Letter to the Washington Post on Senator Collins

Below is a letter to the editor I had published in the Washington Post on June 9. Here’s a link to the letter and also the comments on the letter. Here’s a link to the original article (an opinion piece) I wrote about. Below I’ll add some comments about what happened after the letter was posted on the Washington Post website.

After the letter appeared on the Post website, in the afternoon of June 10, I received this email from Chris Hanna, an editor at the paper.

A few hours later, I spoke with Michael Duffy, another editor. I explained to him what I meant when I wrote that “Ms. Collins enabled his not even getting consideration.”

Yes, she had publicly urged Garland get a confirmation vote. But who made the decision whether he would or wouldn’t receive consideration? Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. (Yes, the Senate majority leader has that power in his hands alone.) And Collins had voted for him to hold that position. McConnell’s reason: that the nomination came too close to an upcoming national election. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16, 2016, eight months before the 2016 presidential election.

Collins voted for McConnell again as the leader of the Republicans in the Senate after he showed that his “reasons” for denying Garland a vote were a tissue of lies when he subsequently made sure a Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, got a confirmation vote when her nomination to the Court was made (by Donald Trump) much closer to a national election. Barrett was nominated by Donald Trump on September 26, 2020, just six weeks before the 2020 presidential election. McConnell made sure Barrett received a confirmation vote, and she was confirmed. Garland never received a confirmation vote.

In voting for McConnell to lead the Republican caucus in the Senate, and in voting for him again after he blocked a vote on Garland and assured a vote on Barrett, Collins “enabled Garland’s not even getting consideration.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Honorable Are Honor Societies?

A younger friend writes, “I have a question about honor societies and colleges. … I’ve been invited to several different honor societies, but at this point I only joined [one]. I keep getting emails from others about deadlines to join, and it occurred to me that I should just double check with someone about whether there is a reason to join more than one. [The one I joined] seemed like it was the most legitimate with the most benefits, so I joined that one. I’m not sure others are not mostly just money making opportunities or not, so I’d skipped them.”

My response: Well, it depends.  That’s the short answer.  It’ll take me a few more words to say what it depends on. 

Ask yourself why your degree from a college or university has value or meaning.  Well, for one thing, you learned something; you’re a more capable person.  But why should others trust this?  Anybody could give you a degree.  (Really! And scams abound.) Colleges and universities are accredited by agencies that do that: they check out and affirm that particular colleges and universities are worthwhile places; that if you get a degree from an ‘accredited college or university’, there’s something substantial there.  (And yes, there are unaccredited colleges and universities.)  Accrediting agencies may do a good job or a bad job, but they’re there and they’re trying.

Well, how about honor societies?  Anyone could start one, and lots of people have.  But no one accredits these honor societies to say whether the honors they confer have any substance behind them.  So how can you trust an honor society?

There’s an old Smothers Brothers routine (you’re probably too young to remember this) in which the brothers sing “The Streets of Laredo,” or at least say that’s what they’re doing.  Tom sings “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,” and Dick sings “I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too.”  Then they sing together “We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.”  And then Tom sings “If you buy an outfit you can be a cowboy, too.”  Laughter ensues.  Anyone can look like a cowboy, but no, wearing an outfit doesn’t make one truly a cowboy.  So an honor society could be like that, just conferring ‘honors’ willy-nilly.  How do you know an honor society is legit? 

One test is whether the honor society really has standards – whether they let graduates of any college or university induct people, or whether the place has to be accredited.  And beyond that, whether it has a ‘good’ program, in whatever subject field is being recognized.  To find out whether a program is ‘good’ the honor society would have to do something like accrediting work – they’d have to look into the substance of the education being offered.  Some honor societies do that; others are more like the Smothers Brothers riff.

Another test is whether the honor society does more than confer honors.  Does it work to strengthen the professional standing of the subject field in which it confers honors.  Does it raise money for scholarships? Recognize outstanding professionals in the field? Lobby Congress for good legislation in matters about which its professionals have expertise? Again, some honor societies do, and some don’t.  (Some are just interested in you paying dues.) 

Finally, it’s worth adding here that Quakers have had a kind of skepticism about honor societies.  They looked to many Friends like they were in the business of creating inequalities for no good purpose.  So just like many Quaker colleges refused to allow fraternities and sororities because those organizations existed to diss some people and privilege others, they didn’t allow honor societies, either.  Most Quaker colleges have now softened that stance and allow a few honor societies to exist on their campuses – those that have real standards and those that do real good works. 

So, as I say, it depends.  You have to kick the tires.  That may be more trouble than it’s worth. 

Posted in Accountability and Accreditation | Leave a comment

The Constitutional Amendment(s) We Need

George Will has an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post titled “Amend the Constitution to bar senators from the presidency” He argues that the Senate has become a place that is “increasingly a theater of performative behaviors.” His prime example: Josh Hawley (R-MO), who Will says “might not be worse than all the other 327″ Senators of the past 50 years, but who “exemplifies the worst about would-be presidents incubated in the Senate.” As a counter, he holds up Mitt Romney, whose presidential ambitions are behind him — and thus wants to be a Senator.

Not mentioned: Joe Biden. Not mentioned: Barack Obama, the two most recent democratic presidents who also served in the Senate. Also: think Kennedy; think Truman. Nor does he mention Donald Trump, who never served in any public office and was the worst of the worst. Nor George W. Bush, a poor governor and a worse president. Etc.

I know I should pay little attention to George Will these days, but this piece is truly of a different universe. Forget how stupid this actual argument is. Much could be changed about the behavior of the Senate if we eliminated the filibuster for once and for all, and did away with many of its quaint old rules that allow individual senators to hold up votes on presidential appointments or proceeding to a vote. We wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment for those changes.

Think, rather, of the constitutional amendments we do need. How about one that eliminates the electoral college? Will supports the electoral college. How about one that allows a real voting rights act? Will makes no mention. How about an amendment that allows campaign finance reform? Will has long been against any campaign finance restrictions. How about sensible gun regulation? Will has long been against that, too.

No: in Will’s world, it’s an amendment to prevent senators from serving as president; that’s what he thinks we need. George Will is not someone to take seriously today.

Posted in Democracy and Rights, Governance | Leave a comment

A Cultural Assault

[Originally posted May 11, 2022; addendum below added May 25, 2022]

“A general assault in the culture against the way ordinary Americans had come to live.”

The phrase caught my attention in the May 9, 2022 obituary for Midge Decter in the New York Times. It’s not a particularly original or unusual phrase, but it struck me as capturing well the sharp cleavage line in our politics today. Here’s the full passage from the obituary, which was authored by Douglas Martin:

Ms. Decter’s ideological shift in the late ’60s stemmed from a rising concern that she expressed in her 2001 memoir, her 2001 memoir, “An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War.” Liberalism, she said, rather than speaking to the common man and woman as it had in the past, was veering off the tracks into “a general assault in the culture against the way ordinary Americans had come to live.”

Decter was one of a number of intellectuals who coalesced to form neoconservatism. Others included Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Norman Podhoretz, Decter’s husband, who edited the magazine Commentary. Says the obituary, “Jolted by the turbulence of the student and women’s movements, they later broke from liberals to embrace a new form of conservatism — championing traditional social values, limited free-market economics and muscular American foreign policies.”

“Traditional social values:” it’s the cultural rift that seems especially important to me this morning. On one side of the divide are those see something liberating in a series of changes in the the culture (and consequently in our politics, too) regarding race, gender, homosexuality, the family, and the availability of contraception and abortion. On the other side are those who want to affirm “traditional social values,” those who see these liberations as “a general assault in the culture against the way ordinary Americans had come to live.”

It’s not that simple, of course. Many who would align themselves with Decter, Podhoretz, et al. would also want to affirm that some aspects of this cultural change were good things: greater equality in rights and circumstance for those descended from enslaved people, greater equality in rights for women, for example. Nevertheless, it was these neoconservatives who gave intellectual respectability to assertions that these liberations ‘had gone too far.’ Now we find a resurgent cultural/political right in the United States that wants to insist that there are only men and women, that homosexuality is simply wrong, and that there is no longer a race problem to be solved.

The challenge before us is how we move forward into this broad change in our culture bringing everyone with us. In the sharp divide we have arrived at an era of fear, each side worrying that the others are bringing the end of civilization with them. We are all fearful of “a general assault.”

Addendum: My Twitter feed delivered up the following passage from Christopher Lasch in 1997, that makes a similar point. Lasch is difficult to characterize. “Neoconservatism” wouldn’t at all be appropriate. His last book (from which this quotation may be derived) was titled The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 1994). Lasch, too, saw a cultural rift, and here he places the blame for it squarely on “new elites.”

Posted in Democracy and Rights | Leave a comment

Our Rights as Americans — Against Alito

May 6, 2022

Earlier this week, a draft Supreme Court decision on abortion was leaked to the public via Politico.  A great deal has been written in recent days about that draft decision.  I’m with those who would not support the end of Roe v. Wade, the decision (along with the 1992 Casey decision) that has framed how we think about when abortion is legal in the United States since 1973.  But it’s not abortion in particular that’s on my mind this morning. 

Rather, I want to lift up this paragraph from the draft decision in which Samuel Alito, its author, spells out how he believes the Constitution supports rights for all Americans:

‘We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s his- tory and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 721 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). The right to abortion docs not fall within this category.

That is, for Alito, Americans have these rights, and these only:  (1) those rights that are explicitly specified in the Constitution, and (2) via the 14th Amendment, those rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”[i]

I have no law degree and am not a Constitutional scholar.  But I am an American citizen, and the Constitution is for all of us to read and understand.  Alito’s understanding of what rights we have as Americans pins those rights in the past, in his (or in someone’s) understanding of our ‘history and traditions’.  This is not how I would have us understand the rights we have as Americans.

We are in an intense period of arguing with one another how we understand the meaning of the United States as a country.  How do we understand the high (but flawed) ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address along with the practice of slavery, the annihilation of indigenous people and the denial of full citizenship to women? 

My understanding is that we have been on a journey as a nation, slowly (too slowly) extending and strengthening our understanding of equality and of the rights of all Americans.  It is tragic we have been so slow; it is good that we are still on this journey.  Alito’s understanding would put an end to this journey.  It would freeze our understanding of rights in the past – a past I believe we have (and should have) grown beyond as a nation. 

Alito’s understanding of our rights, and of our history, would have us embrace a static understanding, one that denies rights  and equality as we understand these today to far too many. 

This is the project of the Right in the United States today: to stop history, to freeze it at some time in the past.  This is no longer conservatism; it is reactionary.  Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Alito would stop that long arc in its tracks, well before we could properly call it justice. 

Attorney General Eric Holder warned us in 2016 that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”  We, the people, need to press for a different, more progressive and unfolding understanding of equality and our rights. 

In my early days as President of Earlham, I remember a meeting of the presidents of Indiana’s independent colleges and universities.  We were looking for a common slogan we could use to promote them.  The suggested text was “traditional values and contemporary skills.”  I objected, because of the phrase “traditional values.”  What might that mean, I asked? ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ ‘Homosexuality is a sin?’ Those of African or Asian descent are not fit for citizenship?’  That’s where Alito would have us live, in that past. 

And that is unacceptable.

[i] For (2) Alito cites the case of  Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 721 (1997), which also used this language  The Court ruled unanimously in this case about a very different matter, physician assisted suicide.  The majority opinion was written by William Rehnquist and joined by Anton Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, five very ‘conservative’ justices, all appointed by Republic Presidents.  The other four on the Court in 1997, the more progressive justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens, agreed with the Court’s finding the case but explicitly did not join the majority opinion.


Addendum — See also:

Ken M. Levy and Jody Lyneé Madeira, Sophistry at the Supreme Court, The Hill, 5/6/22

Jill Lepore, Of Course the Constitution Has Nothing to Say About Abortion, The New Yorker, 5/4/22 (There is no mention of the procedure in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787. This seems to be a surprise to Samuel Alito.)

Meaghan Winter, Where Was Everyone? The Fatal Siloing of Abortion Advocacy, Dissent, Spring 2022

[On the other hand] Andrew Sullivan, How Dare They? The Left’s Attitude Problem When It Comes to Democracy, The Weekly Dish, 5/6/22

Posted in Democracy and Rights | Leave a comment