We live in a world of moral relativism. Kids are taught to pursue “your truth.” Everyone gets a participation trophy. Meanwhile, our trust in institutions — marriage, the church, Congress, etc. – have been crumbling since at least Watergate.
This growing distrust, coupled with the fact that technological advances accelerated the trend by bestowing everyone (even the most paranoid among us) with a megaphone, has created a crisis of confidence and a leadership vacuum. Nobody is really respected enough to tell inconvenient truths — and nothing is ever really settled. Heck, not even elections are considered to be the final word these days. So who’s in charge?
It occurred to me this week that — no matter what you think of their recent rulings — there is one last institution that has preserved its authority — and a bit of its dignity: The Supreme Court.
And that’s what my latest column in The Week is about. Here’s an excerpt, wherein I seek to explain the cause of this phenomenon:
Here’s one possibility: Supreme Court justices haven’t been nearly as susceptible to the dangers and detriments of our non-stop digital world as congressmen and the president have.
For instance, because cameras aren’t allowed in the courts, there is little chance for justices to showboat or fall prey to viral gaffes. There’s little risk of them being overexposed, too. Ask yourself: Whose voice are you more familiar with — Barack Obama’s, John Boehner’s, or John Roberts’? Most of us rarely even hear the Supreme Court justices speak.
Transparency is generally positive. But there is a danger that technology has created a situation in which America is tipping too far toward direct democracy — an outcome the Founders feared. And the justices have been far less susceptible to this than congressmen and the president.
Lifetime appointments, coupled with a refusal to allow cameras into the courtroom, seem to have made a huge difference. (And, who knows if the robes and courtroom renderings help command respect and symbolize a separation between justices and the outside world? There’s a reason why priests wear clerical collars.)
By eschewing modern trends of overexposure and utter transparency, the court has preserved a bit of mystery, and perhaps, even, some majesty,
This is so rare as to be surprising to many. Just last week, for example, we witnessed a prime example of the disconnect between the public’s expectations and the court’s actual practices, when a large number of people appeared to believe the Twitter feed for SCOTUS blog was actually being manned by Supreme Court justices.
Of course, staying off Twitter is just one small step toward preserving one’s dignity; there are likely deep cultural and systemic reasons why the Supreme Court has prospered amid this atomized milieu. And, it turns out, this wasn’t an unpredictable outcome. In his book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman foreshadowed this development.
After arguing that our society was inundated with too much information (this was in 1992!), Postman observed that an important facet of the rule of law was that it limits the amount of information allowed into the system. For example, he notes that “hearsay” is excluded from trials, as is a “defendant’s previous convictions” — as well as other inadmissible information. Moreover, “spectators are forbidden to express their feelings” during court.
Then, Postman makes the fascinating point that in the courtroom, over time,
the rules governing relevance have remained fairly stable. This may account for Americans’ overuse of the courts as a means of finding coherence and stability. As other institutions become unusable as mechanisms for control of wanton information, the courts stand as a final arbiter of truth. For how long, no one knows. [Technopoly]
In a world where everything else is constantly changing — where politicians and political institutions are rushing to embrace and co-opt the zeitgeist — the court is preserving some of its dignity by refusing to change, and by sticking to some rules which limit the amount of information with which they must grapple. In short, by respectfully embracing tradition.