Monday, January 21, 2013

The Dream, the Garden, and the Arc of Moral Justice

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (he of the quite spectacular mustache (and as those of you who know me are aware, I know a thing or two about mustaches),  rightly condemned as a vicious racist, author of Buck v. Bell which is of a piece with Dred Scott and Plessy as one of the most appalling opinions in the history of the Court.

That's him on the left.

Holmes is also, of course, revered as the great defender of the First Amendment for his dissent in Abrams v. United States:
But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.
That's grand and sweeping language, akin in force, and far more eloquent, than Justice Black's starkly simple and absolute
No law means no law.
Holmes probably believed what he wrote in Abrams, just as he believed what her wrote in Schenck v. United States when he said that the Constitution offered no protection for 
falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
Which was how he determined for a unanimous Court that Schenck had no first amendment protection for a pamphlet urging conscripts to resist the draft.  Cause, gee, there was a war going on.
When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.
All of which is my roundabout (very roundabout) way of approaching the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
It's a fine sentiment, though god knows it's pretty much entirely devoid of meaning.  Oh, what he had in mind is clear enough.  A rough translation would be something like
In time the things I believe in will come to pass.
But if that's what it means (and it is), than it means nothing.  King said it.  But if graced with a similarly poetic and allusive turn, Stalin could as readily have said it, or Hitler, or Rick Perry.  And meant it as surely.  Certainly Holmes could have.

The problem, of course, is that justice means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.  So
And who's to say.

It's not that the slaveholders thought themselves bad people.

And Abraham thought it perfectly proper for him to murder his son just because some voice in his head he believed to be god told him to.

Which is not to say that King's conception of justice was wrong - or even doubtful.  Insofar as I understand the term, my sense of it probably isn't much different than his was.  But words are fleeting and inherently ambiguous.  They do a horrible job conveying ideas.  Humpty Dumpty's declaration 
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less
while extreme, is the essence of the problem.

What are we to make of Alexander Pope from the end of the Epistle I of his Essay on Man?
Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heaven bestows on thee.
Submit.  In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.
Is the universe less than 10,000 years old or is it billions?

And yet we believe with King, even if his words can be used to deny all that he believed. 
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Because we must believe that. As Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young sang
We've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

The "Cover Story" in today's USA Today is titled:
The 'Obama effect on race in politics: Not a whole lot
And it's sub-head:
His election has inspired more African Americans to run - but they aren't more likely to win
As they say,
La plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose
Which brings me back to Holmes.  The good Holmes.  The Holmes not of the theater or the war or the racism or the conviction that 
Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
But the Holmes of the marketplace of ideas where, he assumed and declared that the Constitution assumed, truth (whatever that might be) would win out. It's a lovely thought, though - and I suppose this may have something to do with what one believes the truth to be - perhaps belied on a daily basis by experience.*

See, the words convey the ideas even if obscurely, through a glass darkly as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13.  And the ideas - blurry, fuzzy, ambiguous though they may be - they're powerful things.  And the words inspire.

Which is what King knew and understood.  The power and the force of language.

Today, the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., is also the day Barak Obama will celebrate his second inauguration as president.  

To those who expected that he would champion the underdog, restore civil liberties, close Gitmo, turn us away from the Law of Rule to the Rule of Law, to those who saw in him the archer who would bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, that first term was a grave disappointment.  That, of course, is the danger of believing in saviors.  They'll disappoint you every time.

Yet we have an African American who has now twice been elected President.  Who has declared (however grudgingly) that he thinks that there's a constitutional right to same sex marriage although the states have a right to refuse it (Huh? Yep.) Those are no small things, even if they're less than lucid.  Even if the guy's just a status quo centrist who won't take on the real power structures in this country - who's in fact wedded to them. 

But the ideas, that's something else.  The arc of the moral universe.  


And the dream.

*That instrumental argument, even if it were true, wouldn't make a terribly good case for free speech.  The far better argument is that it's a value in itself because with free speech comes the opportunity to think freely.  Naturally, those who believe bad thoughts should be prohibited - and those folks come of all political stripes, by the way - also believe in restricting free speech.  That's the problem with the instrumental argument.  It encourages crushing free speech in the name of whichever truth one happens to believe.
But it should be.

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