Sunday, September 12, 2010

Privilege (I): Transcending politics

Many of us wish out politicians and commentators could transcend petty disputes about their ideas. Recently, several columnists did transcend their politics, and I learned to think carefully about what I wished for.

After the prosecutor assigned to Michael Bryant's case concluded he had no hope of convicting Mr. Bryant (a reasonable legal conclusion), a number of commentators, including a fair share of conservatives, hailed the decision as not only a legal victory for Mr. Bryant but a moral vindication.

I will have more to say about the question of whether the dismissal of the charges against Michael Bryant adds up to vindication in any but a legal sense; for now, I propose to focus on what the conservatives who expressed relief and satisfaction at the dismissal of charges against Mr. Bryant did not mention: his politics. Before his encounter with Mr. Sheppard, Mr. Bryant had served in the provincial legislature, first in opposition and then as attorney general, where he regularly promoted government as an wise caretaker of public health and safety. He did not just want to control guns, he wanted to control realistic toy guns. He banned pit bulls and dogs that looked like pit bulls. Ironically, he called for draconian enforcement against hazardous drivers, extending police powers to suspend licenses and impound cars without the bother of a trial. In short, he promoted and extended the nanny state in the service of a liberal government. His measures catered to the supposed anxieties of the "soccer mom" voting demographic.

Yet after his fatal encounter with a private sector contract worker, I read no conservative comments about the irony of Mr. Bryant's past stances in light of his predicament. Bryant's middle class status, his polish and accomplishments made him someone they could identify with, even if he had used those advantages in the service of causes most conservatives oppose on principle. They gave Mr. Sheppard no credit for keeping going and refusing to give up on his life after suffering insults and assaults starting from his childhood, and indeed from before his birth.

Our society carries on and awards unjust privilege in this quiet way, often as much by what we ignore as by what we proclaim, by what we do not say as much as by what we do.

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