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In The New Yorker

Interestingly, there are two articles in The New Yorker this week that feed the same thought, a reflection on human nature's preference for stable calm over rule of law. The longer is Michael Specter' indispensable survey of civil freedom in today's Russia; the shorter is a review, by Caleb Crain, of Matthew Warshauer's Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law (Tennessee, 2006).

Last October, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her Moscow apartment building. A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, died of polonium poisoning. Both were critics of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent himself who has decided, it appears, that Russia does not need critics at the present time. In his Letter from Moscow (not available on-line), Mr Specter notes recent adulatory coverage in the the Russian press of Leonid Brezhnev's centenary and Augusto Pinochet's recent death. Both are thought to have made their countries "stable and strong." 

Putin, who has called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," clearly agrees. Sick of the lines, the empty shops, and the false promises of Soviet life, Russians looked to the West - and particularly to the United States - to provide an economic model. What followed was an epic disaster: the sell-off of the state's most valuable assets made a few dozen people obscenely rich, but the lives of millions of others became far worse. The health-care system fell apart, and so did many of the social-service networks. Russia became the first industrial country ever to experience a sustained fall in life expectancy. Russian males born today can, on average, expect to life to the age of fifty-nine, dying younger than if they were born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not surprising, then, that by the time Putin became President most Russians were only too happy to exchange the metaphysical ideas of free speech and intellectual freedom for the concrete desires of owning a home and a car and possessing a bank account. They also wanted to feel that somebody was in control of their country.

The curious thing is that, according to publisher Alexei Volin and broadcaster Aleksei Venediktov, most Russians don't care about newspapers or TV news. They're even less important in Russia than they are in the United States, where hoi polloi do a magnificent job of keeping themselves ill-informed.

The imposition of martial law in New Orleans on December 16, 1814, on the eve of a Battle of New Orleans that would mean nothing, because the what we call the War of 1812 was officially over before it was fought, was unconstitutional, and Andrew Jackson was fined a thousand dollars for the offense. In 1844, his campaign to have the fine refunded finally met with success. The refund implicitly ratified Jackson's action (without making it any less unconstitutional), and it appears to have been the precedent for Abraham Lincoln's suppression of habeas corpus in 1863. And so on. But the Battle of New Orleans was the making of Andrew Jackson, and he became the first President to exploit his countrymen's love of a bold and robust, if occasionally ruthless, leader. When a big guy can get the job done, Americans will look the other way rather than hold him to account for misdeeds. In "Bad Precedent," Mr Crain writes,

The evidence certainly suggests that it has always been difficult to find a reliable base of support for habeas corpus in America; it's a vulnerable right, especially during emergencies and when a charismatic leader is involved.

Ironically, the only American branch that has the power to suspend habeas corpus - the Congress - has twice supported the expropriation of this power, first by refunding Jackson's fine and then, last year, by ratifying President Bush's suppression of habeas corpus at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Crain quotes F-X Martin, a New Orleans judge who went on to write a history of New Orleans. As an appeals-court judge, he had declined to penalize Jackson for imposing martial law; he argued that he lacked the jurisdiction. Later, in his history, he would write, "In free governments, dangerous precedents are to be dreaded from good and popular characters only."

In The Nation, Columbia historian Eric Foner reviews The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, by James Oakes (Norton, 2007). Mr Foner's review (also not on-line - yet) is favorable, but what caught my eye were the two opening paragraphs, which I think that everyone ought to read closely, because they explode some very widespread myths about the Civil War, and do so quite neatly.

The abolition of slavery in the United States appears in retrospect so inevitable that it is difficult to recall how unlikely it seemed as late as 1860, the year of Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Slaveowners had pretty much controlled the national government since its inception. The 4 million slaves formed by far the country's largest concentration of property (their economic worth exceeded the value of all factories, railroads and banks in the country combined). Racism was deeply entrenched in the North as well as the South. Blacks, free as well as slaves, had few rights anywhere, and abolitionists were a despised minority.

Obviously, Lincoln's election and the civil war it triggered made emancipation possible. But Lincoln campaigned for President pledging to prevent slavery's expansion into the Western territories, while insisting that he had no intention of interfering with the institution where it already existed. It was by no means certain when the war began that it would become a crusade to destroy slavery.



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