Farewell, my Twinkie, and other brief thoughts

I greet the news that Hostess Brands is going out of business with a mixture of relief and sadness. I first came across Twinkies when, as a young boy, I read Ann M. Martin’s epochal Babysitter’s Club series. Claudia Kishi – the Japanese-American girl whose complexion never changed no matter how much junk food she ate, who feasted on Nancy Drew novels and mysteries, and who seemed to be good at art but was only really made Vice President of the Club because she had her own phone line – was addicted to the things. She used to hide them in hollow books for weeks on end, and then scoff them late at night because her parents didn’t like her eating junk food. When I actually tried my first cream-filled bun a few years later, I realised that they were probably not very good for her, either fresh or stale. (This was also about the time I first drank Kool Aid. I liked it, and carried on drinking the Kool Aid for a while longer.)

Some might say that the fact that Twinkies have been a culinary phenomenon has contributed quite a lot to the obesity rate in this country, so the death of Hostess and companies like it may not be a bad thing. With that said, the disappearance of Twinkies – along with the sad realisation that Yorkshire Puddings weren’t quite as pudding-like as Enid Blyton’s midnight feasts at St Clare’s and Malory Towers made them out to be – is another sign that the world in which I grew up and learned to read in the 1980s and 1990s is a different place from that of the 2010s and onwards. Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, in an age where 12-year-olds have cellphones, Claudia would probably have been redundant in a Babysitter’s Club for this generation. Mary-Anne could adequately have fulfilled the roles of Vice President and Secretary at the same time, as could Stacey, or Dawn (especially after Stacey came back and re-took the Treasurer’s position).

I intend to blog more fully about corporate governance and fictional organisations soon.

* * *

The Lincoln movie is fantastic on several levels: a marvelous evocation of a time and a place and a man; a brilliant depiction of how good people sometimes do bad things in order to achieve good ends in the political sphere (as Lincoln tells Grant, “We’ve each made it possible for the other to do terrible things”), a bravura cast all around (David Strathairn, James Spader, and Sally Field stand out particularly, but they’re all good), and, of course, Daniel Day Lewis. Wow. Just, wow. (If it helps, Roger Ebert liked it.)

What interested me most in the movie, though, was the brief discussion of the legality of the Thirteenth Amendment. Constitutional lawyers have contested this – and the legality of other things that Lincoln did in the name of his just ends – since almost the time of the Civil War itself. I’m still coming to grips with the issues, but broadly the urgency portrayed in the film suggests that the Emancipation Proclamation might only have had force during a time of Civil War/insurrection, despite its declaration that “all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons” (emphasis added).

Mr. Lincoln was clear to draw on his war powers as Commander-in-Chief only. The Proclamation was issued “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion”.  So, as the movie illustrates in a brilliant scene at the Cabinet table, despite the prospective nature of the proclamation, the Commander-in-Chief was aware that he, as President, could not legislate an end to slavery. The only way that he could ensure that former slaves were in fact free was to have an amendment to the Constitution passed. The exigency was that he needed to have the amendment passed before the end of the war as the war justified the amendment. Otherwise, the war would end and slavery could continue as it was.

Lincoln recognised that he had used his war powers – perhaps to a degree to which some people might have seen as excessive – to get rid of slavery during the war only. (Although the Representatives likened him to Caesar on several occasions, Lincoln also persuasively argued that his re-election gave him a mandate for using his war powers. George W. Bush might have made similar arguments about Guantanamo after 2004, or Obama might now make such arguments about Affordable Care or drone strikes.) That Mr. Lincoln sought passage of a Constitutional Amendment suggests a recognition that he knew that the stakes were greater than winning a war, and that there was a power much higher still than him, or even the people (albeit that the power of the Constitution derives from the people themselves).

Having spent time in countries without written constitutions at all, and in countries where the rule of law is a religious book that seems immutable no matter what the passage of time presages, I’m not entirely sold on the superiority of a written Constitution over other forms of government. With that said, the idea that it can check even a wonderfully popular President, who is revered even by his opponents as a good man who is doing good things, seems quite powerful to me. I’m trying to get through Professor Ackerman’s Holmes Lectures on the subject of a Living Constitution, before starting Professor Amar’s new book on America’s Unwritten Constitution, but I am going in – at least on the back of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work – with the view that a reading of history that makes the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments valid is probably a good thing.

Sai Prakash may well be right to argue that Lincoln was the Great Suspender of writs that went beyond his war powers, and that our reverence for him shouldn’t blind us to his constitutional faults. As Amar suggests, though, perhaps Lincoln had (and Obama might have) more knowledge of how to make constitutional decisions – and legitimacy to suggest how to do so – than most Presidents. The notion that these Presidents remain bound by the document that they seek to interpret is appealingly powerful, all the same.

* * *

Finally, you should read Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton – A Memoir” if you have time spare to read 600 pages (as I did, recently). It’s an interesting look at the First Amendment idea of freedom of speech and what it entails in practical terms, but to be honest I liked it more for the gossipy tidbits. From the book, I learnt that Nigella Lawson went out with Geoffrey Robertson, that Norman Mailer’s wife Norris once had an affair with Bill Clinton (or so she claimed), and much else besides.

I’ve not read The Satanic Verses, although I intend to try, but Rushdie’s plea that it should be discussed as literature rather than incendiary work is one that makes sense to me. (Of course, it certainly was incendiary to many people, but the reaction seems to have magnified the work’s incendiary nature. Rushdie tells the story of a defamatory Pakistani film that saw him being murdered during the late 1980s/early 1990s. He pondered legal action, but realised it was better to let the film sink or swim on its merits. It promptly sank.)

Admittedly the book reads like unreconstructed journal in some sections, and perhaps his fantastical section about Padma Lakshmi running off with a Scrooge McDuck figure who served as allegory for Ted Forstmann was more than a little overdone (and suggested that he couldn’t get over the fact that this attractive but vacuous woman had left him). It’s an interesting glimpse into the literary world which Rushdie inhabits for all that. You can also read about the origins of the feud between Rushdie and John Le Carré – including Christopher Hitchens wading in to inflame things no end – which has just been resolved.

One imagines that on hearing of this latest development, perhaps living in the free world that he and his espionage networks were trying to save in the 1970s, George Smiley might somewhere be sharing a twinkie or two with Saladin Chamcha.

A

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One Response to Farewell, my Twinkie, and other brief thoughts

  1. Pingback: Winter in New York « Misanthropic Mutterings

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