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April 16, 2009

The Rule of Law

The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the man of manly character and of wisdom.

- Plato

Years ago on the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband took me to Europe. For two weeks we walked the streets of London, Paris, and Rome drinking in the seemingly endless panoply of magnificent testaments to human acheivement arrayed before us.

But it was a lovely Spring day in Paris that destroyed me.

In the morning we rose and walked several miles from our hotel to a tiny church depicted in our guidebook. I didn't expect much from the expedition. For days we had hiked all over the capitals of Europe; this was just one more in a procession of churches we had visited. In a way it was a pilgramage of sorts. Tucked into the pocket of my blue jeans were two St. Barbara medals. After we gawped at stained glass windows and flying buttresses, after we climbed yet another winding set of stone steps, after we read about the organ or how many years of painstaking work it had taken to produce the tapestries, only then would I look for a quiet place to kneel and light a candle against the darkness.

And from my pocket would come the medals. One in memory of a man who had taken his own life. And one for my nephew Tommy, who was fighting like mad to cling to life.

I wasn't expecting much. I was tired of jostling crowds, of being cold, of standing in line, of tramping up and down city streets. And then, unexpectedly, I stepped into a miracle: a riot of color and light. And it took my breath away.

I cannot describe it. I shall never be able to describe it adequately. It was as though I'd been transported into the enormous prism that sat on the windowsill of my bedroom when I was a little girl; the one that tossed out dancing rainbows that vanished and reappeared as the sun continued its stately march across the summer sky. As my eyes lingered on each lovingly painted detail, on meticulously planned mosaics and the gracefully carved and gilded figures of the Apostles, I found myself fighting back tears; helpless against a sudden stab of desolation which only heightened the joy and wonder in my soul.

How much work - how many lonely hours, nay centuries of backbreaking labor - had it taken to produce this tiny jewel? How many artists lived out their lives between the moment the first stone was laid upon cold ground and the last brushstroke sounded a final grace note that would reverberate for ages, no less sweet to modern ears than it was when first sounded? What kind of men had the courage - the audacity - to dream such things were possible in the 13th Century?

These were not men who needed only to flip a switch to bathe themselves in abundant light; they could not step aboard a flying metal chariot and traverse the globe in a matter of hours. They were men who fought back the gathering dark with a flickering candle flame; whose only recourse against tidal waves of disease and death was a whispered prayer, released upon the breeze.

And yet they produced miracles. Across the centuries the souls of men long dead reached out to me, asking "What will you leave to mark your brief stay upon this earth? What will you leave your children, to lift up their hearts and give them hope?"

And I had no answer to give them.

But if anyone had asked me, lo! those many years ago, what modern men have created to rival those long ago masterpieces I might have answered, "Well, for one thing, there is the rule of law".

In those days I was a housewife and mother whose hours were consumed with vital questions of which bedding plants were hardiest in the Southern sun and which values I should impart to my small sons. I existed in a halcyon world where time stretched out before me like a meandering path across an unexplored meadow. We didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions, then. But we were comfortable and the world seemed full of opportunity.

Nothing was guaranteed, mind you. Even small purchases required hours of careful planning and often the sacrifice of some other hoped-for trinket. But if we wanted something badly enough, we could have it eventually. All that was required, was the willingness to work:

The year was 1930, a down one like this one. But for Moss Hart, it was the time for his particularly American moment of triumph. He had grown up poor in the outer boroughs of New York City—“the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose,” he said—and he’d vowed that if he ever made it big he would never again ride the rattling trains of the city’s dingy subway system. Now he was 25, and his first play, Once in a Lifetime, had just opened to raves on Broadway. And so, with three newspapers under his arm and a wee-hours celebration of a successful opening night behind him, he hailed a cab and took a long, leisurely sunrise ride back to the apartment in Brooklyn where he still lived with his parents and brother.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into one of the several drab tenement neighborhoods that preceded his own, Hart later recalled, “I stared through the taxi window at a pinch-faced 10-year-old hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, and I thought of myself hurrying down the street on so many gray mornings out of a doorway and a house much the same as this one.… It was possible in this wonderful city for that nameless little boy—for any of its millions—to have a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished. Wealth, rank, or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream.”

...These are tough times for the American Dream. As the safe routines of our lives have come undone, so has our characteristic optimism—not only our belief that the future is full of limitless possibility, but our faith that things will eventually return to normal, whatever “normal” was before the recession hit. There is even worry that the dream may be over—that we currently living Americans are the unfortunate ones who shall bear witness to that deflating moment in history when the promise of this country began to wither. This is the “sapping of confidence” that President Obama alluded to in his inaugural address, the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

But let’s face it: If Moss Hart, like so many others, was able to rally from the depths of the Great Depression, then surely the viability of the American Dream isn’t in question. What needs to change is our expectation of what the dream promises—and our understanding of what that vague and promiscuously used term, “the American Dream,” is really supposed to mean.

That world no longer exists.

A world in which individuals expected their government not to impede their efforts to be successful has been replaced by one in which individuals expect government to deliver an equal measure of success - to everyone - regardless of effort. A world in which justice used to mean every man or women received what they earned has been replaced by one in which it is considered "unjust" for one man to receive less than another. The notion that income must be earned has been replaced by the idea that income should be distributed equally, regardless of effort.

Anything less would be "unfair". But the most pernicious idea of all is that our temporary comfort supercedes the rule of law; that contracts may be set aside, private property may be subsumed by the State, and the freedom of individuals to make decisions (wise or unwise) regarding their own affairs must be subordinated to the judgment of the crowd, for their "greater good". In our never ending search for security, we allowed our affairs to become so intertwined that the mistakes of one man threaten the welfare of all.

So sayeth Barack Obama. But his world view, seductive though it may be, is fatally flawed:

Two premises about human beings are at the heart of the social democratic agenda: What I will label “the equality premise” and “the New Man premise.”

The equality premise says that, in a fair society, different groups of people—men and women, blacks and whites, straights and gays, the children of poor people and the children of rich people—will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life—the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs. When that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society. For the last 40 years, this premise has justified thousands of pages of government regulations and legislation that has reached into everything from the paperwork required to fire someone to the funding of high school wrestling teams. Everything that we associate with the phrase “politically correct” eventually comes back to the equality premise. Every form of affirmative action derives from it. Much of the Democratic Party’s proposed domestic legislation assumes that it is true.

Within a decade, no one will try to defend the equality premise. All sorts of groups will be known to differ in qualities that affect what professions they choose, how much money they make, and how they live their lives in all sorts of ways. Gender differences will be first, because the growth in knowledge about the ways that men and women are different is growing by far the most rapidly. I’m betting that the Harvard faculty of the year 2020 will look back on the Larry Summers affair in the same way that they think about the Scopes trial—the enlightened versus the benighted—and will have achieved complete amnesia about their own formerly benighted opinions.

There is no reason to fear this new knowledge. Differences among groups will cut in many different directions, and everybody will be able to weight the differences so that their group’s advantages turn out to be the most important to them. Liberals will not be obliged to give up their concerns about systemic unfairnesses. But groups of people will turn out to be different from each other, on average, and those differences will also produce group differences in outcomes in life, on average, that everyone knows are not the product of discrimination and inadequate government regulation.

And a void will have developed in the moral universe of the Left. If social policy cannot be built on the premise that group differences must be eliminated, what can it be built upon? It can be built upon the restoration of the premise that used to be part of the warp and woof of American idealism: people must be treated as individuals. The success of social policy is to be measured not by equality of outcomes for groups, but by open, abundant opportunity for individuals. It is to be measured by the freedom of individuals, acting upon their personal abilities, aspirations, and values, to seek the kind of life that best suits them.

Left unspoken in all of this is that the freedom to pursue our individual interests necessarily includes the freedom to fail.

Often miserably. But a government that views individual failures as an economic injustice - as signs the "system", rather than the individual, has failed - incents all the wrong behavior. It rewards immoral and inefficient decisions and punishes industry and virtue. Instinctively, we know this. And yet conservatives seem oddly unable to articulate this home truth because we have allowed ourselves to become ashamed of that which should make us proud: we have allowed ourselves to feel guilty for successfully competing with our fellow men.

We have allowed an ethic of rights to be replaced by an ethic of care. The problem inherent in this should be obvious, but it is not: rights are blind. The notion of rights applies - or ought to apply - to everyone regardless of skin color, intelligence, gender, religion or ethnicity. We make laws, not because laws can perfect human nature, but because human nature is imperfect. Laws - and the rights they protect - act to restrain the all too human impulse to favor our own against the outsider; to treat one person differently than another; to selectively reward and punish or to do to others what we would consider intolerable if done to us:

Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina, said the protesters engaged in "de facto censorship."

Rudinger said Tancredo had a right to express his views about immigration as much as students at N.C. State had the right to paint racist remarks about President Barack Obama on a campus tunnel.

"Censorship is not the answer to hate speech. Hate speech is protected by the Constitution," Rudinger said.

Perhaps the most disturbing result of this election has been the way an historic but hardly unprecedented clash of values has caused people on both sides of the political spectrum to jettison every principle they have held dear; to allow fear and anger to transform them into what they hate. For as long as I can remember, both the Left and the Right have considered themselves morally superior to their opponents.

This is hardly surprising: if your actions conform to your ideals, you should believe you are acting "better" than those whose values differ from yours. But suddenly the Left, who raged against supposedly disrespectful characterizations of their disagreement with the Bush administration, see nothing wrong with calling conservatives "insane". Name calling is not an argument. It refutes nothing and asserts only that the speaker has been reduced to inarticulate and inchoate rage.

The Left, whose constant fear mongering about the loss of our civil rights oxymoronically filled the airwaves for the past 8 years, now gleefully assert that conservatives don't deserve the same civil rights they demand for themselves. Apparently if you disagree with an idea, it's OK to shout it down; to cut off debate if you find it unpleasant. The irony here is palpable. These are the same folks who argued that dissent is the lifeblood of a democratic society, and yet they don't scruple to suppress dissent they disagree with.

They assert that all truth is subjective. There is no right and wrong, but merely perspectives and lifestyle choices filtered through our life experiences. But certain perspectives are more equal than others. The conservative perspective, for instance, must not be tolerated because they don't share it. That this uniquely subjective world view could all too easily be used against them seems not to matter. Freedom is not an unalloyed good - only they deserve to be free.

And if they must use tactics they have deplored for the past 8 years to score points, so be it:

Protesting government spending is meaningless unless you say what you'd cut.

If you favor no bailouts, then say so. If you want to see the banking system collapse, then say so. If you think the recession demands no fiscal stimulus, then say so. If you favor big cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, social security and defense, then say so. I keep waiting for Reynolds to tell us what these protests are for; and he can only spin what they they are against.

All protests against spending that do not tell us how to reduce it are fatuous pieces of theater, not constructive acts of politics. And until the right is able to make a constructive and specific argument about how they intend to reduce spending and debt and borrowing, they deserve to be dismissed as performance artists in a desperate search for coherence in an age that has left them bewilderingly behind.

This is nonsense on stilts. The Right have advocated cuts in entitlement spending and a scaling back of the federal government for years. As I noted yesterday, George Bush was attacked just as vigorously by his own party for increasing the deficit as he was by the Left for going to war with Iraq. Defending your principles by resorting to outright lies and silly demands that your opponents make defending them easier for you begins to look like desperation. There is no requirement for your opponents to reduce multiple and complex issues to a single, easily attackable position simply because you lack the intellectual firepower to deal with their actual complaints.

But the Right is not much better. Suddenly, the very tactics that raised howls of outrage when the Left employed them against us have been dusted off and prettied up to make them palatable. Ugly personal attacks against the wives and families of liberal politicians are excused and even applauded. We rush to defend those who cynically seize on any pretext to score political points:

... by the way, the Somali merchant marine organizers have hijacked four more ships today, four more ships have been hijacked.

It was three earlier today. They've hijacked an additional one now for a total of four today. ... of course, we predicted this yesterday. While bestowing upon Obama all the brilliance and credit he deserved for a brilliant operation, we were very much concerned here that this kind of action against three young teenagers, black Muslim teenagers on the high seas could anger the pirates, merchant marine organizers even more and heighten and increase hijack activity. The left itself warned us of this in Iraq, they said all we're doing is creating more terrorists. So apparently we've created more hijackings on the high seas, in the Gulf of Aden by teenaged black Muslims, the merchant marine organizers.

We criminalize policy differences and seek to prevent our own government agencies from doing their jobs:

The irony here has gone from funny to tragic. The last gasp of rationalization the conservative flame throwers have for their anger is the DHS report was vague (and as we learned, [it] was made vague by other Feds asking that certain groups not be named for valid reasons). Through this rational[e] the right is now throwing vague and unsubstantiated charges (in fact, the evidence proves they are completely wrong), claiming DHS vagueness is a license for them to be vague when they smear.

I understand the angst and ire caused by the title of that report.

But I read it yesterday, along with a similar report from 2001 detailing the threat from left-wing extremists. I read that, for instance, that this report unfairly smeared veterans.

I've been affiliated with the military all my life. I grew up in a career Navy family and married a career Marine from another career Navy family. Both my Grandfathers served in the Army. My uncle was a Marine and my husband's uncle was in the Army in Vietnam. My brother in law is career Navy. So I'm hardly insensitive to the constant attempts of the press to demonize vets.

But the fact of the matter is, although the number of vets who join extremist groups is no larger than that in the general population, those few who do join such groups are not just highly sought after, but are generally awarded prominent positions due to their military training and expertise with weapons. Vets who join extremist groups are prized because they lend an air of legitimacy to a shady enterprise. Their influence is far disproportionate to their numbers in such groups and DHS is right to examine the phenomenon.

As I remarked in a private conversation on this matter yesterday, crowds - especially angry ones - don't do nuance well and it's not helpful when conservatives intentionally use shoddy and embarrassing work to discredit analysis that is, in and of itself, not at all objectionable. Even the military is concerned about that small element of veterans who tend to extremism. Only a fool pretends it doesn't exist, and only a fool pretends an extremist with combat experience and specialized weapons or explosives training isn't more dangerous than your garden variety extremist-off-the-street. The same kind of analysis was produced by Bush-era law enforcement agencies. Did conservatives go hermitile then?

Of course they didn't.

What the DHS was doing is called profiling: a well known law enforcement practice conservatives used to defend - when it was used against Islamists or young black men, both with good reason. The logical fallacy involved with criticisms of profiling is the careless - and wrong - equivalence that saying terrorists tend to fit a certain profile equates to calling all people who fit that profile, terrorists. We made fun of that sort of thinking a few years ago. What has changed?

The hypocrisy of condemning proactive research and profiling now - in the complete absence of any evidence that they have been abused - with a bunch of PC nonsense only proves that it isn't only the Left who are perfectly willing to jettison their principles when their sacred oxen are gored.

Conservatives would be better off using this golden opportunity to remind the American public of the little publicized abuses of surveillance during the Clinton administration, its misuse of the FBI, or of Obama's use of law enforcement and mob tactics to silence its critics during the last election. These tactics use proven evidence of past misconduct to encourage heightened vigilance rather than criminalizing imagined policy abuses which may never occur.

Rules of conduct and ethical standards aren't just for the Left - if we claim to uphold them, we must uphold them all the way, regardless of who is held to account. We can't selectively cherry pick standards that prove "useful" while maintaining any degree of credibility.

And that is what lost us the last election: the loss of trust in conservative ideas. We don't rebuild that trust by violating our own principles in the name of expediency. Everyone likes to win.

We're going to have to decide whether it profits us to win the next election if, in so doing, we lose our souls.

I disagree - vehemently - with the direction this administration is taking at home and abroad. But undermining respect for legitimate authority and impeding the administration of essential government functions doesn't strike me as the kind of enduring legacy I want to leave my children and grandchildren. We used to be a nation of laws and standards - imperfectly realized perhaps, but what we do not aim for, we have little chance of achieving.

Believing in something greater than ourselves has fallen out of fashion, these days. Again and again in my travels, I have glimpsed greatness in the achievements of our forefathers that I hold little hope of seeing from my own generation. But if all we can do is to maintain what they left us, at least we can maintain it honestly; with integrity and faithfulness to the principles which make possible our peaceful and prosperous existence.

Like it or not, we are the keepers of the fragile, flickering flame that holds back the darkness. That flame is respect for the rule of law. What a shame it would be if we allowed it to go out.

Posted by Cassandra at April 16, 2009 07:07 AM

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Tea Party Slide Show.


Posted by: Ree at April 16, 2009 09:49 AM

Faith supplies riches beyond imagination.

Posted by: spd rdr at April 16, 2009 10:54 AM

"And I had no answer to give them."

No, you're wrong. You have already given your children and grandchildren something more valuable, more sustainable than even these masterpieces. You have given them your thoughts, your beliefs, your convictions -- your words. Through them they know YOU -- even those who will only know of you as great-great grandma will be able to read your words and know who you were and what you stood for. They will know your humour and your biting snarkasm. Your love for your family, and the devotion to the love of your life.

Truly a legacy beyond compare, my friend.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 16, 2009 11:35 AM

and above all the majesty of the human spirit!

Not a bad legacy, all things considered...

Posted by: vet66 at April 16, 2009 11:57 AM

I'd rather not delve in the dark storm clouds of today, and keep it in the majesty of L'Île de la Cité. For close to a year, I lived up the road from there in Le Marais.

Today I'll try to stay in that happy place. Thanx Cass.

Posted by: Boquisucio at April 16, 2009 12:37 PM

What the Dark Lord said M'lady.

Best regards,

Posted by: bthun at April 16, 2009 12:43 PM

That's why I chose to separate the two, Boq :)

Posted by: Cassandra at April 16, 2009 12:55 PM

Re: St Chapelle
My humanities professor neighbor tells me that the brilliant blue stained glass there is a lost art--no one can reproduce it and there have been plenty have tried.

Posted by: tabitharuth at April 16, 2009 01:14 PM

It is amazing to me how many techniques for making things we've lost, and can't recover despite all the technology available to us today.

It has also occurred to me many times that poverty, illness and misery (and the impulse to rise above them) have been responsible for many of the greatest achievements of mankind. So what does that say for the Obama administration's oft-professed desire to eliminate suffering and want?

Posted by: Cassandra at April 16, 2009 01:21 PM

Cassandra, is there a video at the "I stepped into a miracla link", or only the music...I get a QuickTime window, but nothing shows up.

Posted by: david foster at April 16, 2009 01:44 PM

"To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law -- a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security"

--spoken by a character in Walter Miller's great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Posted by: david foster at April 16, 2009 01:46 PM

I love religious art...especially of the medieval period. In a way, that was a time of exploration as well, where different disciplines of masonry, carpentry and glassworking came together as a fit setting for the Spirit of God.

What minds couldn't dream of the impossible or believe in miracles in a place of beauty?

Isn't that why we strive to have our houses clean and orderly as well as lovely? So that we think and impart the very best? As well as have a restful, peaceful place to shelter us?

Posted by: Cricket at April 16, 2009 01:51 PM

Yes, it's a virtual tour of the church. I had to download QuickTime in order to see it, though.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 16, 2009 02:22 PM

We're drinking the same tea today, Missy.

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at April 16, 2009 04:48 PM

"Tea -- the antidote to Kool-Aid."

Posted by: BillT at April 16, 2009 05:42 PM

Then again, we can give 'em all Chamomile, and put them all to sleep. Sleeping dogs cause no trouble.

Posted by: Boquisucio at April 16, 2009 05:58 PM

...the brilliant blue stained glass there is a lost art--no one can reproduce it and there have been plenty have tried.

Copper oxides mixed sparingly with cobalt produces the blue color, but medieval craftsmen couldn't extract pure cobalt -- the ore was always used in its bismuth matrix. The refining and oxidizing process results in a powder which continually releases a gaseous oxide of arsenic. Medieval artisans tended to go through a lot of apprentices.

Perhaps the reason the exact formula for recreating that blue is that they're using the purified metals -- but using the metals as they would have been used in the Middle Ages would require researchers willing to die for their art...

Posted by: BillT at April 16, 2009 06:22 PM

Either that or wear enviro suits.

Posted by: Cricket at April 16, 2009 07:38 PM

Cassandra, I am reading your essay in small doses. There is much meat and I am still digesting 'freedom to fail.'

When I started taking college classes a year ago, I got a Rude Awakening. My college advisors were switched on me and I didn't get all the help I *should* have had in learning how to post and how different classrooms are set up online. Incentive was to learn, through throwing myself on the mercy of my professor, and I have maintained an A average in my last five classes. I am scared to fail, and I am not afraid to succeed, although in some ways, it is just as scary. Oh, what was my grade average in the previous four? A B+.

I think the fear of failure is as much of an incentive in success as any other support system simply because if I fail in school, I can't retake those classes and have the record expunged.

So, I have begun dancing with the bear.


Posted by: Cricket at April 16, 2009 07:52 PM

That was truly inspirational. It's awesome enough in Quicktime - it must be magnificent in person.

Now try to imagine what it must have loked like to the first visitors, around the year 1250.

To build the Sainte-Chapelle - two years.

I was so taken in by the music, I didn't notice for a while that it is a Quicktime movie.

You covered a lot of ground today, but for the time being, I'll stay in the Chapelle.

What sort of men built that? What sort built Notre Dame, built the one in Strasbourg? Certianly men bigger than we are.

Posted by: ZZMike at April 16, 2009 10:23 PM

Just last weeek, one of my students and I discussed "What is Art?" He claimed it was whatever human creation he said it was; I said it had to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes.

I'm showing him this link...

Also, I read years ago in a book that "tears are a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit." That has always seemed true for me.

Posted by: goddessoftheclassroom at April 17, 2009 06:47 AM

Every year in February I talk to the parents of the young Scouts crossing over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. When discussing the difference between the two programs I tell them that one of the main ones is that in Boy Scouts we let the boys fail.

We let them fail safely, mind you. We'll let them burn their food and face a short dinner for a while. But a cobbler will magically be cooked in the campfire so that they've got food in their stomachs before they go to sleep. We'll let them forget to put the dining fly up so that when it rains the picnic table and the cooking gear will be soaked. Up to now Mom and (to a much lesser extent) Dad have chased after them, putting padding on the soccer goal posts and doing everything they can to make sure that their kids never fail at anything.

We don't. We let them fail. Why? Because you don't learn through success that succeeded because nobody let you fail. You learn when you fail and then try again and succeed. You learn that the proper response to failure is not to avoid every trying to do that again but to work hard, find out what you did wrong, and then try again and succeed. You learn that failure is what teaches you how to succeed.

This is not universally well received. I get a lot of fearful looks. I get a lot of scowls. People have been known to walk out with their kids and not come back after hearing this talk. For years they've been ensuring that their kid never fails so that his self-esteem is built up. I tell them point-blank that self-esteem is earned, not given, and it's earned through work and effort. Lots of soccer moms can't process that.

Posted by: RonF at April 17, 2009 11:56 AM

RonF You've said a mouthful. You're absolutely right. I do hope that Scouting keeps going strong.

The only person who never made a mistake is the one who has done nothing.

Posted by: ZZMike at April 17, 2009 08:43 PM

Lots of soccer moms can't process that.

Heh... :)

You should have seen a few of them when my boys were in Scouts. Their troop let them use chainsaws (supervised, of course) and sharp knives [shudder]. It was run by a retired GySgt and the boys adored him.

But one thing he wasn't, was Mom-friendly. They were learning to be men and that was fine with me. I trusted him with my sons.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 17, 2009 08:49 PM