civic involvement

We the People

Did you cheer or jeer this week's Supreme Court rulings? Whether you experienced elation or disgust in large part depends on your understanding of a short phrase. The constitution begins with the words, "We the People". Who is included in the term "people"? White, male property owners? Heterosexuals? This week the Supreme Court handed down a mixed bag of progressive and regressive decisions in the attempt to further define what it means to be fully included as "the people". What I find interesting is the stance of those who oppose extending to others the legal protections they already enjoy. They sound like children throwing a temper tantrum because they now have to share their toys. Take for instance Justice Scalia's dissent to the majority opinion that struck down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act. He complained:

"It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race...In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle."

Actually sir, the truth is uncomplicated. Your politics are monstrous.  Your viewpoint is an enemy of the human race. You fear you might be judged and ostracized just for being who you are? How ironic!

You defend laws that on the surface may seem fair and impartial, but the undeniable effect of which is to discriminate, impoverish, and marginalize. And it is the effect of such laws, not just the veneer of good intent, which must be examined.

With the possible exception of wealthy, white, heterosexual males, who really benefits from the policies espoused by Mr. Scalia and his ilk? Their tired, disingenuous arguments sound reasonable but upon closer inspection are revealed to be clever misdirections obscuring bigotry. For instance: "We are defending the historic understanding of marriage, which is between a man and a woman." Historically, arranged marriages have been the norm in which one family sells their property (the bride) to another. Until very recently, people of different races or religions were not allowed to intermarry. Is this the historical definition of marriage which you hold dear?

Or look at the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act this week. The court essentially said that the Voting Rights Act worked so well that it's now unconstitutional. Really? A close inspection of voting-related issues throughout racially polarized areas reveals Jim Crow is alive and well; he's just wearing more sophisticated clothing. (See Justice Ginsberg's dissent.)

Whether they oppose a level playing field for people of color, the poor, women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, the privileged perceive others' equality as their loss. As special rights are pried from their grasp, they whine: "We are the victims here!"

It's hard to see how Justice Scalia is in any way a victim. But let's play along. Perhaps he and his cabal feel like they are being marginalized. A few years spent in the role of the marginalized may be exactly what they need. Maybe if they experience life as a despised minority, an enemy of the people, a monster...all familiar roles for homosexuals, immigrants, people of color and women in this country...maybe then they will develop some empathy.

"We the People" is an unfulfilled promise. It is the latent, ever-unfolding genius of our constitution. It is the hope that one day "people" will include everyone, a "we" of fully equal human beings before the law, in theory and in practice. It is a vision in which all of us work together for the common good because individual liberty is selfish vanity if not spent for the benefit of all the people. Anything less is not only "unconstitutional" but also monstrous and an enemy of the human race. Mr. Scalia, it's time to share the toys!

"Eastwooding": Our Failure to Communicate

At last week's Republican National Convention, the most talked about speech did not dribble from the mouth of a politician. Actor/director Clint Eastwood stole the show during his bizarre dialog with an empty chair on which an invisible President Obama sat. Mr. Eastwood chided the transparent president for numerous perceived shortcomings, some of which were actually the work of his predecessor. The speech was but one in a string of over-the-top attacks bearing little resemblance to Mr. Obama or his policies. While there are legitimate gripes regarding the president's performance, his foes seem to focus their opposition on misleading or patently false information (e.g., cuts to Medicare, welfare reform, the "you didn't build that" misquote, or Paul Ryan blaming Obama for the closure of an auto plant that actually shut down while Bush was president). Why would Republicans resort to half-truths and bald-faced lies when so much factual economic data is in their favor? Jon Stewart said that Mr. Eastwood's rant at an empty-chair explains the Republicans' detached-from-reality behavior because there is obviously "a President Obama that only Republicans can see."

What can you see? When thinking of those with opposing political views, most of us resort to "Eastwooding", which is already becoming part of our everyday vocabulary. It is the act of spewing vitriolic venom against an absent foe. Raging monologues can be psychologically cathartic for an individual when done in private. Public "Eastwooding", however, epitomizes our immaturity as a nation. We don't see complex, often self-contradictory human beings; we see imaginary caricatures. We don't listen in order to understand; we pontificate. We don't converse and connect; we preach to the choir and rant at empty seats.

We can bludgeon our way to political victory, but lose our souls in the process and become the very ogres against whom we rail. Of course, the solution is not the opposite extreme in which we ignore crucial differences and play nice while the world spirals into self-destruction.

How can we be true both to our convictions and to our humanity? It is one of those questions for which the answer is not deduced but rather lived. One experimental notion is "transpartisanship", which seeks to find common ground beyond traditional parties and labels. You can read more about the movement: 

On a personal level, we start by slowly stretching beyond our comfort zones. We expand our capacity for truth-telling while also keeping a compassionate, open presence. We speak up and stand up while refusing to become self-righteous or rigid. We choose to see those with opposing views as fellow, imperfect human beings with similar needs. If  we are willing to sit still long enough to get to know each other, we may even discover we share some basic values and goals around which consensus might gradually coalesce. That's uncomfortable. It's work. It's humbling. And it's a lot less fun than yelling at an empty chair. But it's what grownups and nations that have a future choose to do.

I've read rumors that Betty White might appear at the Democratic National Convention for an empty-chair row with Mitt Romney. Now that would be entertaining! Would she be more like Sue Ann Nivens or Rose Nylund? I do love our last living Golden Girl, and I continue to enjoy Clint Eastwood's films. Perhaps someday the two of them will transcend mere entertainment and sit down for an adult conversation: occupied chair facing occupied chair.