The Supreme Court and the 'Arc of the Moral Universe'

by Eli Day

Change in America often occurs at an agonizingly sluggish pace. We’ve come to expect our republic to operate precisely in the ways anticipated and forewarned by its architects: refining itself gradually, in fits and starts, shot through with truculent deliberation and factional quarreling. Battle lines are no longer merely drawn—they’re etched irrevocably into the fabric of our political universe, thwarting any hope of rapid change.

So when an organ of government such as the Supreme Court—itself undeniably saturated in politics—issues three back-to-back landmark decisions, we naturally marvel at the spectacle. The decisions maintaining the absolutely essential subsidies in Obamacare, preserving an indispensible argument against housing discrimination, and the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country have all been met with thunderous, and rightful, celebration. At a minimum, the Court’s busy week interrupts the enduring sense that our nation is permanently and hopelessly captive to institutional inertia.

In the aftermath, an avalanche of pundits, writers and public thinkers have begun to wax poetic on all that this moment represents for our national character. What will largely go unsaid is any honest appreciation for all that it doesn’t. In attempting to do so, I accept the fate of the damned: there’s a special rung in hell reserved for those who interrupt the party to remind everyone of the morning’s work.

That work, the hard work of citizenship if you will, begins once we disabuse ourselves of convenient fantasies. Dr. King’s piercing moral refrain has predictably begun to crop up across media headlines and the broader social media landscape: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s an entirely pleasant consolation, even as it fails as an intellectual argument.

To be fair, the good doctor was aiming less for deep historical truth than inspiring oratory. What we’ve neglected is something Dr. King and the nameless millions who’ve bent the arc of history have long understood and articulated with tremendous clarity: that justice—whatever your conception of it—requires consistent and determined action.

It’d be sloppy of me not to acknowledge that most of the awestruck romanticism comes from those who’ve long enjoyed the law’s protection, rather than those who’ve disproportionately suffered its absence. The oppressed, after all, can least afford the luxury of forgetting what they know all too well: that the moral universe, whatever its alleged course, has always been a noncommittal comrade. Better to push the country forward than await a halfhearted moral reckoning.

This doesn’t mean that the allure of Dr. King’s expression is lost on me: the sense that justice ultimately prevails is no small consolation for an injured class. It may even jolt those selfsame groups into action, as struggle touched by optimism becomes all the more bearable.

Yet at the same time that’s precisely why the fantasy of inevitable progress has a more disquieting effect when broadcast throughout the wider society. Not because of its popularity with the nation’s elite, but it’s understandable, and maddening, purchasing power with the nation’s apathetic. The thing to remember is the importance of symbols: even the most patently stupid articles of faith become menacing when uncritically absorbed and incorporated into our political reality—think “American exceptionalism,” to say nothing of the likes of “separate, but equal” and “Manifest Destiny.” Equally, if historical momentum is always on the side of justice, one might be more inclined to tolerate the cruelty of one’s country, approaching the labors of citizenship with less zeal.

But history as bedtime story won’t do. The moral universe includes the urgent expansion of health care as much as it does the 36 million who remain uninsured with no indication of our willingness to end their needless misery. The arc of that universe contains the preservation of vital legal ammunition in the fight against housing discrimination, but it also includes the financial industry’s continued targeting of black communities for plunder. Removing the battle flags of an army raised in defense of slavery is an historic victory, but the horror that white supremacy inflicted on Mother Emmanuel looms larger still. And the High Court’s refusal to sanction the bigotry of the allegedly pious cannot be divorced from the numerous and relentless assaults suffered by the LGBTQ community.

Victory, even assuming the fullest measure of our devotion, is never a foregone conclusion. We often lose. But relying on the largesse of the moral universe will ensure we never prevail.

Mindlessly parroting that historical momentum is always on the side of justice obscures that, as a matter of observable reality, it is at all times on the side of power. And power, in the sobering wisdom of Frederick Douglass, concedes nothing without a demand.