25 April 2005

It's Speculative, But Is It Fiction?

Stuart Taylor has an interesting "essay" in today's National Journal. The "essay" purports to be a look back from immediately after the 2008 elections, speculating that the "nuclear option" has resulted (as of 2008) in loss of the Republican majorities in Congress and election of a Democratic president. It's not an entirely uninteresting piece, but its inept presentation in the end undermines its analysis.

First of all, Mr. Taylor needs to read some more science fiction. Really. This kind of story appears constantly; virtually no month goes by in which at least one of the "big three" magazines has no story of this nature, and there are always lots of novels. Then, too, if he's too embarassed to read something that might have a rocket ship on the cover, he can always try more-respectable fare like Orwell's 1984 or Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which while flawed are at least the kinds of books that nobody around the office will snicker at.

  • One cannot be afraid to "name names" in one's speculation. Mr. Taylor is certainly well-versed in the potential candidates for the Supreme Court (or, if he's not, one must wonder what the heck he's doing). Instead of this:

    The president chose fervently conservative nominees in 2005 to succeed Chief Justice William Rehnquist and in 2006 to succeed the more centrist Sandra Day O'Connor and the liberal John Paul Stevens. All three nominees inspired passionate liberal opposition and might have been stopped by Democratic filibusters under the old Senate rules. But in a parliamentary move widely known as the "nuclear option," Republicans voted 52-48 (with three defections) to uphold a ruling by Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, that it was unconstitutional to use the filibuster to block a vote on any nominee who had majority support.

    try this:

    From the Limpkin material we know that there were two possible candidates, that is, two whose names incorporate the element "Fred": Frederick R. Waterford and B. Frederick Judd. No photographs survive of either, although Limpkin describes the latter as a stuffed shirt, and, I quote, "somebody for whom foreplay is what you do on a golf course."

    Atwood, "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale," The Handmaid's Tale. Of course, Mr. Taylor needed to be at least somewhat careful in his writing, but speculating on "Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Wilkinson and Jones" (to pick three candidates sort of at random from commonly bandied-about "short lists") would not by any means undermine his presentation. As it is, the gaping holes—including even the name of the new president, who is a "moderate, surprisingly charismatic dark horse"—destroy any sense of narrative truth to his analysis.

  • Another bit of missing particularity concerns the exact context of the "nuclear option." No news article of this nature is going to refer to it exclusively in such abstract terms. Instead, it will name names. Mr. Taylor could have made his piece that much more interesting by not choosing the "first" name, but instead noting that one or more candidates withdrew until someone (say, Janice Rogers Brown) refused to do so. Then, too, if the outrage will be that serious by 2008, one would expect some impact by the midterms in 2006, particularly as (on the postulated timeline) all three Supreme Court confirmations will have taken place.
  • One thing that this article should have done is point out how astoundingly accurate the purported selections of justices have proven to be in upholding Bush's position. Historically, about one in three justices have proven to be "unreliable." Just in the last half of the twentieth century, Justices Brennan, Fortas, Blackmun, O'Connor, Souter, and Breyer have fallen well outside the "boxes" in which they had been packaged for confirmation… not to mention Chief Justice Warren. Justices Powell and Kennedy, although not quite so far, nonetheless disappointed their more-doctrinaire advocates.
  • Last, and far from least, I think Mr. Taylor's strategy in stating the kinds of cases at issue reflects insufficient examination of what the Court is likely to hear in the next few years, let alone the kinds of matters that will energize that part of the populace that "united" (at least at the ballot box) to throw the Republicans out. Every single matter is domestic; every single matter is civil (or at least more civilesque than criminalesque). Nothing further concerns the death penalty, or the rights of criminal defendants, or the "war on terror," or freedom of speech, or even the burgeoning "controversy" over citation of international law.

One of the main principles of speculative fiction is that if it is any good, it is primarily fiction. Mr. Taylor's article is at most a thin polemic disguised as a "look backwards" that, although in the form of a piece of journalism, breaks more journalistic standards than I can count conveniently. It looks a great deal more like a draft dashed off on the subway and turned in under time pressure than a finished piece.