Roger’s Rules

Adventures in empathy, with an excursion on today's funniest headline and (added bonus) a trip down memory lane

First the headline. It came to us this morning courtesy of RealClearPolitics:

“Will Obama Move the Court Leftwards?”

The question, for anyone just waking up after a long sleep, is prompted by David Souter’s announcement that he plans to retire from the Supreme Court when this session ends.

“Will Obama Move the Court Leftwards?”

In fairness, I should point out that the headline was perfected by the editors at RealClearPolitics. The original story at The New New Republic‘s weblog that featured a much more pedestrian title: “After Souter: Will Obama Move the Court?” That piece, by Tom Goldstein, is an informative, left-leaning, “progressive” reflection on likely candidates to replace Justice Souter. An Hispanic? Maybe, but Obama’s popularity there obviates pandering to that interest group. A female? “It has to be a woman,” Goldstein opines. “The gender imbalance on the Court is absurd. . . .”

If, like me, you find that your first response to that alleged absurdity is to ask “Really? Why? Why is it ‘absurd’ that there are more men than women on the Supreme Court? Why?” then you, too, may qualify for lifetime membership in the right-wing conspiracy formerly known as “vast.”

But I digress.

“Will Obama Move the Court Leftwards?”

Is the Pope, you know, Catholic? Does a bear, etc., etc.?

The Washington Post, reporting on Obama’s response to Souter’s impending retirement, noted that

The president praised Souter, 69, as a “fair-minded and independent judge” and said he would nominate a replacement who both respects the Constitution and brings “empathy” and “understanding” to the bench.

OK, class: what do you make of those words “empathy” and “understanding”? Isn’t that what you turned to your friends and spouses for? Do you really want a judge — to say nothing of a Supreme Court Justice — emitting empathy and understanding? Wouldn’t you rather have him endeavor to discharge the responsibilities he signed up for, i.e., upholding the law?

Before you respond, listen to a little more of what the President had to say on the subject of what he was looking for in a Supreme Court Justice:

“I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.”

“Empathy” and “understanding” on one side, “abstract legal theory on the other.” What should we make of that?

Let’s step back a bit and remember what Senator Obama said about the Supreme Court back in ancient times, i.e., in 2001. As I noted in this space last October, Obama acknowledged the “formal” victories that were achieved with the civil rights movement.

It “vested formal rights in previously dispossessed people.” Now, said Obama, anyone could vote, anyone could sit at the lunch counter and eat–as long as he could pay for it.

But what if he couldn’t pay for it?

Obama didn’t explicitly ask the question, but it was implied by his invocation of “formal” rights–that’s left-wing law-speak (they get it from Marx) for “bourgeois,” “insufficient,” “bad.” What people like Obama and Ayers want are not “formal” rights, but substantive ones: e.g., not equality of opportunity, but equality of result.

Hence Obama’s invocation in his next sentence of “political and economic justice.”

Political justice we know: it means equality before the law. The figure of justice on court houses used to be blindfolded (is she still?) because justice, if it is just, is impartial . But what is economic justice? That would require Justice to pull aside the blindfold and top-up your bank account if had less than others.

Bottom line for Obama? While the civil rights movement made some “formal” strides, it was too focused on the courts:

“The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth.”

Got that? That, according to the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, was part of the “tragedy” of the civil-rights movement.

People today may think of the Earl Warren Court as “radical,” but according to Barack Obama, it wasn’t “that radical.” Why? Because

“it didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.”

While you think about what it might mean if the President of the Untied States wanted to “break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution,” note that Obama goes on to disparage the Constitution as merely “a charter of negative liberties”: that is, it only tells you what the state and federal government “can’t do to you.”

For a couple thousand years, people were desperately eager to frame constraints that would apply to their governments, that would limit, for example, the government’s ability to expropriate their property, to force them to educate their children in a certain way, or subscribe to certain government-mandated beliefs.

That sort of traditional political freedom is not enough for left-wingers. Ever since Marx decried bourgeois freedom as merely “formal,” the left has set out not to preserve freedom but to remake society according to a utopian scheme.

This is exactly what Obama wants to do. The “tragedy” of the civil-rights movement, he said, is that in focusing on “negative” freedom, it tended to

“lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.”

There you have it, folks. From radical “community organizer” to coalitions that achieve the “power through which you bring about redistributive change.”

Let’s return to that headline:

“Will Obama Move the Court Leftwards?”

He’ll certainly try to. And he’ll do so while importing feel-good psychological categories like “empathy” and “understanding” (meaning, by the way, “I understand, i.e., I feel your pain”) to try to make us forget that the law is being sabotaged in order to further a socialist assault on private property and individual liberty. You should not be surprised by any of this. Ever since he entered public life, Obama has been completely upfront about what he wants to do. It’s just that he surrounds the frank talk about trashing the Constitution, redistributing wealth, empathetic judges, and so on with oleaginous rhetoric about “justice,” “fairness,” and “equality.” Lenin did likewise, though don’t expect any thanks for pointing that out.

It was Lenin, too, come to think of it, who first stressed the importance of capitalizing on–er, maybe “exploiting” would be more politic than “capitalizing on”–the first 100 days of your administration: who knew when the forces of reaction might start fighting back, Comrade? Barack Obama has certainly moved rapidly in his first 100 days, nationalizing a huge swath of the American auto industry, shackling a generation or two with incalculable levels of debt, cosying up to enemies from Iran to Venezuela, and making it clear in manifold ways that his administration regards conservative dissent from his policies as a greater threat than radical Islam. Where will it all end? I don’t know the answer to that. I expect the smiles to continue, though, even as many of us find it harder, in Obama’s words, to “make a living and care for their families,” and who feel ever less “safe in their homes” and, indeed, in their country. Sooner or later, I predict, people will wake up and then the smiles will vanish. In the meantime, however, I keep thinking about that character Saul Bellow described in Humbolt’s Gift as being “smooth as a suppository.” It’s the sort of charm that gets you pretty far in. But how do you get out again?