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  • Richard Farr

It's a Humpty Trumpty World

Language matters; three words that matter more than most right now - because our politicians are encouraging us to get it all wrong about what they mean - are "law and order."

Yesterday I found two headlines that might have been put right next to each other by the satirical paper The Onion:

Headline 1:

Trump plans law and order speech.

Headline 2:

Trump's public lands chief refuses to leave his post despite judge's order.

Trump's choice to head the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, has been in his post illegally. This is what the law, as represented by a US District Court judge, says. But Pendley won't leave, because he has "the support of the President" - the "law and order" President, whose word is law to him, apparently. Long live George III.

In the presidential debates so far, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have failed to make the critical point that this vast irony exposes. There's all the law and all the order a Donald Trump could want in China, and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. What then is so disturbing about that kind of "law" and "order"? Obvious: the law applies in one way to some ordinary citizens, in another to those the state demeans or demonizes, and in a third to its apparatchiks; order comes through the application of law, or rules anyway, and is paid for in freedom. The key contrast is this: an absolutely key component of any genuine rule of law and its resulting order, as understood say by the US Constitution, is equality under the law. And thus the key distinction is not between law-and-order and chaos; it's between equality under the rule of law and all the different ways in which unequal power can leave people in subjection.

We honor the career of RBG because she persuaded the male-dominated courts and country of something that only now seems obvious: the rule of law in the US was incomplete, because it failed to treat women as the equals of men. (And sometimes vice versa... the point of some of her craftily-chosen early cases.) We honor Black Lives Matter because it is a cry to finally make American society, including its police, treat Black citizens as the equals of white citizens.

So we don't just want law and order; in fact, as the Founding Fathers well knew, revolution - even violent revolution - can be an appropriate response to it. What we want is a very particular kind of order that comes from a system of law that treats all of us - even jackass Federal appointees, or jackass Presidents - as equal under it.

But for now, alas, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more, nor less.” (Humpty Dumpty)

Postscript: on a closely-related subject, don't miss Mary B. McCord in today's New York Times on what the law says about the threat posed to us all by the spreading cancer of plainly illegal "militias." The big brave men with their camo and guns are just itching to impose some order; having it imposed on them by a stern application of what the Constitution and the law actually say... not so much.


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