Does anyone read the law?
At The Week, Ryan Cooper penned two articles that demeaned the Georgian legislature for its voter suppression laws. We must take his description and assessment of the faith as he believes that the New York Times has represented the law fairly. Meanwhile, Delta Airlines, Major League Baseball, Will Smith and his film company Coca-Cola and many others have responded to “voter suppression” by threatening the state with boycotts or other forms of economic punishment. Celebrities and politicians have condemned the law as “Jim Crow 2.0” or, in one memorable case, “Jim Eagle”.
It can be said with almost complete confidence that one thing that most critics have in common is that they didn’t actually read the law. Georgian Law SB202 has become a phone game. Review of articles in the Times about the law reveals that the Times is referring to other articles they have written about the law, but not the law itself. SB202 is a scripture like the Constitution or the Bible that everyone reads about Opinion, but few have actually read it.
I read Georgia law because I try to commit myself to two basic interpretive principles: not to make interpretive judgments about things I haven’t read, and not to accept the trustworthiness of others’ interpretations. How can we possibly know if someone’s interpretation is valid if we cannot stop them against our own reading of the document itself? Others can help shed light on the text, open up its meaning, and draw attention to things we have overlooked or our own mistakes, but only in a dialectic with our own reading. They can also deliberately misinterpret the text, introduce a number of ideological or partisan preferences that skew its meaning, exaggerate its mistakes while overlooking its virtues, or otherwise mislead us. In fact, they can be deliberately misunderstood to defeat enemies and advance their own power.
A few years ago when we were discussing the Prince in my modern political thought class, I had a student thinking about Machiavelli’s immorality. After he continued for a few minutes, I looked at him and said, “You haven’t really read the book, have you?” Embarrassed, he admitted that he hadn’t. “Well then,” I replied, “I really don’t care what you think.” I had long told my students that their first obligation as readers was to understand the text and only then to judge it. But then I saw that I had spoken wrongly; Our first obligation as readers was to actually read.
It would be unthinkable to try to teach a book that you haven’t read. Professors can quickly identify the students who read the assigned reading and those who didn’t. Most people are confident enough not to have an opinion on a movie or book they haven’t read. or, when they do so, to qualify such opinions by saying, “I heard it was great” or “I heard it sucks”.
Only in politics, it seems, should we not only have opinions on things of which we have no direct knowledge. The more conveyed our knowledge, the stronger our opinions. We often compensate for ignorance with passion. This state of affairs contradicts a democratic ethos and can only lead to a promotion and deepening of our divisions.
Aquinas stated that the law is the rule of reason promulgated by a legitimate authority, so if the law is not properly circulated and explained, it will lose its legitimacy. There are several ways to disguise such a proclamation. The laws can be written so technically and absurdly that no ordinary citizen can be expected to understand them. The number of laws can grow so that it is simply impossible to keep up with all of them. The makers of the law can stray so far from those under the influence of the law that the latter lose track of what is happening to them. Walter Lippmann described democratic citizens as deaf spectators in the background of a theater who had a vague sense of what was going on but could never really make sense of it. They felt that their life was at the mercy of forces that they could neither sense nor control.
Georgian law is not the crisis; Rather, the controversy over it points to the deeper, underlying crisis of republicanism and federalism.
Failure to properly legislate is a serious problem in a democratic culture, especially a democracy of our size. Justice Thomas once said that a stock trader has the right to know what his constitution meant and that judges are required to explain in a way such a person could understand. If citizens cannot reasonably be expected to know or understand the law, they cannot reasonably be expected to obey it. and where legislators or bureaucrats write laws that no one reads, rule-makers cease to be accountable. The gap between legislators and citizens is closed by a medium, the media, so that democracy becomes dependent on trustworthy media for the performance of this crucial function.
No serious person in our world today could claim that the media is worthy of our trust. We expect politicians to pass and interpret laws in such a way that they benefit their political and party political interests. Does the Georgian law serve the electoral interests of Republicans in the Georgian legislature that passed it? One would have to be naive not to believe that. Does the hyperbolic hysteria among the Democrats arise from their electoral interests? Here, too, one would have to be naive not to believe that. This is a fundamental policy, and it is neither exceptional nor particularly alarming, although some people are shocked – shocked! – to find politics here.
But one would hope that somewhere in the mix someone would actually read the law and do so in a fair and honest way. Such hopes remain unfulfilled. Most commentators, including Ryan Cooper, are excluded from this task three times. He interprets the New York Times ‘interpretation of the New York Times’ coverage of the law. And this reporting, everyone knows, not only consistently promotes the interests of a particular party, but also puts everything in the context of the race.
A rationale of representative government is that most people are too busy to bother with day-to-day government operations. Furthermore, in our federal system, we must deal primarily with the laws of our own state. The controversy over Georgian law is not just a question of legal hermeneutics, it shows a central crisis in both republican and federal principles. How should Georgian electoral laws affect someone who does not live in Georgia? Who are Georgian legislators accountable to? What is the relationship between legislative acts and the public voting in these legislators? Does Major League Baseball have a legitimate interest? How is the relationship between voters and rulers distorted when the medium of interpretation is occupied by malicious corporate actors motivated by ideology or profit? Indeed, the companies showed a persistent disregard for how their actions would affect the average voter. Instead, they either served an ideological interest or sought to indulge in the caterwauling of a specific group of elites who were trying to maximize their power. Have we reached the point that Lippmann identified, predicted, and complained about 90 years ago of having no functioning public at all?
I am not writing to defend or disparage Georgian law. I’ll do that in another essay. I am writing because Georgian law is not the crisis; Rather, the controversy over it points to the deeper, underlying crisis of republicanism and federalism. This crisis does not allow for easy solutions. How we react to the Georgia Statute could point the way to restoring not only republican and federalist principles but also the rule of law itself. Public and private actors may want to start with a simple hermeneutic rule: Never have a political opinion on a law that you haven’t read. And then you might want to add a political rule to that: don’t get upset by something that doesn’t affect you. Plato identified polypragmosyne (preoccupied with many things or a way of not bothering about his own business) as a form of injustice. We would all be better off if federal officials, celebrities, experts and corporations stopped meddling in Georgia’s affairs. In fact, we would be even better off if they stopped using the breed so cynically and misinterpreting them in order to achieve their own goals. We could even dampen their echo chambers. “You haven’t really read the law, have you Mr. Cooper? Well then I really don’t care what you think. “