The Better Letter: Life Isn’t Fair

Seeking liberty and justice for all

With two outs in the ninth inning in Detroit on Wednesday, June 10, 2010, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga retired the first 26 Cleveland Indians hitters in order. The 27th, Jason Donald, chopped a routine ground ball toward first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who fielded the ball cleanly and flipped it to Galarraga covering first, beating Donald easily. The Tigers immediately began celebrating Galarraga’s apparent achievement – becoming just the 21st pitcher ever to hurl a Major League perfect game and the first in the Tigers' 110-year history. 

However, the first-base umpire, Jim Joyce, widely regarded as the best umpire in baseball, inexplicably called Donald safe. See for yourself.

Donald recalled, “Sandy [Alomar Jr., Indians first-base coach] told me, ‘You were out, bro.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know I was.’” Joyce, a 22-year veteran, upon reviewing video of the play after the game, tearfully admitted his error to Galarraga and the press. Galarraga was incredibly gracious: “Nobody's perfect. Everybody's human.” Both player and umpire received widespread praise for how they handled the situation. Still, by any measure, Armando Galarraga got hosed. 

Life isn’t fair. What we should do about that reality at the societal level is the subject of this week’s TBL. 

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Life Isn’t Fair

Bad people prosper. Exploitation and repression are the norm. Governments are corrupt. Inequality prevails. Crime pays. Wherever one looks, nobody is ever shocked…

…shocked to find sin on the premises. As I often say, total depravity (not the idea that people are always and, in every way, depraved, but that everything is tainted by sin) is one Christian doctrine subject to empirical verification. One consequence of that reality is that life isn’t fair, individually and structurally.

From a political perspective, there are two possible broad responses to try to ameliorate the problem. One is to exert power so as to institute equality. The other is to create an infrastructure for the protection of rights to try to allow the most and best possible opportunities for all.

The American Founders chose the second option. 

Historically, Christian kings were quick to assert their divine authority but far less quick to acknowledge (much less adhere to) their obligation to rule fairly and well. All too few kings, with close to absolute power which corrupted absolutely, lived up to that obligation. That is why “great men are almost always bad men.”

Before 1776, aggrieved subjects had little or no recourse against bad kings. Under the law, all rights not expressly reserved to the people were relinquished to their rulers. That was a major problem for the American colonies in their dealings with an unresponsive king indifferent to their difficulties. If the king said jump, the only appropriate question was, “How high?” 

The American experiment turned that idea on its head and turned the world upside-down by invoking the concept of natural rights. Nearly every American is familiar with the most well-known section in our Declaration of Independence, the signing of which we celebrated earlier this month. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The idea that mere citizens had rights (to life, liberty, and opportunity) directly from God which could not be usurped by the king was a wildly disruptive concept. The Declaration of Independence asserted such rights as part of a declaration of war. However, there was debate as to whether our rights needed to be codified in the Constitution. Some thought that such a codification would be limiting.

Thomas Jefferson argued for a bill of rights in a 1787 letter to James Madison, who became their primary draftsman: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” It became a crucial building block of “We the People…in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Ultimately, politics prevailed. Votes were needed and the Bill of Rights was written.`

For Americans, liberty is a primary value, almost certainly the primary value. Freedom is a powerful thing.

Our Declaration of Independence declares that virtue proudly.  

For investors, diversification is a “survival strategy,” according to the great Peter Bernstein. “It's an explicit recognition of ignorance.” In much the same way, defaulting to liberty over equality is also a survival strategy. It is an explicit recognition of human depravity and our need for protection from it. We are — all of us and in every way — tainted by sin. That explains why our system has so many checks and balances, making governmental action inherently and intentionally difficult. The Bill of Rights provides tremendous checks on governmental power and enormous protections to the individual.

Accordingly, under our system, process trumps outcomes. That has frequently frustrated activists anxious to impose their version of justice on a recalcitrant public. Yet, the world over, governments have a much better — albeit not all that great — track record of protecting rights than of instituting equality.

The tension between freedom and equality, between process and outcome, has been a constant throughout American history. It is at the fore today.

On July 7, Harper’s published a document signed by more than 150 journalistic, academic, artistic, or literary figures, mostly on the left, declaring that the liberal tradition of free discourse is in peril. The focus was liberty and the process needed to provide it.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”

To pick a relatively trivial but particularly bizarre example of the sort of illiberal actions were being alluded to, Marymount Manhattan College students are trying to get a professor fired for allegedly falling asleep during an “anti-racist meeting” on Zoom. The teacher said she was just “looking down or briefly resting my Zoom-weary eyes.” The students started a petition to punish the teacher for insufficient excitement that does not “align with the anti-racist views and actions that were promised to be adopted.” Moreover, the alleged nap “has only capitalized on a pattern of negligence and disrespect,” whatever that means.

The response to the Harper’s letter from the left has been highly critical and outcome-focused. The most broad-based response claimed it reflected “an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.” Tom Scocca of Slate disparaged it because “discourse” and “due process” too often don’t get justice done. Michael Hobbes of The Huffington Post claimed, “the Harper’s letter is not aimed at actors with institutional power. It is almost exclusively directed at the ordinary people who point out the failures of those institutions.” Pankaj Mishra said that something else is afoot, threatening the hegemony of the elite writers of the Harper’s letter. According to Mishra, “increasingly diverse voices and rich conversations are a threat to their free speech” (emphasis in original).

This debate has also been had on the right recently. In March of last year, the used-to-be-great magazine, First Things, published a manifesto from mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, arguing that “[a]ny attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.” According to the manifesto, “the old consensus defended … natural rights.” The supposed new consensus wasn’t concerned about right and process, they wanted the spoils of victory.

One of the principal draftsmen of the manifesto, Sohrab Ahmari, provided what he seemed to think has a more defined statement of what they were after. In essence, Ahmari thinks the old conservative consensus overemphasized rights, civility, and peaceful coexistence with those who disagree. That approach, he says, allows cultural calamities like “a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.” 

Ahmari isn’t concerned about protection from his enemies, he wants them destroyed. He has no wish to be either “nice” or “polite.” He wants “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” Ahmari is all about winning.* If Christian values aren’t prevailing on account of their intellectual winsomeness, they should be imposed by force. Good process is an irrelevant luxury.

“But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”

These approaches agree that America is in terrible shape even if and as they disagree about how and why. The idea of American exceptionalism has so quickly been defeated in our current moment that it now seems appropriate to wonder if, as the consensus on every side seems to think, we are even good at all but, rather, unpardonably degenerate. 

Both sides seek a cultural revolution but nobody seems to consider the consequences of the kind of power that each wishes to exercise being held by somebody else or that the power they wish to wield might have deleterious effects on them.

“These days … Don't confront me with my failures | I had not forgotten them.”

I recognize that these days are dark. A good outcome is not guaranteed. Yet, a recommitment to the principles of our founding offer the potential for reformation and reasons for hope. We aren’t the despicable hell-hole today’s braying political classes insist, even if we aren’t (yet) a shining city upon a hill. 

Republican government – representative democracy – requires playing the long game. It’s what President Obama called “the project that never ends.” You’ve got to really want it. 

Life isn’t fair and will never be altogether fair. Human error, malfeasance, corruption, and sin always seem ascendant and, today, they probably are. Making America fairer for all demands liberty enforced by patience and good faith, both of which are always virtues in an America public square increasingly devoid of them.

Life will never be altogether fair. We can, however, be free and good.

_______________

* President Trump has been happy to try to exploit this dispute politically but has no real stake in the principles involved because, by his own admission, he is an utterly transactional man. He has few, if any, fixed principles other than the certainty that he should be in charge and that everybody should be loyal to him and his current views (change as they may). He has repeatedly said that essentially everything is negotiable in order to get a deal done – to win, however he defines that in the moment.


Dylan at the Vanguard (Again)

I’m a bit too young to be a child of the 60s, but I lived through them and remain influenced by them. 

“Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist | Before they’re allowed to be free?” 

As I recall, the flower children seemed to think that liberty and equality were not in tension, that “liberty and justice for all” are fully achievable, so long as we don’t “trust anybody over 30.” Not surprisingly, Bob Dylan quickly recognized* the impossibility of that dream, angering many of his peers.

Dylan wrote “My Back Pages” in 1964 in the style of his earlier protest anthems. However, while enigmatic as ever, Dylan seems to criticize himself for having been so sure he knew everything and apologizes for his previous thinking, noting that he has become his own enemy “in the instant that I preach.” 

Dylan also recognizes the hypocrisy of hatefully opposing hate.

“Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth | ‘Rip down all hate,’ I screamed | Lies that life is black and white | Spoke from my skull. I dreamed.”

What is true and right is conveniently self-defined: “Good and bad, I define these terms | Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.”

He even seems to question the virtue of equality itself, especially at the expense of liberty. 

“A self-ordained professor’s tongue too serious to fool | Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school | ‘Equality,’ I spoke the word | As if a wedding vow | Ah, but I was so much older then | I’m younger than that now.”

As Mike Marqusee argued, that “lilting refrain ... must be one of the most lyrical expressions of political apostasy ever penned. It is a recantation, in every sense of the word.” As Dylan said, he was done with “finger-pointing songs.”

Now that the politics of grievance has elevated victimization to the highest possible status, it has become weaponized so as to allow for cancellation on account of any phony claim of feeling unsafe simply because another deigns to see the world differently. In our upside-down world, speech is now violence and nobody wants to be the first to stop applaudingNobody with any sort of a platform can be woke enough (meanwhile, the right rejoices, hypocritically).

Today’s politics are all about finger-pointing. “Ah, but I was so much older then | I’m younger than that now.”

_______________

* Crosby Stills & Nash were quick to the story but still didn’t get that they “don’t know the answer” until 1977.


Totally Worth It

Last week’s TBL featured covers good and bad. Reader Michael from Toronto shared an excellent one I had never heard before from Antony [now Anohni] and the Johnsons: the Bob Dylan classic, Knocking on Heaven's Door.

He also pointed me to this tasty video that isn’t a cover. Enjoy.

The most promising thing I saw this week. The most powerful. The most important. The stupidest (of course, he’s selling something), unless this is. The loveliest (unless it was this). The funniest. The funniest practical thingThis is also pretty funny. This, too. The silliest thing. The sweetest thingThis was pretty great, too. HOOYAH!


Benediction

Celtic Worship is a collective of some of Scotland’s most talented folk musicians. It blends traditional and contemporary Christian worship music with the powerful sounds of bagpipes, whistles, and fiddle. A week ago, the band performed a crisp, 60-minute live set via YouTube. It is wonderful and I encourage you to listen to it all. It provides this week’s benediction, a version of The Blessing in Gaelic and English.

May the God who is for you not against you make all His promises “Yes!” and “Amen” through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or via Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 22 (July 17, 2020)