The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Return of "The Pallisers"

I see that Acorn Media has re-released (last year, in fact, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original airing) a new DVD edition of The Pallisers:

For all of its deviations from the novels, the series does a wonderful job at evoking Trollop's characters, especially the two lead couples--Plantagenet Palliser, later Duke of Omnium, and his wife Glencora, and Phineas Finn and Marie "Madame Max" Goesler.

The series does not shy away from the outsider status of Phineas and Marie--she is older, foreign, Jewish, he an Irish Roman Catholic. Even when Phineas's attention is directed elsewhere, the chemistry between them, as portrayed by Donal McCann and Barbara Murray is striking:

The adaptation was written by Simon Raven, an interesting, and under-appreciated novelist in his own right. The relationship between Trollope's texts and the adaptation has been elegantly illuminated in a series of blog posts at Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too.

Although I had read the novels long before I ever knew there was a television adaptation, I enjoyed the adaptation very much, and it was marathon re-watch my wife and I did of the series that awoke my slumbering interest in continuing Trollope's story.

So, with last year the 40th anniversary of The Pallisers, the forthcoming graphic novel version of Trollope's John Caldigate, and next year Trollope's own bicentennial year--it's a good time to celebrate Anthony Trollope, whose sympathy melted even the prejudices he had imbibed from his culture.

Edited to Add: Of course, as the book to which Phineas at Bay is most directly a sequel, Phineas Redux, was published in book form in 1874 (the serialization ran from 1873-1874), my timing could only have been better if I'd waited another decade.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

To Be or Not to Be?

The above scene is from a 1982 revival of Pippin. The theater group that has been leading the son of Charlemagne through all the occupations and pleasures of life, only to confront him with a final option to provide meaning in his life: set himself on fore as great final act in the circus they have been presenting to the audience, us.

Notice how the Leading Player (Ben Vereen) and Fastrada (the evil step-mother, saucily and comically portrayed to this point by Chita Rivera), suddenly interact for the first time in the show, how in their dancing around Pippin, each mirrors the other--he moves in, she moves out, she moves out, he moves in--and there they are, allied in persuading our protagonist to die a horrible death.

The friendly mentor and the comic villainess, and the whole gallery of characters in Pippin's life (father, step-mother, grandmother, half-brother, friends) we've seen (save one), are allies in this performance to convince Pippin that self-destruction is a glorious way to go.

They fail, in the play. For now. This time.

Pippin has a reputation as a light play. It's actually quite dark; a surreal exploration of the power of the human mind to reject the simple good things at hand, and persuade itself that it is far better to go out in a blaze of glory than to enjoy mundane happiness.


Why is this on my mind tonight, you might ask. The show occurred to me in speaking with an old friend tonight who starred in it in our youth. But also, I have been struck through reading the news by the question of what is it in our modern society that makes us half in love with death? Seriously. Between the Middle East, Russia and the Ukraine, and innumerable other conflicts at home and around the globe, an appreciable body of people seem to prefer the spurious charms of Ragnarök to the simple beauty of life.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My World With Bel Kaufman

I was saddened to see that Bel Kaufman died yesterday, aged 103.

Now, granted, 103 is a great age to attain, and somewhat mutes the mourning, but the fact is that there are some authors who touch you at just the right time and place, and no matter how long it's been since their last book, no matter how old they are when they die--it'll be a wrench. (I'm gonna be a wreck when--and may that day be far off!--the still active Herman Wouk is gathered to his fathers. And let me just note in passing that last year's The Lawgiver is a fine example of Wouk in "light" mode; not as good as City Boy, but with that novel's deftness, warmth and humor.)

But Bel Kaufman.

So, she wrote one masterpiece, Up the Down Staircase (1965), published the year before I was born, describing the first year on the job of an idealistic young school teacher, and made that tumultuous, frustrating, bureaucratically insane year into art. The book is funny as hell at points, wry, dark and occasionally verges into Joseph Heller territory.

I read it in the school library (brave choice, library staff!) at the lousy public junior high school at which I attended seventh grade, and, as a smart-mouthed nerd, I suffered for my art. Up the Down Staircase reassured me that my experience was not unique, at the same time it gave me enough distance to laugh at the sheer weirdness around me. So, when I saw an Eighth-grade girl's box of cigarettes fall out of her shirt pocket, in front of the Assistant Principal, a kindly avuncular, completely detached sort, and he stooped down, picked them up and returned them to her--well, "Kaufman!" I would think, and smile. When, on the bus home,a student fired a roman candle at the back of the driver's head (to be fair, one of the bullies had the decency to whisper to me, "Duck!"), again, I would ask myself how Kaufman would portray the incident, and how Miss Barrett would cope with the offenders. (I ducked, and said nothing.)

As to Kaufman herself:
For several years until she got her regular license, Ms. Kaufman was relegated to substitute teaching in a string of New York City high schools, any one of which could have been Calvin Coolidge.

“One morning a boy came to class three months late,” Ms. Kaufman wrote in 1991, in her introduction to a new edition of “Up the Down Staircase.” “I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’”

“Up the Down Staircase” came along, Ms. Kaufman said afterward, at a low point in her life. She was teaching, selling the occasional short story to magazines and “living alone in a tiny apartment with very little money or hope for the future,” as she wrote in 1991. (In the 1940s, in order to sell a story to Esquire, which took a dim view of submissions by women, she began signing her work with the more androgynous first name Bel.)


Over the years, Ms. Kaufman was often asked whether the memorandums in “Up the Down Staircase” were real. Though they were inane enough to look real, she explained, in fact, she had invented most of them. (Ms. Kaufman did include a few actual New York City Board of Education memos, but had to tone them down to make them credible.)

The best indication of Ms. Kaufman’s skill at dead-on bureaucratic mimicry came from one of her former schools. After “Up the Down Staircase” was published, she wrote, an assistant principal there began annotating his official directives with a stern red-penciled admonition.

Rest in peace--and thanks, Teach.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Phineas at Bay: The E-book

I know, I know--it's the week of book promotion on the blog. But, after all, I don't publish a book every week, and the fact is, when I let loose the original announcement, all I knew was that the paperback was available, and that the Kindle edition would be, by or about the end of July.

Yeah, it's available now.

Interesting fact about the kindle conversion process, by the way, and a tribute to my editor Karen Clark's proofreading skills (and, ok, my own--so lacking on this blog, alas--a little bit): When the Kindle conversion takes place, possible typos are flagged for review. There were, in the full 529 pages of the Kindle edition, sixteen (16). They were all Trollopian names based on real-world terms, and so noted as deviations from their root words, except for one deliberate archaism from the 19th Century which I kept in for period "feel."

So--a book that carefully, lovingly proofread--it's like an artisinal cheese, or a delicate hand-carving, right? (No, it is not like a portrait of Elvis on black velvet, Not at all Not remotely). That many words strung together with so few even arguable typos is worth a look, right?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

We Are Number….74,831. Oi!

As of today, that's Phineas at Bay's ranking. Up from number 155,000 and change two days ago, mind, but I see the Fifth Doctor's point:
(An alarm whoops.)
FIFTH DOCTOR: That's an alert, level five, indicating a temporal collision. It like two Tardises have merged, but there's definitely only one Tardis present. It's like two time zones or more at the heart of the Tardis. That's a paradox that could blow a hole in the space time continuum the size of…. Well, actually, the exact size of Belgium. That's a bit undramatic, isn't it? Belgium?
Lovely people of Belgium, do feel free to buy, and I will make amends, but, well, the hard part of self-publishing is trying to catch the eye of the potential readers.

So, let me point out two things:

1. Kindle edition should be available next week; and

2. The "Look Inside" feature is now available; you can try before you buy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Phineas at Large

Well, it's been a bit longer than expected, but Phineas at Bay is now available for your reading pleasure:
“Phineas at Bay is at once an entertaining romp and a serious inquiry into how Victorian problems are also our own. It is a pleasure to read.”—Nicholas Birns, author of Understanding Anthony Powell.

Set in 1890s England, Phineas at Bay picks up where Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series left off: now two decades after the unconventional marriage of Phineas Finn, an Irish Catholic, to the Viennese Jewish widow Marie "Madame Max" Goesler.

Phineas has become an almost entirely independent member of Parliament, nominally belonging to the Liberal Party. But his independence has come at a cost. Having made no political gains, his own party no longer takes him seriously. But an awakening of his political and social conscience leads him to revitalize his political activism and become involved in the newly forming Labour Party.

Meanwhile the rivalry between Socialist Jack Chiltern and the newest member of Parliament, Savrola Vavasor, the two suitors of Phineas’s orphaned niece, Clarissa Riley, draws Phineas into becoming the maître d’armes at a violent duel.

And alongside all the other action, the beautiful Lady Elizabeth Eustace adds to the drama with her shady past and her entanglements with Jack and her ex-husband, a clergyman with a dark reputation of his own.

Scholar and lawyer John F. Wirenius sets the Victorian-era author’s pointed satire loose on today’s political and social excesses, creating a novel that can be read alone or in conjunction with Trollope’s novels.
Having Nicholas Birns's encouragement, after hearing his first-rate lecture on the "Phineas Diptych" as he called the two original novels--Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux--was a great spur toward completion; my editor Karen Clark was enthusiastic in the best way--forcing me to not settle for easy paths out, but to keep working to make it the best book it could be; Susan Wright's feedback and brio for the project, and that of my own father, all kept me writing.

Mostly, of course, though, I did it for la Caterina, who had urged me back in 2006 to tackle the project.

It's out now, and I'll be pushing it, of course. But I can tell you this: I wrote it for the love of some of the most rich and three-dimensional characters in English literature, and their brilliant, bluff (but really tender as thistledown) creator. And I did my best by them, and him.

I hope you'll stop by and have a peep at the book, and maybe even buy it. And if you haven't read the originals--well, you've a treat in store.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Woman Who Kept Going

When, after many years of its being a "lost episode," the BBC recovered "The Web of Fear" and "The Enemy of the World", of course I bought them on iTunes. Well, yes, of course I did--and immediately watched "Enemy," the famous James Bond pastiche. It was a corker--inspired, silly, funny, and genuinely tense--it had something of the the flavor of a Doctor Who-Avengers crossover. (The fact that Troughton played the titular villain, Salamander, as a Mexican would be quite problematic if any effort to do so was discernible--Salamander is definitely not-English, but that's really all you can get from Troughton's hilarious, Clouseau-esque accent, and he plays the part as charming, intelligent, and the mirror image of his Doctor. Troughton playing the Doctor pretending to be Salamander is funny; Troughton playing Salamander pretending to be the Doctor is hilarious; Troughton playing Salamander pretending to be the Doctor pretending to be Salamander is uproarious. The man was a brilliant actor.)

But I held off on Web. The yeti seemed abject 20 years later in The Five Doctors, and then of course there's Downtime:

So, even though Web is the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as The Brigadier, I was…reluctant to actually watch the thing. Actually, I needn't have been. Yes, the yeti are a bit crap. But the performances, the direction, the plot--I watched all six episodes in one go, and enjoyed it immensely.

One of the guest stars, Tina Packer, struck me as being really quite good, and I wondered why I had never heard of her anywhere else. A quick google search turned up a great explanation from 2009:
Packer is also exploring the director/actor relationship, from a different perspective. “When I was rehearsing it,” she says, “I kept thinking, well, when do I take over the action, you know? And I realized I never take over the action.”

Packer is used to being in charge, as artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. She founded it in the Berkshires three decades ago. But now Packer is stepping down to go back to acting. It was actually her first career, in her twenties, in England.

“I wouldn’t say I was famous famous but, you know I did one of the those Mobile Masterpiece Theatre pieces. And I did “Doctor Who,” which is what everybody remembers me for in this country now,” she laughs.

“You know at the time I did it I was trying to pretend I wasn’t doing it, you know, because I was a classical actress.”

A frustrated classical actress, she admits, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I couldn’t have the effect on theatre I wanted to have as an actor,” she says. “Because actors don’t have any power.”

At the time she was obsessed with Shakespeare, but she wanted to approach his texts her own way. This ran against the genteel delivery style most teachers and directors embraced.

“Annunciating, pushing the vowels to the front of the mouth — especially for the women,” Packer says. “It’s all nonsense; Shakespeare’s dirty as hell and full of life and full of vivacity.”

So Packer abandoned her career as an actor in England, raised some money in the U.S., and founded her own company in the Berkshires. She was one of the first women to direct Shakespeare professionally. Packer says it’s a natural fit.

“Because we are good at multi-tasking, you’re following 10 themes and there’s a lot of people on stage and you’ve got to arrange them,” she says. “It’s like having a giant family.”

Running this company is also like nurturing a family — a family of 150 core members — and Packer is the mom. From fundraising to cleaning toilets to cooling family feuds, she does it all. And has from the beginning, according to Tony Simotes.

“As people grew and changed and went to different places, it was really Tina’s heart and soul that kept maintaining, in a sense, the mothership,” Simotes said.

Simotes came to the Berkshires as an actor with Tina 30 years ago. He says it changed his life. They gathered a band of professional players and practically squatted in buildings just down the road from here, at Edith Wharton’s estate, also known as The Mount. It was a creative commune, Simotes says. But like a real family, it wasn’t all love and roses.
What an extraordinary person, and what a life well lived--and still going strong.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Phineas Redux: The Final Proof

So, as I mentioned, the last step before publication is my approval of the final cover as it has been applied to the actual physical book. This, of course, required the arrival of the final physical proof:

(The slight bumping to the top spine was my fault--I got caught in the torrential downpour today, and to save the book, which I had brought to lunch to show a friend, so I pushed it quickly, but not elegantly bak into the mailer sleeve.)

Oh, and here is the back:

(I'm not a great photographer, but I hope these convey the basic aesthetic of the book.)

Once I approve it, the book will be converted to be available in e-book form, and then we go live.

Very soon, now, Phineas will re-enter the lists. And the story's fate will be very much up to the market--readers, reviewers, and commenters.

But, for now, I have a book in hand that I have authored that looks very much as I hoped it would, and has a nice heft in hand.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The C of E Steps Forward

From the Independent:
Centuries of institutional inequality at the most senior levels in the Church of England were swept away today after the General Synod finally voted in favour of legislation paving the way for women bishops. There were scenes of jubilation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, won an overwhelming majority for his package of measures designed to win over the support of traditionalists whilst staving off a crisis after Parliament threatened to intervene.

There were cheers from supporters in Central Hall at the University of York where the three Houses of the Synod – Bishops, Clergy and Laity - had been locked in a day of impassioned debate.

Backers of the measures – the most controversial since the ordination of women priests was passed by a single vote two decades ago – celebrated with champagne and looked forward to the prospect of the first female bishop being appointed within a matter of months.

Archbishop Welby had been prepared to drive through the change in the event of a repeat of the shock no vote from the House of Laity which blocked the move two years ago.

In the end it was not necessary after months of mediation between opposing factions delivered 95 per cent of the votes of bishops, 87 per cent of clergy and 77 per cent of the laity – far and above the two thirds needed to bring about the historic change.
Good news for those sharing the Good News. The world just got a little bit more just.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Geeking Out: Star Trek, BtVS, &c

This clip (audio only, I'm afraid) combines a remarkable array of fandoms: It's Anthony Stewart Head of BtVS fame (and a great guest star on Doctor Who), at a Star Trek convention, doing a number from Chess.

What does it say that YouTube recommended it to me?

Ah, well; I'll go with Alec Hardison: Age of the geek, baby!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Real Thing in the World

Today I received a notification--actually just now, I received a notification--that my initial author's copy of Phineas at Bay has shipped to me. Assuming nothing has gone wrong in the process, the next move will be to go live in both paperback and Kindle form.

It feels like it's been a long time coming, since I first conceived of the book over six years ago, but when I remember that the complete first draft restarted from chapter 3 in April 2013, and a complete draft finished by the end of November of the same year, and that my extraordinary editor Karen Clark and I went through three drafts, not to mention the cover and book design, and proofs, and all of the marketing materials--why, it's been a whirlwind, really.

(Let me mention that Karen has her own novel, which she has entrusted to my care as editor, and which I think will deservedly make quite a splash when launched. It's a finely wrought story, contemporary in every way, and yet with powerful literary resonance. I won't say more yet, but I want to express my gratitude for the fact that I have had the benefit of being edited by a first-rate writer.)

So this isn't the post in which I urge you all to go to my Amazon page (it's not live yet, for one thing) and hope that many of you will find it interesting, and in whatever format, buy.

This is the post in which I ask you to share with me the strangest satisfaction, a calm before what I hope will be a storm. You see, I have since childhood loved books with a passion; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and prose alike. I was an English major, and have read obsessively all my life--but with a special love for the novel, that seemingly simple, but endlessly variable, addictive art form. And I order a lot of books online, whether in e-book--I predominantly use Kindle--or from major publishers, or, most often, from independent bookstores.

But the book coming in the mail this time, jacketed, illustrated, finished, "rounded off and bright and done," (to steal from H.G. Wells via T.H. White, as applied to his own epic)--this finished work of fiction?

It's my own. I have written a novel, quality yet to be assayed. But--I have done the thing.

Something to savor while I wait for it to arrive. Something to savor, whatever its fate and reception.

Wish Phineas and me luck!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Crossover Not Taken...

Over at the Anthony Trollope Society Facebook page, things got a touch silly last night. When I pointed out all the overlaps between Doctor Who and The Pallisers --I wrote, "in the 1970s adaptation of the Pallisers, Derek Jacobi (Professor Yana/the Master in the Doctor Who episode "Utopia" played Lord Fawn; Anthony Ainley (the Master in classic Doctor Who) played Rev. Emilius, and Philip Latham (Lord President of Gallifrey Borusa) played Plantagenet. This led to a suggestion: "an episode in which Trollope is a vampire hunter, Henry James is a vampire, and George Eliot is the intended victim (saved by the hero at the last minute, naturally)."

Right. That's all I ever need:
TARDIS lands in an alley opposite the Universe Club. THE DOCTOR (David Tennant, I rather think) steps out, followed by, oh, let's make it DONNA NOBLE]

DOCTOR: London, but what era?

A scream is heard]

DONNA: Oi, Alien boy, that's our cue.

[GEORGE ELIOT runs past, calling over her shoulder]: Sir, your bloodthirst is as endless as your sentences!


DONNA:: That was George Eliot, yeah? Silas Marner, Mill on the Floss?


HENRY JAMES follows in hot pursuit, calling out: Come, Mary Ann; Yield to me! Let us mingle our inkwells!

DONNA: Yeah, that's a terrible chat-up line.

ANTHONY TROLLOPE runs past, arms with stake and hammer; sees Doctor and Donna.

TROLLOPE: You! Young Man! Aid me, against this word-spewing fiend, lest he revise the novels he wrote in life yet again!

DOCTOR (whips out sonic, pursues) Allons-y!

[sting; cue theme]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Anthony Trollope, Graphic Novelist

(Photo: The Trollope Jupiter)

In today's moment of awesome:
Anthony Trollope is one of the most celebrated novelists in the English language, a towering icon of the Victorian era who is feted by critics and adored by readers to this day.
But now one of his famously lengthy works is being recast in the unlikely form of a comic book, pared down to fewer than a hundred pages of cartoon strips.
The first Trollope ‘graphic novel’ is based on his relatively obscure work John Caldigate. and has been re-named Dispossession
Published in 1879, it is a story of bigamy, blackmail and betrayal set during the Australian gold rush, a very different milieu from the political and ecclesiastical intrigue of the Palliser novels and The Barchester Chronicles for which Trollope is best known.
Under the new title of Dispossession, the comic book will be published next year in time for the bicentenary celebrations of Trollope’s birth.

Dispossession has the same characters and plot as the original novel but it tells the story in a way that will surprise the writer’s legion of fans.
Trollope is often to referred to as the Establishment’s favourite author, and his admirers include former Prime Minister Sir John Major, the Bishop of London Richard Chartres and Lord Fellowes, the Oscar-winning creator of Downton Abbey.
Anthony Trollope is one of the most celebrated novelists in the English language, a towering icon of the Victorian era who is feted by critics to this day
Anthony Trollope is one of the most celebrated novelists in the English language, a towering icon of the Victorian era who is feted by critics to this day
Whereas Trollope’s novel ran to more than 600 pages and included no illustrations, the graphic version has just 96 pages and 576 separate images.
Much of the narrative is delivered in the form of speech bubbles.
It also includes 700 words of Wiradjuri, an Aboriginal language that does not feature in the original book.
John Caldigate is a Victorian ne’er-do-well who graduates from Cambridge with gambling debts and begins a new life in the Australian goldfields.
On the voyage he meets feisty widow Euphemia Smith, and the pair set up home in Australia.
Caldigate returns to England alone after making his fortune and marries his childhood sweetheart, Hester Bolton.
But his past comes back to haunt him when Euphemia turns up and accuses him of bigamy.
More from The Trollope Jupiter:
Dr Grennan explained that he had been commissioned to produce the new book by the University of Leuven in Belgium where the graphic novel enjoys a very different position than it does in the UK. He explained that in the Francophone world, the graphic novel has the status of literature and that children graduate from comics to more serious adult themed (in all senses) graphic novels. It is not unusual, therefore, to find a graphic novel version of Camus’s L’Etranger on the best-seller lists.

In response to an audience question, Dr Grennan said that the market for graphic novels in the UK is less mature (again, in all senses) being predominantly a niche market with a younger target demographic (under age 30).

The new book is being produced in both French and English language versions using the same illustrations but, Grennan noted, with rather larger speech bubbles for the French edition, which will also include an academic foreword which will not feature in the English language version.

The speakers explained that the most significant challenge in adapting the book for the graphic novel format was how to represent the author’s voice. Trollope’s narrator interventions are well known and often shed interesting lights on the characters and plots of his novels. In a radio play adaptation, which Dr Grennan used as an example, this can be achieved by having a narrator speak, but the illustrations of a graphic novel cannot include an author figure. That would breach one of the conventions of the form.

Dr Grennan explained that the approach they had taken to address this conundrum was, in fact, to play with the rules of the graphic novel form a little. The graphic novel is essentially cinematic in its treatment of a story – cutting from long shot to close up and showing different points of view. in Dispossession, Dr Grennan has subverted this convention and maintained a consistent distance from the action in the illustrations – all figures are full length, no close ups – thereby conveying a sense of authorial/narrator distance from the action.
An interesting project, and one which I will most certainly get myself. John Caldigate is one of the handful of AT's works I haven't yet read, and it's clearly time.

I'm a little cross, though, to be denied the academic foreword, as I do not read or speak French.

Dare I say that this looks like an auspicious augury for Phineas at Bay?

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Happy and Safe Fourth of July!

Every year, we read about the annual tradition of self-harm on the Fourth of July. And, really, it is true, and tragic. As we drove home tonight from a very pleasant evening with family, we passed some--er, smoky, regions, where amateur fireworks flew, and at least on fire truck rushed by us. For what it's worth, I, like Ian Howarth, have never minded fireworks--when set off by a professional. It's the amateurs who get hurt.

It has also been going on for a long time; in 1907, Mark Twain visited England (the day he arrived, the Times had two headlines in close conjunction--the announcement of his arrival, and the report of the theft of the Ascot Cup); as a guest, he spoke at an Independence Day celebration:
The American Ambassador proposed "The Day We Celebrate." Mark Twain supported the toast in a humorous speech, beginning with a reference to the stolen Ascot Cup. He said he had tried to convince people that he did not take the cup, but had failed: so he might as well confess that he did take it, and be done with it. Nor did he think it fair, when England had been attempting to take a cup of theirs for forty years, to make so much trouble when he tried to go into the business. Continuing, he said:

"Our Ambassador has spoken of the Fourth of July, and the noise it makes. We have a double Fourth of July in America. We honor it all through the daylight hours, and when the night comes we dishonor it. Just at this hour the pandemonium would be about to begin. More than the noise, there would be people crippled and killed, all through the permission which we give to irresponsible boys to play with fire-arms and fire-crackers. Really we destroy more property on the night of the Fourth of July than the whole of the United States was worth a hundred and twenty-five years ago, and to thousands it is turned into a day of mourning.

"I have suffered in that way myself. I had an uncle in Chicago -- as good an uncle as ever I had, and I have had a lot of them. He opened his mouth to express his patriotism, and a rocket went down his throat. And before that man could ask for a drink of water to quench the thing it had scattered him all over the forty-five states. Really, this is true. Twenty-four hours after that it was a sort of raining buttons on the Atlantic seaboard. A man cannot have a disease like that and be entirely cheerful during the rest of his life. These things grieve me, but don't let them make you sad."
I wish all a happy, and safe, Independence Day.

Hobby Lobby III: Two Tens For A Five

That narrow decision in Hobby Lobby, based on the availability of the accommodation provided by HHS to non-profit religious groups? Guess what the Supreme Court found yesterday in a preliminary decision might violate RFRA now--the very accommodation it based its finding that a less restrictive alternative was available.

Justice Sotomayor's opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, points out, in language seldom used about the Court by sitting justices:
Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position. That action evinces disregard for even the newest of this Court's precedents and undermines confidence in this institution.
The Court had before it an emergency application in a case still pending before the District Court, under the All Writs Act, which requires an especially high showing; the petitioner must establish a clear and indisputable right to the requested relief.

In this case, Wheaton College does not wish to file the exemption form with its insurer, which would put the insurer on notice as to its obligation under HHS rules to provide contraception, making it complicit in the provision of the insurance coverage for contraception. As the NYT summarizes:
On Thursday, the court’s majority said all Wheaton had to do was notify the government in writing “that it is a nonprofit organization that holds itself out as religious and has religious objections to providing coverage for contraception services.”

The difference between a form sent to insurers and plan administrators on the one hand and a letter sent to the government on the other mattered, the college told the justices, “because it believes, as a religious matter, that signing the form would be impermissibly facilitating abortions and is therefore forbidden.”
The Roberts Court has become known for issuing so-called narrow rulings and then subsequently broadening their scope (That's how the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment in Shelby County), but it normally takes a little time to at least pay lip service to the notion of common law adjudication. Here, the HHS exemption went from being the relied upon "less restrictive means" on Monday to a "substantial burden" on Wheaton College's religion from which it has a "a clear and indisputable" right to be free from Thursday?

This really is legislation from the bench, absent even a fig leaf of legal reasoning. As Sotomayor points out, the standard under the All Writs Act is not at all met (in fact, the evidence cited by the majority, divisions among lower courts, is usually used to establish that the right is not "clear and indisputable"), the rapid recasting of the Court's own decision, less than a week after it issued, smacks of a carny grifting a mark, not judicial reasoning.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Case of Hobby Lobby and the Illiberal Liberals?

Note: This post will make a lot more sense if you read or have read its immediate predecessor, explaining and critiquing the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. I'm sorry, I just can't go through all that again. I owe you a cat video, ok?

Both Julian Sanchez in a post at Cato at Liberty and, albeit now in a much moderated way from his initial response, Andrew Sullivan are suggesting that liberals reactions to Hobby Lobby, are being alarmist and illiberal.

I'll take Sullivan's most recent formulation, because it's frankly very much better than either his early efforts or Sanchez's rather snide little piece (which, among other flaws, assumes that Justice Alito's majority opinion is correct in assuming that there is an easy, available workaround for the Government in just extending the same exemption it provided religious establishments and faith-based non-profits; this may not be the case, and it assumes that the Court won't declare even the minimal involvement of requesting the exemption to be violative or RFRA, a position I wouldn't bet on. Really, I wouldn't).

So, after several go-rounds with his readers, Sullivan writes:
The first is on the question of religious freedom. And I agree with my reader on the core point. I do not believe that even a closely held religiously informed for-profit corporation has a soul. In fact, the desire for profit is a very strange thing for a religious organization to be involved in at all. Whatever the heretical claims of the Prosperity Gospel, there is no serious Christian defense of making money as your primary purpose – and a for-profit company is, by definition, primarily about making money. I think that automatically excludes it from the religious principle. You pick either God or Mammon. Ayn Rand, for the umpteenth time, is an enemy of Christianity, not an ally.

My own view of a religious organization is one primarily devoted to religious ritual and service. Some non-profit charities would be included, but no for-profit companies would. In other words, just to be clear, I would have voted for the minority if I were a Supreme Court Justice on those grounds alone. Norm Ornstein has a great post on this principle and I share almost all his conclusions.

Equally, I think it’s fair to say that the sincerity of the religious motives behind Hobby Lobby is a little dodgy. They provided – voluntarily – the very allegedly abortifacient contraceptives in their own health insurance coverage before the ACA came into effect. How does that square with their claim to be stricken by their conscience on the question now that Obamacare is mandating it? Hobby Lobby also has investments in companies that make contraceptives. Again, their squeamishness now reeks of opportunistic politics, not sincerely held religious conviction.

I’m also struck, as I wrote yesterday, about the very Catholic-centric view of religion this ruling implies.

One wonders, as Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, if the Justices would apply these sentiments to non-Christian religions. I noted the burqa ban in France as a distant analogy, but Steve Coll goes one further and imagines a fanatical Muslim corporation asking for the equivalent rights, as in, say, exemptions from vaccines. And here is where Alito is at his weakest. His only proactive response to this is to assume that there will not be “a flood of religious objections regarding a wide variety of medical procedures and drugs, such as vaccinations and blood transfusions.” As Coll, rather drily observes: “Why not?” The religious convictions of many Muslims go far deeper than most evangelical Protestants and devout Catholics.

But here’s where I stick with my point about perspective. In the last few years, America has crossed the Rubicon of universal health insurance. In that new law, contraception coverage was, for the first time, mandated for anyone with health insurance. That strikes me as a huge gain – not just for those women who could not afford insurance before but for those women with insurance, where contraceptive coverage could be at the whim of employers. And when government mandates something, it will get always get some petitions for exemptions. We’ll see in due course – and the Dish will keep close tabs on – how big a loophole it turns out to be. But if the administration can deploy the fix used for religious organizations proper – getting insurance companies to provide the contraception and then get re-imbursed by the government (see here for the difficulties involved), then we could easily have a win-win. Everyone gets guaranteed contraception coverage and a few religious closely-held corporations can keep their hands “clean”.

And let me suggest something else about toleration of these religiously-based companies. It will hurt them in the long run. What Hobby Lobby has now announced to the world is that women who use contraception shouldn’t work there if they don’t want to live in a hostile environment, and no one should buy goods there if they object to their policy targeting women’s healthcare – and women’s alone – for discrimination. A company that behaves this way is a company that will lose customers and potential employees. The positive way to respond to this is to stop shopping there and to seek employment elsewhere. You can even boycott if you wish. Since the vast majority of women, including overwhelming majorities of Catholic women, don’t agree with the ludicrous case against contraception, it seems to me that this kind of policy will not be in the interests of any company trying to make a profit. That’s how a free society works.

But in a free society, religious fanatics and bigots have rights as well. I would not have given Hobby Lobby what SCOTUS just did, but I sympathize with the principle involved, and prefer a limited government in a free society over a powerful government in a more just one. And a free society must mean religious freedom sometimes in contravention of established norms. That’s what freedom requires. And we are a stronger country for it.
Now, on the whole I like Sullivan--he's a conservative, but tries hard to be honest and fair, and changes his mind when confronted with evidence.

But this post, especially the last paragraph, exemplifies why, every so often, he can have me rolling my eyes in frustration.

He starts off well--he gets that the for-profit corporation has no soul, that the decision has the potential to radically de-stabilize settled areas of law, and that liberals are reasonably skeptical about the court's touting it as a "narrow" decision, or, for that matter, applying it even-handedly. But then he expresses "sympathy for the principle involved" and "prefer[s] a limited government in a free society over a powerful government in a more just one. And a free society must mean religious freedom sometimes in contravention of established norms. That’s what freedom requires. And we are a stronger country for it."

This statement on Sullivan's part is predicated on an erroneous assumption that many libertarians (Sanchez included) makes: assuming that the values of religious toleration are furthered even when they apply to for-profit corporate entities. They ignore the fact that a corporation is a creation of the law, and that it, by dint of the privileges and powers vested in it by the state, has power on a scale almost never in the hands of any but the most wealthy individuals. And indeed, Hobby Lobby boasts "575 stores across the nation that average 55,000 square feet and offer more than 67,000 crafting and home decor products. Hobby Lobby is listed as a major private corporation in Forbes and Fortunes list of America's largest private companies, and our company carries no long-term debt."

The ability of the corporation to grow, to take risks, is materially enhanced by its corporate status. An accident in a store, for example, does not imperil the personal assets and home of the company's founders. And a corporation of its size is not, shall we say, in an equal bargaining position with its workers. Sullivan's blithe advice-don't work there, don't shop there--does not take into account our sluggish job market, the pressures on women who need work, and lack the resources Hobby Lobby can bring to the fight (and in fact, to be fair, Hobby Lobby appears to be an above average employer for retail). The great libertarian error, in my opinion, is the assumption--counter-factual in retail employment--that we all live in a world where jobs are plentiful, and bargaining power is equal. Also, by the way, customer bargaining power is likewise diffuse and complex.

Chief Justice John Marshall, in 1819, explained in Dartmouth College v. Woodward:
A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created. Among the most important are immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality -- properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual. They enable a corporation to manage its own affairs and to hold property without the perplexing intricacies, the hazardous and endless necessity, of perpetual conveyances for the purpose of transmitting it from hand to hand. It is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with these qualities and capacities that corporations were invented, and are in use.
Hobby Lobby is not a religious corporation, but a for-profit one. When it is permitted to be at once separate from its owners in all other matters and yet presumed to hold their religious views, and to be afforded exemptions based thereon, the results enhance not the liberty of the citizenry at large, but of those who are already in positions of power over employees at nearly 600 stores.