Posts Tagged 'Justice'

Winning and Lying

I recently read a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a young lady, Noura Jackson, who spent nine years in jail because of prosecutorial bad behavior. In this woman’s case exculpatory evidence was withheld at trial and from the defense. When that evidence was uncovered and revealed the woman was released. Ultimately, the prosecutor and her staff were exonerated. Imagine yourself with nine years of your life unjustly spent behind bars and the people who deliberately perpetrated this outrage got off free. Law and order? Justice? I don’t think so. It is, in fact, more like rewarding pathological lying.

The ethos that caused this young lady to lose those nine years of her life is pervasive in both criminal and civil courts. The base cause of callous disregard for Justice is, as I see it, the national American fixation with winning at all costs and Truth be damned. In fact, the compulsion to win seems to have infected the entirety of our society with damaging effects to trust and civility. In civil cases incentive is provided by insurance companies who pay lawyers to beat back claims to “win” regardless of facts, regardless of damage or injury. It isn’t only a matter of insurance company lawyers pursuing claimants but also plaintiffs’ lawyers who sue businesses for claimed injuries to person or property under questionable circumstances and find sympathetic juries to award damages. In both instances what we have is an assault on truth and the social contract by lawyers. This aberration and negation of justice will continue for as long as lawyers are paid to “win”. They “win” and society loses.

The American ethos of relentless competition and winning is impressed on children practically from the day they are born as parents compare birth weights, the first time on the potty, and cheer passionately at little league ball games. Cooperation is regarded as “Socialist” and it is well on its way to being declared unAmerican. Our reigning president constantly touts himself as a “winner” because he knows the idea resonates with his base. According to him everything he touches “wins” and his fans hang on every utterance basking in his success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice becoming vicarious “winners” themselves. This “winning” administration is working with the Republicans in Congress to make cuts to education, health care, social security, food stamps, Medicaid,  disability benefits, unemployment benefits, the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the list is long and, if they are successful, the inflicted pain and social disruption will be widespread. Yes, indeed. Step right up folks – everyone’s going to be a “winner”.

Once those cuts to government programs are in place and the savings awarded to billionaires as tax breaks what will be left for those social programs the general public depends on so much? People will be “great” and simultaneously diminished. The winners will be losers. The cutting sword cuts both ways. There is a pathology to this. In fact this pathology is the working definition of sociopathy: “… a disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” The populist “will of the people” has become the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston, the 17th Century magical ingredient, making everything add up regardless of “facts”. Who needs facts, who needs truth if you’re a “winner”?

In the face of what is being said and promised by our new president and what is actually taking place we must wonder about pathological lying and why people who are most injured by those lies vote for the liars. These people are voting against their own best interests, they are living in some kind of alternate universe fueled by resentment and anger. I read an interview recorded at a rally with an enthusiastic Trump supporter and it went as follows: I’m distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.” When asked to name an example of something that is “being done” the happy voter was at a loss, he couldn’t name one thing. In spite of or maybe because of, all this America is, at last, “winning” and on its way to regaining its lost “greatness”. Winning in this society has become a meta-political illusion, a dream world, that rationalizes political and lawyerly anti-social behavior as “greatness”. It’s a head scratcher all right. It’s a con game and our tattered social contract is being taken to the cleaners.

“Enemies Foreign And Domestic” 

  

Jean Piaget, one of the foremost experts in the field of children’s learning explained that in some “there is an absence of the desire to find logical justification for one’s statements, and … an excess of subjective and affective relations at the expense of genuine logical implications.” This describes the stage of development of children from roughly the age of 2 to 8 which seems to perfectly fit the mentality of Donald Trump. There are people who have been deemed “anti-Copernicans”, people who believe that humans continually create the universe via their own consciousness of it. We are now being hustled into the alternative universe of Trump who creates new realities and new universes on the fly as they suit his purposes. The venom of his ambition pulls on the loose threads of the body politic capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, exploiting ignorance. No matter what Trump says, lost jobs are not coming back to the United States but only the products of those absent industries make overseas where there is cheaper labor to exploit.

The Trump assault on health care, for example, is an attempt to drag life as it is lived by many people into a “new world”, a dystopian world of alternatives to the truth and reality as lived by millions of people who cannot otherwise afford health care — a “Let them take aspirin.” version of health insurance to which some are now belatedly awakening. What we are watching unfold with this administration is a total reversal of social gains made over many years for affordable and universal health care, a better and cleaner environment, and better educational opportunities for all children across the population — in short, a more humane society. It now seems the entire social contract so hard-won since the Great Depression and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt is under assault. We have gone from the keen intellect of Jack Kennedy to an incurious narcissistic individual who can barely articulate two consecutive logically related sentences.

In these intervening years since Jack Kennedy, we have not evolved so much as we have begun to devolve politically and morally. We are engaged in unnecessary warfare in countries around the world where there is no demonstrable threat to this country but where there are lucrative opportunities to use and sell advanced weaponry or to provide access to petroleum resources. We have forgotten President Eisenhower’s warnings about the powerful military industrial complex. We are subject to what Francis Fukuyama characterizes as “a rent-seeking elite, who make use of their political connections to capture the state and use state power to enrich themselves.” The Trump cabinet is populated almost exclusively with such types and they are using state power to their own advantage. 

As a nation, as a people, Americans must come to grips with what is underway and decide what kind of country this is and what it is going to become before the dystopian tide overwhelms us. Are the American people ready to surrender their constitutional rights to an authoritarian government just to get even with people they don’t like? Does the public understand what kinds of people the president has surrounded himself with? Do they comprehend the consequences of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for the rest of his life? Do people understand the monstrous conceit and sociopathy of this president and how vulnerable that renders him to the manipulation and machinations of his motley crew and others, perhaps not only Americans but foreign actors who would like to control American policy abroad? What do we as a nation stand for?

When I was commissioned as an Air Force officer I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” for life. I never thought then I would live to see the day when the “domestic” part of that oath would loom in my consciousness. With revelations of Trump’s dealings and behavior in Russia lurking and ready to be disclosed I wonder where it will lead us. With politicians, national and state, assaulting the Constitution daily looking for means to subvert, undermine, or outright override its provisions  we cannot pretend that this is a benign moment in our history. It has been reported that the Koch brothers have commissioned a rewrite of the constitution even as they are meeting with Trump.  The time to stand up and be counted is now lest those who are on a mission to create a different country succeed.

An amazing story!

This is not a post written by me but a reference to an amazing story shared with me by a former student from when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin -Madison. This story will, I believe, refresh your faith in the political process and what one person can accomplish at this time when our political institutions seem bereft of civility, respect for law, and respect for each other. Please read it and reflect on the values it represents.  … e

<http://kut.org/post/he-got-bad-grade-so-he-got-constitution-amended-now-hes-getting-credit-he-deserves>

The Notion of Democracy

Democracy in the United States has become notional, perhaps it has always been this way and we simply haven’t noticed. Our beliefs are always either evolving or devolving, always changing with the times, and eventually delivering less than what has been promised. A version of death by a thousand cuts  or what is aptly described as “creeping normality”. All the trappings of the real thing are there but behind the red-white and blue bunting lies another story. That story is the devolution from the principles of democracy to populism and its evil cousin, neoliberalism. Our long history of mistreatment of minorities especially minorities of color, for example, exposes many of the contradictions. But since our founding, it is the firm grip of wealth on political processes that invariably influences political and social outcomes. The notion of democracy stands for the reality of capitalism, the greatest social zero-sum game ever invented.

It isn’t that wealth has had more seats at the table than the working class proletariat.Today the influence and control of wealth concentrated in the bank accounts of fewer and fewer individuals has overwhelmed the rest of us. The predicates of democracy are diametrically opposed to those of capitalism. The rewards and power of capitalism far exceed the perceived rewards of democracy. It’s a deadly conundrum. Our world has become a kind of theater where politicians mouth democracy drenched words all the while doing their best to deny voting rights to marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions.

Consider how many Americans do not vote; fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016.  Many people surveyed expressed doubt that their votes matter and that being what it is – a self-fulfilling proposition. There cannot be true representative government without participation and that is why certain politicians are doing their best to devise and pass ever more restrictive voting regulations.

The rise of neoliberalism is itself the greatest threat to democracy to ever have faced the United States. Neoliberalism will be the final blow. Neoliberalism combined with populism will serve double-speak, compromised founding principles, and no firm or verifiable truth will be accepted.  All we will have will be “alternative facts”. Truth made fungible and pliant to suit the moment and the desired ends. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The president has gone so far as to launch a federal investigation to validate his claims. 

In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom we have a vice-president, who is a self-identified Christian zealot proclaiming Christianity as the founding belief of the United States. The new Vice-President has proclaimed his Christianity on the floor of the House of Representatives stating the creationism should be taught in public schools and continues his personal “agenda in office. According to the PEW research organization, eight in ten voters who identified as “Christian” voted for the new administration. For people like this religion and politics are one and the same. Populist politics is become a crusade.   

  History has shown us this process, this slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. And it has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of public approval. “Save us from this!” “Save us from that!” Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The “elites”, whomever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people. We have been here before. Alternative truth is disseminated, cronies are rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated, are at large the most susceptible to the pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who are without ethical or moral commitment to the truth preying with the simplistic vocabulary of a child. The net result of this whirlwind of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of the social contract.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming. “Trust me … I’m a smart person.” Famous last words.

It Can’t Happen Here

Book Review – “It Can’t Happen Here” – Sinclair Lewis

Yes it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. The story accords both with what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support. Maintaining the requisite plots and sub-plots requires a great deal of coercion and effort.

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation as well as other organizations from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something”; a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses that is crucial to their success.

As the antagonist, Berzelius Windrip, climbs his way to absolute power the protagonist, Doremus   Jessup, whittles his life down to as low a profile as he can manage to avoid attention. Windrip, an ambition driven politician, eventually becomes the “President” surrounded by Yes Men and a vigilante posse, the CORPOs, who kill or jail anyone who opposes his and their rule. Jessup, a small town newspaper editor eventually loses his paper and thus his soapbox. Life in the small Vermont town in which most of the action takes place is slowly but surely reduced to imprisonment or sniveling obeisance. Dissenters are jailed or outright murdered by the newly ascendant former underclass CORPOs. Eventually the tide envelops Jessup — he is arrested and finds himself trying to escape into Canada.

The reader is encouraged to consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and to ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. 1.   Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself as I vividly recall the turmoil of 1968 and the populist candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read this valuable prescient book I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this. Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

ABOUT JUSTICE

John Dewey wrote, “We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, Justice, or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, unique.”

Alexander Saxton wrote, “To move from the particular to the general is an exercise in humility because it forces one to recognize the particulars – even those privileged details one’s own individual existence – remain meaningless and essentially useless to other people unless they can be shown to typify, or illuminate larger streams of human experience.”

For a word that has been chiseled into stone monuments for centuries we could reasonably hope society would by now have the practice and understanding of Justice down cold. However, more often than not, as Justice is experienced personally but spoken of generally we struggle to find understanding in the “larger stream”. Justice is variously defined as being fair and being fair defined as being just and just as being fair and so on. For centuries thinkers and doers have tried to grasp and define Justice in all of its manifestations concretely. This philosophic and semantic project has haunted virtually all societies throughout history. Almost every philosopher from Plato’s argument via Socrates about just persons and a just state to Aristotle and onwards across centuries to John Dewey and Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, John Rawls and Alexander Saxton among recent others, has given us a take on Justice.

If, over so many centuries, so many brilliant people have struggled for so long and so hard to arrive at a definitive exegesis of Justice what they have been seeking may not exist, at least not in a form they were hoping for. Justice in all its manifestations seems to be like beauty, living in the hearts and minds of the observers be they beneficiaries or victims. Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just? Only in the eyes of the perpetrators. It seems to me there is no such thing as Justice except as an everlasting quest for justification. In that case Justice will remain always a fluid and beautiful idea, an aspiration at that, but in the end there will be no absolute, it will always be, “ … specific, concrete, unique” to the moment.

First and foremost it is necessary, I believe, to acknowledge that Justice is a construct – a moveable definition which, not unlike a sheen of oil on water, changes century to century, culture to culture, moment to moment, observer to observer. Like belief systems, Justice is fluid, always in motion. There exists no concrete, immutable, definition of Justice – no demonstration you can point to, take to the bank, or teach the young. What is Justice for you can be injustice to your neighbors. It remains, however, the most appealing and illusive of ideas and much like quick-silver, “Liberty and Justice for all … ” slips away at the touch.

A few quick police pistol shots and an unarmed 12 year old named Tamir Rice received an instant irreversible summary Justice not found in a court of law but in a public park. By late 2015, police in the US had summarily shot and executed 1103 “suspects” of whom 161 were unarmed. In the US, police summarily execute people, generally people of color, nearly on a daily basis. Once dead the “suspects” no longer have access to any semblance of Justice. Why then do we pretend Justice for all exists? Because we must. Like Equality, Justice is an essential myth an illusion without which our social contract would be impossible .

Injustice is not only the taking of lives but the diminishing of lives as well given an economic system that systematically concentrates wealth to a very few and harms many. Throughout the United States economic injustice manifests concretely in hunger, access to medical care, education, legal representation, and opportunity often determined by the color of one’s skin. Like any manifestation of inequality, lack of Economic Justice is corrosive disease and eats at the heart and soul of society. In Louisianna the Governor recently removed 31,000 jobless people from receiving food stamps, in Wisconsin that Governor removed 15,000, in Indiana 50,000,  and in Maine 40,000. Whose definition of Economic Justice is this?  Whose definition of morality, humanity, and common sense? Adults, and even more, children who are not well fed and well housed cannot possibly thrive and succeed are thus condemned to a diminished existence and, as a consequence, with what kind of commitment to a social contract? 

In courts of law Justice has fast become the last thing sought – winning is the goal. Prosecutors, with a firm thumb on the scales of Justice, are especially fond of, ex parte proceedings in police shooting cases where no contrary testimony is permitted. I once surveyed a fairly disparate group of lawyers with the question: “At trial what is most important to you – winning or Justice?” Needless to say, I suppose, winning was the winner. So much for Justice. How is this? Well, if you are a lawyer who works for insurance companies, for example, you make your living and your reputation defeating liability claims. It’s a no-brainer. Also, keep in mind that at trial the only participants who do not swear to tell the truth are the lawyers. It’s all about winning not about Truth and certainly not about Justice. It’s about profit.

We live in a time when sociopathy permeates society. The question is not how much worse can it get but how much longer can it go on without a total breakdown of civility and and order? There are, after all, consequences. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, put it this way: In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s  good for man, there can no longer either be any substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.”  The possibility of a civil society is foreclosed.

American Agonistes?

Is it ironic that in the second decade of the 21st century we are still debating equality in a country where all are supposed to be political equals? In the 18th century, the equality debate concerned the rights of colonists. In the 19th century the debate erupted into civil war over slavery, followed in the 20th over suffrage, and in the 21st the battlefield is economic equality, a societal battle over the rights of money over the rights of citizens as embodied in the destructive sophistry of the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Earlier equality debates have not been resolved either as there is always someone with a new twist seeking to undermine what should be settled law. Racism, sexual orientation, religion, bigotry, and mysogny are unrelenting, persistent, and tragically reinvented daily. It’s a curse, this agon, this quest for equality. Not so long ago Southern European immigrants were persecuted presently it’s Muslims and migrants fleeing economic and political oppression. It has always been blacks; next week it will be someone else. Truth is, if every person of color were to disappear tomorrow morning a new target group would be found by nightfall. While discrimination on the basis of wealth isn’t new on the list of divisive social issues it has now become critical when so many are unemployed, underemployed, or simply dropped out including college graduates laden with debt who cannot find employment.

Hedge fund managers making $24 million annually are taxed at 15% while truck drivers who earn $43 thousand a year are taxed at 28% the tax burden thus falls to working class people. In Kansas budget shortfalls will be made up with increased sales taxes and fees paid mainly by the working middle class and poor. A non-partisan policy group says the poorest 20 percent of the state will now pay 1.5 percent more in taxes than they did in 2012. or an average of $197 a year. The Governor, Sam Brownback, in a classic Orwellian trope, told the press this isn’t an increase but a tax cut.  I think we’re in Wonderland, Aunti Em.

  When wealth is gained at the expense of the majority of the members of a society, social viability becomes the paramount question. Historically such has  been the prelude to one sort of revolution or another and some think we may be on the precipice of a foundational evolutionary social reformation. Sentiments go well beyond the numerous books recently published about economic inequality and Capitalism. Petitions are being circulated calling for a constitutional amendment to nullify the obviously biased Citizens United decision. The presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and others are also speaking to larger more fundamental deeply felt issues.

The realities of a diminished, if not extinguished, democracy are denial and negation of truth. Neither propaganda nor appeals to patriotism can make this go away because there is no alternative to inequality but equality. There is no livable alternate reality when 33 American cities already have or are planning to make feeding hungry people illegal. The casual abandonment of moral consideration is truly remarkable.

In an analysis  of federal policy initiatives dating from 1981 to 2002 researchers at Princeton concluded, “ economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The denial and destruction of a government of, by, and for the people, is the antithesis of a democratic society paving an inevitable path to disengagement, and ultimately – dissolution. We can fairly ask as we must, how is it possible for a society to maintain a non-democratic economic system, qua religion, conflated with a barely functioning social contract? It is inarguable that a civilized society must correct those inequalities which can be corrected to provide the economic and social capital necessary to minimize inequalities of economic opportunity and political access.

Democracy as a political and social system requires equity, sharing, and engagement. Democracy is an expression of distribution and inclusion – capitalism is accumulation and exclusion. Capitalism is fundamentally a winner take all zero sum game, it has no ethic or morality other than to take it all is opposed to the sharing ethic required for a viable democratic civil society. Capitalism being finite and material has a natural end point – democracy being politically and socially aspirational does not, its horizon is indeterminate. In the absence of equal economic justice there is no possibility of a viable democratic social contract. As Adam Smith cautioned in his 1776 classic, The Wealth Of Nations: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.

The United States has been engaged in one war or another for 222 out of the past 239 years. Since 1776 we have also been at war with ourselves. Is this then the ongoing American agon? We must decide.


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