Bob Schwartz

In Praise of Congressional Mediocrity

Roman Hruska
Roman Hruska was United States Senator from Nebraska from 1954 to 1976. He was a leading conservative, and was anything but a mediocre legislator. But when Richard Nixon appointed G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970, Hruska had this to say about claims that Carswell was less than qualified:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Carswell was not confirmed. And despite Hruska’s accomplishments, he is best known today for his defense of public mediocrity.

As we watch many in Congress talk and talk and talk about why they are not doing anything—except talking—we might remember what Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Or we might go back to Hruska.

Both the Senate and the House have had their share of greatness. The Senate has been a particularly notable body, even if we can’t have all Henry Clays, Daniel Websters and Robert Tafts. The House is a more mixed bag and, as “the people’s house,” maybe it should be.

But at the heart of Hruska’s statement is the question that faces us every day when we look at our national legislators. Do we want to be represented by people at least as good and capable as us—as honest, as hard-working, as smart, as trustworthy, as caring as us? Do we lower that down to a standard of people merely capable of getting elected? Or do we, contra Hruska, raise our standard and look for people better than we are in all the ways that matter? Even if we can’t have all the best, should we ever settle for mediocre?

Reductio Ad Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was asked yesterday why his writings compare homosexuality to bestiality and murder. Answering a Princeton freshman, Justice Scalia said:

“It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd’. If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

(“I thought you would have known” seems a bit of a put down. This may have something to do with Justice Scalia having attended Georgetown undergrad, as opposed to Justices Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all of whom attended Princeton.)

This is a common theme in the logical argument against cultural and moral relativism, particularly when it comes to homosexuality. And it is a provocative argument, as far as it goes. If we are to make no moral judgments about sexuality, then each and every type and instance of behavior is a matter of choice—polygamy, bestiality, you name it. Once we admit morality, we are broadly entitled to hold to it and the distinctions we make, even in the face of popular disagreement.

This is something worth thinking about as we make private and public policy, but it is far from dispositive. Some think we are at our best and doing our best when we hold strictly—including the “strict” construction of the Constitution, or for that matter of the Ten Commandments. But the real world has a funny way of demanding flexibility and fluidity from our philosophers, lawmakers, law interpreters and enforcers.

So Justice Scalia is not entirely wrong. He and all of us are, to avoid the absurd, allowed to attach particular values to homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy, divorce, whatever. There are probably still some out there who believe that slavery is moral; we know at least that it still thrives in the world. As for killing, morals differ for different circumstances; if not we would have outlawed killing entirely, or would admit that we don’t make a clear enough distinction when we seem to be legislating hypocritically.

But the story doesn’t end when we prove logically that different morals are legitimate. In the real world, people suffer at the hands of our “moral feelings” as Justice Scalia calls them. In some ways, it’s always about the suffering. In the face of “moral feelings” among some that there was nothing wrong with slavery, much of America agreed to its greatest national conflict to relieve an equally great suffering. Those who have legitimate “moral feelings” about homosexuality and marriage might want to be weighing their profound discomfort against the suffering of millions, not to mention against the arc of history.

Happy Hanukkah from Matisyahu

Matisyahu is a Hanukkah miracle.

Not because suburban native Matthew Miller named himself after Mattathias, head of the family that took back the Temple in Jerusalem from the Assyrians, giving us the holiday. Not because he became a Chassidic reggae superstar. Not because last Hanukkah he shaved his beard and announced: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Not because this Hanukkah his latest album Spark Seeker is Number 1 on the Billboard Reggae chart, a position it has held for weeks. Not even because his single Happy Hanukkah  is a joyous and irresistible rap reggae celebration about all that is good about the holiday, from which all proceeds go to Hurricane Sandy relief:

Happy Hanukkah
I wanna give a gift to you
Light up the night, my love shine through
From Mount Zion, this is what we do
Bring love to you

Matisyahu is a miracle because he did and is doing what we are supposed to do. Follow your light where it takes you, wherever it takes you. Wherever that is, when you get there, if you get there, shine a light of your own. It is a chance to make yourself happy and to make other people happy. And even if you are not sure you are there, or even sure where you are, celebrate anyway. It’s Hanukkah.