"Civilization is a conversation over time."
No one who knows me will be surprised by my odd and well-documented fan girl obsession with the U.S. Supreme Court. My pin-up love for John Roberts Jr. hasn't diminished, although I would be lying if I said I didn't miss cranky old Rehnquist, waving his walking stick violently at reporters attending his morning walks. Alito is not very interesting to me, mostly because he doesn't have weird doilies popping out of the top of his robe like The O'C did.
Speaking of The O'C, I have been recording C-Span's America & The Courts on my DVR and I love it. They had a great award program honoring The O'C herself attended by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Roberts Jr a while back. There was thunderous applause at the end of the speech so she had trouble finishing with her big finale about being the first woman on the Supreme Court. "I look forward to the third, the fourth and the fifth!" clearly indicating her preference for the majority of the court to reflect the majority of the population. I agree.
More recently, I caught a speech by Justice Kennedy at the ABA Convention in Hawaii earlier this month. I have never followed him closely, and this was the first speech of his I ever witnessed. It was great. I now have a new pin-up for my wall. Here are some of my favorite moments from the speech:
"The enlightenment was of tremendous importance to the civilized world. Isaac Newton, for over a hundred years, was the most famous person in the world. The average person didn't read his thesis on physics, but this business about the apple falling down made sense. And people wondered 'If we can explain the laws of the universe, can't we explain the principles that should control a government? Can't we have a government by conscious design?' And so the framers drafted the American Constitution."
I loved his direct connection between the advancement of science and our ability to create our own destiny as a society. The only way to create progress is by distinguishing reality from myth and superstition.
"The framers knew that they weren't prescient enough and they were not brazen enough to specify all of the elements of justice. They knew this could become an apparent only over time. They knew that the whole purpose of a Constitution is to arise above the inequities and the injustices that you can't see. But now we are in an era, where I sense something different is happening. We know that 'truth' needs no translation. There is a word for 'truth' in every language. We know that the world is getting smaller. We know that the rule of law is essential. We hear a lot about security. But our best security, ultimately our only security, is in the world of ideas. And I sense a slight foreboding. I sense that we are not making the case as well as we ought."
I think he has really hit the core of the issue we have, especially in the Middle East. The value of democracy is participation and engagement in change. There is a resistance to want to understand why we are resented around the world, but I don't think we are hated and resented. I think it is their frustrated attempt to engage in a change, to affect their own destiny. But we have to make the case that our path of reasoned and modulated change over time is better than chaos, terror and totalitarianism, even as we struggle ourselves with the slowness of that reasoned change in our march of equality at home.
Justice Kennedy talked about clean water in Africa and that the main issue blocking the most fundamental need in human existence was not science, but government corruption. The law only works when people respect it, and they feel that the government they share is worthy of that respect. This is the fundamental problem in Iraq. It is lovely that people voted in the election, but the elected officials need to be worthy of that vote. As we see at home, if politicians don't operate as promised, the electorate gets very cranky. But we have a foundation of democracy to temper our feelings. It is much harder to create that same foundation of trust that we have out of a bad situation of bombings and terror. Election cycles and change seem far away compared to car bombs and explosions.
"For us, law is a liberating force. It's a promise, it's a covenant. It says that 'you can hope, you can dream, you can dare. You can plan. You have joy in your existence.' That's the meaning of the law as Americans understand it. And that's the meaning of the law that we must explain to a doubting world where the verdict is still out."
I think it is easy to forget the importance of consistency in our American experience. Life here is not perfect but there are certain things you can count on. I was reading some crappy in-flight magazine a few years back and an economist wrote about the importance of the basic right to own land. He described it as the backbone of the human experience and more importantly civilization as we know it. If people can depend on the land they own (that no one will suddenly take it from them, or blow it up randomly and leave them with nothing) they can make plans, for home, for family, for business. The chaos of life is what prevents the stability and wealth we know here at home. Iraq can never be free without the security of a consistent notion of law, of property, and of common sense and reason. Until we convince them that this level of consistency (and not corruption and chaos) works, there can be no peace in the world.