Obama examines the constitutionality of anti-gay legislation

This afternoon, the New York Times released an article by Jodi Kantor on Obama’s career as a law professor. In a sidebar, the Times posts a syllabus of his and quite a few of his exam questions, along with the corresponding answer memos.

Not that there was any doubt, but the new evidence suggests Obama has a formidably sharp mind. I didn’t expect, however, that the academic documents would cause me to tear up. In 2003, the first question on the final exam in Prof. Obama’s Constitutional law class asked for a brief on behalf of a monogamous gay couple in a relationship of ten years’ standing who want to challenge their state’s defense-of-marriage act and its legal restrictions on gay adoption. Of course the question, like most legal questions, could be answered merely as an intellectual exercise, but after the way that gays have been hung out to dry in recent elections, it moved me to discover that Obama, who supports the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, knows the legal terrain in such fine detail.

To wit: According to the answer memo for the exam (I at first thought that this answer memo had to have been written by Obama himself, but a commenter on the NYT‘s Caucus blog points out that law professors often distribute the best student answer in lieu of writing an answer memo themselves, so its authorship is uncertain), the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment will likely prove a stronger basis for the hypothetical couple’s case than the same amendment’s due protection clause. Because homosexuals are not considered a protected class under current interpretations of the amendment, the rationale for a law that singles them out need not be narrowly tailored to a legitimate state interest, but it does have to be “rationally related” to such an interest. “However, antagonism or a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest (Romer).” The answer memo concludes that “if the [Supreme Court] finds that denying homosexuals marriage demeans their existence, it is likely that this statute, as written, will fail rational basis review.”

UPDATE, 11:50pm: The New York Times has deleted its link to the answer memo that I quoted above (though the link above still seems to be working) and has added a note reading, “In a previous version of this post, student answer memos were posted in addition to Mr. Obama’s memos.” So it seems that the answer memo was not written by Obama personally, though it remains true that he chose it as the best answer any of his students were able to provide.

Finding Jude Fawley

Toward the end of Midnight Oil, V. S. Pritchett’s 1971 memoir of his apprentice years as a writer, he recalls how he and his second wife settled down in the English countryside in 1938, in anticipation of World War II. “I got out my bicycle,” he writes, “for we did not own a car, and pedalled over Berkshire until I found an empty, isolated, farmhouse in the Lambourn valley, eight miles from Newbury-horse-racing country.” In Pritchett’s description, the place sounds idyllic, and moreover it was a site that another work of literature had already made famous. “I paid £1 a week,” Pritchett writes,

for a sedate, solid, ivy-covered Georgian house of the spacious farming kind, a place with a large walled garden and apple orchard. The garden ran down to the spring-fed Lambourn river which flooded when the white water buttercups came out. This pleasant place was called Maidencourt—a mis-spelling of Midden-court, I suppose. It lay down a blind lane ending at the railway crossing of the little Lambourn branch line; and then continued as a footpath across the Downs behind us to the Roman Ridgeway above Wantage. From the top there, on a clear day, we could see the spires of Oxford. My wife and I often cycled to Oxford—a good fifty miles there and back—during the war when clothes were scarce, in search of things for our children. I mention this footpath, for it can easily be identified in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, his topography is always minutely exact and is part of his concern with human circumstance.

The footpath in question is indeed memorable to readers of Jude the Obscure. In that novel, the hero Jude Fawley is obsessed at an early age with Oxford, which is given the name Christminster. Shortly after a farmer scolds Jude for having encouraged the rooks that he was hired to scare away, Jude’s great-aunt regrets that his schoolteacher didn’t take Jude with him to Christminster when he left to study there. “Where is this beautiful city, aunt—this place where Mr. Phillotson is gone to?” Jude asks. “Lord!” the aunt replies, “you ought to know where the city of Christminster is. Near a score of miles from here.” A bit later, Jude asks a stranger for directions.

The man pointed north-eastward, in the very direction where lay that field in which Jude had so disgraced himself. . . . The farmer had said he was never to be seen in that field again; yet Christminster lay across it, and the path was a public one. So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.

Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’—the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

Near the intersection of the northerly path with the Roman ridgeway, Jude finds a barn called the Brown House, from which some roofers claim it’s possible to see Christminster. On his first attempt Jude sees nothing, but later he tries again.

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

Is it heaven or higher education? By the illusion that either would admit a striver like him, the boy is doomed, and the Pisgah sight is one of the novel’s recurring images.

The terrain of Hardy’s fictional region Wessex is famously modeled on the real geography of southwestern England. For instance, there really is a “ridgeway,” though it’s now thought to pre-date the Roman era by a few thousand years. You can even find a map of the Ridgeway online. In the early twentieth century, Hardy’s fans and scholars correlated many of Hardy’s settings with their real-world counterparts, so that it’s easy today to look up “Christminster” and find out that it’s really Oxford. The original of the Brown House, Victorian Web reports, on information probably deriving from Herman Lea’s Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (1913), was known in its day as the Red House, to be found five miles south of Wantage. It isn’t easy to find any contemporary references to the Brown House or the Red House, however; I can’t figure out where either of them are in Google Maps.

It turns out to be very easy, however, to find Pritchett’s old house, Maidencourt. All you have to do is search Google Maps for “Maidencourt, UK.” For confirmation, here’s a map from the British government’s mapping department, the Ordnance Survey, of the same site.

Maidencourt Farm, Great Shefford, 1:25000

[Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.]

There, in light blue, is the River Lambourn, the one that flooded with white water buttercups. It appears that the branch line of the railroad no longer runs close by, but Maidencourt itself is intact, though if you zoom in through Google Maps, you’ll see that it’s not as sedate as it was in Pritchett’s day; it now has an in-ground swimming pool. More important for the literary query here is the track of green plus-signs that runs north from Maidencourt Farm. It isn’t a road, according to the key of the Ordnance Survey’s maps; it’s a “public right of way; a byway open to all traffic.” It is, I strongly suspect, the footpath described by Pritchett as extending “across the Downs behind us to the roman Ridgeway above Wantage”—the one that led to the vantage of Oxford that Pritchett and his wife had shared with Jude Fawley.

Is it possible to map the route that Jude took? I thought it would be easy, once I found Maidencourt Farm and the Ridgeway. It isn’t, though. The trouble is that the path that Pritchett cycled is no longer a public right of way in its entirety. If you inch your way northward from Maidencourt Farm using the Ordnance Survey’s map, clicking first on Maidencourt Farm itself and then clicking to the north of it, frame by frame, each time advancing a few hundred yards, you soon find that you have to guess where the old path was, because the years have erased large chunks of it. In my first guess, I had the path veering northeast at something called the Furze Border. I thought, reasonably enough, that it ought to have gone through the town of Fawley. Fawley was Jude’s last name, after all, and under the name Marygreen, it was the place where he was raised. (Jude probably joined Pritchett’s path somewhere to the north of where Pritchett began it.) My first guess at the path did cross the Ridgeway eventually. It ran along several major roads in the process, though, and it didn’t cross the Ridgeway at a right angle, as Hardy described. When I looked at my finished result, I noticed the traces of an old path running almost due north from Maidencourt Farm. That path did cross the Ridgeway at a right angle. What’s more, it crossed it at a higher elevation—Flint Farm, just to the southwest of this intersection, stands at 238 meters above sea level. That path became my second, better guess.

Letcombe Bassett, 1:25000

[Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.]

In the map above, the Ridgeway is the green track running east to west, and my second guess for the intersection of Jude’s path and the Ridgeway is at the end of Smith’s Hill Road. (My guess for Jude’s path itself does not appear, of course, because it’s only a guess; it would run roughly parallel to the north-south dotted line labeled “Gallop.”) Flint Farm is to the south and west, but I doubt it’s the prototype for the Brown House; the Parsonage Hill Barn is just as good a candidate. And neither is likely to be right, because Hardy described the Brown House as being more or less on the Ridgeway.

Still, I do have some hope that I’ve got the path right. As confirmation, consider that in the novel, when Jude went to visit his sweetheart Arabella Donn at her home, he first reached the intersection “where the path joined the highway” and then “struck away to the left, descending the steep side of the country to the west of the Brown House. Here at the base of the chalk formation he neared the brook that oozed from it, and followed the stream till he reached her dwelling.” Happily for my speculations, the structure today called Arabella’s Cottage, after the fictional use that Hardy made of it, is to be found to the northwest and downhill from the intersection I’ve identified.

With moderate but not absolute confidence, then, here is my map of Jude’s path, as reconstructed with the help of V. S. Pritchett’s evidence. Walk it at your peril. Unlike Jude and Pritchett, you’ll probably end up trespassing.

View Larger Map

The End-of-the-Book Reading List

Not really, of course. I believe paper-based books, also known as codices, are here to stay, even if the advent of foldability does threaten to render electronic reading devices somewhat cuter than heretofore.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, in intermittent fits of sentimentality, I have accumulated a wee library of printed materials that seem to be mementoes or comments on the decline of certain aspects of book culture.

1. To celebrate all things analog, from transistor radios to lighthouses, Simon Roche of the Irish-Danish design firm Field has produced a magazine titled The Radio Post, which I learned about from my boyfriend, Peter Terzian, who wrote about it for Print magazine recently. The Radio Post is an extraordinarily beautiful thing, because it’s in form a folded broadsheet, printed in silver ink on black paper. Fedrigoni’s Savile Row Tweed Paper, to be exact. On one side, poster-size, is a photograph of Simon’s father at the horse races, years ago. On the other are small articles and images, including photos of a low-tech recording studio used by the White Stripes and an extract from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech. The best thing is, it’s free to the first thousand comers, provided you send a non-electronic letter or postcard asking for it. Write to The Radio Post, Republikken Building, Vesterbrogade 24b -2.Sal, 1620 Copenhagen V, Denmark. It arrives in a stamped and numbered envelope.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter

2. But maybe nostalgia is not your thing. Maybe, in the defense of book culture, you prefer . . . gunshots and car chases? In that case, order Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter from Sparkplug Comics for $15. You can also read it online, but that would sort of defeat the point of defending book culture, wouldn’t it. The premise is that it’s 1973, and an 1838 Bible at the Oakland Public Library has been swapped with a high-quality simulacrum. A crack team of special agents from the Federal Library Police are called in to investigate. In the name of library science, the agents are of course licensed to kill. My favorite moment comes during a chase scene, when an agent crawls out of the cab of a bookmobile while it’s in motion, à la Keanu Reeves in Speed or Buster Keaton in The General, in order to reach a reverse telephone directory in the library part of the vehicle. Hands-down shoe-in for the most creative use of a card catalog in motion pictures.

Robert Frank, Zero Mostel Reads a Book

3. If you don’t like your books about books to be sullied by actual words, there’s Zero Mostel reads a book, a photo pamphlet by Robert Frank, originally issued by the New York Times as a giveaway in 1963 and now reissued by Steidl for $27.50. Mostel seems to be performing Harold Bloom avant la lettre, or a more theatrical version of Bloom, if that’s possible—threatening to punch one volume, savoring another with a magnifying glass and a cigarette, and goggling at what must be a true-crime tale with bug-eyed glee.

4. On the studious end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Anthony Grafton has expanded his November 2007 New Yorker article on the future of reading into a small book, Codex in Crisis ($30). It is published, rather lavishly, by the Crumpled Press, in a limited edition of 250, with an engraved cover and a fold-out color reproduction of Felice Giani’s The Burning of the Library at Alexandria. The opulence risks making the book itself sound precious, but it isn’t. Given free rein, Grafton is able to go into more detail about such matters as his first-hand experience of the financial constraints of running a scholarly journal in the internet age; the frequency with which Google Books’ character-recognition software renders the Latin word “qualitas” as “qnalitas”; and the ineffable something that is added to scholarship when a researcher shares a physical workspace with sleepy vicars who visit the Bodleian in their bedroom slippers.

5. I’ve recommended the photographer Moyra Davey’s books of images and essays about books before, and Long Life Cool White ($24.95) and The Problem of Reading ($12) are still highly recommended. (By the way, Davey’s piece Bloom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 18 October 2008 in the exhibit “Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium since 1960.”)

Ben Blackwood, Donald Oresman reading his exhibition catalog

6. Finally, and just as aesthetically, the Spartanburg Art Museum of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is selling the catalog to its exhibit People Reading, depictions of readers in paint and ink collected by Donald and Patricia Oresman. The Oresmans, a Manhattan couple with a 1,250-square-foot private library with 23-foot ceilings, own more than two thousand such images, which have been featured in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. They have loaned sixty to the Spartanburg Art Museum, and while they’re all visible online, the pictures are bigger and better in print, and the catalog only costs $5 (plus $5 shipping).

And then it became the consensus

Last year, the consensus among mainstream journalists seemed against the idea of peak oil—that is, against the idea that the world has a finite supply of oil, that a graph of its production is likely to follow a bell curve, and that we may be within a decade of the peak of that curve. For example, in a 7 March 2007 article, “Oil Innovations Pump New Life into Old Wells,” New York Times reporter Jad Mouawad wrote that “There is still a minority view, held largely by a small band of retired petroleum geologists and some members of Congress, that oil production has peaked, but the theory has been fading.” To maintain his dismissal of peak oil, Mouawad had to walk a fine tightrope. The gist of his article, after all, was that as oil prices rise, it begins to make fiscal sense to use more expensive technologies to extract oil from the earth. In fact this is something that most people concerned about peak oil expect to happen as oil becomes scarcer. True, rising oil prices have reopened wells that were once closed as unprofitable, and they have brought dirty and unwieldy petroleum sources such as tar sands into development, but none of these phenomena suggest that oil is still as abundant as ever. To the contrary.

But it was not until recently that I began to notice mainstream journalists accepting that oil production may be peaking. In a more recent Times article, “Why Is Oil So High? Pick a View,” dated 21 June 2008, Mouawad and fellow reporter Diana B. Henriques don’t actually embrace the idea of peak oil, but they sidle up awfully close to it. They note with puzzlement, for example, that lately “the future price is higher than the spot price” of oil—reversing the offer of Popeye’s friend Wimpy, who will gladly pay you Tuesday for a cheeseburger today. “That development usually signals concerns over future supplies,” Mouawad and Henriques note, “encouraging refiners to stockpile oil, which has not happened yet.” They don’t speculate as to why not. They continue:

Many economists see a straightforward explanation for rising prices: Global oil supplies remain tight and there is a deep-seated fear that demand will outpace new production growth for years to come. In that climate, they say, the price will rise until it reduces global demand. But demand is still rising, even with oil at $134.62 a barrel.

The high price “doesn’t mean we have a shortage today, but it means there is a serious worry about a shortage three to five years from now,” said Adam E. Sieminski, the chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank.

That view — that market fundamentals are responsible for the price rally — is widely held among energy analysts.

In other words, prices may be rising because demand is exceeding supply, and because everyone in the market expects demand to continue to exceed supply, they expect they’ll have to pay more for the Tuesday cheeseburger.

The journalistic consensus may be shifting because a scientific one is coalescing. In “Final Warning,” New Scientist, 28 June 2008, Ian Sample writes, “Most geologists now accept we have reached, or will imminently reach, peak oil,” and backs up his assertion by citing Gideon Samid, head of the Innovation Appraisal Group at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Writes Sample:

Most industry experts, including geoscientists and economists, who were polled by Samid in 2007 said that peak production will occur by 2010. This contrasted with a similar survey conducted two years earlier, in which respondents were split, with many of the economists opting for a later date. “Now, a real consensus is emerging,” says Samid.

And in a drive-by Nixon-goes-to-China sort of way, this week The Economist jumped on the bandwagon. In “The Power and the Glory,” dated 21 June 2008, part of a special report on the future of energy, Geoffrey Carr wrote that “Oil is no longer cheap; indeed, it has never been more expensive. Moreover, there is growing concern that the supply of oil may soon peak as consumption continues to grow, known supplies run out and new reserves become harder to find.” Carr continues by unraveling the apparent contradiction that was flummoxing the Times last spring:

“Peak oil,” if oil means the traditional sort that comes cheaply out of holes in the ground, probably will arrive soon. There is oil aplenty of other sorts (tar sands, liquefied coal and so on), so the stuff is unlikely to run out for a long time yet. But it will get more expensive to produce, putting a floor on the price that is way above today’s.