Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Do you know what it means....?

Public executions have gone by the way-side. Intentional and deliberate cruelty is no longer countenanced. Katrina made us aware of the suffering of others within our own country, of the "Third-World" conditions in our own national back-yard.

But then again, "Never underestimate the power of denial." And: "Out of sight, out of mind."

Already, we are forgetting New Orleans:

Less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, relief legislation remains dormant in Washington and despair is growing among officials here who fear that Congress and the Bush administration are losing interest in their plight.

As evidence, the state and local officials cite an array of stalled bills and policy changes they say are crucial to rebuilding the city and persuading some of its hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents to return, including measures to finance long-term hurricane protection, revive small businesses and compensate the uninsured.

"There is a real concern that we will lose the nation's attention the longer this takes," said Representative Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Metairie, just west of New Orleans. "People are making decisions now about whether to come back. And every day that passes, it will be a little harder to get things done."

Officials from both parties say the bottlenecks have occurred in large part because of a leadership vacuum in Washington, where President Bush and Congress have been preoccupied for weeks with Iraq, deficit reduction, the C.I.A. leak investigation and the Supreme Court.
Bob Woodward; John Murtha; who's on top in the political game, who is ahead in the horse race? This is all that matters to the media. Is it any wonder Americans are so ignorant of, and so disinterested in, politics?

Nor do we really want to know. The cruelty of torture in foreign countries doesn't seem to faze us. The denial of habeas corpus? Well, it doesn't affect me, does it? When the UCCNews ran a picture of a young Iraqi girl in her father's arms, her foot blown off by a U.S. bomb, the outrage was aimed mostly at the editors of the paper, for running the picture.

Jane Smiley is right:

We are a country that can no longer pay our bills, no longer wage an effective military action, and no longer protect our citizens from disaster. And it doesn't matter what fiscal responsibility individuals show, what bravery individual soldiers show, or what generosity individual Americans show.
As a country, we are morally bankrupt. And again, not just because we are a democracy, but because this is true of any country: we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Do we condone cruelty? Certainly not! But then we hear, again and again, that Antonin Scalia is the "smartest" judge on the Supreme Court bench, and we all "know" that "smart" equals "good." But do we ever take the moral responsibility to find out what Justice Scalia thinks?

One more example: Antonin Scalia - like Karl Rove last Thursday - has declared himself to be scandalized by a recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting the execution of convicts who were minors at the time they committed their crime. According to Scalia, the only real question is whether the execution of a minor was considered "cruel and unusual" - therefore prohibited - at the time when the Bill of Rights was ratified. The idea that judges should take into consideration the fact that such execution is today prohibited or fallen into disuse in practically all the states of the union or that the United States remains one of the only countries in the world to execute minors is, in his eyes, an error - worse, a heresy!
So, executing minors is neither cruel nor unusual, because it was not considered such in the 18th century. All I can say to that is that it's a good thing crucifixions had gone out of style by then. But this kind of "interpretation" certainly leaves room to overrule Brown v. Board of Education and re-instate Plessy v. Ferguson. After all, our only standard is the completely arbitrary one of a point in history! Why let the further passage of time introduce new ways of thinking? Besides, we have jobs to do, we have money to earn, we have countries to compete with and riches to acquire!

Just don't read that Jane Smiley post too closely, if you want to stay comfortable with that way of thinking.

Scalia, indeed, seems to reflect the American character more than we might like. Why bother with "interpretation" and "wisdom" (the careful and considerate application of judgment to a complex situation), when a simple reflexive thought will do?

Another example: the separation of Church and State. The Constitution is unclear on this issue, as Judge Sandra O'Connor acknowledged when she exclaimed: "It's hard to draw the line!" Precisely, Scalia objects, "why should the Supreme Court purport to draw a line that is impossible to define if the Constitution doesn't demand it? Why not authorize religious manifestations in any public place?"
And keep reminding yourself he's "the smart one." All the news media will tell you so, in case you forget. Alito is "smart" like this, too.

Isn't that comforting?

Scalia's jurisprudence makes a mockery of the idea of the "common law," or the "golden thread" that runs through British legal history and, by design and positive action, through American legal history, too. Judges do not judge, according to Scalia; they simply rule. Mr Boulet-Gercourt is right; Scalia is a judicial "fundamentalist."

How have we come to this pretty pass? By denying it could happen; by denying that it was happening; by pretending that it didn't involve us personally, and so we were not involved. By declaring ourselves dutiful little islands, separate unto themselves, and no part of the main. We came to this by the American way: by being bred-in-the-bone distrustful of government, and so creating government we could not trust. Corporations and politicians don't hold our noses and force us to swallow the snake-oil; we line up for it willingly. We aren't kept away from nationalized heatlh care; we keep ourselves away from it, because ultimately we don't trust our government to spend the money wisely, and we point to examples like the boondoggle in Iraq, or the graft and corruption of Louisiana, to prove our point.

And then, satisfied that we are right, we turn away. Satisfied that if, at some level, government doesn't work for us, whether "us" are "liberals" demanding health care or "conservatives" demanding more bombs, we simply walk away from the process, or take to the streets to proclaim loudly and longly, and the vast majority of Americans, the "big middle," simply shake their heads and say "who has time for that? I have a job to get to," and move on.

And the two of us, the "right wing" and the "left wing," continue to borrow from each other's arsenals, continue to poach each other's lines, continue to crib each other's tactics, and understand, finally, that it's all about power, about pendulum swings of influence and authority, and that it has nothing at all do with changing hearts and minds.

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