Marshall’s Faith in the Rule of Law, and Snyder’s Guide to Resisting the Erosion of Democracy

Since my ramble last week about the different ways in which Donald Trump could break America, I have been drawn to articles which seem to be saying the same thing, only better.

Ian Millhiser’s piece ‘Democrats will botch The resistance against Trump‘ is an good example. He catalogues the ways in which democracy itself might be undermined by a president and a ruling party intent on consolidating their power. Millhiser also notes the terrible conundrum liberals face, which is that ahrence to the Rule of Law can often award power to those who are eager to undermine the Rule of Law!

We have brought a sheet of parchment and a set of abstract principles to a knife fight. We’re going to get cut.

The pedant in me wants to point out that it’s also possible to get cut by paper… but the point is important.  The article also cites the example of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who made the point that adherence to rules is crucial.

Justice Marshall taught Kagan that “it was the very existence of rules — along with the judiciary’s felt obligation to adhere to them — that best protected unpopular parties.” A liberal who casts aside the rule of law today because the cause seems just will have no ground to stand on tomorrow when the strong arm of the state is brought to bear against them.

Millhiser also links to an important post by historian Timothy Snyder, setting out a 20-point guide to defending democracy against a Trump presidency.  The list sets out the ways in which democracy can be eroded and how dictators gather power to themselves. More importantly, it also offers ways to resist.  We need to be mindful of the way politicians try to bend language and redefine what words mean (see, for example, how Republicans will try to claim a ‘mandate’ when they have none). And we should be particularly savvy and calm when some kind of terrorist atrocity occurs, as one inevitably will. 

Those in the legal profession and in law enforcement have a particular rôle to play.  Judges, lawyers and gun-carrying police officers need a strong sense of professional ethics and have faith in those principles.  

One practical thing the rest of we can and should do now is to draw attention to the different kinds of Every Day Resistance that Snyder suggests. A large part of the task is a mental one: refusing to buy in to the framing that powerful people seek to impose on any given situation.  It is a also a challenge of communication: using the platforms at our disposal to push back against shoddy thinking in the media and against the lazy non sequuntur of those in power, even if the stakes seem relatively small (that’s something I try to do with this blog).  Happily, modern technology has made us well equipped to do this.  There has been much chat recently about how social media puts us inside an opinion ‘bubble’, but remain optimistic that it can also fortify us against the mental trickery that demagogues and propagandists would play upon us, and embolden everyone to resist at moments when they must. 

Time to frame Gay Marriage as ‘Pro-Family’

The opposition to gay marriage is anti-marriage and anti-family, and should be framed as such.

It’s encouraging to see that a group of Tories have formed a campaign group in support of gay marriage. Let us hope it hastens the day when the Government put the necessary legislation in place.

At the end of 2012, I assume the Liberal Conspiracy website is not best place to make arguments for gay marriage. There is a sense of preaching to the converted. Far better that the core case is made on places like Conservative Home. But Christmas is coming, which is the perfect opportunity for us all to debate the issue with relatives or friends who may not yet be persuaded.

Over the turkey, then, you may hear a version of the tiresome talking point trotted out by Peter Bone MP over the weekend: Marriage has been defined as “between one man and one woman” for hundreds of years. This really seems to be all the opponents of gay marriage have left – a feeble call-back to historical precedent and utterly discredited religious authority. They fail to follow up with a persuasive “and this is a good thing because…” Any arguments for why exclusively heterosexual marriage might better than extending the marriage ‘franchise’ fail in the 21st Century (for example, no-one these days seriously suggests that marriage is primarily about procreation).

Second, many people try to hide behind religious reasons for their opposition. “It is Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve!” Yawn. To that soundbite, it is worth pointing out that in the Garden of Eden story, the very first thing that God says about His creation, is that man should not be alone (Gen. 2-18). By contrast, the position of the Christian churches currently requires gay people to be alone. It is a pro-loneliness, anti-Genesis position.

The prefixes “pro” and “anti” remind me of the ongoing political arguments over abortion, where the battle is over language as well as facts and values. The campaign for gay marriage needs to be similarly mindful of language. For example, the Coalition for Marriage uses the language of preservation, where in fact their policies suppress the possible number of people who can get married. The opposition to gay marriage is anti-marriage and anti-family, and should be framed as such.

Double Standards on Phone Hacking

A few quick comments on the unfolding phone hacking scandal, and what it says about the double-standards of our society and politics.

First, let us note that the images featured on the front pages of many newspapers yesterday were those of the most iconic cases of recent years. Sarah Payne, hollyandjessica, Millie Dowler, Madeline McCann: the news-stands appeared to be some macabre Abduction Hall of Fame. This is actually a dream come true for rivals of News of the World. It is the invasion of privacy of these families that the rival newspapers are keen to report, because they too know that it is images of these children that sell. And by pasting the famous images onto Page 1, I would say that they too are stepping, once more, into the grief of these families.

Meanwhile, black men and boys (the victims of inner-city stabbings that are far more common than the abduction of white school-girls) don’t seem to be mentioned in the reports. Is this because Glen Mulcaire and his News of the World handlers did not think the stories were sufficiently interesting? Or that today’s politicians and editors judge that an invasion of the privacy of (say) Damilola Taylor’s family would not sufficiently motivate the public, in a way that the Soham murders apparently do? Whichever explanation is closer to the truth, it says something unpleasant about our society and our media. It is ironic that, in expressing outrage at the practices of the tabloids, we fall back on the precisely those assumptions and values that we otherwise claim to despise.

A final note, also related to public opinion. In the chamber of the House of Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister made some throwaway comment about how the phone-hacking scandal was no longer “just about celebrities and politicians”. It is sometimes difficult to remember that both those groups are humans beings too! They deserve precisely the same protection from the law as the families of murdered schoolgirls. The Rule of Law is the Rule of Law. When it is broken, the Prime Minister’s outrage should not be contingent on who the victim is.

Update

They’re discussing similar issues in the USA too.

Update II

Now cross-posted with comments at LiberalConspiracy.org