Thursday, April 28, 2005

"Nuklear physics ain't so new, and it ain't so clear."--Howland Owl

We need Walt Kelly again. We miss him more than we realize. Perhaps he could help us make sense of the current political situation, since he lived through the McCarthy Era, beginning to end.

History is a hard thing to hold onto. I was too young for McCarthy, but I understood "the Bomb," which brought nuclear physics into everyday conversation, even if we weren't so clear on what it was. My daughter, almost 13 now, has no memory of "the Bomb" at all, and can't imagine a world under that Sword of Damocles. How to tell her?

But those who don't know history seem doomed to repeat it; or perhaps Marx was right, and history repeats itself, coming once as tragedy, the second time as farce. Now we are seeing the farce; but this time, the energy is aimed, not at the imagined enemies "across the water," or at shadows under the bed, or the creatures of our own nightmares, but at what Josh Marshall has aptly described as "the soft tissue of the law."

It was in law school that I realized what a fragile structure the law really is. It is backed only by the agreement of those bound by it. Police officers follow the law because they accept its dictates. Bailiffs in court obey the judge because they accept the system of justice as a whole. Politicians and public officials are bound by court rulings on the Constitutionality of laws, or the interpretation of statues, because they accept the system as a whole. It is all part of an agreement to behave in a certain way, not unlike the rules of etiquette. The only thing that really keeps the structure in place and the wheels turning, is our agreement that it should be done this way and that, at the end of the day, we accept the consequences for objecting to that process. "Civil disobedience" is civil precisely because it accepts responsibility for defying the system at its most fundamental level, the level of just authority. Criminals violate the system at that level but are punished, and so the system maintains its authority. But who watches the watchers?

The "nuclear option" in the Senate is not that the filibuster rule will be suspended for the nomination of judges; it is the way the suspension will take place. A "super majority" of 67 votes is needed under current Senate rules to suspend the filibuster. But who enforces those Senate rules? The Senate itself. The "nuclear option" is not the suspension of the filibuster; it is the idea that a simple majority of 51 can suspend that rule, because that's the way the Bush Administration wants it. It is no more and no less than the idea that judges should be put on the bench to enforce the rule of law by abrogating the very agreement that is the foundation of the rule of law. That's the "option," and that's why it's "nuclear." It poisons the system at its very roots.

Richard Nixon is our standard for Presidential malfeasance and criminality; but even Nixon feared the anesthetic of sunlight and exposure. Even Nixon knew that the full weight of society, as expressed in the enforcement of its laws, would be used against him. Bush seems to have no such fear, and no such understanding. And what he wants, is to undo the justice system and the constitutional system and the governmental system, all in the name of "justice" and "the Constitution" and "governance." Which would be supremely ironic, if it weren't dangerously farcical. History comes once as tragedy, the second time as farce. This time, it's coming as black comedy; the darkest, the most cynical and pessimistic possible. This time it comes attacking our governmental system, proclaiming in virtuous tones that we are not virtuous, arguing as a governement of laws, not of men, that we should in fact be a government of men, not of laws.

And the only question left is: will it be permitted? The polls do not support it, but there is good reason to wonder if the polls matter anymore. There is more than sufficient reason to be suspicious about electronic voting devices. There is more than sufficient reason to wonder how deep the rot goes, how extensive the desire for power runs, how corrupted and polluted the system already is. It is no longer paranoia to wonder: is this the end of the line, or the tip of a very dirty iceberg?

This kind of abuse of power ain't so new either; and the extent of its reach, ain't so clear.

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