The Sense of Losing Control
A searing sentiment driving debate in the presidential race is that ordinary Americans are losing control of their lives — watching the right to moral decision-making wrested away from them. Wrested away by whom? By those who “know better.”
The know-better crowd — heavily represented at the opinion-making level — tighten their grips every second, it seems.
Last week, Connecticut’s supreme court tossed out the death penalty on grounds that it “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.” The decision to absolve from capital punishment 11 death row denizens had about it certain complexities. The legislature, in abolishing the death penalty three years ago, had allowed it to stand for those previously sentenced, including the murderers of a woman and her two daughters, one 17 years old, the other only 11. That signaled to the court’s one-vote majority that maybe chronology alone was standing in the way of mercy according to the newly discovered standards.
The citizenry of death row, irrespective of their deeds, got off en masse. Never mind: kill a couple of innocent young girls, and the state will feed you for life. Have a nice day. Changed standards, you know. What we might have performed 50 years ago, in the retributive justice line, is, um… off now.
Who says so? We say so. Who’s we? Well, your judges — your arbiters of rightful opinion, and of other such bilge and bunkum.
We see this kind of thing all the time, often at a more general level, as when Justice Anthony Kennedy regaled us last June, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, with the knowledge that “changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”
In the folds of the Constitution, 42 years earlier, the court found a never previously suspected constitutional right to an abortion. We are getting used to this: Judges tell us that we, the people, don’t know what we’re talking about. Oh, but their honors know, and are pleased to share with us their insight into how community standards managed to evolve without the community necessarily noticing.
The media, including the Huffington Post and all the Jon Stewart types, the “progressive” intellects embedded in academic pastimes, who write op-ed essays and give oracular interviews — these people notice, too, and are pleased to pass on their insights. The delicious sense of cutting-edge endeavors that expose Old Follies and overcome Injustice is a pretty part of the package. It isn’t frequently enough remarked that defenders of ancient beliefs (e.g., the justice of proportional punishment by the state) can get sleepy at their posts, can lose sight of the duty to guard against attackers swarming the walls. Such as pundits and judges.
The Trump phenomenon (which I had originally hoped to escape the duty of mentioning in print) is not a pretty thing: Blowhard blows hard and hundreds of thousands eat it up. You have to back off for a second. Why do they eat it up? Because of his not-too-gentle touch on an open sore?
Among the sorest of sores in 21st century America is the one I mentioned earlier — the sense of losing control to people whose authority to preach at you seems to proceed chiefly from their delight at preaching. The present U.S. president is conspicuous in that category. Whenever he talks, you know who’s right. He’s right; just ask him.
The apparatus of beliefs that more or less supported an older America — religious faith, inherited wisdom, localized attachments, devotion (imperfectly expressed and executed at times) to freedom — is disintegrating slowly. Those aforementioned know-better folks apparently find this out in law school, or in the television studio, and assuming they are molded of brass and a reforming disposition, they know what to do. Into the moral vacuum they go, scattering reproofs, trampling on the habits and procedures that most offend them. And pretending that the cheers and pompoms for Brother Trump are just fodder in today’s news cycle.