Newt Gingrich, the GOP and “Selective Defiance”

For all their cries of executive overreach in the Obama Administration, today’s GOP hopefuls seem to be in the mood for a little presidential muscle-flexing themselves. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann have led a campaign against the powers of the federal judiciary this year, going so far as promising to disregard “unfavorable” federal court rulings. As Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

” At a debate Tuesday night sponsored by the antiabortion group Personhood USA, [GOP] candidates were asked how they would respond to a Supreme Court ruling overturning a law that declared life begins at conception.

“Obviously, you enforce the right to life,” answered Texas Gov. Rick Perry, according to news accounts.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said it was time for Congress and the president to “reclaim that authority to make law…The Supreme Court can’t arbitrarily tell us what the law of the land is.”

That position dovetailed with the views Gingrich has espoused in recent weeks, calling for an end to “judicial supremacy” on subjects such as abortion, gay rights, school prayer and national security. He has proposed forcing federal judges to justify their rulings before Congress, impeaching and removing them from office for wayward decisions, abolishing their courts and selectively defying their rulings.”

Every so often, a politician makes a statement so ridiculous and patently hypocritical, that any critique is self-evident, so I’ll confine myself to two observations. Firstly, in asserting that the executive branch should have the power to “selectively defy” federal court rulings, Gingrich and Co. have staked a position entirely foreign to our political culture. It isn’t a conservative position, and it certainly isn’t liberal a position; in fact, it simply has no business in a liberal democracy under the rule of law.

As much as I hate the demagogic phrase “un-American,” I cannot imagine a more apt time to use it.

This leads me to my second observation—ideological consistency regarding the proper scope of federal court authority has never been the GOP’s strong suit. For instance, one need look no further than the Republican reaction to the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, in which the Court overturned the city’s ban on handguns. As GOP presidential contender John McCain stated at the time,

“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom in the United States. For this first time in the history of our Republic, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was and is an individual right as intended by our Founding Fathers. I applaud this decision as well as the overturning of the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and limitations on the ability to use firearms for self-defense…Today’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller makes clear that other municipalities like Chicago that have banned handguns have infringed on the constitutional rights of Americans…today, the Supreme Court ended forever the specious argument that the Second Amendment did not confer an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

A state legislature democratically enacts a law and the Supreme Court is justified in overturning it? There’s no explanation for such brazen cognitive dissonance aside from the conclusion that the GOPers aren’t really concerned with debating the philosophical issues surrounding Supreme Court authority; they want to impose a specific ideology, using whatever means necessary and without regard for legality or jurisprudence.

Of course, one might object that such is simply the nature of politics regardless of party, and one would be partially correct. W need look no further than the absurd debate surrounding the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act (in which Republicans argued in favor of an expanded gun rights bill on the basis of federal authority while Democrats argued against it on the basis of state’s rights) to see that neither side cares about legal process as much as implementing a specific agenda. But before we begin assigning false equivalence, I’d like to posit that the kind of political doublespeak coming from the GOP on the issue is particularly bald-faced and audacious.

Let’s rewind to the third presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, for, as Jon Stewart puts it, a moment of Zen:

SCHIEFFER:…Senator McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama, you believe it shouldn’t. Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: I would never and have never in all the years I’ve been there imposed a litmus test on any nominee to the court. That’s not appropriate to do.

SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone — even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.”

How convenient.

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After the Tucson Shooting: An Interview with Sarah Palin

My latest cartoon is an attempt to tell Sarah Palin all the things I’ve been thinking since the Tucson Shootings.

Yes, our polarized media obsessively apportions blame to each opposing side, and yes, many astute observers have rightly pointed out that this picture is more complicated than that of an ideologically driven psychopath carrying out a political assassination.

As Charles M. Blow of the New York Times writes, “The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.”

But, to Mr. Blow, I would retort, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

The fact of the matter is that human psychology monstrously complex. While it seems for now that ideology and/or partisan vitriol was not the primary motivating factor behind Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, we cannot be sure what effect a public discourse rife with fear-mongering and violent rhetoric might have on a conspiratorial and paranoid mind.

And our political discourse is certainly rife with violent rhetoric—from Glenn Beck’s incessant end-of-times ramblings, to the ludicrous chicken-little-esque “death panel” scare, to Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies“, to all the ways in which guns and politics are poisonously intertwined in our politics, to of course, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs (list shortened for lack of infinite space).

None of this is meant to diminish the guilt that lies squarely on the shoulders of Jared Lee Loughner. Sarah Palin is right to point out, a la Ronald Reagan, that “we must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. ” But guilt and responsibility are not always equivalent.

Sarah Palin and the voices that have contributed to our explosive political discourse are not guilty of perpetrating the Tucson murders, but their contribution does carry with it a certain level of responsibility.

In content, implication and reception, we are responsible for what we say. Words are powerful, and have effects that reach far beyond their original conception. In mature public discussion, our opinion makers should ask themselves, “based on my position of power, what part might I have played in this event?” “Have I contributed to the atmosphere of fear and violence which may have influenced this troubled mind?”

As Jeffrey Winbush astutely writes,

“where does Palin take responsibility for the gun sights trained on the districts of Democratic representatives, including that of Giffords? Where was Palin’s concession that perhaps “Don’t retreat — reload!” might not have been the best way to get her point across?…Palin uses loaded words and images and then tries to act surprised when they blow up. No, she didn’t pull the trigger in Arizona, and I wasn’t expecting her to issue a half-assed apology, but she could have expressed a little less of the “Why is everybody picking on me?” whine and a lot more of the “Let’s set aside our differences and come together as Americans to help the victims and start the healing.” She could have done that, but she decided to stick to her guns. As usual, it’s all about Sarah.”

If Mrs, Palin and other opinion makers mentioned in this article had a smidgen of self-awareness, they would realize that what is being asked of them is not an admission of guilt—this is not an issue of hard forensic evidence vs. groundless speculation. What is being asked of them is merely a bit of humility, introspection and the integrity attendant a developed sense of personal responsibility.

The Ground Zero “Mosque,” Double Standards and the Limits of Strict Constitutionalism

The Ground Zero mosque controversy has highlighted a fundamental question relating to the nature and shortcomings of our constitutional system–is that which is constitutional always ethical as well?

Consider the following remarks made by opponents of the Cordoba Center project during the talking-head torrent following Obama’s remarks:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “what I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Or these comments from Republican strategist Ed Rollins on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” , “Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York.”

Or finally, the ever eloquent Sarah Palin, who put it succinctly, “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?”

They have the right, but do they have the should? Whether you’re stewing in outrage over the Supreme court decision Citizens United vs. FEC or simply watching a popcorn lawyer flick, we’ve all experienced the aggravating reality when that which is sanctioned as legal or constitutional often seems immoral or just plain wrong.

And as the bard says, herein lies the rub inherent in our constitutional system; We only have two possible options from which to choose in solving a social dilemma–legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. What is lost in this kind of legal structure is the human element; the ability to solve our differences by listening to each others’ stories, pains and experiences and coming to a mutually agreeable common ground.

The kind of listening Rep. King speaks of when he says, in spite of the legality of the Cordoba Center, we “should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people” is exactly the kind of listening that is made impossible when one side of the argument is deemed unconstitutional, for is there anything more invalidating and disqualifying to one’s entire belief structure than the label “unconstitutional”? What dignity is left to salvage when ones opinions are so thoroughly judged as ill-fitting to society. Unconstitutionality, it seems, is the modern form of exile.

Thus, the opponents of the Cordoba Center have made a valid point, and one which deserves the respect of audience. The right of Muslims to build a community center and place of worship two blocks from Ground Zero is unquestionable, but before we rush off into framing the issue as one of right and constitutionality, why don’t we slow down and listen to the concerns of the community first. After all, if the Center’s stated aim is to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths within the pluralist American society, how can we hope to achieve this aim if our starting point is one of mutual antagonism rather than mutual empathy?

…But there’s still something about this issue that sticks in my proverbial craw– something a bit sketchy and cynical about Conservatives like King, Cornyn and Palin making the argument for empathy over constitutionality in this particular instance. Conservatives have opportunistically applied this standard of judgment at a time when it best supports their ideological position.

Consider Rep. Kings statements once again:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Now let’s give it a little makeover:

“All Americans have…the right to right to bear arms and they have the right utilize their second amendment liberties if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Where is the Conservative sense of empathetic listening above strict constitutionality when it comes to the cries of victims and families of gun violence? Why is it more permissible to “refudiate” Muslim’s first amendment rights when it comes to the wishes of the victims of Islamic extremism than to abridge second amendment rights in light of those who have fallen by the gun?

Obviously there’s an absurdity here; we can’t disregard the Constitution in favor of bowing to popular opinion without ceasing to be a liberal society of law and order, checks and balances. But we also can’t have a coherent political discourse if our parties are allowed to choose an ethical standard du jour.

The goal of a Constitutional system should be to incorporate within a strict legal framework, a social generosity that, as Romand Coles writes, “elaborates itself…in dialogues torn between different sensibilities and visions of the future; a generosity torn between, on the one hand, the pursuit of what appear to be among the best political directions, principles and practices that have been illuminated thus far…and, on the other…the radical need to listen attentively to the voices and visions that come from places it cannot or has not yet illuminated.”

Such an incorporation might allow our society to find more inclusive ways to solve trenchant social dilemmas; it might indeed allow us to “listen to the deep wounds and anguish” of “so many good people” without necessarily having to appeal to antagonistic legalities. But if all this is just a possibility, one thing is for certain–such a potential will never come to fruition if we use the ethical standard of empathetic listening not for the sake of community strengthening, but for the sake of blind political opportunism.