Disorder In The Courts

Setting aside for the moment the unbelievably dispiriting saga of the Supreme Court nominationof Brett Kavanaugh, which is clearly a political and cultural inflection point that will keep commentators scribbling for decades to come, it seems apparent that our entire federal system of jurisprudence is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy that is perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.  

Some of the problems are self-inflicted wounds that are the result of obvious miscarriages of justice that have wronged the innocent and released the guilty.  Some issues have arisen from moving far away from simply applying or interpreting laws and becoming super-legislators whose individual judgments supersede those of duly-elected representatives.  Other difficulties facing our federal courts are the inevitable outcome of our nation’s ever widening cultural and moral divisions—every ruling now produces an army of the disgruntled.

The law and our federal courts have, of course, always been imperfect tools in our eternal quest for justice on earth because the humans who write and apply our laws are themselves imperfect creatures who are subject to the same stupidity and shortsightedness as us all.  However, the hope was that rigorous training of both lawyers and judges in evidentiary proceedings conducted under rules established by both precedents and common sense would be sufficient to reduce the opportunities for either fear or favor to influence the rulings of our federal courts.  This has not always worked, but additional procedures for appeals are available, and a trip up the marble steps of the Supreme Court has always been the final leg of the journey for those seeking justice.  

It is important to remember that, even when the wheels of justice turned slowly, the general perception was that the federal courts were a reliable bulwark against destructive partisan passions.  Although we understood that justice was sometimes elusive, judges and the courts were still held in high regard.  Despite the sometimes reasonable perception that true justice often seemed reserved for rich, white males, Americans had a sense that the federal courts were capable of hearing the pleas of those who felt historically disenfranchised and responding—if belatedly—to their needs, and this served to burnish the reputation of our federal courts in spite of all their missteps on the path to modernity.  Consequently, generations of idealists worked to make improvements to both the operations and outcomes of our federal court system, which enabled a broader spectrum of American society to enjoy the benefits of living in a nation of laws.  If small town local justice sometimes seemed small-minded, the federal courts many times provided the necessary broad corrections that could later be applied nationally through the precedents set by their rulings.

How far away this all seems today….

Perhaps the most pressing problem now facing the federal judiciary is one for which they have only themselves to blame: Abandoning the role of arbiter and assuming the mantle of advocacy has turned judges into yet another subset of political hacks within a system rife with political hacks.  Outsized egos and a lack of respect for the dire consequences of judicial activism have pushed the federal courts further and further beyond their constitutional mandate, which is sadly understandable if you consider the foibles of human nature.  

As much fun as it might be to be a “rock star judge” who finds new and inventive ways to circumvent judicial limitations and seize the powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches of government under the Constitution, the price to pay is the destructive surrender of all-important perceptions of restraint and impartiality.  The unsurprising result has been that federal judges are now subjected to the same rough and tumble scrutiny as those who must regularly win re-election to their offices by presenting their partisan credentials to voters—welcome to the jungle, Your Honor.

As the federal courts have come more and more to both reflect and reinforce the partisan splits in our nation by seeking to circumscribe—or outright negate—the laws and regulations approved by the President and Congress, they have waded deeper and deeper into stormy political and moral waters they cannot possibly navigate without eventually drowning.  Moreover, by making their own partisan agendas ever more apparent through their frequent speeches and voluminous writings, judges serving at the federal level are discarding all remaining pretense of objectivity in favor of social engineering on a scale that would both astonish and alarm their more circumspect predecessors on the bench.  

The sadly predictable outcome is never ending sniping and frighteningly vicious confirmation hearings that are erasing whatever tattered prestige our highest level of courts still retain.

We may not at this late date be able to turn back the clock because our nation’s elite law schools have themselves become the training grounds for a radical judicial philosophy that—terrifyingly enough—believes judges are wiser stewards of our nation than those whom we elect to represent us.  The outright disrespect for our democratic processes that we today so often see manifested in the rulings of our federal courts is an insult to the genius of our nation’s political system, which is still the wonder of the world despite its human flaws.

Therefore, having founded a nation by rejecting the divine rights of kings, it might just be the case that we will renew our nation’s commitment to democracy—however maddening and messy as the will of the people might sometimes be—by opposing the “divine rights” that have been assumed by judges who believe it is their prerogative to strike down legislation, oppose the President, and impose whatever mandates they see fit upon a captive America with a single court order.  

The battle has been joined, and those on both sides of this issue clearly understand what is at stake.  Whatever the outcome might be, we can be certain that our perceptions of the federal court system and its role in relation to the other two branches of our national government are about to undergo a profound shift—and the outcome will either begin to heal or further divide our already troubled nation.

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Of Burt And Bunnies

I am not quite certain what to make of this particular harmonic convergence of hormones, but I believe it must mean something.

Within just the past few weeks we have seen Burt Reynolds, that paragon of smirking 1970’s masculinity, pass away in Florida while the Playboy Club, that whimsical throwback to bunny ears and cottontails, has now been reborn in New York City.  Each life change is, in its own way, an opportunity to glance back at sexual and societal mores that seem somehow both distant and strangely contemporary, and our viewpoints are likely composed of equal parts of attraction and repulsion.  

The secret to Mr. Reynolds rakish and thoroughly self-deprecating charm was that he honestly seemed to enjoy being “Burt Reynolds”.  Like the grinning boy who stares you straight in the eye while he has his hand in the cookie jar, Mr. Reynolds’ utterly guileless determination to be as sweetly naughty as he could be allowed him to manage the neat trick of being the man whom women wanted to both slap in the face and drag to their boudoir.  

Looking at his movies and antics today, we are likewise divided by our attraction to his easygoing charm and our cringing reactions to his sometimes over-the-top sexism.  However, Mr. Reynolds’ willingness to make himself the butt of the joke in both his movies and real life—who will ever forget his hirsute nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972?—largely inoculated him from the taint of overt misogyny and permitted him to later age into more demanding dramatic roles that no longer required a sly smile or whinnying laugh.

The return of the Playboy Club to New York City seems equal parts a yearning for a more naively seductive style of sexuality and a nostalgia for a bygone time when men were men, women were women, and sex was less about lawyers, regrets, and diseases.  During the Age of Aquarius, a period of time largely defined by a carefree desire to stimulate every available nerve ending, Hugh Hefner’s worldview both enabled the eternal adolescent within and disabled the guardians of traditional moral standards without.  

As a vehicle for fantasy role playing and the exchange of cash for a peek at pretty young women who exuded a wholesome innocence, the Playboy franchise was a money machine for many decades.  Ironically enough, however, what prompted its demise as a cultural icon and financial juggernaut was the ready availability of pornography that became, with the passing of the years, ever more explicit and gritty—the college co-ed next door eventually lost out to the grim hooker splayed in the alleyway.  Today the politics of sex, of gender roles, and of gender itself have grown infinitely more complex, and the penalties for misbehavior and miscommunication have gone far beyond a knee to the groin or a “bad reputation”.  

In addition, we have somehow managed to paint ourselves into a uncomfortable corner where our mass entertainment has devolved into soft-core pornography and even school children exchange sexually explicit selfies on their cell phones, yet we are told the cure to all that ails our culture and society is more sex-positivity because we are—hard it may be to believe—still far too prudish.  Apparently, having the least self-restraint or standards is today a sign of unhealthy inhibition that must be eliminated in order to avoid allowing anyone to judge another’s behavior.  What a world we live now.  Is it any wonder that we gaze with perhaps the least bit of longing back to the days when double-entendres were risqué, a tuft of exposed chest hair or a hint of cleavage was titillating, and any hint of nudity had to be wrapped in opaque plastic lest a child see something that they should not?

Although our world may somehow be better off because mothers can now work out to regain their pre-pregnancy form on a stripper pole in the den, porn stars write their own magazine columns, and everyone can learn how to give a blowjob on YouTube, it could be the case that the ultimate attraction of the movies and persona of Burt or of the Bunnies in their costumes is that each provides pleasures that rely more on what is kept hidden rather than what is revealed.  Perhaps we actually lust for just a bit more bashfulness as a counterbalance to the daily gynecology of our culture today.

 

 

 

The Consequence Of No Consequences

If there is any connective tissue between the many scandals and strife that fill our world today, it is this: People sure do hate being judged.

This is, of course, a very human reaction. Trying to bluster one’s way out of difficulty by proclaiming your actions were either innocent or misunderstood—which is, of course, sometimes true—has probably been a facet of human behavior from the dawn of civilization. However, what has now become a conspicuous characteristic of our troubled times is that both a belief in our own blamelessness and an embrace of utter shamelessness are now woven into the fabric of our modern culture.

A component of this is certainly based on our ongoing societal and political efforts to relegate shame to the dustbin of human history. Given that we now pretty much determine for ourselves what is right or wrong because the concept of social norms tends to annoy many, the only way you can really find yourself in hot water these days is to be critical of another person’s behavior. To attempt to cause anyone to feel shame is—ironically enough—considered shameful. This circular bit of ethical entrapment disables any possible discussion of right and wrong because, as is now the dominant doctrine in many quarters, right and wrong are nothing but social constructs meant to oppress us. Thankfully, we seem at least able to agree that child abuse is wrong, although even this issue collides on occasion with our desperation to celebrate non-Western or non-traditional child rearing practices.

Think about the news or commentary that we all read on a regular basis. It is incredible how often the stories today are less about actual events and more about criticisms of the reactions (or lack thereof) by others. As a result, we find ourselves trapped in an echo chamber of denunciations, which allows us to avoid any thoughtful discussion of blame, shame, or culpability. If those who disagree with us are themselves bad—because they either criticized us or failed to properly exalt us—we are able to deflect any shame our actions might bring and be held blameless. This is, unfortunately, a perpetual motion machine of insult and outrage that contributes very little to problem-solving but does much—far too much—to degrade and demean our public discourse.

The net outcome of these deflections of blame and shame is that all discussions dissolve into debates about whose interests are being helped or harmed—our lives reduced to nothing but a series of transactions devoid of values—and no effort is expended examining the basic morality of the actions or intentions of the parties involved.

An example of the confines of our cultural and political norms at the present time is the anger that erupted over the passage of a package of federal laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that now holds websites liable for advertising sexual services online. Opponents of these laws lament that sex workers will find themselves at greater personal risk and suffer professional inconvenience because they can no longer advertise their services easily and cheaply through the internet.

Lost in all the discussion of the law’s impact, which has been immediate and substantial, was perhaps a more fundamental issue few wanted to discuss because it would be considered judgmental or—to use a favorite expression of many—“slut shaming” of a subset of women who are, after all, simply trying to make a living: Does our nation have an obligation to facilitate—and therefore tacitly legitimize—the world’s oldest profession, prostitution?

Is it possible in today’s America to simply say that prostitution is immoral and damaging to all involved? Would we ever expect those in charge of our major news and media outlets in New York and California to criticize or condemn prostitutes and prostitution in an effort to improve public and private morals and behavior? Such questions are considered so old fashioned and retrograde to those who sit at the pinnacles of our elite sources of opinion and commentary as to even be unworthy of note. Imagine if the New York City Police Department and FBI were to launch a crackdown on prostitution—which seems extraordinarily unlikely. Would The New York Times, for example, endorse this effort or resort to running sympathetic profiles of all the valiant women who were being persecuted by the police and prosecutors for simply plying their trade?

Morality is, of course, a tricky business, and over the past several thousand years of civilization we have expended incredible time and energy attempting to distinguish right from wrong. Our ideas of what is moral and what is not have certainly undergone some revisions—but much of the essential framework has remained the same. Ignoring discussions of morality and immorality because they might make some feel uncomfortable or judged for their beliefs or behavior is a foundational problem that afflicts broad swathes of our nation and might explain the persistence and magnitude of at least some of the issues afflicting many communities, families, and individuals.

There are, to be sure, many difficulties we must today address, but most will likely remain unresolved if even the most basic issues of right and wrong are banned from the discussions because they might make some feel excluded—or bad about themselves. Perhaps this needs to change.

The Waste Land

Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.

In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”

How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….

The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.

The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.

Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.

Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.

Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.

Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.

Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.

If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.

Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.

Are We On The Cusp Of A Revival In Christian Faith?

A few months ago I re-watched several Star Wars and Harry Potter movies, and they set me to thinking about our never ending efforts to redesign religious faith for our secular age.

That the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas are actually parables of Christianity—without the religion being too overly apparent—has been noted by many. Each chronicles a confrontation between forces representing good and evil, each has their own priesthood and prophets offering moral instruction, each has a “fallen angel” of sorts that must be battled, each set of protagonists draws strength from powers beyond our understanding (either “The Force” or old school magic), and each offers a climactic battle where good ultimately triumphs over evil. You could readily substitute a crucifix for a light saber or wooden wand and not lose much in the translation.

One could have a spirited debate regarding whether stories of this sort satisfy some human yearning baked into our DNA or our enthusiastic responses to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are simply the Pavlovian result of a couple of thousand years of Christian thought and practice, but the outcome is still the same. We exult in their quests and are validated by their triumphs. Toss in some modern marketing expertise and computer-generated special effects, and you have today’s version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

There is no doubt that we crave order and expect justice—whether in this life or the next. Few are comfortable with a world that seems beyond our control. Although we like to believe we are far more advanced than our tribal ancestors, we still typically trust our fates to wise elders—except now they rattle jargon-filled analyses instead of bean-filled gourds to impress us. We also crave and admire strong leaders. How else to explain why so much of our popular entertainment focuses on royalty, barbarians, criminals, warriors, and dictators?

However, our attraction to brute force and apparent fascination with violence is not necessarily a sign of atavism. It seems to me to instead be a clear sign that we have lost the spiritual counterbalance necessary in our lives; as a result, the darkness within our souls tends to run unchecked and causes us to be attracted to cruelty instead of condemning it.

Across the broad scope of Western civilization, Christianity—with the Ten Commandments as its foundation—has guided humanity to connect with a purpose for living that extends beyond the mere satisfaction of our physical needs. Although there can be no doubt that great wrongs have been committed in the name of religion, the historical ledger balance is still far on the side of Christianity encouraging compassion, justice, hope, and self-sacrifice.

There is, however, little doubt that we have spent a good deal of the 20th and early 21st centuries elevating hatred, venality and egocentrism to an art form, which has damaged both our culture and personal lives. If you look at our society today, it is hard to miss the human wreckage associated with the impoverishment of our spiritual existences.

There is a hole at the center of many people that cannot be filled with video games, hook ups, and opioids—and efforts to find workable alternatives to Christian theology have nibbled at the edges of our public and private discourses for many years. No one has, however, yet provided a satisfactory alternative moral framework for our modern world, one where faith is increasingly suspect or openly derided. If you believe in nothing beyond the physical fact of your existence and your own needs, how is it possible to create community or encourage rectitude using any appeal that does not boil down—after the soaring rhetoric is dissected—to simple selfishness and naked self-interest? This is a question we have not adequately answered, and we are now paying the price for our failure.

I do not know if we have yet reached an inflection point, but I more and more wonder whether Christianity is poised for a comeback across many regions of the world. Modern secular life, which often relies on mass consumption and mass entertainment to create a sense of belonging—while, oddly enough, simultaneously denigrating any notion of national identity—may be reaching its expiration date.

Whether Christianity’s revival would find itself in open warfare with current societal norms that equate moral judgement with hatred or reach a rapprochement with the world as it exists today is one that no one can answer. However, I believe there is a spiritual hunger in America today that begs to be satisfied, and our media and cultural mavens in New York and Los Angeles—preoccupied as always with the latest entertainment and fashion buzz—are perhaps blind to a stark change that could soon be coming. The Bible might, to the surprise of many, turn out to be the next “big thing”—which could be a help to a great many individuals and our nation as a whole.