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Sandel on the Resistance

Disentangling the intolerant aspects of populist protest from the legitimate grievances it conveys is no easy matter. But it is important to try. Understanding these grievances and creating a politics that can respond to them is the most pressing political challenge of our time.

Writes philosopher Michael Sandel in a recent essay where he analyzes the resistance to President Trump and the need for progressives to develop a new message.

His core claim is something similar to what I've been saying and what we've read from David Brooks, "the Trumpian moment highlights the need to rejuvenate democratic public discourse, to address the big questions people care about, including moral and cultural questions."

The problem in rural America

I was annoyed by the reductionistic accounts after the election that liberals don't understand the heartland or rural folk.  Baloney.  For one, many of us live in the heartland or are from the heartland.  Plus most liberals I know go out of their way to try to understand diverse perspectives, it's part of what it means to be a liberal. 

Yes, I too have experienced the annoying trait of folks on the coast (both liberal and conservative) for not understanding or caring to understand the heartland, but that's a slightly different thing.

What I've also experienced in the complete unwillingness of many people, including many in the heartland, to not engage in any open-minded exploration of ideas. 

This good article on fundamentalism and its affects upon American life gets to that point.  

The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.

The author explains further:

In deep-red white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power. The problem isn’t “coastal elites don’t understand rural Americans.” The problem is rural America doesn’t understand itself and will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble. It doesn’t matter how “understanding” you are, how well you listen, what language you use…if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted. I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.

More than a decade ago I began arguing that LGBT rights really wasn't advanced through education, but more like a conversion experience.  Older liberals often strongly disagreed with me; they hold such romantic ideas about the efficacy of being exposed to new information.  This article makes a similar point for how fundamentalism is changed: "Deeply held beliefs are usually only altered, replaced under catastrophic circumstances that are personal."

SCOTUS & the travel ban

In this CNN article about today's SCOTUS decision on the (immoral) travel ban, the key paragraph is this one:

"That's going to be an extreme headache. Think about how the people at the border, at airports are going to make that decision," said Page Pate, CNN legal analyst. "Who is going to make this decision? If we leave it to the folks on the front line, that's just going to lead to more litigation."

SCOTUS often seems unaware of the real world implications of their decisions.  This could sow unnecessary chaos.  They should have maintained the hold until they ruled on the merits of the issue itself.

I'm reminded of something I read about Sandra Day O'Connor when she retired.  Her version of conservatism was Platonic--that the philosopher-kings should make decisions that maintained order and didn't create disruption.  The author said this is why she ultimately ruled in Casey v. Planned Parenthood for reproductive choice instead of against it as had been anticipated, because she didn't want to create chaos by overturning Roe.  

Also, there's this description of English common law I read this morning in the essay on the life of the mind by philosopher Roger Scruton:

It was there, as a member of the Inner Temple, that I first became acquainted with the common law of England, and I was astonished by what I found. The meticulously reported cases, going back over cen­turies, were not only an eloquent expression of life as my ancestors had known it, but also an illustration of thought in action. The laws governing the English, I discovered, have emerged from the judgments of the courts, and not been imposed upon the courts by government. Those brought up on Roman law or the Code Napoléon find this amazing, since they see law as a deductive system, beginning from first principles and working downward to the particular case. But common law arises as morality arises, from the desire to do what is right, not from the desire to expound the principle that makes it so. And often the principle eludes us, even when the rightness of the act is clear. Readers of Jane Austen will not need to be reminded of this. Like morality, the common law builds upward from the particular to the general. For justice is done in the particular case, and until tried in the courts, abstract principles have no more authority than the people who declare them.

The facts of the case may never have been considered before, and the judge may have no explicit rule of law, no precedent, and no act of Parliament to guide him. But still there is a difference, the common law says, between a right and a wrong decision. Thus it was in the celebrated case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) in the law of tort, in which water from the defendant’s reservoir had flooded the mines of the plaintiff and put them out of use. No similar case had come before the courts, but this did not prevent Mr. Justice Blackburn from giving judgment in the following terms: “We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie liable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”

Until Rylands v. Fletcher no such rule had ever been formulated. But in Blackburn’s eyes, he was not inventing the rule; he was discovering a legal truth buried in the heart of things, bringing it to the surface, and clarifying matters that no politician had yet addressed. He thereby set the standard for environmental legislation in my country, and laid the foundations for the doctrines of enterprise liability in American law.

American law is supposed to be based on English common law, and historically common law was used to interpret our own law.  This excerpt shows both the folly of today's decision and the so-called "originalist" position of many of the current conservatives on the court.

Let's not get carried away

David Brooks reminds us to not get carried away about the Russia investigation, that there are many more and more important reasons that Trump is a danger.  

There’s just something worrisome every time we find ourselves replacing politics of democracy with the politics of scandal. In democracy, the issues count, and you try to win by persuasion. You recognize that your opponents are legitimate, that they will always be there and that some form of compromise is inevitable.

In the politics of scandal, at least since Watergate, you don’t have to engage in persuasion or even talk about issues. Political victories are won when you destroy your political opponents by catching them in some wrongdoing. You get seduced by the delightful possibility that your opponent will be eliminated. Politics is simply about moral superiority and personal destruction.

Questions for Sessions

I was puzzled by the Jeff Sessions hearing yesterday, primarily at a number of questions that weren't asked, questions that seemed obvious to me.  Instead a lot of time was spent circling around some topics that I didn't think were all that interesting.  No, I don't think Jeff Sessions openly colluded with the Russian government to steal the election, but he may have been unwittingly played by them.  But here were the questions I wanted answers to and while some Senators got close to these, none of them asked these:

  1. What was the purpose of your meetings with Ambassador Kislyak?  Why did you schedule the meetings?  Were you meeting as a Senator or as a member of the Trump campaign?  See this article for why these distinctions matter.
  2. What did you discuss with Mr. Kislyak?  [John McCain asked if they talked about various things, but he never asked this open-ended question.  Note that McCain is skeptical that Sessions held this meeting in his role as a member of the Armed Services Committee.]
  3. When Director Comey asked you to intercede with the president to prevent any future breaches of protocol, did you address this concern with the President?  If not, why not?  If so, what was his response?
  4. Do you believe that the president's conversations with Director Comey were inappropriate?
  5. Do you believe that the president asking Mr. Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn is an attempt at obstruction of justice?
  6. You have said that your reasons for supporting Mr. Comey's firing were those detailed in Mr. Rosenstein's memo, but the President has said he fired Mr. Comey because of the Russian investigation.  Do you believe the president's reason is  legitimate?  Do you think differently about the firing after learning that was the president's reason?  [Senator Collins came close to this, but didn't go precisely to this point.]  Do you believe that firing Mr. Comey because of the Russian investigation is an attempt to obstruct the investigation?  Did the president obstruct justice?

One thing Sessions revealed in the hearing was that he had no information on the Russian investigation that wasn't public information.  One of the Senators, I now forget which, asked him, with some surprise and incredulity, about the confidential report the intelligence services had released last fall when Sessions was a Senator.  Hadn't he read the report?  Hadn't he, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, attended the briefings for Senators?  Sessions said he hadn't.  The Senator seemed puzzled that Sessions had not been alarmed by the fact of Russian interference and hadn't wanted to learn about it.  I felt that this should have been followed up on more seriously.  

Trump the Idiot

A column in the Times explores how Trump is representative of the original meaning of the word idiot--"a prepubescent, parasitic solipsist who talks only to himself."  It became clear to me during his inaugural speech that he is a pathetic little man.  The idiot is a danger to public life, as the Greeks understood:

The idiot cares nothing about public life, much less public service. The idiot cares only about his own name. The idiot, by way of his actions, can destroy the social body. Eventually, the idiot destroys himself, but in so doing, potentially annihilates everyone along with him. He is a ticking time bomb in the middle of the public square.

"They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world."

In an, at times, beautiful column, David Brooks writes that 

People have moral emotions. They feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness.

People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good.

People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness.

Yet, the Trump administration "dismiss [es] this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them. . . [they] sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty that all nations need when times get tough . . . [and they] affront everybody else’s moral emotions. They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world."

Another conservative criticizes Trump's lack of moral character

Conservative Jennifer Rubin writes about how embarrassing Trump's tweets were after the London attack and how they reveal his complete lack of moral character.  Here are the choice excerpts:

One is prompted to ask if he is off his rocker. But this is vintage Trump — impulsive and cruel, without an ounce of class or human decency. His behavior no longer surprises us, but it should offend and disturb us, first, that he remains the face and voice of America in the world and, second, that his fans hoot and holler, seeing this as inconsequential or acceptable conduct. We wound up with this president because millions of Republicans could not prioritize character, decency and overall fitness to serve over their mundane and frankly petty partisan wish list (28 percent top marginal tax rate!).


Sure, Trump’s policies and rhetoric are incoherent and based on a tower of lies. Far worse, however, is his appalling character, which accelerates the erosion of democratic norms and social cohesion a diverse democracy requires. In instances like this, those who would lecture us on President Obama’s under-appreciation of America’s unique place in human history or proclaim that they simply had to vote for Trump because Hillary Clinton was some sort of monster are exposed as fools or hypocrites or both.