Monday, April 2, 2012

Taking Back the Country

At the dawning of my awareness of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren was Chief Justice. Perhaps I remember him so vividly because of the yard signs and bumper stickers in my native South urging his impeachment. The idea that a Supreme Court Justice could be impeached for writing opinions people didn’t like seemed both ludicrous and thrilling. Ludicrous because even then I knew that it was the Supreme Court’s job to tell us hard truths, things we might not want to hear but were essential to our being a great nation of freedom and opportunity. Thrilling because I also knew (in a kind of smug, elitist way) that if the rednecks in pickup trucks plastered with Confederate flags and those impeachment exhortations wanted to lynch Earl Warren (and indeed, if you asked them, that’s what they really wanted), he must be doing something damned good.

"Do you think we'd look better
in black robes?"
The Supreme Court of the fifties and sixties was a guiding force for progressive policy. The country came along reluctantly. From my vantage point in a decidedly unprogressive part of the country, it seemed right that that should be the Court’s role. No one else I knew was going to do it, certainly not the white men at the nearby country club whose principal interaction with blacks was being served by them. I just assumed this was the way progress was made, through the gentle and wise leadership of nine wise men (yes, it’s true, in those days I didn’t notice there were no women on the Court). I didn’t yet know about the Court of the Roosevelt era that tried to derail the New Deal. I hadn’t yet read Plessey vs. Ferguson.

I so took for granted that the Court would always be progressive that I didn’t think too much about it when Earl Warren left the bench and after him the other lions of his era--Marshall, Brennan, Douglas—who spoke to our national conscience and called upon us to be mindful of those who did not have within their grasp the levers of political or economic power. I should have been paying closer attention, for now it seems I have awakened from a dream and someone has done what President Roosevelt famously tried and failed to do: packed the Court. Someone went back to the bar at the country club in my old town and pointed to four smug guys sitting at a table in the corner and said, Come on boys, let’s go to Washington and make us some law. They slipped on their robes (black, for a change) and slapped each other on the back, maybe exchanged a wink, and took their places on the bench.

What do you think might happen if a bunch of good old boys got a big block on the Court? We don’t have to guess, do we. Forget about affirmative action. Forget about gun control. If they have their way, I’d say we can probably also forget about abortions and expanded health-care coverage. Oh, and you know that little thing called the Voting Rights Act? That might not apply to you if you’re Hispanic and don’t have your papers in order.

Among the most frightful of the decisions already rendered or worriedly anticipated, however, is Citizens United. Frightful for the effect the Super PACs it spawned will have on our democracy, perhaps even more frightful for what it says about the worldview of the conservative block on the Court. Actually, it’s not right to grant those four men the intellectual credential “conservative.” Conservatives respect precedent. These old boys are anything but conservative. They are the modern KKK, riding down from Stone Mountain to take back this country for the people to whom it should belong.

There could be no other reason for such an obdurately wrongheaded decision. Certainly not precedent. The decision upended a hundred years of judicial precedent. Certainly not regard for democracy. No one denies that money corrupts politics. Opening campaign finance coffers to unlimited donations from corporations will undeniably lead to greater corporate influence over the legislative agenda. And how did the Justices arrive at their opinion? By saying that the first amendment protects the right of the people to free speech, that money is speech (see above), and, as everyone knows, that corporations are people.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. Perhaps this is just part of the long cycle of steps forward, steps back, steps sideways. I guess I had my hopes up, though, and now, like a boy at Christmas with lumps of coal in his stocking, I’m taking it hard. I thought Jim Crow was behind us. I see now he is not. Not his old literal self. He’s gotten wilier. His signs no longer hang over rust-stained water fountains. They don’t say “colored only.” Now they hang over the doors to Congress, and they say "rich white people only."

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written. I'd say the best modern day examples of the Jim Crow era would be in the black community. Look at the race hustling of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson over the Trayvon Martin incident. Reverse the colors and it'll remind you of the white lynch mobs of the early 20th century. Thomas Sowell said 'racism would go away if we'd just shut up about it' I agree. It would be nice if we could focus only on our humanity, and all other differences simply went unnoticed.