The Benefits of Mysterious Silence

At the far end of East 52nd in Manhattan – at 450 East 52nd Street to be exact – you’ll find the Campanile – built in 1927 and once home to the Rothschild’s, the H.J. Heinz’s, Rex Harrison, Mary Martin, and most famously, Greta Garbo. That’s where she ended up, and of course no one saw her much. Everyone remembers her signature line – “I want to be alone.”

She got her wish, but that line was also a pretty clever marketing tool. If you have nothing to say and you’re not too bright – if you’re actually kind of boring – be enigmatic. Silence will give you an air of mystery, and silence is also a fine substitute for depth. Don’t answer questions, just arch an eyebrow. Still waters run deep, as they say – but Garbo sat in her Manhattan apartment and watched Hollywood Squares and wrote fan letters to Paul Lynde – so maybe they don’t. She was an actress after all, not a philosopher, and the fascinating characters she played weren’t her. That was just a job, which she did quite well. The rest, the persona of a woman of great mystery and untold depth, was just studio marketing. They probably knew she’d better not speak. People would find out that she had nothing at all to say, and that’s still a general rule in Hollywood. Be mysterious. Look sly, but remain totally silent. It sure beats being banal. Paris Hilton has made a career of this. Heck, every college girl in America knows this. Silence drives the guys crazy.

That’s the tease, to use silence as a substitute for the depth you really don’t have and will probably never acquire. Speak and you will be found out.

This also applies to politics. The Republicans have now made being mysterious in to a fine art. All day long on the cable talk shows, and in columns and blogs across the country, people are trying to figure out what they’re up to. They lost the White House again, and the Senate they thought they’d retake, and lost ground in the House, the only thing they control now, sort of – John Boehner and the establishment guys, supported by Karl Rove from the sidelines, keep butting heads with the Tea Party crowd, so just who controls the House is often a mystery, depending on the issue or the day of the week. Still, given all that, they are still adamant about cutting spending, and never raising revenue, and stopping any form of gun control, and ending Obamacare even if it is the law of the land, and generally getting the government out of everyone’s lives, even if they lost two-thirds of everything and poll after poll shows the nation does not agree with them on any of this. What could they be thinking? It’s a mystery.

One example of this is that after nearly a year of resistance that has damaged them politically with women voters, and anyone with half a brain, House Republicans have found a clever way to back down on the routine reauthorization the Violence Against Women Act, which they had let slide and then opposed. It’s hard to see how they could be against that, but they had their own bill, which forbids the police to do anything about gay women or Native American women, or women who don’t have papers that say they can be here legally, from getting beat to death. Certain women don’t deserve protection? Was it a cost issue? They weren’t saying. They simply refused reauthorization, without those exclusions, and then they didn’t. There was no explanation. It was kind of a Garbo thing.

No one told the guy in New Hampshire:

Speaking out in support of a bill that would shift the penalty for simple assault from a misdemeanor crime to a violation-level offense in certain cases, a Republican legislator in New Hampshire on Tuesday suggested that “a lot of people like being in abusive relationships.”

The argument was floated by state Rep. Mark Warden (R), one of only four members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to vote in favor of the bill, which drew opposition from both law enforcement and domestic violence groups alike. By a 16-4 margin, the panel voted to recommend that the full state House shoot down the bill.

“Some people could make the argument that a lot of people like being in abusive relationships,” Warden said during a meeting held by the committee. “It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s very, very common for people to stick around with somebody they love who also abuses him or her.”

He continued, “Is the solution to those kinds of dysfunctional relationships going to be more government, another law? I tend to say no. People are always free to leave.”

Some women are just like that you know – they love getting slapped around. That’s not the government’s business.

Sometimes it’s best to remain silent. Mark Warden apologized – but one should never do that. Silence is best. At least no Republicans down in Washington made that argument. They made no argument. They are men of mystery.

Another mystery is why CPAC – the Conservative Political Action Conference – refused to invite Chris Christie to their annual meeting of all the high-profile activists on the right, their favorite politicians, and all the hot new rising stars in the Republican Party. Christie is clearly the most popular Republican politician in the country, or maybe the only popular Republican politician in the country, with sky-high approval ratings, and he’s pro-life and anti-union, and vetoed an increase in the minimum wage in his state while cutting taxes on the rich to next to nothing. Sure, he favors gun control – think Newark – and he worked side-by-side with Obama on that Sandy relief stuff, and thanked Obama for being there, and he thinks highly of negotiation and compromise as a way of getting stuff done – but he’s mostly on their side. No one could figure this out – even Charles Krauthammer on Fox News, of all places, called this a “mistake” and a “vast overreaction.” Perhaps, as Nate Silver suggests, Christie has been “outed” as a moderate, really, and there’s no going back – but the guy is still damned conservative. What do they want? What was Garbo thinking?

Daniel Larison takes a stab at explaining what might be going on here:

As movement conservatives start to sour on Christie, it might be instructive to recall what it was about him that many of them liked from 2009 through last year. For the most part, it wasn’t the content of his agenda, in which most of his admirers had little interest. It was Christie’s willingness to be combative and confrontational that won their admiration. When this was all that most movement conservatives knew about him, Christie’s future in the party seemed very bright, and his name was frequently listed along with such movement conservative heroes as Rubio and Ryan. When Republican pundits were trying to come up with a presidential nominee other than Romney, Christie’s name often came up. In late 2011, there was a ridiculous, last-minute effort to get Christie to run what would have undoubtedly been a debacle of a campaign organized on short notice. The largely pundit-driven enthusiasm for Christie masked the reality that he and the conservative movement were not a good fit.

All they wanted was someone combative and confrontational, and then they found out what he could be combative and confrontational about, and they didn’t like it much. That’s as good an explanation as any of what happened here. Larison shows it’s all in what you say, and what you don’t say:

If he has ambitions for higher office, this isn’t all bad news for Christie. There are limits to what a politician can achieve by being and being seen as a cardboard cutout movement candidate, as Romney discovered in 2007-08 and Pawlenty found out in 2011, so Christie might try to follow the route that other relative moderate candidates have taken in the past to win the nomination. On the other hand, there are also few advantages in being openly disliked and opposed by movement conservatives, as McCain and Huntsman learned in their first presidential runs. A competitive candidate in the nominating contest has to avoid being afraid of and captive to the movement’s ideological enforcers, but he can’t afford to invite their loathing and active hostility. Striking that balance will be particularly hard for any Republican governor from a Democratic-leaning state – and it’s an open question whether Christie wants the hassle and grief that would come with trying to do that.

There’s no one less like Greta Garbo than Chris Christie. The man thinks, and then he speaks. You may not agree with him but he says what he means, and it’s not banal nonsense about true freedom and small government, in the idealized abstract. He actually talks about real things in the real world. Many on the left, or even in the center, disagree with him in very fundamental ways – hitting the poor and rewarding the rich is nuts – but there’s something to talk about. There’s no mystery.

On the other hand, there are times when silence is golden. There are things that are better left implied – the idea that black folks get all the breaks and everyone’s always picking on white men, making their lives miserable and narrow. Donald Trump is good at that, with his insistence that Obama’s birth certificate was fake, and when that didn’t work out, his offer of five million dollars for anyone who could provide Obama’s complete college transcripts, which would prove Obama was a bit of a dim bulb who only succeeded because he was black – because people always give blacks, and only blacks, all the breaks. Affirmative Action was designed to oppress white men, you see. Trump would have been better served by silence – he became a bit of a joke, or more of a joke than he already was. His own life was hardly miserable and narrow. The same thing happened when Justice Sotomayor was nominated for the Supreme Court – a steady stream of stuff form the right about how she was another Affirmative Action fraud. It must be that everyone gave her breaks she didn’t deserve, because she was in two protected categories – she was both Hispanic and a woman. If so, she must be unqualified.

These things are better left unsaid. It’s not just the whining, which is unattractive enough, it’s the obvious racist animus that underpins it all. The South will not rise again – the Civil War is over and they didn’t win, although the modern Republicans don’t quite believe that. Last year the Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson summed it up:

The Republican ticket may hail from Massachusetts and Wisconsin, but Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan head the most Southernized major U.S. political party since Jefferson Davis’s day. In its hostility toward minorities, exploitation of racism, antipathy toward government and suspicion of science, today’s Republican Party represents the worst traditions of the South’s dankest backwaters. …

The beliefs of the white South dominate Republican thinking. As the white share of the U.S. population shrinks and the Latino share rises, Republicans have passed draconian anti-immigrant laws and opposed legislation enabling immigrants brought here as children to gain legal status. They also exploit racist resentments in a way not seen since the Willie Horton spot of 1988. Consider the Romney campaign’s ads falsely attacking President Obama for gutting welfare reform. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” proclaims one such commercial. “They just send you a welfare check.” Obama’s plan, as several media fact-checking monitors have noted, does nothing of the sort. The spot clearly seeks to resurrect the kind of resentment of African Americans that the GOP exploited back in the days when welfare was a major program. The Romney campaign has evidently concluded, since virtually its entire pool of potential voters is white, that it must rouse the sometime voters among them with such expedients – which explain why it is running more of these ads than any others.

That didn’t work. In state after state, make it harder for blacks to vote – ranting about voter fraud and too many opportunities to vote early and on Sundays – and they’ll willingly stand in line for ten hours on election day to vote against you. Suggest that the way to deal with undocumented immigrants is to make life so hard for all Hispanics that those here illegally choose to “self-deport” and you lose almost the whole of the Hispanic vote. Silence would have been better. Garbo was onto something. Be mysterious. No one will know you’re a fool.

That’s not always possible, and this week it became less possible:

A central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may be in peril, judging from tough questioning on Wednesday from the Supreme Court’s more conservative members. If the court overturns the provision, nine states, mostly in the South, would become free to change voting procedures without first getting permission from federal officials.

In a vivid argument in which the lawyers and justices drew varying lessons from the legacies of slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, the court’s conservative wing suggested that the modern South had outgrown its troubled past and that the legal burdens on the nine states were no longer justified.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked skeptically whether “the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose vote is probably crucial, asked whether Alabama today is an “independent sovereign” or whether it must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.”

Justice Antonin Scalia said the law, once a civil rights landmark, now amounted to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Antonin Scalia did a Trump when she should have done a Garbo. He’s sick and tired of white men getting the short end of the stick, or something – which is better left unsaid. And of course he was challenged:

That remark created the sharpest exchange of the morning, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the other end. “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement?” she later asked a lawyer challenging the law, with an edge in her voice that left little doubt she was responding to Justice Scalia’s statement. “Do you think that racial discrimination in voting has ended, that there is none anywhere?”

Things got hot. Although the issue was pretty straightforward:

The question at the heart of Wednesday’s argument was whether Congress, in reauthorizing the provision for 25 years in 2006, was entitled to use a formula based on historic practices and voting data from elections held decades ago.

Should the court strike down the law’s central provision, it would be easier for lawmakers in the nine states to enact the kind of laws Republicans in several states have recently advocated, including tighter identification standards. It would also give those states more flexibility to move polling places and redraw legislative districts.

The four members of the court’s liberal wing, citing data and history, argued that Congress remained entitled to make the judgment that the provision was still needed in the covered jurisdictions. The law passed the Senate unanimously and House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 390 to 33 in 2006.

“It’s an old disease,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said of efforts to thwart minority voting. “It’s gotten a lot better. A lot better. But it’s still there.”

No, it isn’t still there. Yes, it is. That was the core issue. The act applies to nine states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – and to a bunch of counties and municipalities in other states, including Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. They still need special federal permission to make changes in election law. It seems soon they won’t – if Scalia and the majority prevail. And there was also this twist:

In expressing his deep skepticism Wednesday for the constitutionality of a centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Antonin Scalia questioned the motivations of Congress for repeatedly reauthorizing it since it was initially passed in 1965.

“I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act,” Scalia said during oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. “They are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful – the Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act four times, the last time in 2006, for twenty-five years. The 2006 vote was 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – and Scalia said that was simple cowardice. The Supreme Court knows better – “This is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress.” They’re all fools.

Maybe so, but note this:

Compare and contrast.

1. Justice Scalia today regarding the voting rights act: “This is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress.”

2. The United States Constitution, Amendment XV: “SECTION 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. SECTION 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Scalia doesn’t like the Constitution, or something. One reader at Talking Points Memo puts it this way:

It’s been clear at least since the Obamacare ruling that Scalia doesn’t believe all that stuff he’s written about the Court leaving lawmaking to the lawmakers. He’d grant that Congress was right to pass Section 5 of the act in 1965, when it was irrefutably necessary to protect the right of African Americans to vote. And presumably he’d say Congress was free to renew the law – for a while. When did that constitutional freedom lapse? Scalia implies that the only person fit to judge that is Scalia, with his unique, personal insight into American culture and racial politics. He’s been checking his watch and tapping his foot for 58 years, and now he’s decided that time is up on the civil rights era.

His choicest line today may have been this: “I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act.” Who does he think he is, Chris freaking Matthews? Since when is it a Justice’s job to divine when the people’s representatives are acting from pure motives, and when they are moved by crass “racial entitlements,” as he describes the guarantees that allowed millions of African Americans to vote for the first time? Call that what it is, but it sure as hell isn’t originalism. It’s just lawless free-styling.

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing much. That would have been best for Scalia, as Josh Marshall explains:

As he’s aged, he’s tossed aside any pretense or desire to hide the fact that he sees himself as what originalists and advocates of judicial restraint are supposed to be against: namely, an appointed super legislator, contemptuous of Congress and happy to impose his own beliefs by judicial fiat. Hearing him rail about “racial entitlement” sounds more like you’re listening to some sort of talk radio blowhard than a Supreme Court Justice.

But who is he (and his fellow conservatives on the Court) helping at this point?

It’s now generally recognized (and I think it’s accurate, but who knows) that the Republican drive to disenfranchise minority voters in 2012 backfired spectacularly. The country’s demography has apparently hit a tipping point wherein you piss off and activate more people than you gain by playing to racial animus, hostility to immigrants and attacks on voting rights.

Yet the Supreme Court is still stuck in the 80s and 90s era of the judicial politics of racial grievance and division. The Court now seems dead set on overturning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. After that we’ll have cases on marriage equality, voter ID, affirmative action. The judicial calendar is stuck in a feedback loop.

Nothing good will come of this. Perhaps more than a few Republicans now wish that Scalia would just retire to an opulent apartment on the East Side, with a nice view of the river, and watch reruns of Hollywood Squares and write fan letters to the late Paul Lynde, and say nothing. Maybe Garbo’s old apartment is available, unless the newly retired Pope has snapped it up. Some people want to be alone, and others should be.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Affirmative Action, Antonin Scalia, Republicans – Party of the South, Supreme Court, Voter Suppression and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Benefits of Mysterious Silence

  1. Rick says:

    With all that popey stuff on TV today, interspersed with occasional talk about the sequester, I never even heard about Scalia’s highjinx yesterday.

    Still, I did see a great piece on MSNBC in which Andrea Mitchell interviewed Gwen Ifill’s (according to Gwen, I understand) “brilliant baby cousin“, Sherrilyn Ifill, who’s the new president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who seemed actually quite hopeful that the court will keep Section 5:

    “[Ifill] reminded Mitchell that the coverage formula enacted in section 5 isn’t ‘static’ and that there is a statute that would allow jurisdictions to both bail out and bail in under that law. According to Ifill, if the states covered in section 5 have a clean voting record of ten years, they can opt not to be included in section 5. In contrast, jurisdictions that ‘have demonstrated to have violated the constitution in voting discrimination can be brought under the coverage of section 5.’

    Ifill pointed out why section 5 is so valuable citing a case in Alaska where a jurisdiction attempted to move a polling place before an election from a native Alaskan village that would require those voters to take a plane or boat to vote. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act allowed the Justice Department to step in and prevent this from happening.”

    She also mentioned a jurisdiction in Mississippi that, having noticed African Americans were becoming a majority there, simply cancelled all elections. The feds then stepped in and prevented them from doing this, which resulted in a black mayor and three black aldermen — something that would not have happened without Section five of the Act in place.

    For anyone interested in hearing a strong and coherent defense of Section five of the Voting Rights Act, the whole interview, which runs about six minutes, is at that link above. I have a feeling that, had this woman only been inside the court, arguing the case, Roberts and Scalia wouldn’t have known what hit them.

    Rick

  2. Russell Sadler says:

    Well worth the wait. Sorry about your LA power failure, bit I appreciate the extra time you spent getting this out ;-)

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