Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Nation of Laws, A Community of Friends

I'm well aware it's been almost a month since I posted--you don't have to *tell* me. I still have a comment of Lawrence's I need to respond to, even. It has been some kinda month, but I'll try to get a couple more in for April so I'm still on Connor's "post frequently" list. If not, oh well.

Anyway, read Frank Rich in the Times this week, because you always should. He's talking about a religious conference called "Justice Sunday," which will take place tonight, a group of evangelical Christians bemoaning supposed "judicial activism." Not the kind that tried to keep Terri Schiavo alive or got W. into the White House the first time, the other kind. Because this group reserves its most virulent attacks for Anthony Kennedy, one of the two Supreme Court Justices who's actually a swing voter (O'Connor being the other one--Rich says conservatives shouldn't be attacking Kennedy because he's a Reagan appointee, but that means nothing; so's Souter), Rich theorizes, and I think he's right, that a lot of this is about the mainstreaming of homosexuality. Kennedy, as it turns out, wrote the majority opinion on the case that knocked down sodomy laws, and hasn't written any other high-profile majority opinions recently. The Supreme Court's requested additional police protection, as have other appellate courts and a good number of other, more minor justices.

The recent high-profile crime that seems to me most connected to this process actually took place in my neighborhood about a month ago: the Lefkow murders. Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow had at one point ruled against a white-supremacist group in a copyright violation case. This, of all things, put her and her family upon this group's hit list; Judge Lefkow arrived home about a month ago to find that her husband and mother had been killed execution-style, the murderers having broken into the house in her absence. White supremacist Matt Hale was recently sentenced to 40 (additional) years for orchestrating these murders.

In the wake of the murders, my neighborhood, in both residential and business areas, saw a rash of thse signs:

A Nation of Laws
A Community of Friends

Most of them are still hanging, over a month later. I'm interested in the contradictions and complexities inherent in that sign. It seems to think that a nation of laws and a community of friends work naturally well together, and I'm not yet convinced, particularly in light of this upcoming "Justice Sunday."

My high school history teacher (Mr. Everdell, whom I *haven't* talked about yet) once told a group of us that "in your youth, Christians had horns." That was pretty close to the case for me; there were a few practicing Catholics and Episcopalians scattered throughout my liberal private school, but I didn't have much experience with it one way or the other. I didn't know any genre of Christianity until college, and it took me a while to adapt. Recently, though, especially with teaching, I've come to see churches as very much about communities (yeah, I know everybody else knew that already), about creating a reliable and consistent social forum and network, sometimes structured around and sometimes simply including similar articulations of individual faith. Separation of church and state nonwithstanding, a number of social movements that have effected state policy were raised and nurtured in religious communities and by religious leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind). Things have always been this way, a community of friends, as often as not friends in faith, having an effect on a nation and its laws. And that's just talking about the denotation of religion; I think for a lot of lefties activism has become a religion as theater is mine, activism being where they seek and where they find transcendence, where they feel a deeper understanding of what it is about the world that goes beyond them. (I'm recognizing, by the by, how utterly uncharitable and often narrow-minded were my "Activists in America" posts. Chalk it up to the fact that I just graduated from college. Or something. Either way, I'll try to do another post about it soon.)

So what's different about "Justice Sunday"? Activism always aims to get rid of something even as it aims to aid something else; that's not it. I mean, the blatant hypocrisy, which Rich pointed out and which I lifted and paraphrased for the second paragraph of this post, definitely plays a role. (A note about paraphrasing and plagiarism: if you agree with something someone else said, at what point does it become your own opinion? I mean, I always quote, or at the very least cite, everybody, but the construction of my opinions is definitely a social art.) There's also the very public-ness of everything, the scale at which it takes place and the connections it manages to have while claiming its opinions are oppressed/suppressed/whatever. But that's not all of it either. I guess it's that it's not sure what it *is* asking for in the positive. The negative things it wants are very concrete and have very concrete effects on concrete people; what it wants for the good is very abstract and its results not nearly so clear.

It also seems to me that there's a weird almost-advantage to this, the mainstream acknowledgement of the power vested in the judicial branch. One rarely gets that; I've never heard of an assassination attempt on a Supreme Court justice (though if someone knows of one, please post a comment). John Marshall, the first Chief Justice who established the practice of "judicial review" (basically, everything the Supreme Court does now) in Marbury v. Madison, considered the Supreme Court "the least dangerous branch" and promptly resigned. So getting 'em "back out, I guess, to the warm sunshine" (this post is full of high school quotes) may be a worthwhile historical moment, somehow connecting a nation of laws to a community of friends on a different level.

I know this is very incomplete, but I want to post it anyway, since I'm not sure what else I have to say and I'd especially like for this one to be a dialogue. Especially if you read this thing but haven't commented before. I wanna hear from more people.


At 3:13 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

hmm... unfortunately there's no way on this site to reply-comment to a particular comment... eh, it makes me happy to know you think my comment is worth thinking about replying to, at least.

anyway i'm really interested in your parenthetical question here: when you agree with someone, at what point does it become your own opinion? (i think this has happened before: you make a long political post and the only thing i really respond to is the one interpersonal aside. if you won't blame me, i just might.) but it's particularly interesting to me in light of the fact that a particular life-philosophy really several years ago now was passed down to me from Max Bean, and later on from me to Peter Ruse and Dan Rosengart. i guess it's as ill-defined as any of these things are, but looking back on it i see it as a sort of Beatnik thing, with the heavy importance of philosophy, poetry and language, the integration of art into life, the figuring out and breaking down of social barriers and the dislike of nerdiness as rather characterizing features. so i guess i don't believe i could have passed it down to Peter and Dan if it weren't already a part of me; and in the last year or so Peter at least is using this same beatnik philosophy as a sign of individuality, even from me, and i don't think that's illegitimate; i feel like he's developed it more than enough to make it his own. my guess is that if an opinion affects how you act, as opposed to just how you think and what you say (if drawing a distinction there even makes sense) then you know you can call it your own, at least if you're doing it because you agree with it and not because there's no better option available that you can think of (which is the reason i slavishly did every scrap of my homework for just about all the time i was in saint ann's -- in other words -- the whole dedicated student thing was a many-tendriled facade, of course, as you probably know by now). i think i just don't feel confident enough in my political "beliefs" (which, as i think i talked about in an earlier comment here, are really just suspicions) to go out and act on them. on the other hand, Jonny Magdovitz (yes, Jonny Magdovitz) is someone who i know to be somoene who'll argue just about anything shamelessly, even if he's not sure if he actually believes it, and i'm sure there are equivalents for action. so do they really believe the things they go through physical acts to accomplish? i say they do, at least at the moment they perform them. but this is clearly a question that we might need to set up series of endless immortal typing monkeys to answer properly. i'd be very interested to know if you've thought about it any more though...!

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I think the lifestyle of the career activist in a general sense is sometimes the equivalent of arguing anything because you can. I mean, there are people who make their careers of being active, being organizers, etc. to specific political ends, and for the most part I admire that even when I don't agree with the politics. And I admire the ability to argue every side even when you don't agree with it, as long as you're confident of what you actually *do* believe--I think that's the problem with both kneejerk activists and kneejerk rhetoricians.

As to the sharing of opinions, I think it's to some degree what makes us social animals and creates cultures, but we also live in a culture that glorifies individualism and individual achievement to an almost ridiculous degree. Which contradiction I *adore.* I like what you had to say about the beatnik thing, and I just feel like . . . basically, what you have to do is agree to take on enough people that you can develop your own ideas, because the way you choose to balance what you have taken is kind of what makes you you, and it's all been mixed at that level.

But yeah, mostly I agree. Typing monkeys will eventually come up with a more cohesive solution than that, assuming they live forever.


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