On Shame And Justice

Everything looked exactly as it did this morning as it did yesterday.

Brilliant blue sky. Yard draped in a cold, white blanket. Bracing, bone-dry wind from the west-northwest, swirling will-o-wisps of dusty snow that caught the twinkles of sun. In the teens, below zero in the stiff breeze, but the red oak in the stove kept the house cozy warm. My watch reading 7:30 a.m., and the dogs were not yet stirring because they know the value of warmth.

Yet this morning, approaching mid-March, I was a man out of time. Turning on my phone, it had reset. It was 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning. An hour later. Daylight Savings Time.

When one comes to associate “springing forward” with, well, spring, it is rather discordant to see bitter winter outside. Granted, I’ve experienced snowfall on May 1. This is New England, after all, with all four seasons possible in 24 hours. But sustained deep winter weather is not a signifier of the time we set our clocks ahead.

It seems more lately the granular has held my interest. The details of my environment, each turn of a ray of light through a window, the flecks of gray on a gull’s breast, the bits of shell on pavement and path. It’s been my reaction, a one-time political science major, to the recent goings-on.

What I’ve circled back to, again and again, is the value of shame.

A lot of the behavior we’ve seen exhibited in the campaign last year was nothing we’d ever seen or expected to put up with. But the tribalism that has come to the fore has, predictably, led to a lot of excusing, a lot of enabling by supporters. No one can imagine Ronald Reagan or either of the Bush’s mocking a disabled reporter or bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic and surviving politically.

By failing to draw the line, by letting ambition to win at any cost and need to defeat a despised “other,” we allowed further erosion of what is acceptable. There is no law that says a candidate speaks derisively of others. There is no statute or regulation or passage in the constitution that governs what appropriate, decent and honorable behavior is and what is unkind and inconsiderate.

So now we have seen a president who continues to behave in the fashion – erratically – and the culture of those he has brought to the White House ripples throughout the nation at large. The attitude that the chief executive cannot have a conflict of interest by virtue of his office, that his staff is not bound by federal ethics laws, convey a sense of impunity.

If the only bounds of acceptable behavior are precedents of decency, then those with no sense of shame will cross those boundaries like lines on a paper. Those who have been raised in comfort and have had it demonstrated time and again that laws only apply when they are applied – and enforced – will spin out their Spirographic pattern in wider and wider arcs for their whole lives. The blatant and constant need for adoration is a well that can never be filled.

It is given that to be a politician, one needs to have a larger helping of ego. The feeling a person has that they can effect change in a profession that runs on relationships, rewards, serves and punishes the public and comes with certain trappings of office, clearly appeals to those who have more than a good deal of self-confidence.

But a person who has never been truly answerable for their personal actions is dangerous. Donald Trump has never worked in government. He was never elected to any office. He never ran an agency. He never served in the military. He never had to work with anyone.

The only job he was ever hired for was for his father. Likewise, in business, he never was answerable to a board of directors or shareholders. It’s all been the family. And a family will overlook a lot, as long as everyone is provided for.

The rest of us are expendable. Disposable. Hence the emphasis on loyalty over experience and proficiency by the current administration.

But it is not like this happened in a vacuum. Our political system has been chewing at the edges of decency for years, with the only two guiding principles coming to rule: 1) Desire of gaining short term political advantage, and 2) CYA. I’ve watched this for decades now, and more than ever do I believe that those most adept at #1 always seem to need #2.

Or, as Frank Herbert wrote, “Power attracts the corruptible.” Adding, “Suspect any who seek it.”

So if common decency has failed us and the only guiding principle is “whatever we can get away with,” then we are only left with one limit: the law. Clearly that has been the case to date. Attorneys, and the courts they serve, are stepping forward to press for accountability and limits on executive power.

This is not a partisan effort, for I have been as impressed by the writings of Dahlia Lithwick and the efforts of human rights lawyer Sarah Kay as the insights of former Republican legislator Peter Morin and former Bush ethics adviser Richard Painter. Going to court is supposed to be a last resort, when all else fails.

It is exhausting to have to take generally accepted issues and settled case law to court every week, pushing back at executive overreach driven by politic whims and personal need for affirmation. Yet it must be done.

Small details of life, in the past several months, have thus been a preferred diversion from these larger issues of propriety, of fairness, of justice. It’s a way of holding onto time, I suppose, to focus on the timeless, or to observe the eternal.

But time advances, sometimes in leaps and jumps. So with an hour lost already to the ether, and the outside world not seeming to be in sync with what we suppose it ought to be, it seems a ready time.

If you believe life is not fair, then you will never respect it, never seek it. That is why we have justice. We have waited long enough.