Our Democracy: Is There Any Cake Left?

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This piece involves a bit of an epiphany about myself. You know, like when you are surprised into seeing yourself a bit more as you really are. Some background is necessary to lead into how this unfolded.

Since Trump’s election I have become a democracy-freak. Writing a book about it in fact.  And that is taking me on a new journey within myself and across our political spectrum. Here is the opening of my draft Introduction:

Donald Trump is as American as is our democracy. As is our “identity politics” as well, right and left. All are rooted in our culture. Deeply so. The question before us about our democracy is clear: allow it to diminish, muddle along, or grow it powerfully. This book embraces our third option with Whitmanesque enthusiasm and proposes a way to begin working on it.

There are two ways we can think of democracy: simply as a way of governing that belongs in the same category as monarchy, socialism, etc.; or, as both a way of living well and a way of governing. When looking at it as a way of living we are considering a process for people connecting with each other and sustaining those connections. In the least, finding ways to get along and finding ways to work out problems together; at the best, finding ways to come together with some passion for something they share and care about deeply. As such it needs to be cherished and nourished. Our Trumpean situation with all of its polarization from both left and right is a result of our having failed to do that.

Reading two different takes on the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, argued last week before the Supreme Court, brought the tension between “as a way of life” and “as a way of governing” into sharp focus in a surprising way for me.

Like many of you, I could rift endlessly on how the Far Right is a mean polarizing force. But what’s the point. I would be preaching to the choir. Much better for us and for getting some insight into the demise of our democracy, if we look at how we contribute to it. Two recent pundit columns in the NY Times looked at the current case involving the Lakewood, Colorado baker who specializes in wedding cakes being sued by the gay couple because he would not make a wedding cake because, for him, homosexuality is a grave moral wrong.

Ria Tabacco Mar, a staff lawyer with the A.C.L.U. who represented the gay couple all the way to the Supreme Court, wrote a piece, The Colorado Cake Case Is as Easy as Pie, that from my viewpoint decimated the baker’s legal case, argument by argument. For example:

Mr. Phillips is free to express his dissent from Colorado’s equal-service rule, as he has done. He has communicated his views about marriage for same-sex couples far and wide, appearing on national television and in the pages of this newspaper. That’s exactly what the First Amendment protects. But when he opens a business that holds itself out as open to the public, he can’t use those beliefs to discriminate in violation of state law.

In his column How Not to Advance Gay Marriage David Brooks, a fervent supporter of gay rights and the use of the courts in such cases as Brown v. Board of Education, came to the same event from a very different perspective, one that reflected the “as a way of life” dimension of our democracy:

Craig and Mullins were understandably upset. As Mullins told Liptak, “We were mortified and just felt degraded.” Nobody likes to be refused service just because of who they essentially are. In a just society people are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

At this point, Craig and Mullins had two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.

The neighborly course would have been to use this situation as a community-building moment. That means understanding the concrete circumstance they were in…The legal course, by contrast… is inherently adversarial. It takes what could be a conversation and turns it into a confrontation.

Brooks goes on in his column to lay out the polarizing disadvantages for the gay movement of taking this case to the legal mat: it is inherently adversarial, dehumanizing, using the state to coerce an outcome, and elitist. It was this last point that perked up my ears. How did he  get to “elitist:”

It takes a situation that could be addressed concretely on the ground and throws it up, as this one now has been, to the Supreme Court, where it will be decided by a group of Harvard and Yale law grads.

And this was what really impacted me:

If you want to know why we have such a polarized, angry and bitter society, one reason is we take every disagreement that could be addressed in conversation and community and we turn it into a lawsuit. We take every morally supple situation and we hand it over to the legal priesthood, which by necessity is a system of technocratic rationalism, strained slippery-slope analogies and implied coercion.  

It left this Grassroots Economic Organizing editor wondering about how deep his “grassroots” convictions really are. And how blurry his vision for seeing democracy as a way of living may be. Quite outflanked by a strongly conservative writer. So much for stereotyping. J

And there is one more important matter this bit of epiphany brought home to me. I recently read and reviewed a novel—The Therapy Journal—that gives a pretty sharp picture of how trauma becomes a pervasive thing in our lives while being very hidden. It has made me aware of how big a role trauma of all kinds play in our daily lives, particularly in how they shrink possibilities in the face of some kind of conflict.

Brooks speculates that Craig and Mullins had “two possible courses of action.” I can see how that could make sense objectively. But did they subjectively? One of them told a reporter, “We were mortified and just felt degraded.” If that was their personal experience, then how open could they actually be to understanding Phillips, the baker, and what he was struggling with? And then my new awareness of trauma led me into wondering how big of a role did past trauma come into play in the wedding cake conflict.

Further, I know of blacks, women, and gays who don’t tend to feel mortified or degraded when they encounter prejudice. Or at least they don’t just feel bad about it, and are often able to see more positive options along the lines Brooks suggests. If some victims of abuse have moved beyond their victimization to some significant degree, and in doing so have empowered themselves to manage—not repress—incidents of prejudice in the moment, what made that possible?

That seems something well worth exploring and understanding, personally and collectively, for the quality of our individual lives, the cohesion of our movements, and our democracy.   

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