Giving up is a prerogative of privilege.

There’s no point trying to sugarcoat it: This was an ugly week.

The biggest disappointments came from the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority does not seem to grasp the challenge Trump — and the larger pattern of minority rule I described in the previous post — pose to American democracy. It also has more or less abandoned one of the core principles of American jurisprudence: stare decisis, the doctrine that the current Court must work within the precedents of past Courts, unless and until they prove to be unworkable. This Court will do whatever it wants, regardless of precedent.

The Court’s spring term always ends in late June with a flurry of decisions, which are usually a mixed bag of good and bad. This batch was uniformly bad. The Court ruled that:

  • Trump’s ban on accepting visitors or immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries deserves the benefit of the Court’s doubt, and should not be interpreted in light of the unconstitutional Muslim Ban he campaigned on and sought to implement in two previous executive orders. Neither should the Court examine too closely the flimsy national-security justifications the administration offers. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent reviews Trump’s anti-Islam statements both before and after taking office, and concludes: “In sum, none of the features of the Proclamation high­lighted by the majority supports the Government’s claim that the Proclamation is genuinely and primarily rooted in a legitimate national-security interest. What the unrebutted evidence actually shows is that a reasonable observer would conclude, quite easily, that the primary purpose and function of the Proclamation is to disfavor Islam by ban­ning Muslims from entering our country.” She contrasts the Court’s unwillingness to consider Trump’s anti-Islam statements with the seriousness it ascribed to Colorado officials’ lack of respect for the baker’s Christian beliefs in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. But those were Christians and these are Muslims. As I have pointed out many times in the past, this Court grants Christians special rights.
  • Public-sector unions (which account for nearly half of the total union membership in the US) can’t insist that the workers they represent pay dues, as had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1977. A worker who wants the benefits of the union-negotiated contract without contributing anything to the union is now free to make that choice. How unions of teachers and firefighters will survive is now an open question. Justice Kagan’s dissent points out that nothing (other than the personal beliefs of the justices) has changed to make the 1977 decision unworkable. “The majority … has overruled Abood because it wanted to.” This decision follows another in May that sharply limits the ability of workers to file class-action suits against their employers.
  • The Texas legislature’s gerrymander to maximize white power will stand, except for one state-legislature district. Justice Sotomayor dissents: “This disregard of both precedent and fact comes at serious costs to our democracy. It means that, after years of litigation and undeniable proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas—despite constituting a majority of the population within the State—will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.” This decision follows a ruling earlier in June upholding Ohio’s voter-suppression scheme.
  • A California law requiring licensed family-planning centers to inform patients about their abortion options and unlicensed facilities to state clearly that they are unlicensed is likely unconstitutional, so an injunction against enforcing the law is warranted while court challenges proceed. The Court’s conservative majority finds that such a disclosure law violates the free-speech rights of centers that oppose abortion, but stands by previous opinions that centers performing abortions are obligated to inform patients about their adoption options. Justice Breyer’s dissent notes the implicit contradiction, and claims that the foggy reasoning necessary to justify it casts doubt on all public-disclosure laws.
  • The Court once again found a way not to defend the rights of same-sex couples against discrimination in the marketplace.

But that bad news was topped by the subsequent announcement that Justice Kennedy is retiring, allowing Trump to replace the swing vote on the Court. Many of us had hoped that Kennedy would look at Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch and realize that retiring now would undermine his entire legal legacy. But apparently not. Adding another Gorsuch to the Court will undoubtedly lead to the reversal of Roe v Wade and undermine same-sex couples right to marry. But Kennedy appears not to care.

It was, of course, foolish to hope that Mitch McConnell would follow the principles he laid out in 2016 and refuse to hold hearings on such an important appointment without letting the voters weigh in. McConnell isn’t about principle, he’s about power. In 2016 he could claim power for his side by refusing to hold hearings or vote on Obama’s nominee; now he can claim power by approving Trump’s nominee as quickly as possible. He is, in this respect, perfectly consistent. Trump is expected to name his choice next Monday, and McConnell predicts approval in time for the Court to begin its fall term in October.

Quite likely, then, Trump is picking someone who will rule on his own legal issues: whether he can be subpoenaed or indicted, what payments the Constitution’s emolument clause forbids, whether he can pardon himself, when a pattern of self-serving pardons or other presidential prerogatives constitutes obstruction of justice, and so on.

And then, you know, we’re still holding children who we’ve taken away from their parents. Apparently, nobody thought about how to give them back.

So yeah, it was a bad week.

If you’re having a awfukkitt reaction, I hear you. This democracy thing just doesn’t seem to be working out. You vote, you demonstrate, you give money, you campaign, and what does it get you? Not only haven’t we made things better, we haven’t even stopped them from getting worse. Looking ahead, they’re likely to keep on getting worse at least until we get a new Congress, and who knows if we’ll even be able to do that? (See the previous post for more details.)

I don’t want to stop people who feel beaten down from taking care of themselves. If you need to take a step back to regain your sanity, if you feel your urge to engage coming from a shrill, wounded place that has never led you to do anything healthy or anything that turned out well, then by all means do what you need to do. Rest, re-center, get back in touch with your best self, and return to the fray stronger somewhere down the road.

But there’s also another awfukkitt reaction that I can see in myself and I want to speak out against: one that is rooted in my sense of privilege and seeks to protect my fragile sense of self-importance.

One of the speakers at the Keep-Families-Together rally I went to Saturday (in Nashua, NH, about a mile from where I live) was a minister who described himself as “the least discriminated-against person in America”. I could probably challenge him for that title: I’m white, male, educated, native-born, English-speaking, financially secure, straight, married, comfortable in the gender society assigned to me, free of any obvious disabilities, and so on.

People like me are not used to the idea of injustice. It isn’t something we run into every day. Life doesn’t force it on us. We volunteer for the fight against injustice, and we can’t help knowing at some level that we could always un-volunteer and go home to our un-discriminated-against lives.

Detective-novel fans know that there are two major types: the British detective novel (think Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple) where a puzzle needs to be solved, but once the truth is known things will turn out right, and the American detective novel (think Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade) where lots of people have known the truth for a long time, and the problem is getting them to do anything about it.

People like me live in a British-detective-novel world. We think that if we have a good case and tell enough people about it, of course the right thing will be done eventually. We are accustomed to being listened to. We expect our concerns to be taken seriously. It shocks us to confront the American-detective-novel world, where injustice has been around for a long time and could be around a lot longer. Making people see it isn’t the problem; making them do something about it is.

Our lives have not trained us for the situation we are in now. We usually don’t need moral stamina; we just need to understand what’s wrong and explain it to the right people. Then, taking care of it will be somebody’s else’s job. We’re weekend athletes. The first mile of the marathon was really energizing, but shouldn’t it be over by now? My side hurts. Can’t I quit?

And the scary thing is: Yes, yes I could. Nobody is going to break up my family. Nobody’s looking for some ancient infraction that will let them pull my green card. They’re not combing through my citizenship application from decades ago, looking for an error that will let them deport me. They’re not making it harder for me to vote. They’re not forcing a gender on me, or making me hide some important part of my identity. I don’t have to flinch when I see police. They don’t look at me like a criminal; they’re not going to be threatened if put my hand in my pocket; they’re not going to gun me down and ask questions later.

My health care might get more expensive, but I’ll manage. I don’t count on the minimum wage. Social security will be nice, but I won’t have to eat cat food if it goes away. Deregulation means I deal with more monopolies; corporations are more arrogant and probably their monopoly power costs me money, but I’m getting by. It’s a shame kids in Flint and a bunch of other places are getting lead poisoning, but I’m not.

I can’t un-know all that stuff. The temptation to be a “good German” and let the fascists do their thing will always be with me.

But I also can’t let myself rationalize what it means. There’s a moral death in that direction. Once you start not looking, not seeing, not worrying about things that don’t affect you, the part of the world you have to ignore keeps growing. Eventually, you have to start ignoring more or less everything.

So I don’t get to shrug and say, “Well, I tried. It just didn’t work.” The world is full of countries in much worse shape politically than the United States. The United States is full of people in much less hopeful positions than I am. Should they all give up too?

They can’t, because injustice doesn’t wait for them to notice it and decide they care about it. It gets in their faces and won’t leave them alone.

So OK: I explained the problem and nobody listened to me. I voted, I marched, I contributed, and things still got worse. That’s an unusual experience for me. My life hasn’t trained me for stamina. I’m used to races that are over by now. A voice in my head is saying, “This isn’t fair. I don’t want to play this game any more. Things shouldn’t be this way.”

But they are this way. I may not have trained for this race, but it’s the race I find myself in. I need to keep going.

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  • David Carlick  On July 2, 2018 at 11:33 am

    I am curious your view on the entanglement of the Kennedy family with Deutche Bank’s purported funding of Trump enterprises with Russian-sourced money.

    • weeklysift  On July 2, 2018 at 11:55 am

      It looks fishy, but so far I haven’t seen anything that makes it a clear corruption case. Maybe I just haven’t looked at it right yet, but I don’t see a narrative that pulls it all together in a sinister way.

      • jh  On July 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm

        See that’s your problem. And the problem of a lot of Americans. If I were to talk about Hillary’s emails, I’d venture to guess that a lot of Americans, liberals included, would say “yeah, there’s something fishy there”. The same for Benghazi. The same for Whitewater.

        The conservative strategy works. It’s called “throwing shit up and hoping some of it lands”. It forces the victim to play defense and lets the bully attack and attack and attack. (And attacking is easier. The truth is complicated and long and most Americans get bored within the first 5 seconds of a 5 minute “And this is why that is factually untrue” explanation.)

        It’s gotten to the point that you could say “Soros” and some conservative would go “Yeah… those liberals” and go on a conservative persecution rant.

        While I love what you do, the left needs an Alex Jones. A person who has no shame and will throw mud relentlessly. Will play outrage politics relentlessly. Clinton Crime Family? I’ll show you the Kennedy Crime Family.

        Its the same with the situation down there. I doubt that there are many liberals who are truly “open border”. I’m betting most of them are like me or within my scope by 10% – regulated borders that allow the free flow of traffic. It’s the same as with alcohol but with humans. I’m all for regulation so that I know who is coming over and for what and for how long and BTW, where are you planning to stay? All those pesky little details.

        But when conservatives respond to us saying “hold on. I think the wall is stupid and expensive” what they get across is the idea that liberals want no border guards or any regulations. (I haven’t met a liberal who doesn’t think a little bit of regulation wouldn’t fix a problem. Since when would a liberal not want regulation?)

        but I’ve been putting this out – You can be a good German or a good American. You can’t be both. Germans throw kids into prison camps. Americans don’t.

        Yeah – I fully acknowledge that this is lowering the discourse. But isn’t it stupid to play high and let the conservatives poison the well?

        I’d be demanding to see emails. Lots and lots of emails.

        Kennedy’s legacy is this – he’s letting that orange abomination select yet another SCOTUS illegitimate judge. No matter how “gay friendly” his decisions were, his legacy is helping a corrupt and anti-american administration further destroy the US.

  • THERESE GILBERT  On July 2, 2018 at 11:49 am

    I needed to read this this morning. Thank you

  • Bill Thom  On July 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    Thank you for the perspective in the closing paragraphs. The detective novel analogy is spot-on and may be helpful when discussing giving up/despair and privilege.

  • rodneylowe  On July 2, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    As Bethany Russell-Lowe preached yesterday (from the Talmud) “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21)

  • Terry Newberg  On July 2, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you so much for your blog, your self-examination and realizations — you’re doing good work, just by doing this – please don’t ever feel that you’re just speaking into the “void.” Your words echo what many of us feel, know, are grappling with – and just by putting it out there, you make us aware that we’re not alone in these internal struggles and outer actions. So, just thank you and thank you again, ok?

    Elizabeth T. Newberg


  • Kathleen Snider  On July 2, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    Simply, thank you.

  • Roger  On July 2, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    As you often do, you express my inchoate sentiments exactly and with a thoroughness that mere sentiments lack. Let us keep protesting and continue the exhausting work of democracy. For myself, having the ‘Weekly Sift’ at hand motivates the work.

  • Kat  On July 2, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you! The situation is especially discouraging down here in The South, where the GOP seems to have a death grip.
    What keeps me Resisting is the thought of how bad this could become for my nieces as all women face loss of control over medical decisions. The erosion of *actual* freedom of religion which has moved us a few ticks closer to the theocracy side of things by Christians who have not thought through how important that is. These things – and the determination that I refuse to willing be on the evil side of history – got me out in the heat and humidity on Saturday.

    These things, and the one word unsaid in your litany of quitting points – “yet”

  • dean jordan (@deanaoxo)  On July 2, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    If ever there was something i needed to read today, it was that. Thank you.

  • thejoemoose  On July 2, 2018 at 7:31 pm

    My first time reading you, and you have put my thoughts into words I haven’t though possible. Thank you very much.

  • B Cubbage  On July 23, 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Apologize for the lateness of this reply, but I’m having a moment I want to share. I’m arguably the whitest person in America, with ancestors who’ve been infesting this continent since the 18th century. I recently had to renew my drivers license, an exercise I’ve completed uneventfully for decades. This time, the State of California immigration department put a hold on my license renewal. Nobody knows why. I was enraged and shaken to the core. What is wrong with you people, I angrily demanded. How could I be anything other than an American citizen. The moral of the story is that I’ll eventually get this straightened out, with a level of annoying but tolerable inconvenience. If I were less luminously white I couldn’t rely on that outcome. This has been a more effective wake up call than all the essays and opinion pieces I’ve ever read. A lot of our fellow Americans live in hell all the time.


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