Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ruth Bader Ginsberg's Normlessness

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg popped off about Donald Trump recently, she did not break any laws. And she did not break any rules. And yet, everyone, from the New York Times editorial page on up declared that she had made a grave error. She had violated a custom.

Keep in mind, RBG is one of the most reliable liberal votes on the Supreme Court. The fact has made her a hero to the left. Also, keep in mind that she was a close friend of Antonin Scalia, so she must surely be a fine human being.

But, in her public declamations against Trump, she had, as Jonathan Chait argues in New York Magazine, violated a norm. Chait explains correctly that a norm is not the same as a rule or a law.

He writes:

Rules are not always clear, but they are defined by some kind of concrete line and attached to some sort of enforcement mechanism. Norms work differently. They are a shared ethic that rule out certain kinds of behavior on ethical grounds. When they are broken, it is not all at once, but step by step, in a series of incremental, leapfrogging violations by the opposing sides. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s intervention into the presidential campaign follows this pattern. It is not the first or last violation of a norm, but it is a crucial marker of our political institutions’ progress (or regress) toward complete polarization.

Norms are the glue that holds society together. Among those that you know well are table manners, queuing up, waiting your turn, returning text messages, using good grammar, offering proper greetings and so on. To be less circumspect, the use of pronouns in our language, especially those that denote gender, has been determined by custom. Nowadays, as it happens, the night riders of the thought police have decided that it’s all bigotry and that all such norms need to be systematically violated.

This means that our country is in serious trouble.

We are watching what happens when a society loses its norms. It descends to a condition where, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, human life will become: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

In RBG’s case, the norm says that Supreme Court Justices keep their noses out of politics. They are, or are supposed to be, above the fray. Of course, one might question whether RBG ever keeps politics out of her decisions, and thus, whether she was just exposing her judicial principles.

Chait explains his idea:

The norm in this case is the principle that Supreme Court justices should maintain some distance from partisan politics. Judges in lower courts are actually bound by formal rules prohibiting them from politics. Supreme Court justices are bound by mere custom. And if you consider the norm completely unimportant, and would feel perfectly comfortable with Supreme Court justices roaming convention floors decked out in elephant or donkey gear, barnstorming the country with their preferred candidates, urging their election in 30-second ads, then Ginsburg has merely brought your ideal closer to fruition. If you place some value on the Judicial branch maintaining its formal independence from electoral politics, she has done serious damage.

One might churlishly suggest that it’s not the first time her votes have done damage, but that is not the most important point. The most important point is that custom and tradition dictate what do and do not constitute good manners. And that the failure to respect them and to practice them in one’s dealings, especially in one’s public and interpersonal dealings, has a deleterious effect on the social fabric.

Long time readers of this blog and of my most recent book, The Last Psychoanalyst, know that I have emphasized the importance of a psychosocial concept called “anomie.” I recommend it in place of all of the psychosexual and even cognitive theories that are floating through the psychosphere. I discussed it yesterday in my post about The Perils of Polly.

The concept of anomie was invented by a French sociologist named Emile Durkheim. The term means: normlessness. With it he was describing both the problems that a society faces when behavioral norms break down and the problems an individual will face when he finds himself in a community whose customs differ significantly from those he learned in his birth community.

The Ginsberg example-- and she was surely not the only one to defy decorum and propriety and good manners-- shows that norms often break down because society’s leaders, the people who we all take as role models, do not respect them. I will not name the other political leaders who fail to respect norms, because you know them already.

Those who are conversant in psychobabble will be thinking to themselves that sometimes we feel so strongly about something that we just have to blurt it out… damn the consequences. As I have often noted, that form of individualism, a form that places the individual’s supposed psychic well-being above the interests of the community, leads to social oblivion, greater solitude, and more psychodrama.


Anonymous said...

Normophobia favors the New Normal.

Ares Olympus said...

To be fair, she did apologize, not to Trump of course, but for expressing opinions on Trump's poor character.
"On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them," Ginsburg said in a statement. "Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect."

Hours after releasing the statement Ginsburg talked exclusively to NPR's Nina Totenberg, and expanded upon her statement. She called her comments "incautious."

"I did something I should not have done," she added. "It's over and done with and I don't want to discuss it anymore."
Ginsburg's remarks to CNN as well as to the Associated Press and The New York Times created a highly unusual week at the Supreme Court. Not only was it unprecedented for a member of the current court to delve so deeply into a presidential campaign, but a statement expressing regret is also quite rare.

"He is a faker," she told CNN, going point by point, as if presenting a legal brief. "He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. ... How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that."

What's problematic to me is that her rather mild critiisms should not surprise anyone, and Trump's supporters are surely proud of Trump's inconsistencies. You could even say his supporters are shameless in their support for his shamelessness.

Stuart talked about thus:
When it comes to Trump’s shamelessness, Klein is on the mark:

Trump's other gift — the one that gets less attention but is perhaps more important — is his complete lack of shame. It's easy to underestimate how important shame is in American politics. But shame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery. Most people feel shame when they're exposed as liars, when they're seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested.

Trump doesn't. He has the reality television star's ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won't, to say what others can't, to do what others wouldn't.

Trump lives by the reality television trope that he's not here to make friends. But the reason reality television villains always say they're not there to make friends is because it sets them apart, makes them unpredictable and fun to watch. "I'm not here to make friends" is another way of saying, "I'm not bound by the social conventions of normal people." The rest of us are here to make friends, and it makes us boring, gentle, kind.

Trump's populism may be the ultimate expression of Normlessness. You never know what he's going to do or say next, whether defending Planned Parenthood for helping women or offering to default on the national debt for leverage against retirees who decided to purchase safe treasury notes to avoid market volitility, the suckers!

At least we've been warned, and no one could claim innocence who votes for Trump.

Ares Olympus said...

Trump really is a complete faker. His ghostwriter tells all!

We don't need Supreme Court Justices to trash talk Trump. We just need people close to Trump over the years to disavow him.

Normlessness would seem to be the least of our problem. The ultimate failure is the inability to tell the difference between fact and fiction, and everyone who vows to vote for Trump has this disease, even if we're all dumber for every second we try to fact check anything he says. There's nothing left when the emotional manipulation is lifted.

Good luck Cleveland! Don't be naughty, but laugh if you dare, the clowns are coming to town.
Trump, facing a crowd that had gathered in the lobby of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, laid out his qualifications, saying, “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” If that was so, Schwartz thought, then he, not Trump, should be running. Schwartz dashed off a tweet: “Many thanks Donald Trump for suggesting I run for President, based on the fact that I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ”

Schwartz had ghostwritten Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, earning a joint byline on the cover, half of the book’s five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, and half of the royalties.
While working on “The Art of the Deal,” Schwartz kept a journal in which he expressed his amazement at Trump’s personality, writing that Trump seemed driven entirely by a need for public attention. “All he is is ‘stomp, stomp, stomp’—recognition from outside, bigger, more, a whole series of things that go nowhere in particular,” he observed, on October 21, 1986. But, as he noted in the journal a few days later, “the book will be far more successful if Trump is a sympathetic character—even weirdly sympathetic—than if he is just hateful or, worse yet, a one-dimensional blowhard.”

Eavesdropping solved the interview problem, but it presented a new one. After hearing Trump’s discussions about business on the phone, Schwartz asked him brief follow-up questions. He then tried to amplify the material he got from Trump by calling others involved in the deals. But their accounts often directly conflicted with Trump’s. “Lying is second nature to him,” Schwartz said. “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
When Schwartz began writing “The Art of the Deal,” he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, “I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.” Schwartz now disavows the passage. “Deceit,” he told me, is never “innocent.” He added, “ ‘Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?’ ” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.