Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Greil Marcus is a curmudgeon's curmudgeon, which means that he is a romantic. "Ask Greil" is one of life's small pleasures for me: it reads like the few minutes before a really interesting graduate school seminar starts, when the students and the instructor talk about things that they've been reading, or listening to, or seeing. It is not unusual for me to find that I disagree with a particular statement, but pinning down the basis for my disagreement is itself a worthwhile exercise. So, in response to, "If you had to guess, for how long do you think the United States of America will continue to exist?", he says, inter alia, "The virus may leave the country in such a state of deprivation and confusion that it will accept anything."

This is the response of a true romantic, and a true patriot. Teaching Constitutional Law in these times has been a journey for me, particularly because my students are mostly persons of color who have no illusions about how the United States government works. My task is to show them how it might work if it lived up to what it promises, and to do this credibly. This is no light undertaking, but because I am a romantic I sincerely believe that pushing within the system can result in individual good results, and that the accumulation of just results might result in a better society.

It is therefore a relief to me that the virus does not seem to be winning, and that on a political level Marcus' fear that people will be beaten down to the point that we will accept anything has not (perhaps yet) come to pass. For whatever it's worth I am not so sure that this is due to some innate quality in our national character- I am not that romantic, and I see an America that terrifies me in the 40% or so who appear to have come to the nihilistic conclusion that government is bad, and other people seek to steal our things, and all the rest of what are apparently the deeply seated beliefs of the profoundly alienated people who will be voting Republican in four months. On the other hand, the pandemic seems to have had the opposite effect from that which fretted Marcus back in April. Immersed in the grey static background of social isolation the present social justice movement came into sudden, sharp relief. The video of George Floyd's murder was like the moment when a television suddenly finds the signal: from the void between stations came an image of what America looks like that was so clear, and so ugly, that the only rational response has been to demand that the government act. This is, I think, a very good thing. Among the 40% the idea has long been that government is an impediment to liberty. Among the rest of us there was a kind of resignation. I don't think we are resigned any longer. The pandemic - which is a long way from being over- has demonstrated to the satisfaction of many that government is necessary, and I think we see now that the pandemic is as much a political crisis as it is a natural disaster. The good news is that political crisis's lend themselves to political solutions, and I believe that we are working towards those solutions.

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