Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 December 2017

The Fall of a Raging Bull


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For a brief update (12/14/17) on Democrats’ need to court minority voters—and help make sure they can vote—click here.
    “[S]omething’s happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” — Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate
Roy Moore’s failure at the polls—in what may have been the reddest of red states—signifies many things.

So far, the mainstream pundits have identified only two. First, even the deepest of the Deep South is capable of shame. Even Alabama cares what the rest of the nation and the world think about it. Second, the influence our of most alpha of alpha males, The Donald, is limited, even as president.

But the significance and the future implications of this small special election are far wider than that. What we have here is the fall of a man who was a law unto himself. We Americans just saw the rejection—by the narrowest of margins—of a twenty-first century “leader” who had tried to emulate the alpha males who ruled us when we were apes on the African savannah, living in clans of thirty or so.

As an anachronism, Roy Moore is way off our history. Not only did he want to take us back before our Civil War. Not only did he want to precede our Constitution, with its refusal to establish any state religion, including Christianity. He’s also off by most of our species’ social evolution.

Yet there he was, in the sixth millennium of our species’ recorded history and the twenty-first century after Christ, sporting a Texas-sized Stetson—in Alabama!—to show that his ego is bigger than the law or human decency. There he was, blowing off calls for kindness to the “weaker” gender with denials and sheer balls. He and many of his followers appear to have forgotten that Jesus’ most salient characteristic was not the raw exercise of male dominance, but empathy.

From its Founding, our nation has distinguished itself as hewing to the rule of law. Yet Moore was not just recalcitrant, but defiant, in openly and wantonly violating two of our most sacred legal principles.

He broke our sacred First Amendment, which prohibits both the establishment by government and government suppression of religion. He did so by keeping a massive stone monument to the biblical Ten Commandments in front of the state courthouse in which he worked as a judge. And he broke the prime directive of our federal system—our Supremacy Clause—when he refused to remove that monument upon order of a higher court, and later when he refused to respect the decision of our highest court to let gays marry.

If ever there were an American “leader” who felt himself above the law, Roy Moore is it. But he is hardly alone. In this dark beginning of our third millennium after Christ, there are many exemplars of would-be alpha males who do whatever they can get away with.

We can start with our own current president. Then we can read down the dismal list: Putin, Erdogan, El-Sisi, Mohammed bin Sultan, the Philippines’ Duterte, Ayatollah Khomeini, Maduro of Venezuela. Just as soon as we get rid of one like Mugabe, we have to ask ourselves whether his successor Mnangagwa will be better or worse.

The pull of the alpha male is strong in us. It’s part of our biological evolution, which we must overcome with social evolution, aka “civilization.”

So this is where we are, as a species, early in the century following our two most disastrous and bloody wars to “make the world safe for democracy.” We have yet to learn the lessons of civilization completely.

I once learned a bit as a kid on the playground. One day I found myself sitting on top of another kid, bashing his head repeatedly into the asphalt. After the other kids dragged me off, a teacher came up.

She was a woman—a member of our “weaker” sex. But as a full adult she towered over me. Did she hit me? Did she drag me by the collar? Did she use brute force, which she easily could have done? Did she make me stand in the corner and contemplate my sins without adult guidance?

Not at all. Instead, she played to my budding intellect, my childish understanding of human civilization. Right there on the playground, with the other kids still gyrating in play around us, she told me why I had to restrain my darker impulses.

Civilization, this teacher recounted, is the conscious mastery of our darker individual instincts for the common good. At the end of the day, it’s what lets us build airplanes and fly them around the world. It’s what lets us make iPhones and a global network to connect them. It’s what lets us write constitutions to set the rules that no one—no one!—can break. It’s what allows us to be infinitely better fed, richer, happier and more powerful than we ever were as warring individuals or tiny clans led by alpha males.

Over a generation later, at Harvard Law School, I learned how much effort—and how many centuries—had gone into making the legal invulnerability of every individual the foundation of Anglo-American law. As you walk down the street and go about your daily business, your body and your person are free, under the law, from unwanted touching, invasion and intrusion. So is everyone else’s. Your freedom to swing your arm—or to bash a rival—end’s where the other’s nose begins. The law holds you invulnerable by restraining others. The law will even restrain itself.

This is the marvelous thing that makes us Americans nearly unique. We know—or at least we knew—that, as long as we ourselves obey the rules, no one can willingly manhandle or harm us. Freedom makes us untouchable.

Viewed in this light, the current furore over sexual predation is neither anomaly nor coincidence. Just as our species begins slip-sliding down the slope from democracy to alpha-male rule, the more-than-half of us that is our female gender is beginning to wonder why this most basic rule of civilization—bodily invulnerability under the law—doesn’t apply to females. Why must they suffer unwanted intrusions on and into their bodies that no male in a free society ever has to face—all because our biological evolution has made them attractive to males so as to continue the line?

Evolution seldom proceeds in a straight line. Often it takes two steps forward and one step back.

So it is with our species’ social evolution. In the last century, we suffered some seventy million premature deaths in the cause of democracy. That was two big steps forward.

Now, in the twenty-first century, we are retreating, almost in unison, in a backward step toward alpha-male rule. Like old men waxing nostalgic over their childhoods, we yearn for the simplicity of submission to the whim of a single, decisive man.

But that is not our species’ future. Nor is it our recent past. Our destiny lies in ever more subtlety and complexity, as it always has.

This is a truth known by anyone who’s ever tried to fix his iPhone or understand the Tax Code. This is a truth that we Americans will ken, sooner or later, as we discover that taking a meat ax to our tax laws will neither simplify or enrich our lives.

Women instinctually understand this. Brute force never acts in their favor. In the Middle Ages, the social complexities of chivalry protected them. Today, it’s the law, in all its complexity and nuance. And today, more than ever, they want to weave that law, which in the end is only an abstraction, more tightly into the web of social mores and practice that makes the law real.

So no, the push for women to be free from sexual assault, harassment and predation, coming at this delicate time, is absolutely no coincidence. It’s part of our species’ current reconsideration of our social-evolutionary status and direction. It’s a looking forward, along with a looking backward, to assess our collective next step.

As we assess, we might consider that, for the last decade, the world’s most successful leader has been a woman: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. She may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but she has completed the remarkable transformation of what once was Nazi Germany into an exemplar for our species. In genuine contrition for past failings, in openness to helpless refugees, in non-violence in fact and policy, in conversion to sustainable energy and (not coincidentally) in steady prosperity, modern Germany under Angela Merkel is the nation to watch.

Like Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, Roy Moore is a throwback. He’s a good one, in a sense, because his patent extremism—not to mention his Stetson and on-horseback videos—make him easy to spot and to ridicule.

Moore is just a caricature of the many, far more serious alpha-male leaders that we must work through in this century if we are to find our way to Mars and the stars, and maybe someday thence to peace. But however close the margin, a win is a win. And if this raging bull’s fall leads us to question the usefulness of other alpha males, or of alpha-male leadership in general, it could be a portent of a bright new dawn.

Endnote 1: The First Amendment reads in part as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Decisions of our Supreme Court have applied both prohibitions to the several States.

Endnote 2: The Supremacy Clause, Article VI, Section 2 of our Constitution, reads as follows: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Respecting Minority Voters: a 12/14/17 Update. Sometimes this blog is ahead of the game. In a recent post it argued that minority voters in three Southern states could deliver the White House to Democrats in 2020.

Freelance journalist Kashana Cauley expressed a similar view today in an op-ed in the New York Times (paper of Dec. 14, 2017, at A27). She pointed out that African-Americans had helped Doug Jones win in Alabama, despite numerous voter-suppression obstacles put in their way by Republicans. She ended her piece with the following observation: “If Democrats want to win more elections, they have to integrate black voters into the heart and soul of the party.”

By now, that message should be self-evident. It’s especially vital in the South, where black and Hispanic voters together rise to 40% of the population in Florida and North Carolina. The old notion that minorities “have nowhere else to go” and so should be taken for granted, is a recipe for defeat.

Coming after the Dems had assiduously courted black voters, Doug Jones’ win proves the point. If the Dems can win with a new coalition in Alabama, they can win anywhere. All they have to do is remember that, in any coalition, each member group deserves equal respect. Brief pandering won’t do the job, but careful attention and attractive policies will.

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