“This Week in Citizenship” combs the news for examples of model citizenship at work. We collect reminders that we’re all in this together; that people are good; that the system works, however infrequently or incompletely; and that the path forward isn’t as unclear as we sometimes fear. Read the preceding installment here.
Government By the People, For the People: In an appearance at Harvard Law School, reports the Atlantic, Justice Clarence Thomas explained why his judicial opinions are written without the flair — he says “cuteness” — of other jurists’ opinions:
What I tell my law clerks is that we write these so that they are accessible to regular people. That doesn’t mean that there’s no law in it. But there are simple ways to put important things in language that’s accessible. As I say to them, the beauty, the genius is not to write a 5 cent idea in a ten dollar sentence. It’s to put a ten dollar idea in a 5 cent sentence.
That’s beauty. That’s editing. That’s writing.
That’s responsible leadership in a democracy. Certainly there’s a balance to be struck between style and accessibility, perhaps even against necessary nuance, but Justice Thomas would have us strike that balance by preferring the larger community to our smaller, more insular discourse communities. How can other government institutions adopt similar goals?
Damn the Torpedoes; Full Speed Ahead! PlainSite founder Aaron Greenspan might agree with Justice Thomas. He jumped every last hoop in representing himself without a lawyer in district and circuit court, and found himself with an opportunity encountered by few: The chance to file his case in the Supreme Court. Braving a potential expense of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, inscrutable formatting standards for the brief itself, and incomplete rulebooks, Greenspan came through. Looking back on the experience, he fumes:
How can the Supreme Court reasonably expect people to file if they are not incredibly wealthy or already professional printers? Why are the dimensions required so unusual? Who cut their hand on a staple? How much does it cost the Court to process documents in this manner, and how much would using an electronic process save? And most fundamentally, if this abject nonsense is typical of the justice system at the highest levels, why do we place our trust in it at all?
A citizen files his own brief despite cultural barriers, documents the experience so that others can learn from it, and will be heard. Nicely done, Aaron.
Who Has Access to the Law? Writing in the New York Times, Dean John J. Farmer of the Rutgers School of Law diagnoses a problem — the disconnect between law schools, which educate young lawyers for jobs they are increasingly unable to find, and the citizens who need, but do not have access to, their graduates’ services — and offers solutions. In New Jersey, he says, where he teaches law, “99 percent of the 172,000 defendants in landlord-tenant disputes last year lacked legal counsel.” Yet “[n]early half of those who graduated from law school in 2011 did not quickly find full-time, long-term work as lawyers.” But:
There is a way out. Law schools and the legal profession could restore a vibrant job market by making representation easier to obtain. In doing so, they would revive their historic commitment to the balance between acquiring wealth and promoting civic virtue.
By civic virtue, I take him to mean playing a part in the community beyond the simple satisfaction of personal interests, even if it means a financial cost — a goal as worthy for graduates of law school as it is for the law schools themselves. He calls for post-graduation legal residencies like those medical students take, during which the budding lawyers could be paid a fraction of their BigLaw wages and would therefore become affordable for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who cannot now afford representation, but there must be other ways to better match the legal community to the needs it’s meant to fill.
Let’s get to work.
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what we should do for each other. (It will sometimes happen that the country is the best tool for doing it).
What forms of political organization have been encouraged since Barack Obama’s emergence on the national scene? Did OFA and the president’s two national campaigns promote a genuinely engaged citizenry and the democratization of our national politics? How have his repeated invocations of the duties, powers, and promise of citizenship played out in tangible terms over the last six years – and how might they play out in the future?
Obama has discussed citizenship in his last three major addresses:
1) First, during his DNC speech in September, 2012:
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations……As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together — through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change.
2) Then, during his speech on election night in November, where he used some of the same language:
But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self- government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
3) And finally during his inaugural address on January 21, 2013:
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
In one way, none of this is new. Read more…
Cross-posted from PolicyMic.
Wal-Mart promised to hire more veterans last Tuesday – up to 100,000 over five years – and begin a “Buy American” campaign, after years of excoriation for choosing profit over humanitarian concerns. Meanwhile, BP is allocating $500 million to improve its public image in the wake of the Deepwater disaster. White-shoe law firms, mindful of their profession’s position in the public eye, dedicate massive resources to pro bono services. Even the NBA instituted a dress code and a public service initiative when its players’ reputations began to falter.
Somehow all of these private institutions have figured out what the United States Senate, a publicly accountable institution suffering a jaw-droppingly low 18% job approval rating, cannot (or will not): Commitment to the common good matters. If the Senate takes seriously its responsibilities to the public, and if it cannot overcome its comity problem long enough to pass a funding bill or two without scaring the entire free world, the time may have come for it to demonstrate its commitment in other ways.
Modest, and much chewed-over options abound. Senators could, for example, be required to reveal their daily schedules, to read every piece of legislation they wish to vote on, or to pass a minimum knowledge test before they vote, or before they take their seats in the first place.
More ambitious options are also available. In each of the 18 years that Russ Feingold was the Senator from Wisconsin, he held a town meeting in each of his state’s 72 counties. Why shouldn’t every Senator have to do that? (Perhaps in the cases of states like Texas, which has 254 counties, it might be enough to hit each county twice in a six-year term).
Alternatively, given that the Senate was only in session for 153 days in 2012, why not require them to use the remaining time to build personal relationships with their constituents? Senators could take a job as a construction worker (or whatever blue-collar job is most numerous in their home state). Sit on juries or parole boards. Shake no fewer than 20,000 hands in their home state, or respond to 5,000 tweets. Start a small business. Teach live classes on the past Congress’s most important legislation. Join a Senator from the opposing party in a tour of their home state. In other words, anything that would better acquaint them with the pressures experienced by their constituents, and the effects of the legislation they themselves pass – and that might, on the flip side, give their constituents a chance to get to know their elected representatives.
Whatever steps they choose to take, there are at least two easy ways to implement them. First, the Senate could include the new requirements within any changes to its own rules – changes, conveniently, that it will have to pass in the next few days. The default rules, passed every two years at the beginning of each new Congress, already include provisions governing Senators’ behavior, like caps on gift amounts or curbs on foreign travel. Imposing service requirements beyond members’ duties on the Senate floor would be a logical next step.
If the Senate doesn’t wish to, or simply cannot, take action itself, a second option would be popularly-demanded ballot statements. The voters of Oregon adopted this route to great effect during the fight for the 17th Amendment, requiring candidates for public office to indicate, in a statement printed next to their names on the ballot, whether they would under all circumstances abide by the will of the people or would consider the people’s votes “nothing more than a recommendation, which I shall be at liberty to wholly disregard.” In an updated version, the voters of each state could require candidates for Senate to indicate on the ballot whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “In addition to discharging my legislative duties, I agree to do the following things during my term in service as your Senator: …” They might even require would-be Senators to pledge support for rules changes to that effect.
The means may not immediately be obvious, but the essential truth is clear: Our Senators work for us. Why shouldn’t they work harder to prove it?
Guest writer Keith Adams is a software engineer at Facebook.
Before the recent tragedy in Connecticut, I started a conversation about Arnold Kling’s system for understanding people you disagree with politically. Since the shooting, I’ve seen my Facebook wall flooded with inflammatory and unproductive rhetoric on both sides of the gun control issue. My friend Spencer Ahrens recently asked me if Kling’s framework can be of any use here, and I think this is exactly the kind of situation that the framework was developed to improve.
Full disclosure: I am able to write this only because, in my heart of hearts, I’m agnostic about gun politics. I am confident that civilian gun ownership does more harm than good on the margin in the USA in 2012, but the energy expended on the issue is so wildly incommensurate with the real harm or good that firearms actually cause, that I don’t want to spend my own limited energies on this fracas. As a parent, I’m shaken and upset by what happened, and still struggling to digest it; but I’m also mindful that swimming pools are enormously more likely to kill my child and yours than firearms, and try to pick my battles accordingly.
Before diving into gun control, the key premise of Kling’s approach is taking a charitable view of your opponents’ ideas. This serves two purposes. First, it makes your opinions digestible to those whom you hope to convince. If the seeds of your argument contain implicit insults of your opponents, it is unlikely that they will listen long enough to be persuaded. Secondly, it serves as a check on intellectual honesty. Read more…
Cross-posted from PolicyMic.
It’s splashed across the top of the New York Times homepage:”27 DEAD IN SHOOTING; 20 CHILDREN.”
The numbers keep climbing. Each successive detail rends the heart a little further. The shooter, Adam Lanza, may have been as young as 20-years-old. The site of the massacre: an elementary school. Lanza’s mother taught kindergarten at that school. She was also his first victim. And then he took his Sig Sauer, his Glock, and his M4 carbine, and he murdered 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10, along with at least five of their teachers and school staff.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, a little boy told a Times reporter, “we were in the gym, and I heard really loud bangs.” He was shivering, that little boy. He was weeping. And he is not alone.
But we can’t talk about it. Because, for reasons passing understanding, getting mad about the unjustly dead, wanting to do something about it, is tantamount to politicizing it, and that, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tells us, we cannot do.
Yes: Children died today, and there, on the blue-and-white draped stage reserved for representatives of our Commander-in-Chief, is Carney, telling us that ”Today’s not … a day to engage in the usual Washington policy debates … That day will come, but today’s not that day.” He won’t be the only one to say so. And yet …. Read more…
(an earlier version of this column appeared on Sojourners)
A nation of Monday morning quarterbacks does not sit idly by when the biggest, costliest championship game in town has just been played.
Indeed, much has been made about who said what and why, what it means, and how much it cost in this year’s Presidential campaign. One side, the pundits argue, successfully cast their opponent as the voice of Wall Street excess and corporate America run amok, while the other side cynically asserts that the victor claimed his prize by his appeals and (undeserved) gifts to the needier among us.
If only the latter were true.
In three presidential debates last month, we heard President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney speak of tax cuts, deficits, jobs, and the middle class literally hundreds of times. We heard appeals to sensible seniors, military veterans, anxious independents, and, of course, middle class moms.
But how much more was left unsaid. In those same presidential debates, poverty hardly featured and the word “inequality” appeared not at all. When “the poor” were mentioned, it was by Governor Romney; the so-called “food stamp President” did not utter a word.
How can it be that the Holy Bible refers to helping the poor and vulnerable over 2,000 times yet two professing Christians running for President of the United States disregard this unholy scourge?
As we did not hear in those debates, nearly fifty million Americans are currently living in poverty–more than at any other time in our nation’s history–and between a third and half of all Americans are within a few lost paychecks of the poverty line. When a quarter of all American jobs pay less than poverty line wages for a family of four, systemic poverty and inequality become more than abstract economics: they are moral and Constitutional concerns.
So they should be treated by the men and women who aspire to lead our country.
But the politics of modern elections, as we were recently reminded, do not favor the least of these God’s children. Read more…