Refuse to accept the unacceptable

Open societies of informed people empowered to cooperate are by far the best problem-solving tool we have. We need to make sure we are able to be that kind of society, because big challenges with existential stakes demand it.

The World Food Programme is warning that 50 million people in 45 countries are on the brink of famine. An unprecedented global food security crisis—driven by background climate disruption, COVID-related economic disruptions, and Russia’s destruction of crops and blockade of exports from the breadbasket of Ukraine—has put a record 345 million people in a state of acute food insecurity (near starvation).

A surgical mask on the Boston memorial to Irish Famine reminds us that crisis demands a response, crisis response shapes nations, and we can use science to protect the vulnerable. Image credit: Clay Banks.

This is just one facet of a multifaceted global storm of compounding risk, and our ability to properly address these threats is in doubt. We must say this out loud, so we can properly get to work, as citizen managers of a self-governing society, restoring our purpose, and reinforcing our ability to rescue those in need and prevent further chaos and suffering.

On January 6, 2021, the world witnessed a pre-planned, coordinated, armed insurrection against the Constitution of the United States. Armed violent extremists attempted to end American democracy and install an unelected autocrat as President.

On June 28, 2022, when a top aide to the former White House Chief of Staff testified about the events of that day, we learned that Donald Trump knew he was directing an armed mob to “fight” on Capitol Hill. And we learned that he acted to enable their violent attack by asking the Secret Service to allow them to keep their weapons, knowing the plan was to menace Congress.

That revelation came amid a shocking wave of Supreme Court rulings in late June, which were ideologically biased, legally and morally incoherent, and moved aggressively to weaken the protection of basic rights. A rogue majority ignored key provisions of the Bill of Rights and granted themselves the unlawful authority to deny full legal personhood at their discretion.

We now face the perilous and absurd situation of people elected to serve all who live within their jurisdiction acting to remove full legal personhood and bodily autonomy from some people. In defiance of the 1st, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, 13th, and 14th Amendments, we have states telling women they must use their bodies for a specific state-sanctioned purpose.

Protesters demand Supreme Court honor reproductive rights. Image credit: Gayatri Malhotra.

If that standard is allowed to stand, no human right is safe. If a woman can be denied an abortion she needs to save her life—by judges who ignore the facts before them, make false statements about legal text, ignore the life-threatening consequences of their own actions, and fabricate legal arguments rooted in their own religious prejudice—then any right can be taken from anyone whether laws allow it or not. 

Some argue this is the unifying thread between the anti-democracy rulings of recent weeks: the assertion of an arbitrary power, unmoored from law or democratic process, to selectively deny protection and to politically disempower specific groups. All of this combines to leave us in a much deeper Constitutional crisis than most in our political life would like to admit.

  • Three of the justices joining the shocking anti-rights rulings were named to the Court by a President who acted to incite an armed coup attempt
  • Section 3 of the 14th Amendment makes the man who named them to the Court ineligible to exercise the powers of any office, including the Presidency.
  • A majority of Americans now believe Trump should be criminally charged for his actions during and around the January 6 attack on Congress.
  • We have evidence in the public domain that he committed grave crimes.
  • And yet, very few elected Republican officials are willing to formally break with the coup leader.
  • One person who urged the Trump White House to illegally reverse the 2020 election results is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has voted to conceal evidence that could implicate her.

These are deep degradations to the legitimacy of key institutions that allow our Constitutional democracy to function. The rogue justices went even further, however, not only selectively denying full and equal legal protection but specifically eroding the government’s ability to keep people safe.

In the Bruen case, the Court ruled a New York law unconstitutional that restricts the ability of individuals to carry firearms. The nation is now reeling from 16 mass shootings in 72 hours, during the July 4 holiday weekend; there have been 323 mass shootings in the United States this year. 871 children (age 0 to 17) have lost their lives to gun violence this year. 

2 million people are estimated to have joined nearly 900 March for Our Lives events on March 24, 2018. Image credit: Alex Radelich.

In the West Virginia case, the Court seeks to restrict the EPA’s ability to limit destructive pollution. Worse, the ruling ignores the fact that the industry in question has consistently refused to act in line with governing law, precedent, or regulation, to reduce global heating pollution.

  • In both of these cases, the rogue justices callously and illegitimately ignore the real-world harm that will ensue from their rulings.
  • They ignore the real-world harm that will ensue from denying women full reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.
  • They ignore the real-world harm that will ensue from their decision to erode Miranda protections.
  • They ignore the real-world harm that will ensue from their decision to allow breaches of the separation of church and state.
  • In that case, the majority opinion goes as far as to lie about the evidence of the case to support their opinion.

Despair can be tempting; it feels like a rational response to a pattern that seems to close off all paths out of danger. It is tempting to look for the apt assessment in such situations, as a faint sign that we are still equipped with reason. But the supposed rationality of despair is an illusion.

Those who seek to abuse the powers of public office, who wish to eliminate rights protections and degrade the rule of law, to make room for their corruption, depend on decent people being demobilized by despair. Despair is surrender, and it is dangerous.

My friend David Thoreson is an Arctic explorer. He was part of an expedition that sailed through the Northwest Passage on a small boat. In such a situation, every person’s health, attention, and abilities, are vital to the survival of everyone else. To keep ship-shape, everyone needs to stay healthy, rested, and in good spirits. There is an unwritten rule everyone on board must follow:

Despair is not allowed.”

That rule applies when the weather is fair and easy, and when conditions threaten to overwhelm the vessel. This isn’t to say that numerous system-level threats to human rights and wellbeing are as simple as keeping a boat upright; it’s just to say that at no point can despair help to lessen the danger.

CCI featured David Thoreson’s photo of sailing through rough seas in its Steer Us to Safety campaign, to urge the G7 countries to respond to ongoing crises with enhanced ambition and action.

The pressures facing the American democratic republic at this moment are many, fierce, debilitating, and compounding.

  • Most people haven’t seen their real income rise against the cost of living since 1980, and oil price rigging by Saudi Arabia and Russia is causing everything to get more expensive.
  • Climate disruption is creating intensifying impacts. The US experienced six natural disasters in 24 hours last month.
  • Violent extremism is spreading, even as random acts of violence also increase, and deadly weapons are proliferating.
  • The right to remain free from harm is under attack, along with reproductive rights, the right to redress, and the right to vote.

There is no immediate solution to any of these degradations of our rights and freedoms. The only sensible response is to organize, across diverse perspectives and experiences, to rebuild what now stands threatened.

We need to organize ourselves, as a society, to address the challenges we face, and we must do it while an insidious authoritarian movement works to stop good sense from finding solutions. We must overcome that dangerous absurdity with clarity, focus, cooperation, and the active defense of the humanity, and ingenuity, in each of us.

We must refuse to accept the unacceptable and dedicate ourselves to replacing these dangerous forces with a way of working that honors and serves the vulnerability and the humanity in each of us.

This post was first published on Medium, on July 8, 2022.

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