Friday, June 24

The Protection of Liberty: A Response to Anthony Lewis' Review of a book by Justice Stephen Breyer

Anthony Lewis’ review of Stephen Breyer’s book Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View is a thoughtful insight to the American judicial system, the public’s interaction with it and what sustains the court’s viability even when the ruling by the court is unpopular. Lewis endorses the work of his friend, Justice Breyer, as “a remarkable contribution to educating the public about our constitutional system and those whose job it is to guard its boundaries.” Lewis introduces his review by quoting an inspirational 1998 statement by Justice Aharon Barak of Israel. Barak recalled the lessons of the Holocaust reinforce the necessity of democracies honoring self-restraint of their political majorities in order to protect the minority populations. The process of keeping the majority power in-check requires a system of judges who can make impartial, objective decisions.

Breyer’s discussion of “democratic legitimacy” draws valuable attention to a peculiar and brilliant aspect of American democracy, which is the general public acceptance of Supreme Court decisions and an historical respect for the rule of law. The body of Lewis’ review includes historical examples of important judgments by the Court and the legacy of those decisions on the American perspective. Some of the rulings are acknowledged as timely and righteous and unquestionably loyal to the Constitution, such as school desegregation and the Guantanamo detainees suits. Others are exposed for their constitutional short-comings, as in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Japanese relocation case of Korematsu v. United States, and the Bush v. Gore

election decision.

Lewis and Breyer ruminate cultural and sociological features of the evolving role of a court system that must adapt to meet the problems of each new generation while adhering to the intent or values of the Constitution. The conclusion of Lewis’ review highlights Breyer’s hope that the function of the Court would be more fully realized as the understanding of the people it serves increases. Breyer cautions that public acceptance is never a “sure thing,” and “can never be taken for granted.” However, Lewis offers his final thoughts with a negative interpretation of what public acceptance means today. He ponders how judges keep their faith in the system when “they are consistently outvoted by an intransigent ideological majority.” Lewis complains “ultraconservative” judges have an agenda counter to their purpose as interpreters and keepers of constitutional law. His final appeal for continued common dissent and criticism by members of the judicial system and the public at large imply a conspiratorial air to the current American political scene.

His abrupt and judgmental conclusion seems inconsistent with the earlier emphasis of “democratic legitimacy.” Additionally, Lewis assigns corruptive forces to the Court’s idealistic function as coming from one source; ultraconservative ideology. He does not define ultraconservatism, but instead implies its detrimental effects as a force that is changing both the American judicial system and the purpose of the American Constitution. Lewis on one hand applauds the equity of majority rule in the country, yet trashes it in the end by dismissing whatever a majority influence is only in as far as that majority is “ultraconservative.” Majority influence many times in American political history came from a liberal persuasion. However, the author ignores this fact and focuses instead on a specific court case from that time period.

Indeed, even when a conservative majority elects a president who may appoint conservative Justices to the Court, or when the Congress is filled with a conservative majority, it’s not reasonable to cry “unfair” as Lewis does in this article except a profound suppression of all other viewpoints actually exists. Unless he is prepared to first dismiss whatever public election was rigged - and prove it was - which elected so-called “ultraconservatives,” and secondly to show evidence a minority liberal influence either on the bench, or in Congress, or on Main Street, U. S. A. is completely impotent and silent, he is without basis for his ominous opinion about the preservation of constitutional law. Breyer’s work reviewed by Lewis sufficiently demonstrates how American society historically has ebbed and flowed interchangeably in a conservative or liberal or moderate direction. The vigor with which public sentiment or outcry effects lasting impact has never been a speedy process. Americans honor the judicial system because it is law and because the law offers them redress on some level even after a final decision is issued.

Curious - how Lewis can be willing to give due attention to the brilliant foresight of Constitutional framers who intentionally designed the document to survive a totally unknown future metamorphosis of the new country barely founded to successfully serve generations of Americans, yet narrow his vision of current rights and liberties to be under assault by one and only one ideological emphasis. For the first time in over a century, America could see three major political parties in the next presidential election contending equally at the polls instead of two. This is only one example to show how consistently the original intention of the framers is alive and well; Americans are flexing their right to an opinion in a free society. True, more people could and should be better informed about the Court’s function. More people should more involved in the PTA or at the local soup kitchen, too. The fact that there are not more citizens engaged in their communities and the political process is also a by-product of the greater good: citizens are free to choose. The ability to engage in open disagreement is an essential part of what grants liberty a healthy and secure place in society. Lewis can’t applaud the intrinsic chorus of different voices in the American public to consistently and by his own admission, remarkably cleave to the rule of law in spite of personal differences and sucker-punch the system as dangerously monotone! The entire article illustrates how the system breathes and thrives with the give and take, the checks and balances, even the growing pains of old standards expiring as new, more constitutionally pure ideals are gradually embraced by the American culture and then the world. Nevertheless, Lewis is unhappy that ideologies different from his own are given any latitude at all.

Lewis’ meticulous review and his complaint, as well as Breyer’s supremely competent expositions and advice, are welcome to enter the arena of vigorous public debate in America ably protected by the genius of a cherished document that appropriately begins, “We the People . . .”.

Tuesday, June 14

Modern Victimhood: A Convenient Evasion of Personal Accountability

Is personal accountability dead? Joseph Epstein’s “The Joys of Victimhood” is a thought-provoking observation of an American cultural evolution regarding what he terms, “victimhood” or the exploitation and acceptance of false victimization. He calls the bluff of opportunistic groups or individuals who would rush to wield victim identity as both an avenue towards political influence and particularly as a convenient avoidance of personal responsibility. The fact that he wrote this article in 1989 at the birth of political correctness does not date his comments but amplifies the relevance of them. Today’s society is reeling from the fall-out of accountability avoidance. An examination of Epstein’s claim that people who pretend to be victims wield viable political and social power directs attention to the issue of victimhood’s side effect: the relinquishing of personal integrity. Society can not survive the abandonment of individual integrity in the process of entertaining false victims.

The article describes a variety of scenarios in which the association of victimhood profits people in specific ways. Epstein offers the example of Gandhi as a precedent-setting case of a real victim who patiently makes his cause public. His non-violent protest inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and his quest for black equality in America. Epstein reminds us that both these causes were successful because they appealed “. . . not to guilt but to the conscience of the nation.” Both causes in other words, were noble and correct and drew attention to the need for societal change by appealing to the public’s sense of justice.

Epstein illustrates the difference between righteous appeal as with the American civil rights movement, and the cheap-shot of laying blame, as with the violent American black militant movement. It’s one thing to reach out for what is morally right and another thing to angrily posture, demand and threaten others to make a point. Black militants openly called for a race war to the death and punctuated their agenda with bloody conflicts with police, an armed appearance at the State Assembly Chamber in Sacramento and incendiary marxist ideology and public statements.

Epstein asserts personal responsibility and even grace under pressure are the hallmarks of a healthy, functioning society. The bigger the impact of a particular social movement, the more flexible the ticket to opportunistic rewards and privileges as a companion complaint. In other words, Epstein describes worthy causes for redress such as the civil rights movement as the impetus for victim-wannabe advocacy (as in American black militancy), which has neither the moral or practical weight as civil rights but eventually wields considerable power through the phenomenon of imposing a sort of collective guilt. If the rest of society can be persuaded to feel responsible for someone else’s loud complaint,Epstein suggests a welcome mat is extended to practically anyone who might promote a new cause they feel will further themselves.

According to Epstein, an extremely persuasive element of modern victimhood is the art of declaring yourself one. He discusses the natural consequence of the human thought process: if someone is persistent enough in telling himself and everyone else he is a victim, he eventually becomes one. The pseudo-victim or pretend victim is motivated by the status victimhood generates. A victim must stand out from everyone else and receive “sympathy, special treatment even victory.” The modern victim-wannabes also defers responsibility for their own situation to others. In the process, they often assume a position of “moral superiority,” a move which lends a certain justification to their cause and excuses them from personal accountability for their circumstances.

Epstein’s analysis of the negative effects of manipulated guilt via modern victim mentality is difficult to ignore. He proposes a common sense rebuttal to those who posture the angry, offended and morally superior victim for personal or political reward: a mirror. His challenge to examine our core motivations is simply good old-fashioned advice. His conclusion that legitimate victims do not emotionally bludgeon others into accepting responsibility for their condition is spot on. Justice is legitimately served when those who falsely accuse and selfishly manipulate are exposed for the cowardice that inspires them.

The Archangel Michael by Guido Reni

The title of the article sets the scene for Epstein’s exposition of the self-serving theatrics that go with the territory of popular victim-making. The author points out the new guiltless, or the “privileged” and “morally superior” oppressed are shallowly and happily devoted to a party of one - themselves. The article strikes a nerve and the proverbial yawn at the same time when speaking here of basic human nature; if individuals are not responsible for themselves, “. . . they therefore have to find enemies.” This is unfortunately an iconic truth. Turn the pages of history and there is enough harsh evidence of man’s quest for power and resources back to the dawn of time with bloody and appalling results. There has always been a thirst for dominance, for personal advantage without conscience, the practice of seeking and engaging the enemy. Arbitrarily blaming large segments of society, the government, world history or whatever for current personal circumstances is a tawdry deflection of individual responsibility. Assigning adversarial status to the same is a gross narcissistic binge.

Successful societies safeguard the core values which promote and protect the viability of the society. A core value of

any social organization is an expectation of personal integrity and accountability by each member of the society. The more we accept blame for something we shouldn’t, the more license for irresponsibility we give to those who should. It’s more convenient for pretend victims to accuse everyone who does not agree with their cause or their claim to being a victim. They do this by slinging sloppy accusations of “homophobe,” “hater,” “bigot” or “racist.” Language such as this is never a successful dialogue-opener. They are, however, ever-present weapons of choice in the competition for pretend victimhood and its companion influence of attempted guilt transference. Neither tactic would carry much clout if the accuser assumed more personal responsibility for his own circumstances.

Recent examples of the accountability denial epidemic in American society range from defrauded fortunes on Wall Street to predictable chaos in the lives of Hollywood celebrities. The banking crisis of 2007 did not, for instance, generate faulty balance sheets, failed financial institutions, a massive corporate bail-out and a global financial fall-out of estimated trillions because of an inanimate computer-glitch. A critical domino-effect of individual people facilitated bad lending practices that eventually influenced the entire U.S. housing market. The classic primal appetite of human greed powered a movement of illicit practices on all levels, including the imprudent homebuyer who responded to the lure of a bigger and better house. The chain-reaction of relinquishing personal accountability and crying victim at the same time followed foreclosed home-owners who said they were taken advantage of, to the bank loan officers who said they were only following standard guidelines, to the parent financial institutions who blamed federal regulations. The government essentially accepted blame for the bad results and made new victims of conscientious Americans who were responsible with their finances by issuing the infamous bail-out with tax-payer money.

The public melt-down of one of television’s top earning sitcom stars, Charlie Sheen, is a bizarre and pathetic tutorial on the consequences of personal irresponsibility. Fired from his winning show for erratic behavior, Sheen responded by

filing suit against the studio. He then immediately grabbed as many interview opportunities as possible to get the word out: there was a new victim in town, and he was it. Sheen refused culpability for any of his outrageous actions which ranged from drug and sex orgies to threatening to gut his wife with a knife. Virtually in the same breath as his denial, he boasted that his drug use was “more than anybody could survive.” In spite of a string of incredibly bad behaviors, the actor’s popularity appears to be at an all-time high. He launched a very successful web series and a line of Sheen tee shirts. Record ticket sales accompany a series of his scheduled live performances. His continual claim that he was a victim had no real basis in fact. However, it carried influence in his favor the longer he simply said it was so. In Sheen’s case, there definitely are rewards for victimhood.

Public figures like Sheen may generate millions of “hits” on Youtube, but flamboyance or bizarre utterances are more than entertainment in America. The extremes of human behavior tolerated for morbid curiosity’s sake are often a reflection of a deeper, wide-spread sickness in the national patient. In such an environment, victimhood is one of the irresponsible human behaviors that naturally flourishes. Guilt and victimhood are dark and defeatist companion mind-sets, and as such are precarious standards to live by. Anything that alters the national consciousness to the point that it becomes a new cultural reality is truly a powerful trend. Analyzing how that change or “shift” gains common acceptance is a fascinating journey. Epstein’s readers might not agree with him, but they will certainly respond to his thought process. Epstein’s thoughts serve as a springboard for somber reflection on just what core value we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of political or personal convenience.

In this case, it appears that the integrity and value of personal accountability is on the altar and at a terrible cost. Individual dismissal of personal accountability is at the root of virtually every social ill. It is a contributing force behind sky-rocketing costs from healthcare to social programs and judicial dockets packed for months in advance. Abandoned personal integrity results in crime, substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce and illegitimacy. A denial of personal accountability powerfully motivates shamefully selfish choices. Several examples include the shockingly egregious proliferation of addictive and compulsive behaviors such as online drug, pornography and gaming addictions. Individuals who indulge in these behaviors do so exclusively because it feeds a self-centered gratification. Once the addictive aspect of what were originally behaviors of choice takes over, the person is overwhelmed physically, psychologically and spiritually in the never satisfied quest to gratify themselves to the sad exclusion of virtually all else. This “me” culture swirls the drain sweeping broken promises and devastated families along with it for a hell of a ride.

Pandemonium by John Martin

scene from Paradise Lost

Society’s acquiescence to the bullying “victim” also interrupts and side-lines in a profane way the righteous process of nurturing those who ought to be nurtured, the real victims among us. Real victims are those who have experienced something that is an act of nature, those who are born with a physical infirmity or acquire one later, or suffer affliction because of the unjust actions of another. Life has enough real victims and real social issues to seriously address. There should be less time devoted pandering in false guilt or fear of reprisal to pretend and opportunistic victims. The tipping point is really a single decision that is generated by our sense of personal integrity. Which course to follow? A decision to act or be is only a seed thought that is watered and cultivated until it is finally acted upon. Choosing which thought we want to honor or nourish defines our moral character. This article by Epstein challenges us to honestly examine our own thought process, and in effect, our own sense of integrity and personal accountability. Any sales, self-help or religious revival seminar will champion this simple truth as if it were a profound, alien discovery. If we consistently act the part, we become.

Proverbs 23, verse 7 reads: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Epstein would whole-heartedly concur.


“Bad Bank”. This American Life WBEZ/NPR Chicago Public Media. Episode 375 27 February 2009 Web

Baker, Gerald. “Banking Crisis: Spectre of 1930s haunts America as financial turmoil worsens”. The Sunday Times. 1 Oct. 2009 Web

Black Panther Party. Encyclopedia Britannica Web

Charlie Sheen Sues Over Show. CNN Entertainment. 10 March 2011 Web

Good Morning America ABC News Exclusive: Charlie Sheen says He’s ‘Not Bi-polar’ but ‘Bi-Winning’. 28 February 2011 Web

Jeffries, Judson L., et al. “Militancy Transcends Race: A Comparative Analysis of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords”. Black Diaspora Review. 1 (2) Spring 2010 Web

Proverbs 23 Verse 7. Holy Bible, The King James Version

Winning?! Charlie Sheen Reportedly Offered Job Back”. KBOI ABC News Radio. 21 March 2011 Web

Sunday, June 5

The Pale of Personal Boundaries

“The Boundaries of Help” is a practical insight from author Karen Kissel Wegela. A practicing psychologist, Wegela reviews both her clinical experience and her own personal evolution with the concept of setting and honoring healthy boundaries in personal relationships. The author organizes her thoughts by dividing the article into three sections: the initial clinical setting which presents a conflict, the author’s process within herself to come to grips with the conflict, and the author’s conclusions for general consideration.

The first section describes a client-therapist and a mother-daughter relationship. Her analysis of the process required to set healthy boundaries is sound. Sara’s inability to say “no” to her two dysfunctional daughters amounted to allowing her adult daughters who frequently abandoned their children to take advantage of Sara. Moreover, the mental health agency where Wegela practiced had established rules to protect both the client’s time with a therapist, and the therapist’s privacy away from the clinic. When Sara dismissed the rules, or crossed those boundaries by first bringing grandchildren with her to a therapy appointment, and second, by calling the therapist at home, Wegela reaffirmed the boundaries previously agreed upon. She reminded Sara in both instances that she could not respond to her needs if Sara was unwilling to abide by the rules. Sara was upset and angry with her, and the author questioned her own altruistic ethics as a result.

Wegela’s second section in the article followed a step-by-step review of the situation described previously. She honestly reflected on her base, emotional response to denying someone in crisis. The author admitted to herself, and to the reader, she might have been insensitive or lacked the commitment she thought she had to serve others. Wegela felt connected and responsible to Sara because she knew her story, and more especially because she knew Sara was suffering.

Wegela’s willingness to share her thought process at this juncture is a valuable insight to the common human tendency of self-doubt, which she points out is often a crippling and distracting stumbling block to effective relationship-building. The author’s personal value-system, a combination of Buddhist meditation philosophy and her clinical psychology training, successfully restrained her “natural” emotions and helped her recognize the impotency of negative self-talk. She was able to come to peace with her decision to stand her ground with Sara. The reader may easily relate to Wegela’s personal struggle of second-guessing her own motives. Ultimately, in the case study presented, Sara responded positively to Wegela’s therapeutic insistence on “healthy boundary-setting”, and decided to say “no” to one of her daughters. She did this by explaining to her daughter that she was available to baby-sit one day, but not on another. A relieved Sara finally began to gain more control over her own life in so doing.

In the third section of the article, Wegela expounds on reasons why people open themselves to unhealthy compromises to their personal boundaries. She explores what she believes motivates people who can’t say “no”, or in other words, people who can not respect themselves enough to firmly distance themselves from interacting with other people’s needs or demands when those issues are beyond the pale of healthy limits. Wegela wisely asserts that, “Sometimes we let others walk all over us in our misguided attempts to be helpful. When we behave in this way, it is important to look into our own motivations.”

Her guided examination of personal motivation to help others to the detriment of self interests is an appeal to an entirely logical theme; it is not helpful to either party to give power to disrespectful or potentially abusive behavior. Wegela astutely asks the reader to consider how encouraging “. . .others to be so mindless and unkind,” is helpful to anyone? She cuts to the chase when she points out the fear inevitably involved in failing to say “no.” According to the author, when people give whatever another person wants because they fear the relationship will end if they don’t, the relationship is identified as co-dependent.

The article is well written. The clinical illustration of patient and therapist is fairly cut and dried and presents the issues without complication. Wegela gives the reader only a glimpse of the far more complicated interchange between Sara’s daughters, their children and their grandmother. The case example is sufficient to illustrate Wegela’s focus, which is the desirability of protecting healthy personal boundaries. The author delivers this stated focus with clarity.

An appraisal of Wegela’s article must begin with her greatest insight into what is involved when wanting to help goes wrong. Most notably, Wegela assigns ego as a root reason people become entangled in one-sided or dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. The connotation of ego in this example appears to be the often negative definition of self-importance. However, it is clearly much more than that. She further emphasizes this point by adding an amazingly persuasive word to the ego discussion , “seductive.” Her use of this single word is brilliant because it is an inescapably emotional word. The author thereby ordains powerful meaning to the almost urgent desire people can experience when they sacrifice themselves for others, believing the resulting violation of boundaries is temporarily justified. Wegela is also referencing the larger meaning of ego; inner-self, core concept, and the subconscious.

Obviously, both self-concept and self-esteem are integral to the dynamics of all interpersonal relationships. To identify ego as the self-concept governing basic decision-making in human relationships is a clinically necessary perspective. It automatically becomes an increasingly complicated dynamic whenever people allow others to take advantage of them. A fine line exists between annoying inconvenience and the beginnings of actual abuse. Much of the time, this kind of complexity is so emotionally-charged those involved are unaware of the progressively oppressive web they are in.

In the context of offering help to others who fail to honor healthy behavior, the belief that one is specially capable, responsible or even destined to help may be a terrifically powerful influence on the lack of appropriate boundaries that result. If a person feels exclusively needed to give help, it becomes vastly more difficult to reject unrighteous imposition when it occurs. Also, the person who imposes upon the person who helps unconditionally may never appreciate their own culpability.

The concept of establishing healthy boundaries in personal relationships is a necessary skill for personal protection, happiness and optimum productivity. As in the case of Wegela’s client Sara, the two daughters and the grandchildren, establishing healthy boundaries proved to be a learnable endeavor. Mother learned how to hold her daughters more accountable for what they anticipated from her, and by their compliance, the daughters also had an opportunity to learn something about themselves. Wegela presents a great springboard for discussion on the topic in her very concise article.

Books by Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D.:

How to Be a Help instead of a Nuisance: Practical Approaches to Giving Support, Service, and Encouragement to Others

What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness and Compassionate Presence to Help, Support, and Encourage Others