Monday, March 19, 2012

Common ground

From a 1997 interviewwith David Gelernter, author of Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (a book well worth reading)

I expect from a journalist exactly what I'd expect from a friend or colleague or neighbor, not that he agree with me on everything but that he and I speak the same moral language. If you believe that abortion is morally neutral or that capital punishment is unacceptable, I may disagree, but I don't doubt that a morally serious person could reach such positions. If you believe that murder is all right, that killing or injuring innocent strangers with mail bombs might be okay under the right circumstances, I have nothing to say to you. We have no moral common ground. You have a free-speech right to your opinions, and I don't question that right. I have a right to regard you as a monster, to regard your opinions as dangerous and unacceptable and to refuse to have anything to do with you. You might argue that rejecting abortion and accepting capital punishment were once part of our shared moral common ground in this country, and you'd be right. Society's moral consensus isn't fixed; it evolves. Has it evolved to a point where disapproval of murder, or terrorist bombing, is outside the moral consensus? God forbid -- though I don't doubt that if we continue the way we have, that could happen some day. At that point the group of people who are profoundly at odds with this society will be so great, the rest of the country will have to take notice (and for all I know, a new Mayflower will set sail).

This is where I’ve come to regarding the HHS mandate that all employers provide insurance that covers contraception: there is no common moral ground here. Not “no common moral ground” on contraception itself but “no common moral ground” on what this controversy is about.

I’ve always thought that Americans on the opposite side of an issue from me were understandable. I might think they were short-sighted or unaware of certain information or wanted a different type of society than I did or were ignoring human nature or were ignorant of history of even were simply wrong or mistaken. But I’ve always been able to say that I could see how they held the position they did; I couldn’t hold it myself but given what they knew, what they believed, how they thought, what they wanted, I could see how they believed it. Or, at least, to concede they may have valid reasons for their position, even if I couldn’t see those reasons.

When it comes to the HHS mandate, either the original or the ”compromise” that isn’t, that is no longer the case. The issue is so clearly one of violating the First Amendment that I am unable to find any common ground with anyone who doesn’t see that. We have nothing to say to each other on this topic. And their belief either that this does not violate the First Amendment or that violating the First Amendment is acceptable is so inexplicable that we don’t really have anything to say to each other about anything else related to the Constitution or governance in general.

Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how this situation comes out. Even if the Administration backs off completely on the contraception mandate for all employers, it’s too late. Even if the Supreme Court rules that the mandate is unconstitutional, it’s too late. That a President of the United States believes it is acceptable to simply ignore the First Amendment is a sea change in our form of government. Perhaps if the Administration had established this mandate and every single person and institution other than President Obama and Secretary Sebelius had screamed bloody murder, I could believe that we had, in a moment of national inattention, elected as President one of the only two people in the United States who consider the Bill of Rights irrelevant. But that wasn’t the case; Obama and Sebelius’ attitude toward the Constitution is clearly so widespread that there is no going back.

Do I consider the people who support the mandate “monsters” as Gelernter does those who are willing to countenance killing or injuring innocent strangers with mail bombs? No. My dictionary says that a monster is “one who inspires horror or disgust”. Those proposing the mandate and those supporting it inspire in me simply total bewilderment. I do, however, “regard [their] opinions as dangerous and unacceptable and ... refuse to have anything to do with [them]” insofar as issues of law, governance, and the Constitution are concerned.

I have heard for years - decades - that the Constitution was being shredded. I have heard this from both major political parties and from those aligned with neither. I’ve never really bought that. Yes, the Constitution was being bent, twisted, expanded, contracted, and even turned inside out. But I always believed that there was, nonetheless, a basic respect for the Constitution and that there was a point beyond which we, as a nation, would not go. We might fold and even spindle the Constitution but we would not mutilate it. Now we have. The HHS mandate and the defense of that mandate is something completely different, something new in the long line of disputes over the Constitution.

Is “the group of people who are profoundly at odds with this society ... so great, the rest of the country will have to take notice (and for all I know, a new Mayflower will set sail)”? In other words, are there a lot of people who believe what I believe? I don’t think so. Some people seem to be opposed to the HHS mandate for political reasons; it’s a chance to make hay. Most seem to be opposed to the HHS mandate for reasons of principle but also seem to believe that this is just more of the same and that if the mandate can be reversed or thrown out by the Supreme Court, the genie will go back in the bottle. They see this as one more struggle over the Constitution, one more argument that can be won or lost. I see it as a watershed; the meaning and relevance of the Constitution are profoundly and irreversibly changed.

It’s just as well, I suppose, that there aren’t a lot of people who believe what I believe. Gelernter overooked the fact that there is nowhere for a new Mayflower to go.

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