Monday, June 27, 2005

What better way to spend a hot, humid late afternoon than sitting in air-conditioned comfort, putting the happiest songs on your computer onto a playlist, eating a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, and reading a biography of John C. Fremont. OK, I know exactly where most of you got off the train in that list, but I'm enjoying it, dammit.

The Fremont book fascinates me for any number of reasons. For one, I knew precious little about the Bear Flag Republic and what a haphazard affair it was. For two, I love reading about the exploration of the West, particularly in historically sophisticated books that don't just talk about rugged individualism, but that instead remind you that those "rugged individuals" were U.S. government officials carrying the flag and the resources of the country behind them. For three, it's truly amazing to think about just how few people were actually involved in these exploration parties, and particularly in the Mexican-American War; count up the total number of "troops" (often semi-conscripted or politically interested settlers) on both sides and it's hard to find 1,000 people in the whole California campaign--some of whom at least briefly set out with the idea (not realized) of sailing to Acapulco to open up another front.

The book also resonates with me for another reason: this is the first summer since 1997 that I won't cross the country by car at least once, and that reality is finally starting to set in and make me a little bit stir crazy. In fact, I'm already looking at Yahoo maps to figure out new and interesting routes for next summer ( many miles to Seattle and then down? what about finally traversing America's Loneliest Highway? etc.).

Finally, the book resonates because it makes me think again about land and property and ownership, topics that have been on my mind in the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision in Kelo v. New London. Kelo is one of those decisions that makes me happy that I want to be a lawyer and not a judge--I can make the argument for whatever side wants to pay me, but I'd prefer not to decide what I actually think about it myself. I'm highly waffle-y on the subject; my gut (like that of some other left-leaning folks) that this is a bad decision, and that allowing for shopping developments and the like is a pretty crummy reason to take people's homes through eminent domain. On the other hand, as soon as I start thinking that way, I notice who voted which way, and I remind myself that some other things must be going on here.

The Court is filled with smart people, and I'm willing to go with it when they take New London at its word that this is not a mere boondoggle for Pfizer, but rather a community development plan that takes advantage of Pfizer's presence as an anchor. At least five justices decided this was not a mere pretext, and nothing in the dissenting opinions suggest that the other four justices thought it was pretextual either. Rather, they just don't think that eminent domain should be available for pure economic benefits--i.e., where the point of the eminent domain is to improve the local economy generally. The slippery slope argument (why can't the government, then, take mom and pop stores to make way for Wal-Marts) is worth exploring, but nothing in this decision suggests that such piecemeal takings, not tied to a broader plan, would be acceptable.

To me, Justice O'Connor gives away what's really going on here in the way she introduces the facts of the case:

Petitioners are nine resident or investment owners of 15 homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut. Petitioner Wilhelmina Dery, for example, lives in a house on Walbach Street that has been in her family for over 100 years. She was born in the house in 1918; her husband, petitioner Charles Dery, moved into the house when they married in 1946. Their son lives next door with his family in the house he received as a wedding gift, and joins his parents in this suit. Two petitioners keep rental properties in the neighborhood.
For O'Connor and the other dissenters, it matters that people have lived in these houses for a long time, that families live near one another, etc. Notice that none of that matters the slightest bit before the law--if the government wanted the property to build a school, for instance, the petitioners just lose. The only thing at issue is the legitimacy of the purpose behind the taking, not the status in any way, shape, or form of the people who currently own the property. The dissenters, though, clearly care.

Where I'm going with this, as you would have no reason to have guessed so far, is this: I don't care. Perhaps this has something to do with my own peripatetic nature, but I quite simply place absolutely no stake in roots, long-time occupancy, traditional occupancy, etc. So in Kelo, I'm not sympathetic to the idea that we can't have our economic development plan, because Mrs. Kelo has lived here for a long time. Tough shit. I'm more sympathetic to the idea that taking land from one private landholder and transferring it to another is not a "public use" (as required under the Fifth Amendment grant of eminent domain power), but that ship has long sailed, including cases where a unanimous court allowed such transfers in an opinion written by O'Connor.

So why does John C. Fremont remind me of this? Well, the point I made about not caring about traditional occupancy, etc. applies in a number of situations. For instance, even though I'm often sympathetic to Michael Moore's views, I totally disagree with the central premise of Roger and Me--that people who have lived in Flint are entitled to a good life in Flint. No. If you can't make it there, move. Seriously. Move. I don't care how long you've lived there. Move. And if you don't move, then clearly you value staying more than you value other aspects of a "good life," so stop complaining. Seriously, I come from a place where some people can make it just fine, others leave, and the rest stay due to some allegiance to place that I just don't comprehend at all.

And again, Fremont? Well, it turns out that I'm also unsympathetic to (generally left-wing) claims that people (in the sense, here, not of "persons" but of groups, peoples) are entitled to land that their ancestors once held and that they no longer hold. Whether it's moving boundaries of European wars or Native American claims, I just don't buy it. If for whatever reason (conquest, mismanagement, industry failures, etc.) you can't hold onto land that you have, then you no longer have it. That's just how property works, and in any semblance of a modern world, it's how property has to work. So, move to somewhere with a good economy, do what you can to acquire marketable skills, and try to earn the money to buy it back if that's what matters to you. Or perhaps you'll be like Aldous Huxley, and after you leave war-torn Europe for Southern California, you'll realize you'd be a damn fool to ever leave it again.


OK, honestly, even though I believe everything I just wrote, I have no idea where that burst of text came from. It's probably the heat, and I probably need another sammich.

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