Sunday, March 3, 2013

Royalty, Rights And Rachmones

Royalty, Rights And Rachmones

This past week, we experienced the first truly wrenching, monumental governmental crisis of the 21st Century.

I refer of course, to Washington Post Columnist Bob Woodward’s kerfuffle, or contretemps, or spat with the White House.  Mr. Woodward apparently had a less-than-pleasant exchange with Gene Sperling, President Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, over an opinion piece that Woodward was about to publish in the Washington Post.  The editorial placed the blame on sequester squarely at the feet of Mr. Obama.  Sperling disagreed, voices were raised, and then emails exchanged.

Mr. Woodward, apparently, felt fear, as a wrathful White House was poised to rise up and smite him.  To keep his mind off his abject terror, he promptly gave interviews to everyone in sight, including one to Sean Hannity, who showed a previously unsuspected and quite remarkable delicacy of spirit.  Poor Bob!  Bad White House! The echo chamber clocked in with similar comments, noting, as they did, that while Woodward wasn’t their cup of tea (Watergate) it was a matter of freedom of the press, pure and simple, and these folks were all about freedom.  The usually temperate Kathleen Parker compared Mr. Obama to Richard Nixon.  The less temperate used less pleasant imagery. 

That Mr. Woodward was prepared to take this as far as he did (he added some gratuitous but perfectly non-partisan comments to the effect that Mr. Obama should just give the Republicans whatever they demanded and that Mr. Obama was endangering national security) is probably a good indication that he wasn’t waking with night-sweats.  Mr. Woodward had an agenda that included a lot of attention, selling books, and giving policy advice, and he used his undeniable stature and special position as both reporter and opinion writer to advance that. Woodward’s timing was a little suspect (the ground-shaking “fact” he uncovered was 18 months old) but, given that sequester was the ostensibly the topic du jour, it was fair game. 

Of course, when the full text of the emails between Sperling and Woodward were revealed, they did appear (to journalists on both sides of the aisle) to be quite chummy, leading Dylan Byers of Politico to go with a post titled “Press Corps To Woodward: Really?”  So, perhaps Woodward ginned it up, which would show that while Sperling should have acted like a pro and kept his anger to himself, Woodward was a pro, and knew how to throw a good sucker punch.   

Woodward can do these things because he’s Royalty, and like Royalty he knows his term is for life, short of doing something absurdly egregious.  Only a few hours after the Byers piece, Woodward followed up by insisting he never said he was threatened.  It was a little like Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather II insisting he had never heard of the Corleone Family. 

Meanwhile, not very far from the White House, the Supreme Court was hearing a challenge by Shelby County, Alabama, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and specifically to Section 5.  That provision requires nine states and assorted jurisdictions in seven others to win Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. The law places a burden on these “covered” jurisdictions to prove the changes won’t adversely affect the right of African Americans and other minorities to vote.  Shelby County argued that the pre-clearance requirement infringes on Alabama’s sovereignty.

When the law was initially enacted, suffice to say, minorities were not exactly welcome to vote.  Poll taxes, “literacy tests” that a classics scholar couldn’t pass, and myriad other tricks of the voter suppression trade were the rule.  The law was reauthorized four times, the last in 2006.  Now, however, there may be five votes on the Supreme Court ready to strike it down.  Most people would say that we have come a long way in fifty years; perhaps the law needs amending, however, one particular line of argument made by Justice Scalia I found fascinating.  In 2006, the vote to reauthorize was 390-33 in the House, and 98-0 in the Senate.  Justice Scalia was not impressed, and mused openly that many of those “ayes” were somehow not true expressions of belief, but simply because “they better not vote against it.”

Now, that is interesting, especially when one is talking about protecting one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy, the right to vote.  Justice Scalia seems to be suggesting that   the Court go beyond looking at the Constitutionality of a law and also try to divine the hidden motives of the people who voted for it. Presumably, since he wouldn’t have supported the Act, anyone else who did had to be acting under duress? I think we would all agree that it is fortunate that he is not seen as a liberal.  Otherwise this little exercise would have set off another round of outrage over “legislating from the bench” or, even worse, “judicial activism.” 

Justice Scalia likes to be a provocateur, and his choice of language may simply an expression of his personality.  Justice Roberts, however, referring specifically to Section 5 asked a better question of Solicitor General Verrilli: “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”

Justice Roberts gets to the heart of it, but in the end, he too is off base if the result is to declare unconstitutional the entire Act (Justice Thomas has already indicated that would be his preference.)  It isn’t racism that is the issue; it’s a free country and we are all at liberty to hate whomever we want.  It is institutional racism that expresses itself in government actions that have the effect of circumscribing the rights of certain classes of people.

Another member of Washington Royalty, George Will, took up that point in his own special way.  Mr. Will is turning into the Cheshire Cat, leaving, instead of a smile, a pair of glasses, a mop of hair, and a bucket of dyspepsia.  After expressing the usual perfunctory contempt for Progressivism, Social Security and Medicare, he turned to voting rights:  (O)bviously, the political class’s piety about the act has extinguished thought about its necessity. But one reason for judicial review — for active judicial engagement in the protection of constitutional rights and arrangements — is that the political class, with its majoritarian temptations, cannot be trusted to do so.”

I rather like that, those nasty majoritarian temptations just can’t be held back in a democracy. It is a clever turning on its head of the very thing that these “covered jurisdictions” were doing; having a majority white vote succumb to the majoritarian temptation of making sure minorities did not vote. In the Will construct, Section 5 and the entire Voting Rights Act has no relevance any more, it is “pernicious silliness.”  Of course, it was applied to stop Florida’s Governor Scott from cutting voting hours in minority districts, but that was way back in the Fall of 2012.  It is already March of 2013.  Florida has evolved.  Mr. Will, obviously, has not. 

This, no doubt, is why we send people to Washington; to fight over bruised egos and engage in sophisticated conversations about how to suppress the votes of people we don’t agree with.  How could we ask for more?

The Ancient Greeks valued four virtues; wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance.  I would add a fifth, the quality of rachmones.  My parents often used that word, which is loosely translated from Yiddish as pity or empathy.  But rachmones is more than that. It is, instead, sensitivity to the needs of others, the capacity to place yourself, and your actions, in a larger context, and acceptance of a responsibility beyond simply fulfilling your own needs.  And, it is a world-view that permeates the Judeo-Christian heritage and expresses its best instincts.  Rachmones is both a divine attribute, and a personal responsibility. It is neither Right nor Left, nor Democratic nor Conservative.  It is not antithetical to success or to capitalism.  David Brook’s “communitarian conservatism” expresses it, a mindfulness of the greater good.

Right now, there seems to be an acute rachmones shortage.  Tune in and all we see is dueling press conferences, the blame game, the finger-pointing, the attention on the silly, the dirty tricks, the vacuous ultimatums and the “for-show” votes. Our leaders, from the President on down, have solved nothing, the Sequester has started, the clock is ticking, and the meat-cleaver is swinging.

And, right now, there are teenagers huddled with their parents wondering what college to go to and whether they can afford it.  There are small business owners worried about investing, or whether to take on a new hire.  There are young couples deciding whether this is a good time to buy a new house.  There are hardworking people living paycheck to paycheck, who simply can’t afford unpaid furloughs.  The inaction in Washington is unacceptable.

We often wish our leaders would show more wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance.

But, for now, I would settle for a little rachmones.