Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Partly Right

Charles Krauthammer, on a recent broadcast of Brit Hume's Roundtable, talking about gay marriage and the attempt to amend the Constitution to prevent it:

Well, obviously in part it's politics, but changing the definition of the oldest social institution in the human race, one that has been a man and a woman in every society for a long, long time, is a big deal. And if it's happening in a country, it's a legitimate issue and I think there is a legitimate issue here in that the president is right that judges have abrogated this decision which ought to be left to people either acting in referendum or in -- through their representatives. And that -- there are states, like Massachusetts in which it's been imposed and states like Georgia and Nebraska, where there has been a constitutional amendment where the people have spoken in large numbers and been stopped, stymied, by a judge.

But I think the answer is not a constitutional amendment, which would be in the name of the popular sovereignty, but ironically, it takes it away, because if you ever had a state in which a majority wanted to institute gay marriage, it would not be allowed to under this constitution. So it's a little bit contradictory, to act in the name of popular sovereignty and to pass a law which would extinguish.

The way you do it is change the ethos of the judiciary so that if you get the Defense of Marriage Act, which he spoke about earlier, at the Supreme Court, it's upheld and that it keeps it in one state and doesn't spread it all over the country. And having a president who nominates a guy like Sam Alito is a way in which we change that culture rather than changing the constitution.

Krauthammer is partly right. Ideally, the question of gay marriage, just like questions of abortion and assisted suicide, should be resolved in state legislatures. Unfortunately, liberals will not accept the verdict of the democratic process and are using compliant judges to, in effect, override the will of the people. There is no guarantee that the "ethos of the judiciary" would ever change, or ever change permanently. A constitutional amendment is a terrible resort, but it is the only way the people have of protecting themselves from activist judges who use their power to impose their will on everyone else.

If we were guaranteed that the Supreme Court picks for the next fifty years would be of the caliber of the last couple Krauthammer's argument would have more purchase. But given that the next several justices could be appointed by a President Hillary or Gore or Kerry, the argument that we should entrust the preservation of democracy to the Supreme Court loses all its appeal.

Re: Overdoing the Outrage

Our friend Byron is critical of my use of the word "silly" in a post titled Overdoing the Outrage in which I refer to Andrew Sullivan's concerns about disregarding part 1c of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on torture as "silly hyperventilating". Byron, whose admonishments I value and whose opinions I deeply respect, urges me to consider that I'm demeaning people who have a noble moral objection to the use of torture when I call their concerns silly. By's criticism can be read on our Feedback page, and I would like to say a few things about it here.

What I labelled silly (a word I prefer because it is gentler than stupid) was this passage from Sullivan's blog:

The United States is a rogue nation that practices torture and detainee abuse and does not follow the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions. It is in violation of human rights agreements and the U.N. Convention against torture. It is legitimizing torture by every disgusting regime on the planet. This is a policy mandated by the president and his closest advisers. This is the signal being sent from the commander-in-chief to his troops: your enemy can be treated beyond the boundaries of what the U.S. has always abided by. When you next read of an atrocity of war-crime or victim of torture by the U.S., just keep in mind who made this possible.

Sullivan makes these extremely derogatory claims about the U.S. because the administration has decided that any provision which may prevent our interrogators from yelling at, insulting, questioning the courage of, placing in solitary confinement, or even shackling or incarcerating terror suspects or other enemy combatants is an absurd restriction on our interrogators. I agree with that, and I think that it is literally silly, as in unserious or lacking in sense, for Andrew Sullivan to assert that we are a rogue nation because we think it appropriate to treat these detainees as something less than visiting dignitaries. To claim that our reluctance to accept the unreasonable constraints of 1c "legitimizes torture by every disgusting regime on the planet" is arrant nonsense as is almost everything else he says in the paragraph above.

Those who object to the use of genuine torture are certainly not silly people. Indeed, I am one of them, although for reasons I've discussed on this blog I think we must stop short of absolutizing our objection. But those who would call it torture if an interrogator says mean things to a terrorist, certainly are silly, and those who would say what Sullivan says because we reserve the right to offend the sensibilities of those who try to kill us truly are unserious. Go to Overdoing the Outrage to read the full discussion on Sullivan.

Rumination on Race

This is a column I wrote for the local paper awhile back that I thought might be worth posting here on Viewpoint:

Periodically matters of race intrude themselves into our public discussions and often the conversation turns toward what some perceive to be a widening rift between races in this country and is accompanied by genuine agonizing over what can be done about it. Perhaps I'm naive, but I can't help wondering how much of the apparent gulf between Americans is a function of race and how much of it is actually a function of class. I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I suspect that for many people of all colors, the great social fault line in our nation runs between classes; classes as defined not by one's income, but as defined by the moral principles which inform and govern an individual's life and conduct. And surely Americans of every hue populate both sides of this divide.

Unfortunately, use of the word class distresses some who complain that it is an insidious code word for race, and that when people try to justify distinctions based on class they're really trying to rationalize old-fashioned racial bias. This criticism is valid, however, only in the unlikely event that all members of a given race hold identical moral convictions so that to mention their race is to identify their morals. Failing that, the objection reduces to the rather disingenuous ploy of defining another's words to mean whatever one wants them to mean.

Other critics will point out that in our politically correct post-modern world "everyone knows" that no individual's values are any better than anyone else's and to think otherwise is to be guilty of elitism; to which the appropriate response is: So what. In The Moviegoer, novelist Walker Percy puts it somewhat differently if no less bluntly when he has a Louisiana matriarch named Aunt Edna address herself to this very issue. She says:

"I'll make a little confession. I am not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people in my class think they're better than other people. You're damn right we're better. We're better because we do not shirk our obligations to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity's sake....Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal....They say out there that we think we're better. You're damn right we're better and don't think they don't know it."

This proud woman wasn't about to apologize for the obvious political incorrectness of her "elitist" sentiments. Neither should anyone else. Elitism based upon moral principle, so far from being some awful sin, is in fact a virtue, a salutary antidote to the epidemic of moral relativism currently infecting our culture. This may scandalize those who feel that nobody should be so chauvinistic as to think his principles to be actually better than the next person's, but the irony needs to be noted that those who feel this way evidently believe their own moral egalitarianism to be preferable to other people's moral elitism.

Aside from those enumerated by Aunt Edna, though, what exactly are the virtues which distinguish her "better" class of people? Without attempting an exhaustive list, it's probably correct to say for starters that, no matter what their race, men and women of this class take a great deal of pride in their work, their property, and their character. They assume responsiblity for their actions. They strive to be cordial, courteous, and considerate of others. They're dependable, trustworthy, and temperate, willing to defer short-term gratification for long-term benefit. They're frugal, faithful to their spouses, and committed to the well-being of their families. They are mindful of the fact that children do not raise themselves very well and that properly ushering a child into adulthood requires an enormous investment of time, energy, and self-sacrifice. They enjoy and appreciate excellence, especially in the arts and other forms of entertainment. They esteem education, especially for their children, and possess at least a modest appreciation for the life of the mind.

Why should anyone shrink from affirming the pre-eminence of these qualities and from regarding those who share them to be of superior moral timber to those who don't? And why should the social levellers among us be allowed to succeed in making people feel there is something wrong with choosing to avoid the society of those whose lives and habits are the very antithesis of these values?

It must be emphasized that this is not a matter of race or economics. People of all colors and incomes cherish these virtues and feel uncomfortable around those who don't. Indeed, it is perhaps true to say that many people who share them feel more comfortable in each other's company, regardless of their ethnicity, than they do in the company of members of their own race who don't share them. The extraordinary transracial enthusiasm for Condaleeza Rice, and Colin Powell before her, is, at least in part, an instance of this.

When people are made to feel guilty, however, for believing their convictions to be more noble than their contraries, or when substantial numbers are persuaded that the precepts one lives by are merely arbitrary preferences, none of which is any better than any other, then, as with money, the worse will inevitably drive out the better. The lowest moral classes will eventually succeed in establishing the behavioral norms of the culture, and the principles, or lack of them, which govern their own lives and which are in large measure responsible for their being lower class in the first place, will eventually percolate upward, like some toxic gas, through the rest of society. The denouement will be a social unravelling or disintegration that will substantially diminish the quality of life of everyone.

Three cheers, therefore, for Aunt Edna.