George Scialabba

George Scialabba writes about books for The Boston Globe, Dissent, and The Boston Review, and other publications.

Recent Articles

Democracy-Proof

How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl. Yale University Press, 198 pages, $19.95 I n the Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (1996), Daniel Lazare points out that the U.S. Constitution was adopted unconstitutionally. The Articles of Confederation, our first governing compact, contained a provision that any amendment would require the consent of all 13 states. Yet the Articles were supplanted without unanimous consent of the states. That's because Article VII of the new Constitution provided that it would take effect if ratified by only nine of the 13 states. Wasn't Article VII therefore in violation of the original governing document? In Federalist 40, Madison dismissed this objection. It would be "absurd," he declared, to "subject the fate of twelve States to the perverseness or corruption of a thirteenth." Surely this was obvious to "every citizen who has felt for the wounded honor and prosperity of his country." End of discussion. So...

Our Posthuman Future

A s many astute observers have pointed out, controversial new ideas are assimilated in three stages. First they're false and pernicious, then they're true but trivial, and finally they're what everyone claims to have believed all along. I see nothing to disprove this time-tested formula in the case of Francis Fukuyama's thesis about the "end of history." According to Fukuyama, the evolution of social structure has come to a natural terminus in the combination of free markets and liberal democracy. Though once we scoffed, I'm sure that now, as long as everyone else is willing to accept a few modest qualifications -- markets require vigilant and impartial regulation, periodic free elections are a necessary but far from sufficient condition of robust democracy, unequal distribution of economic power can and usually does translate into unequal distribution of political power, present-day levels of solidarity and selfishness are not eternally fixed -- my fellow democratic socialists will...

The Control of Ideas

The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World By Lawrence Lessig. Random House, 352 pages, $30.00 Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity By Siva Vaidhyanathan. New York University Press, 243 pages, $27.95 A specter is haunting culture: the specter of intellectual-property law. Soon every embodiment, however ephemeral, of thought or imagination may be defined as a "product," its every use commercially controlled. Thanks to digital technology, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999), a book is potentially no longer just a book. An online publisher, for example, will be able to specify whether you could read the book once or one hundred times; whether you could cut and paste from it or simply read it without copying; whether you could send it as an attached document to a friend or simply keep it on your machine; whether you could delete it or not; whether you could use it in...

The Social Recession

The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty , by David G. Myers. Yale University Press, 414 pages, $29.95. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies , by Robert Edwards Lane. Yale University Press, 465 pages, $35.00. Over the portal of modernity is written Kant's famous definition: "What is Enlightenment? It is humankind's emergence from its self-imposed childhood." But that inspiring metaphor has a sobering implication. What follows childhood, after all, is adolescence; and folklore and social science agree that, whatever its attractions, this is also the most turbulent, violent, and unhappy stage of life. If Kant's metaphor holds, humankind ought to be suffering some colossal growing pains around now. Well, we are. In the developed countries, it's true, more people are rich than ever before--science, democracy, and capitalism have kept their promise. But more people are unhappy, too, at least by some measures...

Cherny Speaks

The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age , by Andrei Cherny. Basic Books, 268 pages, $24.00. John Stuart Mill, in his essay on Coleridge, remarks that "a knowledge of the speculative opinions of men between twenty and thirty years of age is the great source of political prophecy." If Mill is right, then one should pay particular attention when a young opinionator comes along with 25-year-old Andrei Cherny's credentials--speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and author of the 2000 Democratic Party platform--claiming, explicitly and insistently, to speak for his generation. As the Clinton administration wound down, Cherny enrolled in law school, though he keeps a hand in politics as a contributing editor for The New Democrat and senior policy adviser to the speaker of the California State Assembly. In a New York Times profile last summer, Cherny claimed to have set his sights on a career in criminal law. But it's hard to believe that The Next Deal wasn't...

Pages