Wednesday, May 3, 2023

That Depends on Your Definition of "Is"

It was 25 years ago that then-President Bill Clinton stumbled through a response to a question he had been asked during a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. (Now there's a name that many of us forgot because the real drama centered on his dalliance with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.) Clinton was trying to be lawyerly in offering a non-definitive answer, and many of us have invoked this phrase whenever we are attempting to offer nuance on the varying degrees to what could be and what IS now. 

As in, there is a difference between the sky being blue and it being cloudy, but that difference is dependent on your perspective. It could be both, a blue sky filled with puffy clouds, or it could be an overcast sky that was blue about an hour ago. So, it depends--is the sky blue right now or is it a blue sky overcast by clouds so even though I am looking at gray, I know that there is blue somewhere out there...

For some reason, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg decided that the Tuesday of Holy Week would be the right time to summon Defendant Zero to his former home state to be arraigned. In predictable fashion, his delusional supporters likened it to the unfair persecution of Jesus. As they made the rounds on the Sunday shows to lament the historic indictment of their beloved cult leader, I could not help but to think of how we are once again engaged in a symbolic debate over the meaning of what IS. Is this dude, who once bragged that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any support, being mistreated because he is the subject of multiple ongoing investigations into his conduct? How is it the fault of the Manhattan District Attorney that a busy city had to shut down for an ex-President to arrive for his arraignment, when Trump's campaign events involve the same kind of security maneuvers? Is it fair that no matter what, we are stuck with this guy, his family of grifters, his supporting cast of carnival flunkies, and even his farts being the most important news story that sucks all of the oxygen from the airwaves??? 

Since I started off by quoting Bill Clinton, let's compare notes, since his Presidency has to have been the most chaotic until Donald Trump came along and said hold my wine. Is it more scandalous to use state troopers to cover up your extra-marital dalliances or is it more scandalous to divert campaign funds to pay hush money to porn stars and doormen when you are allegedly a billionaire? Or in both cases, is the pursuit of the justice so motivated by politics that we tend not to recognize abuse and overreach? I thought it was overkill to prosecute Clinton for being a horny frat boy with an insatiable need for blowjobs in the Oval Office. I also don't care how many women the Donald has paid to keep silent about the size and functioning of his 'equipment'. However, in both cases, the salacious details were evidence of the lengths both men would go to cover up their abuses of power. Hence, the question is whether they can and should be held accountable for their conduct.

Mind you, the consequences for abuse of power at that level aren't all that severe. Clearly, the entire process of impeachment has proven to be a meaningless exercise in partisan saber rattling. Bill Clinton lost a law license he wasn't using and he likely had some donor to pay that settlement to Paula Jones. His wife negotiated that in exchange for standing by him, she would get to launch her political career out of the ashes of his humiliation. His Vice President did act like Peter and denied knowing him on the campaign trail in 2000 (and look at how that worked out for him). But Clinton still keeps all of the perks of having been President. The same is true for Trump, who survived two impeachments and is currently the GOP front-runner for 2024. He has yet to suffer any real consequences for helping to facilitate the Russian War with Ukraine or for threatening the life of his Vice President. At worst, Donald Trump lost the election in 2020 and will never get to be President again. 

According to my definition of is, people in power get a lot more leeway than the rest of us. When they cry about being treated unfairly, it's hard to take those claims seriously. Trump got a Secret Service escort from his private golf course to his private plane. Agents were likely stationed throughout a radius around his private midtown building and outside of his penthouse. At his arraignment, he was flanked by a table full of lawyers, and he got to hold a campaign rally in another state later that very evening. He didn't spend more than an hour at the courthouse--there was no perp walk, no handcuffs, and he essentially got to dictate the terms of his "surrender". What about any of that is unfair???

A Black man with unpaid parking tickets would be lucky not to get killed at a stoplight in broad daylight for a broken taillight. That IS unfair. 

On a community listserv recently, someone complained how it is unfair that they couldn't play tennis on a public court because a local day care center allows the children to play there, and this overlaps with their free time. There is a playground close by, but it is closed due to construction, so this displaced would-be Serena Williams/Rafael Nadal feels that these interlopers should be reported. Several commentors offered suggestions on how to deal with this injustice, including the very helpful observation that since many of these day care workers are foreign-born, the language barrier might make it uncomfortable to confront them, so maybe follow them back to see where the center is located to register the complaint with the director. Another commenter complained that if these children enrolled in a private day care can't play elsewhere, stale cookies! It is an imposition on public resources to provide them with public outdoor recreational facilities; therefore, as someone who pays taxes and earns a lunch hour, they should have the right to evict the kids. 

Y'all, I read that post and the comments and immediately wondered how it must feel to be so entitled.  Initially, I thought the taxpayer assertion of rights was just trolling snarcasm, but they were serious. Imagine feeling displaced by children and fearing a language barrier that might exist between you and the underpaid foreign-born staff who watch over them? Literally, how is this a question of fairness? 

A lot of the situations that get described as unfair are merely inconvenient. It certainly must have been inconvenient for Trump to have to give up two days of golf to travel to New York. And yes, it is inconvenient to encounter children playing on a public tennis court instead of another set of tennis players who got there first.

Unfair is what happened to the families of those three children and three adults killed at that school in Nashville (and every other gun incident in April and this year so far). Unfair is what happened to Tyre Nichols. Unfair is how the Tennessee Legislature drew the legislative districts to ensure a GOP supermajority that has been abusing its power this session. (I've got more to say about that, so just you wait.) 

Since the situation with the Tennessee Three was foremost on my mind when I began writing this piece, unfair is how the goalposts get moved whenever people who have always been in power feel threatened. Unfair is what just happened to a duly elected legislator in Montana. Imagine being censured for doing your job since the job of a legislator is to speak on pending legislation! But they didn't want to hear what she had to say, so they turned off her microphone and banned her. The same impetus is behind efforts in states around the country where bills are pending to 'discipline' prosecutors who prioritize fighting systemic corruption over filling prisons with petty criminals. It is unfair that as long as white prosecutors were building their careers on jailing the poor and the powerless, that was fine. But when a new wave of prosecutors are choosing otherwise, suddenly that is a problem worth legislating.

Unfair are the various ways the rich and powerful abuse their power with impunity--and how they evade responsibility for their crimes and schemes that leave death and destruction in their wake. I alluded to that here, in case you need a reminder that the justification often implied is this phrase: because I can.

Unfair is how Carolyn Bryant Donham got to live 68 years without uttering a word of remorse or regret for her part in the incident that made her infamous, and folks think we ought to feel sorry for her.

Most of the people with real problems don't get as much empathy as they deserve because they rarely have the time or garner the attention to communicate their grievances and needs. Someone struggling to survive can barely manage that. And that is unfair, because it would be great for life to send them a few wins instead of constantly setting up the losses. I can tell you a few stories of life being unfair, and trust, these aren't the whines of someone who is finally being forced to suffer the consequences of their actions.

According to my definition of is, Hell is a lot more crowded than we think. I believe in redemption, but most of the people who should be in line to ask for it are too busy complaining about the unfairness of having to. 

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