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December 12th, 2000

   One Leg At a Time


Then let's rejoice with loud Fal la — Fal lal la!
That Nature always does contrive — Fal lal la!
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
               — from Iolanthe, by W.S. Gilbert

Do you remember the first time you dated an authority figure? A cop, a teacher, a doctor, an army officer, a nurse, a minister of religion? Remember how intimidating it was? — intimidating, yet thrilling! The insouciance with which you let it be known to friends that you were going out on a date with one of the decision-making classes? The anticipatory fantasies of somehow finding yourself in his/her hands professionally? The faint hope, in the case of cop, nurse or officer, that your date might turn up in uniform! And then the event itself. Well, if you've been there, you know the rest. Scales falling from eyes. Bubble bursting. Dawn of disillusion. This dimwit has people's LIVES in her hands?

There may be some among my readers who have dated a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Which, I have belatedly discovered, it is chic to refer to in writing as SCOTUS. This acronym crossed my field of vision a dozen or so times before I realized that the items I was perusing contained no references at all to medieval Irish philosophers.) I don't know, there may be. I never have myself, and the odds are pretty long now against my ever doing so.

I cannot pretend to any very keen disappointment about this. With no, or at any rate not much, disrespect to those who serve in that august place, when I look at the two token Gyno-American justices in SCOTUS, I hear the words of the Lancashire coal-miner in The Road to Wigan Pier, speaking of His Britannic Majesty King George the Fifth: "I'd rather tup my missus than his." Well: if there are such readers, they are probably the only Americans who have not yet burst forth with surprise, concern or dismay that the SCOTUS decision last Saturday, to suspend the twenty-ninth (or whatever it is) recount of some artfully-selected subset of the ballots in Florida, split the court into the same 5-4 factions as many other recent cases with political or cultural content.

The rest of us, to judge by the aforementioned burstings forth, thought the justices of SCOTUS were lofty, disinterested philosopher-magistrates, dwelling in a sunlit realm of purest jurisprudential abstraction. Well, now we know different. These are people who put on their pants, or pantyhose, one leg at a time. Five of them want George W. Bush to be president — I mean POTUS, of course — and four would prefer the current VPOTUS.

The question before the court on Saturday might have been designed specifically to test their presidential biases, in fact. The nub of it was: When is SCOTUS entitled to, or obliged to, interfere in the way a state conducts its elections? If it were not that their ruling will certainly determine who is going to be the next POTUS, one might have expected that the five conservative justices would have come down for the right of the Supreme Court of Florida (SCOFLA — now this one I like!) to do anything it pleases short of reintroducing slavery and seceding from the Union, while the four Uncle-Sam-knows-best judges would have handed down another in their long catalog of reminders that while the Tenth Amendment is certainly an amusing little oddity left over from the days of knee britches and powdered wigs, it doesn't actually mean anything in the kinder, gentler, so-much-more-sophisticated world of the twenty-first century, and would in fact, if anyone were so foolish and reactionary as to take it seriously, be a grave impediment in the way of our duty, as citizens of Oprahland, to feel the pain of our fellow-citizens in other states.

No, they went 5-4 against states' rights, conservative-liberal, Bush-Gore. The justices of SCOTUS have their prejudices like the rest of us — though they have had much better training than you or I have had in masking their prejudices with five-syllable words. There is nothing to be surprised at here. As I have explained many times to foreign friends, since it was explained to me by a learned man when I first came to this country, the justices of SCOTUS are not very exceptional persons. They are not even very exceptional lawyers.

The nature of the confirmation process ensures that in all but the most confident administrations (of which, I think, FDR's was the last), nominees to SCOTUS are controversy-free mediocrities. As Robert Bork discovered, a nominee who possesses a lively imagination, a willing pen, and a head full of interesting ideas will stand the same chance under congressional scrutiny that the beautiful Hypatia, the only great female mathematician of antiquity, stood with the Alexandrian mob. Which is to say, he will be stripped naked and then have the flesh scraped from his living body with oyster shells.

(A side effect of the justices being drawn from the lower-middle of the justicial bell curve is that, like other well-read but weak-minded folk, they are more than usually susceptible to intellectual fads, all of which, in this age, favor the political left. Hence the "strange new respect" phenomenon of justices appointed by conservative presidents wandering off to the left once installed, with no counter-examples moving in the other direction. This is, in fact, a corollary of Robert Conquest's Second Law of Politics. For those who need reminding, the Three Laws are:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.)

From time to time this past five weeks we have all heard someone — generally someone from whichever side has seemed to be winning at each turn of fortune — bellyaching against "partisanship," against the wickedness of caring more for the victory of one's own faction than for the good of the country. Well, fiddlesticks. People with no strong feeling about politics are either dull people, or else they have lost themselves in some activity so engrossing it demands all their attention. The rest of us hunger for victory, for one side or the other. The genius of our Anglo-Saxon political systems is that we can taste that victory half a dozen times in an average lifespan without shedding blood in the streets.

Most reflective people, and a large minority even of the non-reflective, are, as W.S. Gilbert's contemplative sentry observed, either little liberals or else little conservatives. This has always been the case, everywhere. Long before Gilbert came along, there were the partisans of Cato 'Censorius' and Scipio Africanus in republican Rome, Legalists and Confucians in ancient China, nominalists and realists in medieval Paris, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Whigs and Tories. There is nothing base, petty or unpatriotic about belonging to one or the other of these factions, and wanting it to fight for victory. It's human nature. (Though belief in human nature is to some degree a conservative position in itself, which explains why liberals are so much angrier about the existence of conservatives than vice versa. Mao Tse-tung flatly denied that there is any such thing as human nature. People who disagreed with him on this point were killed.)

It is right and proper for our leaders to exhort us to submerge our differences and pull together in a time of great national danger. But, let's face it (and thank God for it), this is not such a time. Me, I am a conservative. I hope George W. Bush wins. I hope he promotes conservative causes. If a divided Congress will not pass conservative legislation, I hope President Bush will at least advance the conservative program through executive orders and appointments. (Which, at this particular historical moment, he could best do by rescinding all the many, many executive orders and appointments of Bill Clinton.) I hope he jabs a finger in the eye of our liberal establishment every chance he gets. I want to see the lefties fume, as I have fumed many times this past eight years. I don't expect Barney Frank, John Conyers, Maxine Waters and Hillary Clinton to go away, and no doubt they will all have their moment in the sun again some day, but even the feeblest and most constrained Bush presidency ought to be able to deliver them a couple of gross public humiliations in four years of maneuvering.

If President Bush does not do this, if he maintains this eirenic pre-election twaddle about "bringing us together," I shall be disappointed — as disappointed as I was when his Dad told the electorate that "you didn't send us here to bicker." Oh, yes, we did, Mister. We sent you to bicker, and we want you to out-bicker the other guys. We expect you to win the bickering. That's what politics is all about.