Book Review: Open To Debate

Open To Debate is a book about the life and work of William F. Buckley, Jr. by American film and media professor Heather Hendershot. The book examines the role of his television show Firing Line (1966-99) in shaping the American conservative movement in particular and the overall political scene more generally. The book is divided into six chapters, bookended by a lengthy preface and introduction as well as a short conclusion.

The preface deals with Buckley’s formative years, including his experience at a boarding school in England, his time in the US Army during World War II, and his reaction to his time at Yale. His success with God and Man at Yale (1951) led to his founding of National Review magazine in 1955. He participated in mediated debates with ideological opponents through the 1950s and 1960s, which eventually led to Firing Line. A particularly bad performance in a debate against James Baldwin demonstrates Buckley’s weaknesses, many of which he would improve upon over the years. The New York City mayoral campaign of 1965 in which Buckley ran as a third-party candidate shows the stark contrast between Buckley and a politician, which is all the more interesting because his brother, James Buckley, was a US Senator and federal judge. An example of the types of guests who fared well on Firing Line versus the types who did not comes next, then the preface ends with a comparison between the show and what has replaced it (or failed to) in the news and public affairs programming category.

The introductory segment discusses the beginnings of Firing Line in 1966, including the discussion format, production values, nature of guests, the time of airing, whether to have commercials, and whether to have a moderator. Much of this was a matter of trial-and-error in the first few years of the show, with the show taking on its iconic form after moving to PBS in 1971. Hendershot includes some of Buckley’s media experiences beyond his own show, which illustrate that he could fit in on other programs despite being a Hollywood outsider. Much of the rest of the chapter highlights several 1960s episodes.

The first chapter begins with the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election. Buckley’s quest was to make conservatism respectable, which meant trying to purge conspiracy theorists, violent racists, religious zealots, and extreme anticommunists from mainstream conservatism, with a partial exception for the less unhinged anticommunists. Hendershot details Buckley’s opposition to the John Birch Society across several episodes. As for the charges of extremism, Buckley invited Goldwater onto the show in 1966 to show him not to be the person that Democrats portrayed him as during the election.

The anticommunism of Buckley is the focus of the second chapter. Hendershot begins by giving the context of the time and of Buckley’s upbringing to help the reader understand the approach taken on Firing Line. Buckley debated socialists and progressives rather than outright communists, and did so from a position of defending McCarthyism in general but not the excesses of McCarthy himself. She provides excerpts from Buckley’s discussions with John Kenneth Galbraith and Noam Chomsky, two prominent leftist intellectuals of the time, then discusses the appearance of Theodore White, a repentant communist sympathizer, in 1978. Hendershot then turns to the episodes with Victor Navasky, Nation magazine editor and critic of McCarthyism and Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s senior counsel during the hearings to show the difference between Buckley and more ardent anticommunists.

The third chapter covers Buckley’s opposition to the Black Power and civil rights movements, though he supported many of the ideas advocated by those movements. Hendershot returns to the episode with Cohn and Mark Felt, the senior FBI agent who would later be revealed as the Watergate informant Deep Throat, to show Buckley’s opposition to lowbrow tactics in government opposition to Martin Luther King Jr. Next, the episodes with Floyd McKissick, Judge Leander Perez, Gov. George Wallace, and Sen. Strom Thurmond are used to show Buckley’s rejection of the ideas that the civil rights movement was a front for communism, that racism was conservative, and that states’ rights were synonymous with racist policies. McKissick’s appearance also highlights Buckley’s agreement with Black Power objectives, if not some of their tactics and leaders. Hendershot uses the shows with Eldridge Cleaver and Milton Henry, along with his refusal to host LeRoi Jones or H. Rap Brown, to show the limits of Buckley’s tolerance for extremists, which went quite far.

In the fourth chapter, Hendershot examines Buckley’s opposition to feminism and women’s liberation. Again, Buckley supported equal rights but not the equal rights movement due to its fringe characters and goals. Here, the Firing Line episodes with Phyllis Schlafly and Midge Decter demonstrate his lack of far-right extremism, while the episodes with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Harriet Pilpel show his opposition to the feminist movement and some of its more outlandish goals. Hendershot also includes Buckley’s interactions with Clare Boothe Luce as a sort of middle ground.

The fifth chapter is about how Buckley dealt with the Nixon administration. Hendershot covers Nixon’s 1967 appearance on Firing Line and several episodes dedicated to Nixon’s policies and legal troubles to show Buckley’s independence from Nixon. The episode with Woodward and Bernstein has Buckley almost defending Nixon and arguing that he should have destroyed the tapes, while the episodes on war crimes were quite critical of Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. Buckley’s darker impulses are also revealed in this chapter with regard to censorship and laws against victimless behaviors, along with an unwillingness to take much action upon them. The final part of the chapter has Buckley making the argument that Nixon’s downfall was caused by non-conservative behavior and that he was a deviation from the correct course for the right.

Chapter six takes us through the Reagan years and beyond to examine the results of Buckley’s efforts. Hendershot begins by discussing Reagan’s rightward shift and the growth in his ability to keep up with television hosts. She uses excerpts of Reagan’s 1967 and 1971 Firing Line appearances to demonstrate his improvement, but only writes about his 1980 appearance while campaigning and 1990 appearance to review his presidency. Reagan’s 1978 debate with Buckley over ownership of the Panama Canal shows Buckley’s dedication to realpolitik and unwillingness to abide conspiratorial thinking. Ron Paul’s 1988 appearance is used to show the limits of Buckley’s libertarian leanings. Next, Hendershot discusses Buckley’s rejection of the religious right, which was instrumental in electing Reagan, and the differing perspectives on the 1980s that come from left versus right. The chapter concludes with Reagan’s opposition to PBS (which aired Firing Line). References to Buckley’s final book, The Reagan I Knew (2008), are sprinkled throughout.

In the conclusion, Hendershot offers praise for Firing Line despite her leftist personal views, even recommending that a Firing Line 2.0 be created to attempt to replace the role of contemporary political discussion shows that frequently devolve into unintelligent partisan bickering. She laments that this is unlikely to happen, and that many of the far-right groups that Buckley sought to suppress are now enjoying a resurgent popularity.

The book offers a thorough examination of Buckley’s television program, if not Buckley as a whole. The book feels longer than it is, but the subject matter of a show that ran for 33 years demands length. Hendershot could do a bit less editorializing, but this is not overly disruptive. Overall, the book excels at its core objective and is worth reading.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: Closing The Courthouse Door

Closing The Courthouse Door is a book about role of the judiciary in the American system by law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. The book examines how Supreme Court decisions over the past few decades have greatly limited the ability of the courts to protect civil liberties, hold government accountable, and enforce the Constitution. The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the problem of reduced access of the American people to the courts.

In the first chapter, Chemerinsky argues that if rights cannot be enforced and damages cannot be awarded by the courts, then the government and its agents may do as they please, as unenforceable limits are functionally equivalent to no limits. He views Marbury v. Madison as a cornerstone of American jurisprudence rather than a usurpation of power not granted by the Constitution, and views the Constitution as an effort to limit government rather than as an expansion of government beyond what the Articles of Confederation allowed. Chemerinsky makes a case for the judicial branch being the most suitable branch for enforcing the Constitution, then addresses and rebuts several competing views of the role of the judiciary.

Sovereign immunity is the focus of the second chapter, and Chemerinsky shows how the idea that the state can do no wrong is at odds with many American values and constitutional principles, including federalism, due process, and government accountability. However, the Supreme Court has made numerous rulings expanding sovereign immunity since the time of the Eleventh Amendment‘s adoption, making it virtually impossible for a citizen to obtain a redress of grievances when victimized by the state. He tackles several arguments in favor of sovereign immunity, such as protecting government treasuries, separation of powers, and the existence of alternative remedies. Next, Chemerinsky examines how case law has granted effective immunity to local governments, even though they do not officially have it.

In the third chapter, Chemerinsky continues with the theme of immunity by discussing it at the level of government agents. He discusses the Bivens case, which allows federal agents to be sued for damages if they violate constitutional rights, and the subsequent hostility of the Court to that decision. Disallowing suits when Congress provides an alternative remedy, when Congress says they are disallowed, when military personnel are defendants, when judges find it undesirable to allow such claims, or when private prisons and their guards are defendants, has all but overruled Bivens. Furthermore, Chemerinsky argues that absolute immunity for certain government officials should be replaced by qualified immunity to give the officials room to work but hold them accountable.

The fourth chapter details how various Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the ability of citizens to bring matters before the courts. Chemerinsky explains how the doctrine of standing has been invented and used to keep actions which do not have particular identifiable victims from being adjudicated. He argues that the narrow interpretation of what constitutes an injury and the refusal to hear claims based on a generalized grievance that all Americans suffer mean that no one is able to challenge the government in court when it violates the Constitution. The second half of the chapter covers the political question doctrine, and Chemerinsky makes the case that it is essentially a punt by the judicial branch to the elected branches of government with the end result of trusting them to follow the law, which history shows to be an unrealistic option.

The gradual erosion of the writ of habeas corpus is discussed in the fifth chapter. Here, Chemerinsky shows how the Supreme Court has upheld vastly disproportionate prison sentences on technicalities, kept federal courts from enforcing the Fourth Amendment through habeas corpus, disallowed claims not made and evidence not presented in state courts from being heard in federal courts, barred arguments for novel rights that the Supreme Court has not yet recognized, and prevented prisoners from filing multiple habeas corpus petitions. He explains how the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has all but removed the right of habeas corpus at the federal level.

In the sixth chapter is called Opening the Federal Courthouse Doors, but the chapter actually shows even more examples of them being closed. For example, plaintiffs can now be required to show facts without being allowed to go through the discovery phase of a case that is required to learn those facts, setting up a catch-22. The abstention doctrine created in Younger v. Harris and is cited as a major barrier to the proper operation of federal courts as well as a means for state officials to abuse citizens. Chemerinsky then discusses the difficulties in using class action lawsuits that have been imposed in recent years as well as the rise in private arbitrations that favor corporations over individuals.

The final chapter begins with cases involving egregious human rights abuses by the CIA. These cases were dismissed on the grounds that state secrets might be revealed if the cases were tried, which is yet another way to keep courts from enforcing the Constitution. Chemerinsky concludes by addressing objections to the arguments made through the entire book.

The book is just over 200 pages, but feels as long as any 400-page book that I have read. To his credit, Chemerinsky’s left-wing political leanings do not appear any more than they must in order for him to make his arguments. Libertarians will undoubtedly think that the changes proposed in the book do not go nearly far enough, but Closing The Courthouse Door is still worth reading for those capable of handling the subject matter.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: Come And Take It

Come And Take It is a book about 3D printing of firearms and the implications thereof by American entrepreneur Cody Wilson. The book details Wilson’s experiences over nine months in 2012-13 when he decided to leave law school and figure out how to use a 3D printer to make a functional plastic handgun. It also conveys his thoughts on political events of the time, such as the re-election of President Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

The story of Wilson’s entrepreneurship is not so different from many others; he must decide whether to make his venture be for-profit or non-profit, decide whether to work for the state or the people, figure out how and where to get funding for his operations, find the right people to work with, wrestle with the impulse to continue his schooling versus working on his entrepreneurial idea, and deal with legal challenges and roadblocks thrown his way by established interests. What sets it apart is the unique nature of his work.

Wilson’s story takes some interesting turns, such as trips to Europe and California where he meets with everyone from left-wing anarchists in the Occupy movement to a club of neoreactionaries led by Mencius Moldbug. This shows that the project to allow everyone to be armed regardless of government laws on the matter changes the political calculus across the entire spectrum, thus making him a person of interest to people of a wide range of political views.

The book is a valiant effort in creative writing and storytelling, but its subtitle of “The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free” is rather misplaced. It is not so much a guide for someone else to follow as an example which future entrepreneurs may study in order to adapt proper elements thereof for their own projects. The technical details that one might hope for in such a book are only partially present, though we may fault the US Department of State for that, as Wilson tried to include details of the production procedure for his plastic handgun but was forced to redact the material with large black blocks in the final chapter.

In a strange way, the book feels both long and short. Though it is just over 300 pages, it takes much less time to read than most books of that size. Come And Take It offers an interesting look into the mind and experiences of a true game-changer in the world of technology and self-defense, though the reader who is looking for thorough details on 3D printed weapons or a general manifesto on liberty must look elsewhere.

Rating: 3.5/5