Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Weak Tea, part two

Moving along . . .
4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government.
Marriage/Family “It is in the love of one’s family only that heartfelt happiness is known. By a law of our nature, we cannot be happy without the endearing connections of a family.” Thomas Jefferson
Now the principles of the 912 Project start to get a little more serious, and my responses will, too.

This one is very curious. On the one hand, there is an issue of real substance here regarding the proper relationship between public and private, and regarding the kinds of decisions appropriately left to each realm.

But the way the principle is stated begins to reveal a pattern that bedevils this and most of the principles that follow: a substantive issue about which there may be reasonable disagreement is entirely obscured by a provocative exaggeration, one that both misses the point and poisons the well.
You disagree with this principle? Well, then, you must want the federal government to micromanage your private life, make decisions for you, your children, and your household. You are therefore an evil fascist!


But then, the principle as stated is itself nonsense. Those who would make such an assertion cannot possibly mean what they say, but perhaps only because they don’t know what they mean.

What’s right about this is that households – families in some broad sense – are important units in any political order. Aristotle, to go back to the beginnings of European political theory, saw households as the building blocks of the polis. Now, we may quibble about what constitutes a household, who can be a spouse, how labor and authority ought to be divided, and so on. Still, it is clear enough that many of the decisions of ordinary life are best and most appropriately made at home.

But does this mean that mom and pop have “ultimate authority”? Authority over what? Does ultimate authority mean mom and pop can do anything they choose, without answering to anyone?

Taken at face value, this goes beyond atavism. It isn’t a return to America That Was, but a return to The Time Before – before constitutions, before civil society, before villages – when fathers might well exercise despotical rule over their wives, children, and household slaves, treating them all alike as chattel. (In his Politics, Aristotle attributes this way of living to barbaroi.)

Oh, but we wouldn’t do that, the tea partiers might protest! We’re Christian parents. Small comfort there.

Worse still, taken at face value, this principle seems to stand in direct contradiction to the next principle, which seems to establish “the law” as, in some respects at least, “the ultimate authority.”

Are mom and pop above the law, or aren’t they? If the law establishes broad areas for private decisions, much leeway for families to make their own way, well and good. But the law must also put some restrictions on what parents can do within their households, decisions they cannot be allowed to make, and the law must come first in such instances.

Parents may not, I think most Americans will agree, use opiates to pacify their children, or make their children work in the mines or factories to help support the family, or marry them off at the age of 12, or prevent them getting at least a minimal education. On other questions, it may be harder to decide whether parents have prerogative – withholding needed medical treatment for religious reasons, for example – but the question is at least debatable.

Also notice that the quotation from Jefferson has almost no bearing on the principle. Family life is great, Tom, yeah. And you should know.

5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it.
Justice “I deem one of the essential principles of our government… equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.” Thomas Jefferson
Here’s a nice idea. It's hard to dispute this principle, at least when it's stated in such general terms.

But then, where were these people during the Bush Administration when, for example, the Vice President tried to establish his office as beyond the reach of the Constitution itself?

It's always a good thing to ask whether a President or other public official is acting within the bounds of the law. For myself, I've seen no evidence of any actual abuse of power on the part of the Obama administration - which is not to say there will be no such abuses or that there have not been abuses the evidence for which has yet to come to light.

But a distinction is in order between calling out abuses of power and calling out policy decisions you think are misguided, foolish, or otherwise bad. Don't like the proposed health-care reforms? Think it was a bad idea for the government to take emergency measures to bail out the auto industry? Then say, precisely, why those were bad ideas, and what you would have had the President do instead.

I'll return to this point later, but the President is not bound to do what you, as an individual, want him to do. That he made a decision you disagree with does not in itself constitute an abuse of power. To say it does so it is to level an accusation that requires extraordinary proof.

If you push it still further, labeling the President a "Fascist," or tagging him with the ironic title of "Emperor" or "Messiah," then others might be excused for thinking you a moron who has scant understanding of the meaning of the Constitution and no regard at all for the plain meanings of words.

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