What Should Democrats Do About Gorsuch?

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W.J. Astore

What should Democrats do about Neil Gorsuch?  They should filibuster.

The reason is obvious: Merrick Garland, President Obama’s eminently qualified and moderate nominee for the Supreme Court, never even got a hearing from Republicans. Unlike obstructionist Republicans, the official party of no, a party that with a clear majority can’t even pass its own wealth/health care plan, the Democrats gave Gorsuch a fair hearing. It’s now time to oppose him.  To do anything else would be an admission of gutlessness.

Democrats, at the risk of stating the obvious: Republicans are not going to respect your sense of fair play, your bipartisanship, your willingness to compromise.  Just keep one image in mind: Republicans are Lucy holding the football, and you are Charlie Brown.  No matter how many times Lucy tells you she’s going to let you kick the ball, she’s always going to pull it away, betraying her promise while making snide comments about your gullibility.

There’s another reason not to vote for Gorsuch: the man lacks compassion.  Sure, he’s urbane, intelligent, and well-read.  He knows his way around the law.  But he seems to believe humans were made for the law, rather than the law being made for and by us.

The higher a judge rises in our system of justice, the higher the premium on compassion. The law is not a bunch of words and statutes and rulings to be adjudicated soullessly while citing “original intent,” whatever that means.  In certain rulings, like the “frozen trucker” case, Gorsuch came across as soulless, allowing strict interpretations to trump common humanity.

I’m a historian, not a lawyer, so my view of the law is somewhat different from the experts.  I see it as an artifact of history, a fluid substance, an imperfect product of imperfect humans.  That doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important; that it doesn’t deserve our respect and our protection.  But, again, the law exists for us: to uphold life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The law shouldn’t exist solely for the powerful, for corporations, for the government, for the richest.

Justice shouldn’t be blind.  Justice requires judges to use all their senses, and not just those, but their hearts and souls as well.  It’s not enough for a judge to be learned; he or she should have empathy, a strong sense of fairness, and, again, compassion.

Gorsuch is a fan of Dickens.  While listening to him, it was difficult for me to tell whether he was Scrooge before his moral awakening, or Scrooge after it.  He came across more as the Scrooge of “Are there no prisons, no workhouses,” rather than the Scrooge who embraces charity and who freely gives to those in need.

So, Democrats, your direction should be clear: In the name of Merrick Garland, and in the cause of compassion, resist Gorsuch.  For even if you naively choose to support him, in the name of highminded fairness, Lucy will always be there to pull the football away, laughing all the while at your spineless gullibility.

America: Land of Extremes

superman
He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses?  Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit?  Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists?  Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science?  Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans?  Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders?  Lushes or teetotalers?   Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?

The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on.  Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers?  Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.”  A devoted family man with one very successful marriage.  The Donald?  Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president.  And I’m not talking skin color.

A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism.  What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in.  Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along?  My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?

As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.”  Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”

I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment.  I first saw it in a bicycle repair book.  The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”

Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America.  We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world.  Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.

That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice.  That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants.  What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other.  We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.

Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable.  That they meant something.  We need to get back to those times.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.

Dissent and Democracies

us constitution
W.J. Astore

Dissent is fundamental to democracy.  Or so we claim.  Until such dissent makes us angry or uncomfortable.  Then we yell at the dissenter to shut up; better yet, we denounce him or her as a traitor to … well, whatever fits.

But responsible criticism of the actions of one’s government is not disloyalty; rather, it’s often a form of higher loyalty, a loyalty to the ideal of freedom of speech as well as the ideal of organized political action.  The alternative is “My government, right or wrong.”  And who wants that, except for government leaders and their lackeys?

The USA and Israel claim to be democracies.  Yet in difficult times, dissent is often suppressed, and dissenters painted as disloyal.  Recall the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA, when those who questioned the rush to war against Iraq were painted as naive peaceniks (at best) or as dupes of Saddam Hussein or even (at worst) as supporters of Al Qaeda.  That was the mentality of Bush and Company, a Manichean “you’re either for us or against us.”  And look where that got us.

Sorry, I’m not “for” a government and its leaders.  I’m “for” the US Constitution and our essential rights and liberties, including the right to dissent from my government when I believe it is wrong.

Today, the debate on Israel and Gaza is similarly heated.  Those who risk expressing sympathy for the Palestinians often get painted as supporters of Hamas and terrorism.  Jon Stewart showcased this mentality on The Daily Show here.  Similarly, David Harris-Gershon wrote a telling article with the meaningful title, “Empathizing with Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel.  It makes me human.”

It almost goes without saying that Stewart and Harris-Gershon are Jewish. Indeed, Harris-Gershon’s wife was seriously injured by a terrorist bomb in Israel, an ordeal he wrote about in his book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  A Memoir of Jerusalem.”  That they have to fight against the charge of being “self-hating Jews” or enemy sympathizers says much about the suppression of dissent by authoritarian elements in Israel as well as the USA.

Look: The situation in Gaza is highly inflammatory.  As an organization, Hamas is quite obviously dedicated to launching rockets against innocents and building tunnels to launch terrorist attacks.  Few people can blame Israel for wanting to stop the rocket attacks and destroy the tunnels.  But honest people in good faith can definitely disagree with how the Israeli government is going about it.

Let me close with a comment from a Jewish friend.  He wrote to me with grave concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza.  What he said resonated with me.  He said that the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza were betraying a fundamental core value of Jewish identity.

That value?  Compassion.

You may agree or disagree with him.  But is it too much to ask that we take his concern seriously, without denouncing him as naive or misguided or calling him a self-hating Jew or even a traitor?

Update (8/4/14): Call it “dissent” or call it “gumption” (the word Andrew Bacevich uses below): We need it when the experts are marching in lockstep in the pursuit of bad policies, as they did with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 that enabled the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.  But let Bacevich tell it:

“It takes gumption to question truths that everyone “knows” to be true. In the summer of 1964, gumption was in short supply. As a direct consequence, 58,000 Americans died, along with a vastly larger number of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

“After 9/11, similar mistakes — deference to the official line and to the conventional wisdom (“terrorism” standing in for communism) — recurred, this time with even less justification. The misbegotten Iraq war was one result. Yet even today, events in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere elicit an urge to ‘do something,’ accompanied by the conviction that unless troops are moving or bombs dropping the United States is somehow evading its assigned responsibilities. The question must be asked: Are Americans incapable of learning?”

We’re especially incapable of learning when those few who dare to question the wrongheaded policies of our government are painted as malcontents or traitors.

Check out Bacevich’s article here.

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

 

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.