Posts Tagged ‘liberals’
In declaring his criteria for a Supreme Court nominee when Justice Souter announced his departure, Obama mentioned empathy and real world experience, in addition to a deep knowledge of the law. At the time, right wing ideologues started screeching about how the term “empathy” was merely a code word for a liberal activist judge. The fact that Obama has emphasized the importance of empathy in numerous contexts, not just with regard to the Court, was ignored. Since empathy must equal “activism,” these ever so sharp right wing talking heads were prepared to shout in unison, “gotcha.”
Sonia Sotomajor may be a left leaning centrist, but she is certainly no left wing radical. The reasons Obama gave for choosing her fall right in line with his version philosophical pragmatism, which is related to his insistence that empathy is a legitimate criterion for selecting a member of the Supreme Court. Failure to understand that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, as opposed to simply a political one, explains much of the confusion about his approach to selecting nominees and advisers. When Obama talks about the importance of experience, when he talks about consequences (as opposed to abstract principles), when he talks about fallibilism, when he talks about consultation and cooperation, and when he talks about what works, he is using well known catch phrases of this tradition. And he knows it. Unfortunately, political commentators, left, right and center, don’t.
Obama’s commitment to philosophical pragmatism was highlighted this week when he invoked the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in announcing his selection of Sotomajor. Obama and Holmes are on the same wave length in how they understand the role of law in society (and society in law). And Holmes was deeply indebted to the pragmatist tradition and counted among his closest friends the leading pragmatists of his day. ( See, “Obama: Conservative, Liberal, or Ruthless Pragmatist?”) Holmes’s most famous statement about the law is indicative of his pragmatism, and Obama cited it in order to help explain one of the most important decisions of his presidency.
So I don’t take this decision lightly. I’ve made it only after deep reflection and careful deliberation. While there are many qualities that I admire in judges across the spectrum of judicial philosophy, and that I seek in my own nominee, there are few that stand out that I just want to mention.
First and foremost is a rigorous intellect — a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions. Second is a recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge’s job is to interpret, not make, law; to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice; a respect for precedent and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand.
These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet, these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court. New York Times, May 26, 2009 (empahasis added)
“How ordinary people live,” this too has been a great concern of pragmatists, which brings us back to empathy. There is a misunderstanding about the term that stands behind many of the misguided attacks. It has two major components, and they have been conflated in the MSM. The first is the ability to, shall we say, stand in the shoes of the other guy. Obama often speaks about empathy in this way. George Herbert Mead, an important pragmatist of the early 20th Century, spoke about the importance of taking the perspective or role of the other. To function as social beings we must be able to see the world through the eyes of others. (Mead was close friends with John Dewey, perhaps the leading pragmatist of the 20th Century. Dewey’s granddaughter was Obama’s mother’s graduate school adviser.) Usually when we think of standing in the shoes of the other guy, we also think about being compassionate. This is the second component of the term. But these two aspects of empathy are not identical. We sometimes find ourselves standing in the shoes of the other guy and still not feeling very compassionate about his or her actions. But to understand this person, to make certain kinds of evaluations, which may even be negative (he’s a cold-blooded killer, and that’s what it feels like standing in his shoes), we must be able to take the perspective of this person. Yes, doing so often leads to compassion, but it doesn’t have to.
I am convinced that Obama is a sophisticated enough thinker to understand these basic features of empathy. He is not confusing justice and mercy, as several conservative pundits have claimed, when he invokes empathy as a criterion. He is not eliminating (judicious) judgment in favor of some sort of political correctness. (He specifically mentioned “impartial justice” in his remarks.) Obama has a view of the law that respects its internal “logic,” but understands that this so-called logic requires interpretive skills and a historical sensibility. It is not a transhistorical logic. In other words, there is no view from the mounatintop when dealing with human creations such as the law. Justice requires a rich understanding of legal precedent, of legal argument, but also of people and of people’s current circumstances, and for the latter, we must be able to stand in their shoes. Justice is a balancing act. It requires judgment, not simply deduction from set principles. That’s why we call those who interpret the law judges and not deducers.
For Obama, empathy and experience go hand in hand, because experience entails social interaction, and social interaction devoid of empathy is, well, inhuman, in both senses of the term (not human, not humane). The kind of justice who will best serve us on the Supreme Court is one who understands that the life of the law is not logic but experience, which in turn entails empathy.
In the aftermath of Obama’s victory it’s schadenfreude city to return to a Fox News blast from the past on the topic of why Obama is not going to be elected. Here is Hannity and crew in one of their finer moments (Bob Beckel, the Democratic strategist, is all over Hannity here):
UPDATE August 26, 2009
I just learned that Fox pulled this clip from YouTube. It’s really too bad. What I don’t get is why they seem concerned with a clip that showed their pundits making fools of themselves. I thought that this is what they thrived on.
Okay, here is my take about what has been going on in terms of Palin and McCain. The writers for the Daily Show are actually trained undercover agents. They have infiltrated the McCain/Palin campaign and have been writing speeches, talking points, and press releases. How else can one account for Palin’s statements? Seeing Russia from Alaska counts as evidence of foreign policy expertise. Who can deny that this is a beautiful piece of writing? And now there are the cows.
From The NY Times:
WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.
So when there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency.
Ms. Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages. The New York Times, Sunday, August 13th. Link
Does it get better than this? VP candidate appoints classmate, real estate agent and cow fancier, Franci Havemeister (is this a real name?), as head of State Division of Agriculture. (Did I miss something here? Agriculture=Cows.) I mean, let’s suppose this was President Palin: For Secretary of Defense: Bobby Have A’meister, friend, used car salesman, lover of Colt 45′s, and Moose hunter. Why not?
Palin and her good friend Bobby Have A’meister:
Well, there is the, “but seriously folks,” to all of this. The problem with Palin is not just that she places friendship over expertise, but that she also appears to be Nixon-like (remember his Enemies List) and Bush-like in the way in which she goes after perceived enemies. The Times article goes on to make the following point, which we have seen made in other venues.
But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.
Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.
Wow….Opponents are haters! Unfortunately this is not a corny reference to a group of aliens in a bad sci fi flick. It is Palin unfiltered. They are Haters because they are perceived to be her enemies.
What we have here is one of the oldest ethical failings in the book, and conservatives, as well as moderates and liberals, should be very concerned. In the first book of Plato’s Republic various definitions of justice are offered. All prove inadequate. One of the earliest ones to be shot down is the following:
Justice is helping friends and injuring enemies.
While this definition is pretty common in gangster-land, it reflects a poor and limited understanding of justice. Here are a few of the issues: 1) our friends may prove to be bad people; 2) there may be good individuals amongst our enemies; 3) we need intelligence and knowledge to determine who are our real friends and who our real enemies; and 4) we can injure (or do an injustice to) our friends if we don’t understand what we are doing (for example, the incompetent physician who gives his friend the wrong medicine).
It’s simpleminded in the extreme to think that we can be just by merely helping those we take to be our friends and injuring our enemies. Those who call themselves our friends may not worthy of our support. Or to take this closer to home: they may not be competent to hold the positions to which we appoint them. (From Real Estate to Agriculture Honcho via a love of cows….a friend is a friend is a friend.) It appears that Palin never considered that it might be unjust (as well as unwise) to appoint friends instead of those who have genuine expertise. After all she was climbing a ladder to break her own personal glass ceiling. She is much like Bush. And this is indeed no laughing matter. So maybe the Daily Show people are not actually behind her words.
(Yes, there are times when we may have to hurt good people, for example, when we are in a war. But we must not slip into the mentality that we are always at war or at war against our fellow Americans because they disagree with us or don’t share our values.)
One last point, the sort of mentality that I have been describing–let’s call it: loyalty fanaticism–is not confined to the head honcho. It pervades the culture of the administrations of such people. I leave you with one small example from Palin’s current administration in Alaska, which should make bloggers of all political stripes take to the barricades. (It’s from the NY Times article quoted above.)
And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.
“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”