First, we need better questions
What do the Supreme Court confirmation hearings say about priorities and values?
Modern life has made some long-cherished but trite sayings obsolete. Nobody working late has actually been “burning the midnight oil” since electric lights replaced oil lamps, and telling someone behaving arrogantly to “get down off your high horse” had more sting when peasants on foot had to look up to self-important wealthy folks on tall horses. You haven’t actually “rolled down” a window lately, or “dialed” a phone, have you?
Now another old saw has bitten the dust on Capitol Hill. Generations of patient teachers have assured children that “there are no stupid questions,” but their kind encouragement turns out to be anachronistic. In fact, there were so many stupid questions in the confirmation hearings for Katenji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court this week as to suggest that honest questioning has become as outdated as a bandwagon.
There was Ted Cruz, the slithery Texan labeled “off-the-charts brilliant” by one of his Harvard Law professors, asking Jackson, who sits on the board of a private prep school in Georgetown, if she agrees that white people should be sent back to Europe, as he insisted a children’s book in the Georgetown Day School library does. That’s not, in fact, what the book “Stamped (for Kids)” says, but let’s give the avowedly brilliant Cruz the benefit of the doubt and guess that his question wasn’t actually stupid — which you would have to assume, if he had misread a children’s book — but rather simply deplorable, the result of intentional distortion to court white voters. Neither conclusion reflects well on Cruz (nor on Harvard Law School, for that matter).
And there was Missouri’s Josh Hawley, best known to most of us for his power salute to the Jan. 6 capitol thugs, asking Judge Jackson to justify what she wrote as a law student. Let’s pause now as we all cringe at the notion of being grilled about some of our own declarations made with youthful bravado. Maybe not Hawley, though; perhaps he was so politically ambitious, even as a kid, that he didn’t allow himself to entertain potentially contentious ideas. That’s just speculation based on the fact that he sounds like a guy who has never seized the chance to explore much beyond his own preconceptions. Poor Josh.
My vote for worst questioning, though, must go to Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has bragged about the gun in her purse and her closeness to Donald Trump. “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” she asked Jackson, the point arising during Blackburn’s rip on gender identity in high school sports, a favorite Fox News topic lately. “Not in this context,” the judge replied evenly. “I’m not a biologist.” Nor, of course, is Blackburn, who holds a degree in Home Economics from Mississippi State, but who apparently considers herself in command of all she might need to know about gender dysphoria, a medical and mental condition that a recent peer-reviewed study finds most often surfaces at about age 7. Pity the children if their well-being hinges on the likes of Marsha Blackburn.
Look, everybody knows that this is charade. It’d be naïve to expect that a Supreme Court confirmation process in 2022 could amount to anything other than a chance for senatorial showboating. But the framers of the Constitution — to whose presumed intent Jackson’s inquisitors demand boundless fealty — likely expected the confirmation process to be a genuine exploration of a judicial nominee’s thinking and readiness for the high bench. Using it as little more than a remote studio for Fox News clips denigrates our political system.
Questions, after all, can open the door to understanding. As I was learning how to be a reporter years ago, I studied how good journalists shape their questions to elicit useful responses. I concluded that a good interviewer needs a mix of confidence and humility — enough confidence to give the person you’re interviewing the comfort to respond candidly, and enough humility to be surprised, illuminated or even delighted by a response. That understanding changed my approach to reporting, making it, I believe, more empathetic, accurate and powerful.
Some years later, in the leadership training from an elite business school that was offered by the big media company that employed me, I learned that effectively asking the right questions is a key to business growth. “Asking questions is a uniquely powerful tool,” a Harvard Business Review article affirmed, noting that “by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence… to reap the most benefit from our interactions, not just for ourselves, but for our organizations.”
For all the times that we’ve heard politicians claim that government ought to operate more like a business, have you ever noticed that sort of an inquisitive approach to decision-making in public affairs? Which senators in this week’s confirmation process, for instance, displayed emotional intelligence?
Actually, I’d say Cory Booker did, in remarks directed to Jackson near the end of the hearings, with words that even days later I cannot read without getting wet eyes. He spoke of the historic nature of Jackson’s presence, as the first black woman nominated to the nation’s highest court, alluded to “the hoops you had to jump through, the hurdles you had to surmount,” and added, “I see my ancestors and yours. … Nobody’s going to steal that joy.”
Booker then turned to poetry – literally, that is, in quoting “Let America Be America Again,” written 85 years ago by Langston Hughes. It is by turns elegiac and angry, evoking the burdens carried not only by those of minority race, but also of laborers and farmers, of all those “who never got ahead,” yet “dreamt our basic dream”:
“ O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”
Jackson had opened the hearing by promising to be a Supreme Court justice who would display “the highest level of skill and integrity, civility and grace.” In the face of senators’ questions that were actually ugly and baseless assertions — that she was soft on pornographers, had twisted the law to free criminals and had ignored the supposed danger of teaching children about racism — she was calm, thoughtful and more respectful by many miles than most of us could have been.
You might ask yourself some questions, then, as you consider what we saw and heard in those hearings. Here are a few I’d suggest: What priorities and values might we infer to be paramount for those whose attacks on Katenji Brown Jackson made the hearings so contentious? What behavior that you saw on camera might be an example that could inspire a new generation of Americans to public service?
And in a nation now riven by divisions that so many people seem eager to exploit for their own gain, who in that ornate room on Capitol Hill offered you hope that we might yet find a better America? Doesn’t that strike you as a fair question?
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share dispatches from:
Bergen County, N.J. (The Record, northjersey.com)
Springfield, Ill. (The Southern Illinoisan, thesouthern.com)
Longview, Wash. (The Daily News, tdn.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradoan.com)
NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Where is bribing a candidate perfectly legal — for now?
An article two years ago reviewing the second decade of the 21st century in The (Bergen County) Record noted, “New Jersey can’t seem to shake its image as a haven of corruption.” (Note: Your correspondent here at The UPSTATE AMERICAN has lived in both Illinois and New York, which are no slouches in the perennial race for “most corrupt state.”) Here’s one reason why, according to reporting by Katie Sobke, who covers the New Jersey statehouse for Gannett’s papers: It’s actually not illegal to bribe political candidates in New Jersey. There’s legislation pending to close that loophole, which seems to finally stand a good chance of passage. Assuming, of course, that the legislative process isn’t somehow corrupted to block enactment. Watch this space.
Seeking a solution to volunteer firefighter shortage
Urban dwellers may not realize it but, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 70 percent of the firefighters in the United States are volunteers, with many departments also responsible for other emergency services. But the ranks of volunteers have been dwindling for years, to the point that many areas have too few active firefighters and EMS personnel to assure safety. Grace Kinnicutt of Capitol News Illinois reports in The Southern Illinoisan that one step aimed at shoring up volunteer ranks is pending in the state legislature there: a $500 tax credit for volunteer firefighters and EMS workers. A lobbyist for the Illinois Firefighters Association called it “a public health crisis.” If that’s so, it is surely one facing much of the country, meaning we might see such legislation elsewhere.
Homeless people cause clash over softball fields
You wouldn’t think a lovely little Northwestern city at the confluence of the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers would report much homelessness, but the people who run the girls softball program in Longview, Wash., say that’s exactly what is creating problems on the public fields there. So according to reporting by Brennen Kauffman in The Daily News, the newspaper of Cowlitz County, the Longview Girls Softball Association wants city approval to build chainlink security fencing around the main fields they use. It has set off quite a debate about the notion of fencing off a public park. Kauffman’s story notes the league has for about a year been “dealing with increasing amounts of damage to the fields and makeshift campsites for homeless people,” and now wants to try to protect the fields for its players. Longview is less than an hour by bus from Portland, and a bit more than two hours from Seattle.
Often-photographed bull elk dies in the Rockies
Over the years, many photographers have captured the image of a massively racked bull elk, weighing perhaps a half ton. Now, reports Miles Blumhardt in The Fort Collins Coloradoan, the great elk — “perhaps the most iconic elk in history,” one website proclaimed — has died. There was no announced cause, but officials said it could have been natural causes for an elk estimated to be a decade old, or it might have been a mountain lion attack. "His bugle was just thunderous, unlike anything else you heard,'' photographer Michael Madrid told The Coloradoan. "It moved your soul to hear that intense, soulful sound breaking the quiet.'' RIP, noble beast.
We’ll see you soon(er or later)
We’re all beginning to emerge, in our various ways and with some fits and starts, from the protocols of the pandemic. Some of us still haven’t traveled much, but we’re getting back into the swing of it: TSA checkpoints processed 2.2 million travelers on Thursday, only 10 percent below the number on March 24, 2019 — but more than 10 times those who went through TSA screening on that date in 2020, as lockdowns began.
That’s prefatory to saying that we’re heading out for a bit of a vacation, which will surely either delay or diminish next week’s report from The UPSTATE AMERICAN. We apologize to our paying subscribers, but we note that most American companies offer paid vacation, so as a self-employed writer for the first time in my life, I’m hereby granting Me the right to take a deep sigh and, perhaps, type fewer words than usual in the coming week.
But we’ll be back, with continuing gratitude to you for sharing your thoughts and for taking the time to read our reports from *our common ground, this America.