Louis Fisher on Congress and Protecting Individual Rights

5829925604_36b5677f9e_bAt a time when Congress seems determined to set new lows for being dysfunctional, it may seem strange to publish a book that explains how lawmakers for more than two centuries have protected the rights of blacks, women, children, religious liberty, Native Americans, and other minorities. The purpose is not merely to give credit to the legislative institution and understand how its performance compares favorably to the record of the executive and judicial branches. The book underscores the evident risks of putting our faith solely in Presidents and the Supreme Court. Such a decision moves us from democracy to a government with two elected officials in the executive branch and none in the judiciary. This book does more than remind us of what Congress once accomplished. It encourages a debate on specific steps needed to strengthen U.S. democracy and restore the capacity of members of Congress to discharge their constitutional duties. The intent of the book is to stimulate a dialogue on how we can protect and renew what the Framers hoped to create: a system of self-government.

–Written by Louis Fisher, a Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project and author of the forthcoming book, “Congress: Protecting Individual Rights.”

Organic Farming, Monsanto, and Biotech Battles

9780700621330Agribusiness colossus Monsanto announced this week that it is cutting 2,600 jobs. Monsanto reported a net loss of $495 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015. For sustainable food activists, this may augur a decline in biotechnology’s profitability, popularity, or viability. Monsanto has historically been cast as a scoundrel by organic farmers. The corporation is a global leader in patented plant traits, crop protection chemicals (e.g. Roundup), and genetically engineered seeds (e.g. Roundup Ready soybeans). Ad interim, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are precluded from USDA-certified organic food production methods. Organicists tend to view GMOs as abhorrent and have tried repeatedly to pass national GMO labeling bills—unsuccessfully, so far. To witness the torrent of hatred directed at Monsanto, try searching for the #MonsantoEvil hashtag on Twitter.

I contacted Monsanto and received a call back within one hour from Christi Dixon, Monsanto spokesperson. Since Monsanto’s name is universally linked with agrichemicals and genetically altered seeds, I asked if Monsanto’s work was incongruous with the organic movement. “No. It all works together. We do a lot of research of traditional plant breeding,” Dixon said. “We serve growers of all types, including organic farmers. We have a vegetable business that is robust. We do a lot of traditional plant breeding.” I asked if Monsanto would consider funding organic agriculture research. “Yes, if farmers asked for it.” It was farmers, she said, who first demanded Roundup-ready crops.

Organic growing and genetic engineering have been held up as antithetical food production methods. Keeping GMOs out of organic crops is sacrosanct for the organic movement. There has long been a consensus that organic standards should exclude GMOs, since their inherent safety is still unknown. Monsanto has responded by pointing to thousands of studies, none of which have revealed concrete health problems from genetically modified foods. “We are committed to sustainable agriculture. We are trying to preserve the soil and preserve the planet and use resources more efficiently,” Dixon said. Monsanto is a multinational enterprise with prodigious—and sometimes ominous—power. Layoffs do not mean Monsanto will rescind its support of GMOs. The organic movement, meanwhile, will not abandon its ardent opposition.

-Written by Robin O’Sullivan, author of American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating. O’Sullivan teaches history at Troy University and tweets @historynibbles.

New Books In Law Features “The Big Trial”

9780700620777New Books In Law highlights Lawrence M. Friedman ‘s most recent work, The Big Trial: Law as Public Spectacle, explaining, “The Big Trial combines the scintillating narrative style that he employs as the author of several mystery novels with the keen insights about law and society that he has revealed time and again in his numerous cornerstone works of legal scholarship.”

Are the headline trials of our period different from those of a century or two ago? And what do we learn from them, about the nature of our society, past and present? To get a clearer picture, Friedman first identifies what certain headline trials have in common, then considers particular cases within each grouping. The political trial, for instance, embraces treason and spying, dissenters and radicals, and, to varying degrees, corruption and fraud. Celebrity trials involve the famous—whether victims, as in the case of Charles Manson, or defendants as disparate as Fatty Arbuckle and William Kennedy Smith—but certain high-profile cases, such as those Friedman categorizes as tabloid trials, can also create celebrities. The fascination of whodunit trials can be found in the mystery surrounding the case: Are we sure about O. J. Simpson? What about Claus von Bulow—tried, in another sensational case, for sending his wife into a coma.? An especially interesting type of case Friedman groups under the rubric worm in the bud. These are cases, such as that of Lizzie Borden, that seem to put society itself on trial; they raise fundamental social questions and often suggest hidden and secret pathologies. And finally, a small but important group of cases proceed from moral panic, the Salem witchcraft trials being the classic instance, though Friedman also considers recent examples.

The Big Trial: Law as Public Spectacle demonstrates how the headline trial reflects a critical aspect of modern society. Reaching across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the latest outrage, from congressional hearings to lynching and vigilante justice to public punishment, from Dr. Sam Sheppard (the fugitive) to Jeffrey Dahmer (the cannibal), The Rosenbergs to Timothy McVeigh, the book presents a complex picture of headline trials as displays of power—moments of didactic theater” that demonstrate in one way or another whether a society is fair, whom it protects, and whose interest it serves.