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September 27, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The New Right Vs. the Constitution, Stephen Macedo (CATO Institute, 224 2nd St. SE, Washington 20003: $7.95). The confirmation hearings for Judge Robert Bork have been fascinating for their rare public discussion of basic ideas underlying America's political system as well as befuddling for their abundant use of steely, technical legal terms. That the hearings were so mired in legalistic rhetoric wasn't only the doing of Bork and his conservative disciples, who believe that the Court should decide constitutional issues only when it can rationally discern original intent .

Even moderates and liberals on the U.S. Senate panel, who are more accustomed to passionate politicking than to the formal debating of their faraway law-school days, rejected a vision of law as a series of naked value judgments. The real controversy was over how mechanically one can approach our nation's most important document. "Judicial activism" is obviously not called for when interpreting "neither shall any person be eligible to . . . (the Presidency) who shall not have attained the age of 35 years," but what about the perhaps deliberately unspecific First and Ninth amendments? Legal positivist that he is, Bork, it is feared, would declare original intent impossible to discern in difficult cases and thus try to hand over power to the legislative branch and the lower courts.

"The New Right Vs. the Constitution" picks up from here, arguing concisely that little progress in civil rights and sexual equality would have been made if the court had not held to values ahead of its time. Macedo, a Harvard political scientist, contends that the court must look after Congress, preventing majority values from encroaching on minority rights on the one hand and preventing special interests from taking over on the other.

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. LeGuin (Harper & Row: $6.95). High castle walls made splendid by "an infinite tracery of red vines," chestnut trees of flawless gold, many-colored dwarfs near a pale-blue canal--the wonderful images in these short stories inspire awe of nature but are never luridly fantastic. Their mystery and magic are forwarded for a purpose: as antidotes to the more alienating, obscure, nameless, faceless entities that seem to run things in worlds created by Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin's characters, who feel they're being torn apart by massive forces in society, could be Franz Kafka's. But where Kafka's world is dark and vacuous, LeGuin's is rich, if sometimes perplexing; the empty space is filled by some benevolent force. And so these tales are ultimately religious, with nature providing comfort--a microbiologist who defects from his country finds "the taciturn, complicit darkness of all forests where fugitives have hidden gathered around him"--and catharsis--fountains that "sprang and sang high, leaping up, crashing down exulting and washing death away."

Biting Silence, Arturo Von Vacano (Avon Books: $6.95). "If you hold to your truth, you must speak it," the Bolivian captor tells our battered narrator just before his release, "although speaking it costs you your neck." Concerned about supporting his children and weary of the vanity and paranoia of politics, the narrator realizes that "biting silence" is obviously wisest. It is not, however, emotionally expedient, for without the drive of writing, he is pulled down by his rage at the people who run Bolivian society, where "the routine is so routine, stupidity so stupid, so deadly, hope so hopeless, opportunities so lacking." The guilty aren't the slick, smirking military officers we might expect in a novel about a Third World country, but "armchair militiamen who . . . steal with silk gloves." They are unquestioning bureaucrats such as Leo, who drives someone else's car with official plates, but who owns a home "built by nearly destroying a hospital: A state hospital, of course."

Predictably, these bureaucrats see all dissidents as threats to personal wealth, and so our narrator finds himself frequently repeating, "I have not been, am not now, and will not be a Communist. My problem is how to feed my people. How in the hell to feed them. Feed them." While ignorant and thus destructive, the Bolivian leaders fictionalized here are not senselessly malevolent--many have, in fact, a sure sense of humor. Yet Von Vacano's goal isn't to entertain us; presumably afraid that his message about the ramshackle state of Bolivian society would be lost in a complex narrative in the model of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he keeps the plot simple and the sentences staccato. In so doing, one surmises, he was too direct, for while he was careful never to explicitly name leaders ("This is fiction. It has to be fiction. I am fiction"), Bolivia's leaders felt sufficiently threatened to burn all Spanish-language copies of this book when it first appeared in 1980.

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