Book Notes: Justice on Trial

The most important thing about Justice on Trial isn’t the depth of detail on the Kavanaugh drama but the conclusion. Hemingway and Severino point out that the problem is much larger than this one guy and the surrounding drama. The problem is that the Congress is refusing to legislate. If it manages to pass anything, which is rare, it ends up being some vague grand gesture that has to be litigated in the courts.

For the really big stuff, the Congress doesn’t even try to legislate. It outsources the work to the Supreme Court. The justices have to contort themselves into weird shapes to find support for decidedly recent ideas in the Constitution. We are all very much for abortion rights and gay marriage but we also all know that they are not in the Constitution*. SCOTUS had to invent them as constitutional rights because it had no choice. As a result, every SCOTUS confirmation becomes apocalyptic because too much hangs on it. And it shouldn’t.

The judiciary branch has grown to such a ridiculous degree because the legislative branch is in retreat. Look at our Congress. Nobody even attempts to negotiate, build bridges, make things happen. There’s no politics going on. It’s all empty, vapid showmanship. I don’t want to say “erosion of the nation-state” again but what else can it be?

We are looking at these justices as these hugely important, towering figures but they shouldn’t be. The whole way things function is wrong.

I really liked this part of the book because I believe that this is precisely what we should be discussing regarding the Kavanaugh affair. The book is about looking towards the future and not endlessly relitigating past scandals, which is good.

* I’ve been saying this in this space for a decade and everywhere else for longer.

Toddler Books

The conference was going great until a talker who doesn’t have small children declared that toddlers today don’t want books about princesses and instead want to read about transgender astronauts.

In response, I quoted a Basque writer who says she and her colleagues avoid calling themselves feminists because the concept has been completely perverted by American academics.


Every building here in Valencia is infernally hot. We are three Canadian ladies, so we made our room temperature at the hotel glacial. But the conference building is a sauna. Conference organizers included abanicos in our goody bags because speakers will conk out without ventilation. Even male attendees gave up and started using the abanicos. What do you even call them in English?

For the first time ever I hope I get no questions after my talk because my brain melted to a soup consistency.

In Valencia

Normally, accommodations in Europe are small and cramped. But our hotel room in Valencia is huge, with an enormous veranda and a huge, private hot tub on the veranda.

I should let N organize all my travel from now on. I have no idea how he finds all these great places without ever having been to the area.

Until I recover my suitcase, I have to walk around in this long, bright-red, opera-style dress, which is the only thing I managed to buy at the airport Zara once I realized that the suitcase was gone. But the good thing about my age is that I don’t care how I look.

It’s funny, though, how dependent we are on our things. I spent two days in sweaty, dirty travel clothes and felt like a different person.

Passing in Spain

My sister, who is a fluent Spanish speaker and who speaks Spanish at home to her Peruvian husband, is waiting for me in Valencia and writing scandalized text messages about how everybody she meets ignores her attempts to speak Spanish and switches to a very mediocre English.

“Stop smiling and saying gracias all the time,” I direct her. “Put on a haughty, hassled look, speak loudly, and don’t be too polite.”

The moment you begin smiling all over the place and thanking everybody in sight, people peg you as a North American anywhere in the world.

Crónicas negras

So I’m reading Black Chronicles: From a Region that Doesn’t Matter, which is a collection of investigative reports from Central America. I already told you about the first article in the book, in which Roberto Valencia talks about a teenage gang-rape victim called Magaly.

The second article isn’t nearly as well written as Valencia’s reports but it’s still fascinating. It talks about a split within Barrio 18, the rival gang of MS-13. The article follows the life trajectory of Lin, the gangster who was the gang’s leader at some point and who caused it to split.

The importance of Los Angeles in the gang’s Salvadoran history is vastly exaggerated, say the authors. Yes, gangsters brought the name, the tattoos, and the symbols from the US. Lin was in Los Angeles a couple of times and he still tells a story of being rudely talked to by a store owner in LA who didn’t speak Spanish.

But what’s a lot more important for Lin’s trajectory is that he was in the war. He fought on the side of the revolutionary guerrillas and still speaks in Marxist slogans 30 years later. He is the one who taught the gang to intimidate neighborhoods through many-hours-long gang rapes at the end of which the victim’s head is severed and left in a public place. Los Angeles isn’t where he learned this. The war is.

Lin wanted the gang to function like the guerrilla did. But he failed to make that happened. He’s now old, tired, and washed up. And the gangs in Central America are being taken over by the cartels anyway.

The third article in the book explains what life is like in Salvadoran jails and how it happened that they are completely controlled by inmates. Fascinating material. The book is not pleasant to read, obviously, but it is very important to read for those who are interested in Central America. I’d assign it in class instead of inane textbooks but I don’t want to face the ensuing hassle.