John Stoehr

The Supreme Court threatens to undermine the core of protection for American civil liberties

If Roe goes down, there will be more at stake than access to abortion. In the absence of federal protections, state governments would be free to regulate trans rights, “sodomy” and even condoms. “Once you pull on the loose thread of Roe,” Editorial Board contributor Anthony Michael Kreis said on Thursday, “the rest of the stitches holding the right to privacy and sexual liberty together are easier to unravel.”

The threat to individual rights doesn’t end there. All civil liberties are in danger. Roe’s death would signal a high court prepared to restore the power of states to discriminate against their residents, wrote historian Heather Cox Richardson. “Make no mistake,” she said this week, “it is not just reproductive rights that are under siege. If the Supreme Court returns power to the states to legislate as they wish, any right currently protected by the federal government is at risk.”

Such threats should goad us into being clear about the language we use to describe what’s going on in the United States. Our democracy is not “backsliding.” What’s backsliding is a full, fair and free democracy. What’s backsliding is a multiracial democracy. What we are witnessing is the erosion of political gains made in the years after World War II when America finally made good on the Declaration of Independence. The United States will be a democracy. Just not one for all of us.

A little history. Once upon a time, the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states. The Supreme Court applied it only to the federal government. That left state governments to discriminate in various and sundry ways against their residents, according to the will of their white Protestant majorities. The Jim Crow regime in the south is the most notorious example, but any private conduct was fair game, including who got to marry whom, what people read, how they worshipped and so on.

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The process began in the 1920s, but after World War II, the Supreme Court accelerated a pattern that later became known as incorporation. That’s when the court read the Bill of Rights through the lens of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The text: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The consequence of the incorporation doctrine was radical change, as it privileged equality under law and gave the federal government the power to overrule state statutes for the purpose of protecting individual liberties. “It was on these grounds that the court protected Black and Brown rights, interracial marriage, access to birth control, religious freedom, gay rights, and so on,” Richardson said. (Not all the amendments are incorporated, the Third and Seventh, for instance.)

The expansion of legal equality coincided with the rapid expansion of the economy such that the United States looked like one country in which individuals could live anywhere and in any way they wanted to with the theoretical expectation of federal protection against local attempts to infringe their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.

All of that is cast in doubt by the current makeup of the Supreme Court. As I said Thursday, if Roe is overturned, or whipped within an inch of its life, the result will be a patchwork of abortion laws in which some women will have the right to control their own bodies in some parts of America while in other parts, they will have no such thing.

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Apply this same pattern to any right currently protected by the federal government and it’s not hard to imagine the return of state laws against pornography, “sodomy,” interracial marriage, birth control as well as state laws regulating religion, speech, assembly and so forth. Without protection and enforcement of legal equality, individual liberty will be defined by the bigotries of local political cultures.

For many of us, our attention is on elections and the suppression of voting in Republican-controlled states. For this reason, many of us fear, or already lament, the “erosion of democracy” -- the backsliding of America into authoritarianism. But let’s be clear about what that means. After World War II, legal equality was presumed in the word “democracy.” We may not be able to presume that much longer.

The United States will be a democracy, only it may end up being like it used to be, before the mid-20th century’s social movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, before the Supreme Court placed equality under law in the form of the 14th Amendment at the center of its interpretation of law, and before the United States really tried making good on the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Instead of being a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all human beings are created equal, it may end up being a democracy dedicated to “equality among equals” within states and regions, not between states and regions. It will be a democracy. Just a bad one.

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The disturbing post-Roe world the Supreme Court is poised to create

I hope it’s clear by now Roe is doomed, though I don’t mean it will be overturned. That would be too obvious. I mean the Supreme Court’s six conservatives will instead find ways to sabotage it without striking it down. That way the anti-abortionists will get what they want. That way “moderate” Republicans will be able to say Roe is still the law of the land. (I presume this is a preferred outcome for Susan Collins.)

That’s where we’re headed. That doesn’t mean, however, the fighting will end. Far from it. The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass reported Tuesday on how conflict over reproduction will continue post-Roe. Some states will amend their constitutions prohibiting abortion. Some states will do the same protecting it. (My state of Connecticut enshrined Roe in statute years ago.) The site of conflict had been national for over a half-century. Future sites will be local.

That conflict will be local, not national, means America over time will become a crazy-quilt of abortion laws in which some have rights and some don’t, depending on which part of the country they live in. That reality reflects the notion that America isn’t really one country. (It’s instead a federation of regions with distinct personalities animating opposing political cultures.) And it reflects another thing: American women in their child-bearing years will not be treated equally under law on account of being American women in their child-bearing years.

Put another way, it will be a two-tiered system of law. In some parts of the country, women of child-bearing years will be first-class citizens. In other parts, second-class. (I mean this in formal terms; women of means, especially white women, will have abortions though their states outlaw them.) Two-tiered law might otherwise be repugnant, but among those who believe a fetus is a person, perhaps not so much. For them, abortion is a moral or religious issue. The rights of one class must be weighed against the rights of another, even if it’s not yet born. If some inequality is the price for the “sanctity of life,” then so be it.

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That abortion is a moral issue is almost universally accepted, even among those who otherwise stand firmly for reproductive rights. To the extent that it is a moral issue, however, its parameters are exceedingly pinched. If we accept that a fetus is a person, we must also accept that those who are making that argument are not taking into consideration the vast moral implications of one person using another person’s body to live. They are not taking into consideration the ethical conundrum of the state stepping into what would otherwise be a private matter and forcing one person to permit another person to use her body to live. If we accept “pro-life” as a “moral crusade,” as we’re so often told, then we must also accept it’s not nearly moral enough.

You might say this is silly. After all, women get pregnant all the time. No one thinks about pregnancy in terms of one person accessing and using another person’s body to live. But in a non-pregnancy setting, the gothic nature of what I’m talking about should be clear. If a fetus is a person with a “right to life,” it is a person with the right to access and use another person’s body to live. If a fetus is a person, then any person, born or unborn, could credibly claim the right to access and use any person’s body to live. “Pro-life” is so focused on the fetus, it’s overlooking the moral consequences of protecting its “right to life.”

When I’m in a charitable mood, I think this is an oversight. Lots of “pro-life” people are just not thinking it through. If they did, they might reconsider their commitments. When I’m in an uncharitable mood, I think this is no mistake at all. It’s by design. Access and use of a woman’s body isn’t a byproduct of protecting the life of the fetus. Access and use of a woman’s body is the goal. Outlawing abortion isn’t for the unborn. It’s for the born bent on restoring the right to access and use a woman’s body, a right denied when the state protects a woman’s right to control her destiny, starting with her own body.

What I’m saying but have not yet said is this. For a moral issue to be a serious moral issue, it should be considered in full. For a moral issue to be a convenient tool for achieving an end, however, a moral issue need not be considered in full, because the issue’s morality is secondary to achieving an outcome. That outcome is no accident. It’s intended -- a two-tiered system of law in which some are more equal than others.

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Is the United States truly one nation? Ron DeSantis' Florida puts the idea to the test

I was thinking about the theory of political union as opposed to the practice of political union when I came across this line from the founder of USA Today. In 1982, on the frontpage of the first edition of his fledgling daily, the late Gannet CEO Al Neuharth expressed his aspirations for a new venture. “USA Today hopes to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to make the USA truly one nation.”

That phrase jumped out at me -- truly one nation. The implications seem many and varied. On the one hand, America is not currently one nation. If it is, it’s not a true one. On the other hand, it’s becoming one, true nation. And if it’s becoming one true nation, what is it right now? Then there’s that phrase -- “better understanding and (better) unity.” The presumption seems to be that more facts and more knowledge strengthen the bonds between and among these united states.

It’s a worthy goal, I’ll admit. It’s also a catchy slogan. But is any of it true? Is the United States one nation? If it isn’t, will it be? Does a better understanding lead to a better republic? I suspect most would say yes, with confidence. Knowledge is power. It advances the nation’s common purpose. Meanwhile, the United States is, not the United States are.

Yet this uncontroversial belief -- that the United States is one nation, that a better understanding of the facts makes for a stronger republic -- can inspire silliness on the part of some very serious people whose elite status among other very serious people makes them allergic to silliness. Here I’m thinking about Anjani Jain and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, both administrators at the ballyhooed Yale School of Management.

Back in August, they co-wrote an article for Fortune in which they compared pandemic responses by the governors of Florida and Connecticut. While the former’s Ron DeSantis took a rigid, cynical and anti-intellectual approach, they wrote, the latter’s Ned Lamont took a science-based, problem-solving and collaborative approach. The result, Jain and Sonnenfeld said, was a delta variant raging across the Sunshine State versus contained spread in the Land of Steady Habits.

There are many and varied reasons for the difference, they wrote, but chief among them is leadership style. “Leadership matters,” Jain and Sonnenfeld wrote. “Leadership matters not only in determining the effectiveness of government’s response to the public health crisis, but in shaping both individual opinions and the sense of common purpose.”

This is silly. Why? Leadership does not explain the difference between pandemic approaches. This can be easily demonstrated by swapping the governors. Would Lamont’s science-based, problem-solving and collaborative approach work in Florida? I don’t live there. Let’s say maybe. (I doubt it, though.) Would DeSantis’ rigid, cynical and anti-intellectual approach work in Connecticut? I live in New Haven. The answer is absolutely oh-hell-no. Voters here would run him out.

If anything, their leadership styles reflect the dominant political cultures of their states, which in turn explains the differences between approaches to the pandemic. In Florida, anti-intellectualism is good. Railing against the “tyranny of science” is popular. So DeSantis rails against it. In Connecticut, anti-intellectualism is bad. The “tyranny of science” is stupid. So Lamont follows the science. Both governors are meeting standards set by dominant political cultures. Both governors are “succeeding” despite the plain difference between living and dying.

Is the United States truly one nation? Does a better understanding of the facts make for a stronger republic? We like to think so. But there may be no better counterargument than Connecticut’s and Florida’s opposing definitions of success. For one, it’s living. (Yay!) For the other, it’s dying. (Don’t tread on me!) In the difference lies a profound truth.

To wit: The United States are, not the United States is, for people like Ron DeSantis and the Floridians who support him. Knowledge isn’t power. It’s danger. It does not advance a nation’s common purpose. To project a presence onto an absence -- to insist there is such a thing as a common purpose to those who believe there should be no such a thing -- is to threaten people such that they risk their lives fighting it.

It’s said Al Neuharth was meticulous about appearances. No newspaper of his was going to be credibly accused of bias. USA Today never endorsed a presidential nominee. (That changed in 2016, though).

But for all his concern about seeming impartial, he was nevertheless partial. Same for the Yale School of Management’s Anjani Jain and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. It can’t be otherwise, not when efforts to make “the USA truly one nation,” not when leadership in the service of a common purpose, make mortal enemies out of fellow Americans who fear both.

The American media misses the true nature of the GOP threat — but an international outlet nailed it

Jack Dorsey announced today plans to step down as head of Twitter. That prompted Candace Owens to say the following: “I’ve been telling people for years. Jack Dorsey is not your enemy. He is a prisoner at his own company. Good thing the Parler app is finally working properly and looks amazing. The communists will fully run Twitter soon.”

If you don’t already know Candace Owens, all you need to know is that she’s a koshering virtuoso. Like some Jewish people who make anti-Semitism seem respectable, Owens, who is Black, makes white supremacy seem fine and dandy. She appears to think Jack Dorsey had been some kind of bulwark against liberal sensibilities. Now that he’s leaving, she said, “the communists will fully run Twitter soon.”

I don’t care what Owens thinks about anything. Neither should you. Every word she says -- including “a” and “the” -- is a variety of bad faith. Even hyping Parler is deceptive. Authoritarians can’t succeed on the margins of media and society, where Parler is. To sabotage their enemies, they must appear as respectable as a Black woman koshering white supremacy. By blaming the “communists,” Owens is reminding followers of what they already believe true: they are the real victims.

While I don’t care about Owens, and neither should you, we should care about the use of the right’s rhetoric of slander, of which the word “communist” has long played a part in American history. Liberals and progressives first looked to the government as a force of social reform in the early 20th century. Around that time, the Russian Revolution occurred (1917). Since then, the American right has smeared liberals by associating their policies and objectives with godless communism.

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The history of the rhetoric of slander is so pernicious it’s hard, if not impossible, for a lot of (white) Americans to see what might be obvious otherwise. When the right accuses liberals of being communist (or socialist), they are covering up the common purpose they share with actual communists. Both factions are collectivist. Both are implacable. Both aim to replace the established order. Both regard the process of democratic reform as liberal decadence requiring the purifying violence of revolution. The difference is origins. Communism is mob rule arising from the left. Fascism is mob rule arising from the right.

That such slander is so pernicious as to prevent most (white) Americans from seeing what might be obvious otherwise means there’s an opportunity for international media outlets to say what needs saying. Such is the case for The Globalist. Though based in Washington, the publication takes an international view of economics, politics and culture in order to inform readers “how the world hangs together.”

And as far as I know, editor Stephan Richter, who is German, and senior editor Alexei Bayer, who is Russian, are the only writers to connect the Republican Party and the Russian Revolution. In a piece posted this month, they said: “The parallels between the Leninist power usurpation in early 20th century Russia and the Trumpian brigades in today’s United States are becoming ever more eerie.”

Nothing in modern Western history has ever come so close to the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg as the events of January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC, when a riotous mob stormed the US Capitol. Ironically, these forces were out to preserve the rule of their “Czar”, Donald Trump, who had been defeated for re-election.

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Most Americans associate mobs with the left on account of the right aggressively slandering the left for decades. Bayer and Richter, both of whom lived under the shadow of the Soviet Union, know better. While “the mob on the left also showed up in the summer of 2020 [and] turned legitimate protests against police brutality into a violent mob bacchanal,” they wrote, it’s the people ready to accuse the Democratic Party of being a den of communists who are the true heirs of chaos.

“The mainstream Democratic Party has denounced those riots,” Bayer and Richter wrote on Nov. 6. “Meanwhile, the Republican Party has transformed itself into the Party of Trump and therefore into the Party of Mob Rule. It is channeling its inner Leninist and baiting the mob.”

[The Democrats] passed an infrastructure bill and are proposing many long overdue measures to improve the lives of ordinary people. To this end, they are offering better health care, services for the elderly and educational assistance. Meanwhile, their Republican “colleagues” are stirring hatred in the mob toward all those measures — just like Lenin did back in 1917.

It’s an imperfect analogy. Like I said, the GOP is mob rule arising from the right. It seeks to maintain, to the point of open warfare, the hierarchies of power by which rugged white individuals stand on top. Lenin and his revolutionaries were mob rule arising from the left. They sought to flatten Russian society to the point of wholesale murder.

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That it takes, however, an international media outlet that sees American politics from a European perspective to point out the similarities between them is instructive. The right’s rhetoric of slander has such a hold on Americans, most can’t see what’s in front of them.

How right-wingers' wounded egos pushed the Republican Party toward fascism

I watch the cartoons my daughter watches. I mean, I watch them with her. That might seem silly, but today's cartoons are not yesterday's. They're much better. Compare, for instance, the "She-Ra" of the 1980s with the "She-Ra" of now. After you do, you'll see why I'll never ever let my daughter watch my childhood version. I can't believe I did! The last thing I want is my daughter acting -- and dressing! -- like that!

Cartoons, like today's "She-Ra," are frequently morality plays. Their narratives work through ethical conundrums, the kinds my daughter is facing or will face eventually, as all children do. Another one of her cartoons, called "Avatar: The Last Airbender," speaks to our current social and political crisis, which I think of as a crisis of humility.

Meaning, there's not enough of it on account of there being not enough demand. That might be a consequence of history. When I was my daughter's age, in 1984, American culture was very worried about children and their feelings of shame. (To a degree, it still is.) The culture asked parents to encourage in their kids a pride of self. Healthy self-directing egos were thought to mean healthy self-directing children, which meant a society of healthy self-directing individuals.

But Uncle Iroh, one of the characters in "Avatar," knows better. For reasons I won't go into, Iroh is something of a pariah by the time we meet him. He has fallen from a great height. As such, he's come to understand the real link between pride and shame. As he tells his young nephew, who insists on being proud: "Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame."

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Our culture still seems to think the answer to feelings of shame and insecurity is feelings of pride and self-confidence. You often see this after some kind of disaster, like a shooting massacre. We are frequently told suspects felt shame so they lashed out violently. If they had a more robust inner life, a more secure sense of self, perhaps the violence could have been averted. But as Uncle Iroh understood, high self-esteem is not the answer to low self-esteem. The ego is the source of rage, hate and violence. Humility is where one finds peace.

This has some empirical basis. In the 1990s, social psychologist Roy Baumeister led a team of researchers in finding that threats to the ego can disrupt a person's ability to self-regulate emotions. This can and does result in hate, which, in turn, can and does lead to violence. Baumeister does not address humility specifically, but he does imply it as he points to the problem of being proud instead of being humble.

"The new cultural demands on selfhood make it into a burdensome concern that can produce frequent stress," he wrote in The Self and Society in 1997. "People feel they must maintain a highly positive image of self that requires constant vigilance against dangers and threats. Even if they do not experience major experiences of humiliation or disgrace, the ongoing threat and resulting demand for vigilance may become tiresome and draining. Awareness of self may often be tinged with worry or stress and hence may take on an aversive aspect."

You can imagine how this plays out politically. Since 2008, the political right has stood against democracy on account of democracy electing a Black president. To these bigots and ghouls, America is a white man's country given to them by God to rule with impunity. Every time the outgroup wins a little freedom, the ingroup feels less free. Democracy, moreover, leads to equality. The political right hates that. Equality means bigots and ghouls aren't as super-duper as they believe they are. Equality means they just might have to go out and kill somebody.

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You could say the election of Donald Trump, the anti-democratic turn we have seen from the GOP and all the shooting massacres we've seen since the reelection of a Black president altogether constitute one giant wounded ego. The result has been one giant lashing out against democracy the way mass shooters lash out against schools. As Baumeister said, in a different but relevant context: "Cultural prescriptions can exert considerable influence by telling people at what point it is appropriate to turn violent, ranging from 'only when someone is attacking you in a life-threatening fashion' to 'when the person implies disrespect toward you by making eye contact.'"

Ego, pride, shame, hate, rage, violence, fascism. These all have a common source in the human mind. The irony is our culture believes the antidote is more of the same. USA Today's Marco della Cava wrote today that the path toward national political healing this Thanksgiving holiday might be "practicing gratitude." As one of his sources told him: "We learn to appreciate things when we lose them, unfortunately."

How about we appreciate losing them? To be sure, you should have what you need. If that's not enough, rethink your needs. Desire, said Epicurus centuries ago, is what causes so much pain. To minimize pain, and maximize pleasure, you should minimize desire. "Practicing gratitude" can easily slip back to the original problem -- to an ego that can't be satisfied no matter how much self-confidence it has, an ego that can't tolerate the "disrespect of eye contact," and an ego that manifests itself politically as a Republican Party turned fascist.

Sure, I watch cartoons with my daughter. Sure, it's kinda silly. But they are so much better than they used to be! Anyway, they offer a kind of wisdom most adults in this country can't see. We're lucky kids do.

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We may be at an inflection point for political violence in the U.S.

Political violence is on people's minds now that Kyle Rittenhouse has been acquitted. According to USA Today, far-right groups celebrated last week's unsurprising verdict. "Kyle Rittenhouse is the hero we've been waiting for" was posted on the Gab profile for VDare, a self-consciously fascist organization headquartered in the foothills of Washington, Conn. The takeaway appears to be that it's now OK to shoot anti-racists as long as the shooting can be credibly characterized as "self-defense."

Protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., where Rittenhouse traveled two summers ago to "protect" property while demonstrators, including some violent looters, protested the police murder of George Floyd. These newest protests were accompanied by a father-daughter duo carrying the same long gun Rittenhouse did. Instead of being white, though, they were Black. Instead of protecting property, they were protecting "anti-Rittenhouse protesters," said the New York Post.

Political violence is on people's minds. The right to petition the government for redress of grievances enshrined in the First Amendment seems to be running against the grain of the right to bear arms enshrined in the Second Amendment. After Rittenhouse's acquittal, anti-racists may feel it's too dangerous to petition. (The fascists are taking it to mean they can shoot first and often.) But some won't let the Second Amendment nullify the First. They'll arm up.

When racists with guns meet anti-racists with guns, it's likely the results will be bad, bad, very bad. USA Today, citing a study by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, said "armed protests are six times more likely to turn violent compared to protests where no guns are present." That study examined more than 30,000 public demonstrations over 18 months between January 2020 to June 2021.

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Lead researcher Roudabeh Kishi told USA Today: "Oftentimes guns can kind of play a role with just increasing tensions. They're used as intimidation and kind of makes a tense environment even more tense. And so sometimes we'll see other types of violence breakout, not necessarily always a shooting," she said. "So it's like an indirect way arms can actually contribute to violence and destruction."

Political violence is on people's minds. Lee Drutman, a political scientist and New America fellow, said today that "violence is the alternative to politics. By normalizing violence, we undermine politics."

But what if political violence is normal? What if it should always be on people's mind. And what if our democratic politics is always already being undermined in some way by political violence. I suggest Rittenhouse's acquittal will not be the cause of future political violence. It is the effect of past political violence always already at work. We don't see it, though. Political violence is so normal it's practically invisible.

Political violence is the predictable consequence of democratic politics seeking to advance the cause of liberty, equality and justice for all coming into conflict with conservative politics seeking to maintain a social order in which white men rule American society with impunity.

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Because democracy won't stop, and conservative politics won't stop, that means political violence is always already there. It's better to see Rittenhouse's acquittal not as a cause of future violence but, I think, as an inflection point after which private political violence goes public.

Private political violence? What we are seeing now, in the potential for armed racists to silence free speech through intimidation or murder, didn't come from no where. It started at home, in the family, especially between husband and wife. When women challenge "authority," when children challenge "authority," conservative politics does not turn to democracy as a means of resolving conflict. It turns to violence.

It also covers it up. When a husband hits his wife, when a father hits his kids, our discourse almost never calls it political violence though the maintenance of the man's authority over his wife and children is almost always the reason he hits his wife and children. We call it "domestic violence." We call it "child abuse." These terms are accurate but incomplete. Suffering is a political problem in democratic politics. Suffering is a political goal in conservative politics. Without suffering — without punishment for those people who deserve to feel their pain — anything can happen. Even liberty, equality and justice for all.

Political violence has been growing acutely since we elected a Black president. The violence was enabled by Republicans loosening gun laws after Barack Obama's reelection. The Supreme Court is considering whether to make carrying a firearm openly a constitutional right. The NRA never gloried in mass murders. It did after Rittenhouse's acquittal. The private political violence that inspired the nation's worst shooting massacres is inspiring the institutionalization of public political violence. Where that leaves democratic politics, God only knows.

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The meaning of the Rittenhouse verdict in America

Kyle Rittenhouse has been acquitted. It's not surprising. I don't know if he should've been convicted on all counts against him. He killed two people, though. It wasn't in self-defense. That he wasn't found guilty of anything is incredible. If there's justice in this world, this isn't it.

Our discourse is dominated by concern about the lack of trust in democratic institutions. This is usually with reference to the former president. His constant carping about being a victim is legit reason to worry. Everything feels unstable when the president is a big baby.

But this attention to trust rarely includes the outgroup. Those are the people with the most reason to lose faith. I'm not the first or last to say if Rittenhouse had been Black or brown, the trial's outcome would have been different, almost certainly. The judge in his trial almost certainly would not have tied himself in knots to influence the jury.

That distrust reflects a broken system of justice. It's not equal. I wish more respectable white people understood and internalized that. For the ingroup, the law protects and liberates. For the outgroup, the law punishes and dominates. Separate and unequal did not end with Brown v. the Board of Education. If I were Black or brown, knowing the trial's outcome hinged on the color of Rittenhouse's skin, I might distrust democratic institutions, too. I might burn myself up with rage.

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When the former president throws a fit, the opinion pages of the Times and the Post light up with consternation by the country's elites over the fate of the American republic. But rarely are these same elites as vexed by miscarriages of justice as blatant as the one we saw last week. Rarely — if ever — are we asked to consider the out-group's misgivings. Such indifference only deepens reasons to lose faith.

My father-in-law died two Sundays ago. In such moments, I often turn to poetry. It's one thing that makes sense when nothing else does. I was leafing through my old Norton Anthology when I happened on a poem by Audre Lorde. Published in 1978, "Power" came after a white cop was acquitted of murder after shooting a Black child in the back.

The policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said "Die you little motherfucker" and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman and in his own defense
"I didn't notice the size or nothing else
only the color." and
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
"They convinced me" meaning
they had dragged her 4'10″ black woman's frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

Lorde was driving when she heard the news. "I had to pull over," she recalled for Mari Evans in her book Black Women Writers (1950-1980). "A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips. Those expressed feelings are in the poem."

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Lorde never gave up on democracy. She'd have surrendered the best means of holding the ingroup responsible if she had. That's the point, after all, of separate and unequal, of two-tiered law. While the ingroup gets all the power but none of the responsibility, the outgroup gets none of the power but all the responsibility. "Power" gives voice not only to the pain of injustice. It gives voice to the rage of righteousness.

Freedom for the ingroup means freedom from accountability. Freedom for the outgroup means freedom from those holding morality and decency in contempt. For Lorde, I'd say, bearing witness to the outcomes of such moral perversion is "the first real power she ever had" in a much longer process of achieving democratic responsibility.

We're going to need more of that. Rittenhouse's trial took place amid a larger pattern in which democracy is seen as a threat to the "natural order of things," a social hierarchy with white men on top. The young man's acquittal is being taken to mean violence is OK — that it's fine and dandy to meet freedom to protest with a semiautomatic rifle. The First Amendment is hardly a shield against people prepared to murder.

There's an insidious right-wing campaign that's profaning valor

As they say, nothing ever dies on the internet. That's how I came across an old clip recently of Ron Colburn on Fox. He's the president of something called the Border Patrol Foundation. He was explaining why border agents terrorizing asylum seekers with pepper spray was appropriate.

"The deterrent they used is OC pepper spray — it's literally water, pepper, with a small amount of alcohol for evaporation purposes. It's natural. You could actually put it on your nachos and eat it," he said.

That got a lot of hoots and howls back in 2018. As I was watching it, though, I grew curious. What is the Border Patrol Foundation? Why is Fox presenting Colburn as if he's a moral authority? So I looked into it. Turns out the Border Patrol Foundation is, perhaps, a metaphor for not only the militarization of civil society, but the cheapening of valor.

According to its website, its mission is "to honor the memory of fallen US Border Patrol agents and provide support and resources to the families. BPF provides support to those employed by the Border Patrol for on- and off-duty deaths, injuries, illnesses, family medical emergencies, special circumstances and student scholarships."

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That might sound altruistic enough, but look closer. The keyword here is "fallen." That's a word our culture tends to reserve for military service members who die nobly — in combat, especially, but also in the service of country generally. Implicit in "fallen" is valor. That can't be given. It must be earned. When coupled with "honor," the foundation gives the impression that border agents are on par with the Marines.

Not too surprising. There's a history. The Editorial Board's friendly neighborhood sociologist wrote earlier this month that police took an aggressive posture toward law enforcement after the 1960s civil rights movement. "Starting with the Nixon administration's tough-on-crime rhetoric," Professor Rod Graham wrote, "police departments have been modeling themselves after the military. Local police officers are being trained to be warriors, complete with military-style equipment."

So if we say that financial support for the families of "fallen" border patrol agents who "died in the line of duty" is righteous, we must also say that it's part of the larger militarization of civil society in which law enforcement officers are trained as warriors to hold the line between "civilization" and "barbarism," as combat troops battling an "enemy," which is, as Rod said, "the always-suspect Black and brown" person.

But there's more here. As law enforcement around the country militarized itself — especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — there has been a coinciding push culturally to elevate police (or in this case, border agents) to the level of the military. The police officer and the soldier are now seen as equally noble. As the soldier dies in combat, so does the cop. In both cases, our culture tends to "honor fallen heroes."

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That means the means of death is important. After all, the military does not view a service member who died from illness or accident as equal to a service member who died fighting. The former is mourned, recognized and remembered. But the latter showed valor. His or her honors are categorically different, and should be. The value of this difference is evidenced by people who have been outed as frauds impersonating combat veterans. Their offense is called "stolen valor."

While the nonprofit's website page obscures means of death — the ones I looked at use a generic "death occurred in the line of duty" — the group's Facebook page offers details. Here are some examples.

On November 15, 2016, David Gomez "suffered a heart attack while on bicycle patrol duty near El Paso." He died in the hospital. On November 3, 2006, David Webb "was involved in a single vehicle accident." He died from his injuries. On November 2, David R. Delaney "collapsed and died while patrolling on foot." No other means of death is mentioned. On October 27, 1925, Ross A. Gardner was "operating a government-owned motorcycle" and "ran into the rear of an automobile that was stalled on the roadway." On October 25, 2002, Catherine M. Hill died after her vehicle rolled off a cliff. On October 23, 1998, Walter S. Panchison died after crashing a Border Patrol plane. On October 20, 1998, Jesus De La Ossa and Thomas J. Williams died in a head-on collision. On October 25, 1968, Ralph L. Anderson died in a firearms mishap.

The Facebook page goes on and on. Some deaths were dramatic. Charles Gardiner appears to have been ambushed by moonshiners in 1922. But otherwise, these "fallen" agents seemed to have been felled by incompetence, human error or bad luck. These are not the noble heroes the word "fallen" suggests. To be sure, death any which way is horrible. But the Border Patrol Foundation won't let the dead rest. Instead, it's treating honorable public servants as if they were combat veterans and, thus, cheapening actual valor of actual combat veterans.

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The Border Patrol Foundation isn't alone. Much of the rightward drift in American politics over the last 20 years has sought to distort reality for the purpose of beating back advances made democratically. The right wants fewer immigrants, period, no matter how they got here. So they say they're "illegal." They say the border is "open" and "under assault." They say border agents are "battling" to protect "our way of life." But to achieve their end, they must reduce moral consideration to the level of amoral power. In that sense, the right isn't just cheapening valor.

It's profaning it, too.

A growing threat is emerging from the theocratic wing of the GOP — but many liberals are missing it

Mike Flynn and Josh Mandel do not stand at the center of the Republican Party. They do not stand at its margins either. Flynn is the former's president's former advisor. (He's a pardoned criminal, too.) Mandel is Ohio's leading Senate candidate. Both men have said in recent days they don't believe in the separation of church and state.

I'm paraphrasing. See for yourself what they said. However, their remarks should be familiar. They reflect the GOP's theocratic wing. For decades, it has opposed the incorporated interpretation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. They used to be way, way out there. But, even if I'm missing something, Flynn's and Mandel's remarks suggest the GOP's theocratic wing isn't as marginal as it once was.

Liberals have always been alarmed by the theocrats. Liberals know that when they talk about so-called "Judeo-Christian" values, they don't mean Jews of any stripe. They don't mean the full spectrum of Christianity. Mormons are not included. Neither are Episcopalians, Methodists or Presbyterians. Unitarians, like me, are cultists. Jehovah's Witnesses are heretics. Only "real Christians" need apply, meaning twice-born believers in Christ saving them from eternal damnation.

Liberals should be more alarmed, especially religious liberals, but they may not know they should be. After all, the theocrats keep telling us, and the Washington press corps keeps telling us, that they are merely fighting for their Constitutional right to worship as they please, however they please. Religious liberals, therefore, might be thinking their religious freedoms will be secure, no matter what happens.

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That, however, overlooks the theocrats' unending bad faith. They don't mean all Jews or all Christians when defending "Judeo-Christian values." And they don't mean everyone's freedom of religion. They mean theirs. That's why figures such as Flynn and Mandel say what they said. Liberals, especially religious liberals, should be more alarmed. The theocrats are assaulting (everyone's) religious freedom in the name of (their) religious freedom. When they say the United States was founded as a "Christian nation," they're telling us their desires.

Before I go on, a word about Josh Mandel. As I said, he's Ohio's leading Republican candidate for the Senate. He's also Jewish. Some say his appeal to the GOP's theocratic wing means the GOP's theocratic wing can't possibly desire the creation of a "Christian nation." After all, he's a Jew! Friend, I don't need to tell you shameless people sometimes say all sorts of things. If you think Mandel's candidacy means the theocrats believe in freedom of religion for everyone, I have a bridge to sell.

The temptation among liberals, even religious liberals, is to fall back on old arguments, to wit: America is not a Christian nation any more than it's a Hindu nation. Its people are religious. Its government is secular. For many liberals, that's what separation of church and state means.

The truth is more complex. As Editorial Board legal historian Mia Brett wrote in April. "The United States was founded with an attempt at secularism as well as freedom of religion." In theory, the objective is balancing those interests. (In practice, it has meant something quite different, as Dr. Brett explains.) To reach that ideal, however, liberals should remember what "secular" means. It does not mean the absence of religion. It does not mean hostility toward it. It means indifference to it — or, rather, the equal treatment and protection of all religions.

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The theocrats are correct when they say religion has a place in the people's business. They are wrong in lying about what they mean. (They mean their religion and theirs alone.) When liberals fall back on old arguments based on misunderstandings of secularism's meaning — "keep religion out of government matters!" — they end up empowering the theocratic position by legitimating it. The theocrats tell us they believe the "secular left" wants to drive out religion. Worse, liberals risk making allies out of theocrats and religious liberals, who might not see any harm in having a place for religion in the public square.

They're right. There is no harm. As long as the state is impartial to particular religions but partial toward freedom of religion. Put another way, as long as the state treats and protects religions equally. If the courthouse has a spot for the Ten Commandments, it has a spot for the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. By privileging presence over absence, liberals take the gas out of the theocrats' position. By defending the First Amendment, rather than by opposing religion, liberals end up bringing attention to the real problem, which is the growing religious movement toward annihilating freedom of religion.

Finally, I expect some liberals to disagree with me. I expect them to defend calling for the ouster of all religions from all matters of public life. Well, more power to them. That's the conflict I would like to see more of — between camps with differing views on the meaning of secularism — rather than conflict between camps with the same meaning with the difference being one is for, the other against. One of these is better for democracy. It's not the one we're currently having.

A 76-year-old essay teaches us how to be free

I think we need to think about the meaning of freedom, and how the meaning is so often colored by the right-flank of history.

I think we need to think about it, because the fact that we don't is why all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about "positive" versus "negative" freedom, as if an "active" or "passive" government were really on the minds of ordinary citizens.

It's also why we all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about freedom as if it's doing whatever I want to whomever I want and whether doing whatever I want to whomever I want is good or bad.

I think we don't think about the meaning of freedom for a couple of reasons. One, those who have inhabited the right-flank of the history of the United States have tended to be white elites with the most money to spend and the most time to spend the most money on influencing how the rest of us think, about freedom, but much more.

The other reason is more subtle. Most people in America are white. I think whiteness has a kind of pacifying effect on many of us such that problems appear to be problems when and usually only when someone somewhere, usually non-white, brings white people's attention to it. In ways large and small, these forces conspire to create conditions in which freedom is conceived so narrowly as to be virtually invisible.

This is bad for nonwhite people. Their suffering ends up constituting the "freedom" white people feel. But it's also bad for white people. I think many of us don't feel free, because we have not used the feeling of being free to pursue more sophisticated feelings of freedom. We haven't pursued those feelings because white elites would rather we didn't. (Thinking is dangerous to the political order.) We haven't pursued those feelings, because whiteness pacifies many of us.

I don't think one must be nonwhite to see my point here, but I do think one must have been at some point on the receiving end of some variety of political violence. And given that most nonwhite people are on the receiving end of America's most visible variety of political violence, we might find among them examples of cultivating a sensibility of freedom despite living or having lived in conditions no one would call free.

How would that sensibility begin? In the beginning, Ralph Ellison said:

Human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility; that all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality; that the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism; and that all men are the victims and the beneficiaries of the goading, tormenting, commanding, and informing activity of that imperious process known as the Mind.

This is from Ellison's essay "Richard Wright's Blues." It's about Wright's 1945 autobiography, Black Boy. I have read and reread and reread this essay. I profit each time. He does so well what I like to think I do only modestly well, which is getting his audience to see something familiar in new ways for the purpose of ennobling everyone. That familiar thing is Black suffering. What's new is how Black suffering led a young Richard Wright to forge a future for himself. Not only as a novelist. (He's the author of Native Son.) But also as a free man. "Wright's early childhood," Ellison writes, "was crammed with catastrophic incidents.

In a few short years his father deserted his mother, he knew intense hunger, he became a drunkard begging drinks from black stevedores in Memphis saloons; he had to flee Arkansas where an uncle was lynched; he was forced to live with a fanatically religious grandmother in an atmosphere of constant bickering; he was lodged in an orphan asylum; he observed the suffering of his mother who became a permanent invalid, while fighting off the blows of the poverty-stricken relatives with whom he had to live; he was cheated, beaten, and kicked off jobs by white employees who disliked his eagerness to learn a trade; and to these objective circumstances must be added the subjective fact that Wright, with his sensitivity, extreme shyness and intelligence was a problem child who rejected his family and was by them rejected.

His mother, however enfeebled, gave him a great gift. Wherever there's darkness, there's sweetness. Wherever there's horror, there's light. And so on. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood the suffering her young son would endure as a young Black man in the American South in the 1920s, as she had endured it, too. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood joy isn't something to relieve boredom. Joy is something to relieve pain. "The influence of his mother," Ellison said, "taught him … to revere the fanciful and the imaginative." How many people do you know who do that?

So despite Black Boy's "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment," Ellison said, "it also presents those fresh, human responses brought to its world by the sensitive child:

There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road … the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun … the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks … the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi … the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese … the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks … the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun … and there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earth-ward from star-heavy skies on silent nights.
from Black Boy by Richard Wright (italics Ellison's).

An "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment" means Wright's personal project is a political project. We cannot recognize what he has achieved — "the very essence of the human" — unless we remember "the full extent to which the Southern community renders the fulfillment of human destiny impossible."

I'll close with what I think is the high point of Ellison's essay. This political project — this cultivation of the sensibility of freedom, as I'm calling it, is a "human heritage," Ellison writes. It is "the right and the opportunity to dilate, deepen, and enrich sensibility — democracy. Thus the drama of Black Boy lies in its depiction of what occurs when Negro sensibility attempts to fulfill itself in the undemocratic South."

White, Black, North, South, free, unfree, democratic, undemocratic — these are America's binaries, because they are the binaries of Black suffering. Whiteness is quite literally whitewashing it from the view of most white people, however. If the white world saw it clearly, maybe many of us would not balance the feeling of freedom on broken Black backs. Perhaps many of us would learn something. Like how to be free.

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Happy Holidays!