Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.

Posner, Apple v. Motorola, James Watt, and the Steam Engine That Couldn’t

Having brought up ‘intellectual property’ yesterday, I figured it might be a good idea to follow-up with a couple of related notes today.

First, some interesting news: Judge Richard Posner has ruled that the Apple v. Motorola patent infringement case be dismissed in its entirety. Apple had accused Motorola of violating four of its patents; Motorola had responded with a claim in return. The two have been in litigation since 2010; one shudders to think of the legal bills racked up, transaction costs that could have been spent on research and development by two innovative technology outfits.

Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica notes that

Judge Richard Posner previously canceled a jury trial in Chicago in the case, and then castigated both Apple and Motorola while calling the entire US patent system chaos….Noting that dismissals without prejudice allow suits to be refiled, Posner made it clear that this one would be dismissed with prejudice. “It would be ridiculous to dismiss a suit for failure to prove damages and allow the plaintiff [Apple] to refile the suit so that he could have a second chance to prove damages. This case is therefore dismissed with prejudice,” Posner wrote. Posner had previously ruled that proposed testimony from experts put forth by both sides would be inadmissible, making it difficult to support any claims for damages or injunctions.

And that isn’t all. In some telling commentary on the current lunacy of the world of patent litigation, Posner

[C]omplained that Apple’s attempt to get an injunction restricting the sale of Motorola phones would have “catastrophic effects” on the mobile device market and consumers. He further criticized Motorola for trying to use a standards-essential patent to get an injunction against Apple.

Second, in keeping with the ‘Twas ever thus-theme invoked yesterday, here is a little episode that should have warned us about patenting’s costs. In Against Intellectual Monopoly, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine remind us of  the story of James Watt and the steam engine: the patents he was granted for it and his subsequent aggressive deployment of the law to crack down on possible competitors, all the while dissipating his innovative energies in litigation rather than designing better steam engines. In the end,

The evidence suggests that Watt’s efforts to use the legal system to inhibit competition set back the industrial revolution by a decade or two. The granting of the 1769 and, especially, of the 1775 patents likely delayed the mass adoption of the steam engine: innovation was stifled until his patents expired; and very few steam engines were built during the period of Watt’s legal monopoly. From the number of innovations that occurred immediately after the expiration of the patent, it appears that Watt’s competitors simply waited until then before releasing their own innovations….Watt’s inventive skills were badly allocated: we find him spending more time engaged in legal action to establish and preserve his monopoly than he did in the actual improvement and production of his engine. From a strictly economic point of view Watt did not need such a long lasting patent – it is estimated that by 1783 – seventeen years before his patent expired – his enterprise broke even; so every dollar that came after was pure gravy. (Introduction, pp. 3)