Looking to the past to define the future

The good old days

In the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time reading about Portugal for a class about free speech. I came across a Portuguese word, “saudade,” that I have been unable to forget since I first heard about it.

Saudade, as NPR explains, is a word that does not have a direct translation in English. However, they describe it as a melancholy nostalgia for something that may never have happened. While English lacks one word to describe that concept, it sure sounds like the way we talk about the “good old days.”

I read about this word as the controversy about Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation was unfolding. Before his eventual confirmation, there was a lot of buzz about the possible use of the “nuclear option” by Senate Republicans to force the confirmation to happen. The uncertainty surrounding the confirmation process meant entering what felt like unchartered territory.

Under Mitch McConnell’s lead, the “nuclear option” became an explosive reality, and the preceding exasperation led to more questions of how we got to this point. This constant refrain from the Trump administration’s controversial decisions has been a hot topic in news, which is epitomized by the Gorsuch vote. It is another example of extreme partisanship, and I am sure many of us long for when it used to not be this way. But Slate’s Amicus podcast examined if that was ever the case (WNYC’s On The Media has the relevant portion of the longer episode here).

Amicus’ Dahlia Lithwick interviewed Lori Ringhand, a Supreme Court scholar and a law professor at the University of Georgia, and they discussed plenty of historical instances of Supreme Court confirmation hearings being unpleasant affairs.

Are Americans suffering from a case of saudade?

From listening to Gorsuch, as the podcast quotes, one would think the opposite, “When Byron White sat here, it was 90 minutes. He was through this body in two weeks, and he smoked cigarettes while he gave his testimony. There’s a great deal about this process I regret.”

However, it appears that Gorsuch’s experience is nothing new. Amicus cited a few examples, including Justices Thurgood Marshall and Hugo Black, as evidence that nothing comes easy.

An excerpt from Juan Williams’ biography on Marshall explains the controversy around Marshall’s hearing:

“In the two and a half months between the nomination and the vote on Marshall, his record as a lawyer, his writings, his drinking, the women he slept with, and his family came under the intense scrutiny of FBI and Senate investigations. Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, wrote to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, asking if there was information about Marshall’s ties to Communists. Another senator focused on uncovering evidence that Marshall hated whites; other senators loaded up on detailed legal questions, hoping to reveal gaps in Marshall’s knowledge of the law that would disqualify him for the high court.

Hugo Black, a U.S. senator at the time, was confirmed with relative ease, but it was eventually revealed that he was a member of the KKK early in his career. At the Washington Post explains, he initially denied the allegations, retracted the denial after it was revealed to be true and apologized to the nation in a radio address. The apology did not help him at first, and he had to weather that storm until he became known as a respected defender of civil rights.

But this is not the only situation where the concept of saudade appears in the collective conscience of the United States. During a recent field trip to the Texas Capitol, I arranged for my free speech class to visit with former Texas State Representative Glen Maxey.

Hon 3396E class visiting with former Texas State Representative Glen Maxey - Photo by Leela Schooler via Gilbert Martinez
HON 3396E class visiting with former Texas State Representative Glen Maxey – Photo by Leela Schooler via Gilbert Martinez

Maxey cautioned our group that every generation must refight the same battles in his talk. It sounds like the good old days are a thing of myth.

A look in the mirror

Why does that happen? Why can’t Americans reconcile their history with what is happening now? Another NPR article offered a possible explanation: many Americans think they are experts.

There are many reasons for that, some of which have been discussed in this blog. Americans are conditioned by social media to have a narrow worldview, they have unreliable memories and they have a strong cultural legacy that trains them to believe that they are part of the greatest country in the world when that might not be the case.

I am not exempting myself from those tendencies. I got in “trouble” in class once because of my frustration with this state of affairs. I described myself as cynical and the professor asked that I be “skeptical” instead. I took that distinction to heart and started this blog.

The NPR article on experts does not ask people to unequivocally respect experts. Instead, it references an essay by Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, that asks people to understand how experts are “the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.”

That is a personal choice, and it requires the ability to be skeptical, critical and curious about the institutions we have come to rely on to maintain a free democracy. Judge Learned Hand—whose name alone does wonders for his credibility—explained this in a speech on “I Am An American Day” in 1944.

“What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.”

That insight into the collective American identity occurred over 50 years ago. It might be time to stop reaching back in time for the good old days and start looking to creating a better future.


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