor Marcus Cole from Stanford was a black, Christian, libertarian, who looked like he could have been 25, but I’m sure he was much older.  He discussed the difference between the morality of aspirations and the morality of duty.  The first being how we think we should live our lives (don’t have affairs, drink too much, etc), and the second being not to hurt each other.  At issue is only to what extent the government should legislate the morality of aspirations.  He supported the legalization of prostitution, at which I was surprised by how many people cheered.  There were a few other things that caught me off guard that he made fun of, including the NEA, the GotMilk? campaign, and recycling (how people don’t have a logical argument, so they make recycling a moral issue).  He said that taxation is a form of slavery, which I’m not sure if I buy, but it an interesting thought.

Professor Lino Graglia was a pretty funny guy.  He had asked a lot of heated questions to the previous panelists, so I was a little surprised when I realized he was a professor.  He stated that there’s a difference between having the government having the ability to ban something, and whether or not the government should ban it.  I believe he’s either an atheist or an agnostic (although based on his questions I think he thinks religion is still a good thing), and he said that without religion, morality and utilitarianism are inseperable, so things can only be judged by whether they work.  Amusing examples that he brought up include state lotteries and the flourination of water.  One of the audience questions pointed out that one of the costs of federalism is that it can negatively influence states.  The example given was that with the lottery/gambling, many states didn’t want a state lottery, but after the first state started it, other states figured that if their residents were going to be spending the money, they may as well keep the money within the state.  Graglia got a few laughs when he commented that Federalism is an annoyance in this situation, and as a professor he teaches students to be tricky.

Professor Lillian BeVier said that the state can’t legislate virtue, but they can prohibit immoral behavior.  Exactly how what the difference is, I’m not sure.  I also can’t remember if she was the one who advocated limits on the government, those concerns being (a) that prosecutors would have too much power and could apply the law unfairly to minorities, (b) that if the laws are widely disobeyed, it would foster disrespect for the law in general, and (c) when it is enforced, people might not know that it’s illegal.

Finally, Professor Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, stated that many of the things shouldn’t be decriminalized because too many people look to the law for moral guidance.  As an example, the legalization of gambling in the 1970’s resulted in an explosion in gambling.  The victims of victimless crimes are family members and other people in society.  He suggested that instead, we should use ads against abortion the way the government currently does in its anti-smoking campaigns.

I also can’t remember which panelist made the comment that sometimes you have to take a moral stance, an example being slavery.  I completely agree, and I think a modern day extention would be abortion.

Saturday Afternoon Panel (II): Morality of First Amendment Jurisprudence

This panel focused on pornography and obscenity.  It was quite interesting for me to listen to a discussion about pornography in an overwhelmingly male audience.  Phyllis Schlafly, a distinguished, elderly woman, really impressed me, especially considering the fact that she didn’t have legal training.  Her take on the subject was that the general public should be allowed to ban pornography if they want.  Instead, the Supreme Court blocked the public’s attempts to minimize vulgarity.  This was a new perspective for me, and I think I agree with her.  She also contrasted the fact that currently there are restrictions or disputes over school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the 10 commandments, and yet when people want restrictions on pornography, the court won’t allow it.  Although it was a panel, the main person arguing against her was Professor Geoffrey Stone, who holds a strange belief that Christians think that sexual arousal is bad because Saint Augustine had beef with it.  When a somewhat crazy older man challenged is representation of Augustine, people cheered.  His stance,which was reasonable enough, was that just because something has a bad effect, it doesn’t mean that you should ban the expression.  He analogized that like fighting words can be the equivalent of spitting at someone, pornography is like a hand on your thigh.  I think he also called it “a masturbatory tool.”  An additional panelist said that there’s a difference between liberty and license, and state legislatures should decide the legality.

Saturday Evening Keynote Banquet – William H. Pryor, Jr.

I was highly impressed by Judge Pryor.  He is a practicing Catholic, and it was so refreshing to hear someone open about his faith, and who concluded his speech, “may God bless you all.”  What I took from his talk was “render to God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  He discussed his experience prosecuting the judge who refused to remove the ten commandments monument from the courthouse.  Pryor’s stance was that God never commanded Caesar to decorate his rotunda in a particular fashion.  As a Christian, you are supposed to follow the law of the land.  The judge, as a public official had a duty to obey the law.  Also, if as a private citizen, you want to make a statement by disobeying the law, like Martin Luther King, Jr., part of that is accepting the consequences.

Other Random Thoughts:

While there were 1000 or so people in attendance, 75-80% male, 5-10 Asians, fewer Indians, and fewer Blacks, it actually didn’t bother me that much.  Socializing/networking was awkward, but I always have difficulties talking to strangers.  I met a few pretty nice/cute Russian boys who weren’t even in law school yet, but thought that the symposium would be interesting.  It was pretty funny to see a line coming out of the men’s room, and no line for the women’s restroom.

I forgot what it meant to be cold.  I ended up talking a taxi 5 blocks on Saturday evening because they hadn’t yet shoveled and salted the sidewalks, and I was slipping, literally every step I took.  The rows and rows of coat racks also gave me a nostalgic impression.

Finally, now I know how giant hotel rooms get used.  It was pretty cool to see 1000 people in suits, having a sitdown dinner with wine.  Even cooler that the organization subsidizes travel expenses and the school funded the rest!



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