For the last few months, I’ve been irritated by four particular phrases—shibboleths, really—that liberal readers post in the comments section of The New York Times. The annoyance grew, like a boil, until I finally decided to skewer it. Here are the four:
1) No one is above the law. I’m sure that those who parrot this slogan are overwhelmingly white and comfortable, and willing to lock everything they’d ever learned about U.S. history into some rarely accessed cerebral compartment. No black person would mortify herself or himself by making such a statement. “No one is above the law” was repeated often during the sham impeachment hearings put on by House Democrats last fall. It was obvious to me that the Dems had no desire for an actual trial, but were only trying to placate their most vociferous constituents. Otherwise they would have charged Trump with multiple violations of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution. Or perhaps they were afraid that someone would shine a light on their own crooked dealings.
I should add that I have little to no respect for the law. It is no reliable instrument of justice applied equally to all, but a tool of whoever is in power, and changes continuously in an ongoing struggle between the wealthy and the poor, between those who want to impose racial, sexual, or theocratic hierarchies and those who want to break them down. When I was a child, segregation was legal in the South. Those laws were overturned, but were replaced by drug laws, stop-and-frisk policies, and mass incarceration targeting blacks. Gay sex and abortion were illegal everywhere. These laws were also overturned, but with a right wing judiciary some of them may be reinstated. Corporate spending on political campaigns was at least partially restricted, but is now unlimited thanks to a SCOTUS decision equating money with speech. Despite the pretentious title given to members of the US Supreme Court, law ≠ justice.
2) History will judge them. The comfortable people reassure themselves by pronouncing that “history will judge” whichever politician is oppressing and/or ripping off the public and getting away with it. Someone should remind them that history isn’t written by some impartial arbiter, but by the victors. A couple of decades down the road, when future scholars dispute the official account of today—even if more honest versions are then generally accepted—it will be too late to throw the despot in prison, restore life to the corpses of those he tyrannized, or extract the billions he squirreled away in Swiss banks, and that he and his family will have enjoyed.
3) How can they sleep at night? I am sure that the cruel and corrupt sleep very well. They have fine linen sheets, maids to make the beds, and a bevy of toadies whose job it is to tell them how wonderful they are. If someone dares speak the truth about their crimes, and documents it, they can arrange to have that person charged with treason and incarcerated. In this country, think of Chelsea Manning or Jeffrey Sterling. Think of Edward Snowden, if he hadn’t escaped into exile. Rulers in other countries torture and kill their critics. Of course a mere senator can’t dole out such punishments to upstarts who hurt his feelings, but I’m sure he cries about that all the way to the bank.
4) The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This statement, based on a quote from Theodore Parker, a 19th Century clergyman, was often paraphrased this way by Martin Luther King. The original quote indicated uncertainty about the arc of the moral universe, but a desire to believe, based in Christian faith, that it would bend toward justice. It has been misconstrued to imply that an impersonal force such as “history” or “justice” is on the side of the righteous. It seems to suggest that we do not need to struggle, to fight evil, to work for a better world, because the universe is tending toward justice no matter what we do. Dream on.
In sum, reiterating platitudes may comfort the speaker. But if you want real justice, don’t wait for the politicians or the courts, or whatever deity you believe in. Don’t sit home at your computer and write comments or letters to the editor. Organize! I know it’s difficult in this time of the plague, but people are actually doing it—going on strike, and getting results.