Tag Archives: Reality Check

Reality and self amid the maelstrom

Thinking lately about what’s real and what’s important—neither of which overlaps completely with the other—and how to hold onto them amid all the dysfunction, real dangers and misleading indicators.

I have been writing plenty about the false and misleading, this year. Every day seems to be a downpour of dishonesty, delusion, wrong directions and la la land pretending. I can see this, and while it’s a struggle to go against the grain when hardly anyone else seems like they’re going to, I think I can make it that far.

But where am I going to, and where can I go to; what revised expectations of real and important should replace the old?

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Honesty about disaster

Several years ago, I wrote in Cotton’s Library about the political breakdown which flummoxed the Jacobean antiquarian and courtier, Sir Robert Cotton:

In evaluating his political career, Cotton comes across as a Jacobean Cicero. Like the influential senator at the end of Rome’s republic, Cotton stood in the very middle of a constitutional system buckling and splintering under strain, yet never saw any possible solution but voluntary moderation of the competing forces. The relatively respectful and effective interplay between Elizabeth and her parliaments during Cotton’s early life always remained his model of how English government worked. As political relations deteriorated under the Stuarts he did not see a failure of the system; the system was perfect, and the need for change lay not with it, but with the people within it.

I have since concluded that, in a sense, Cotton’s attitude was both wrong and right, about a political paradox which may be universal. I feel confident that some political systems are so flawed as to be unworkable, but I have begun to suspect that there may not be any set of rules and institutions so perfect that they remain effective when too many people simply stop believing in them.

That’s now happening right in front of us, in America.

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Law, like politics, is stories

Here’s some very broad political advice: don’t confuse proving misconduct with pursuing victory in electoral politics. Though they may overlap, they are distinct things, and the distinction is very important.

I write from personal experience, here. Five years ago, my life transformed forever as the result of joining a frantic, grassroots attempt to prevent the liquidation of my city’s publicly owned charity hospital. We failed, utterly, and while there are many reasons, the most generally applicable is probably the lesson that “but that’s against the rules!!!” should not be assumed a cause’s strongest argument. Even when it’s against the law. Even when you can prove it with facts. Even when they admitted it.

An example: in 2015, Lakewood City Council met in one closed-door session after another. Public deliberation on the city’s hospital, by city council, was almost nonexistent. They got away with it anyway. Despite state open-meeting laws. Despite being sued. Despite their legal counsel—the city’s own law director—admitting during the court proceedings “that a violation has occurred.”

Plentiful other rule-breaking and evidence of rule-breaking characterized our feral local government’s fight to liquidate the public’s hospital. In terms of formal enforcement of rules, they got away with all of it, too, aside from one court ruling which obliged the city to cough up some redacted documents long after the votes had taken place and the hospital was a shuttered hulk.

That outcome, I’m entirely certain, could have been prevented politically. It wasn’t a hard sell. But the grassroots campaign did many many things wrong, including becoming near-obsessed with rule-breaking at the expense of campaigning for political support.

Ultimately, try though we may to make it work otherwise, law and enforcement thereof are a product of politics. Influence can run in both directions, but politics is always present; rules and laws are only enforced when and if political incentive to do so is sufficient.

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Paris terrorism reality check part two

See also part one.