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Not confirming but unconfirmed

Just a quick (I hope) update on yesterday’s confirmation note because I do want to spend the day with Kohelet if I can…

Charlie Pierce responded to Jon Bernstein’s note, and then Jon Bernstein tweeted a thread in response. Also worth noting is Matt Yglesias’ reminder that most Republican Senators voted in favor of most of Barack Obama’s Cabinet, with even the most contentious at the time getting nine R votes. None of them indicate a belief that there is a secret deal of any kind; they all pretty much take Sen. Warren’s explanation at face value. Which, as I said, I don’t.

Where Mssrs Pierce and Bernstein disagree, it seems to me, is that Mr. Bernstein considers policy guarantees to be at least somewhat valuable, based on the evidence that politicians largely do put effort into fulfilling specific promises, once they make them. Whether Mr. Pierce believes this about ordinary politicians or not is not clear to me (Mr. Pierce is a valuable writer and provocateur but not really a reliable analyst, in my opinion) but he clearly (“please to be stopping pulling my leg”) does not think that the notion applies to Secretary-Designate Carson. And that seems to me reasonable! He’s not aiming for a higher office, such that his ambitions would be hurt by breaking faith, and he’s not a career politician or civil servant, so steeped in cultural norms that breaking them would be a taboo. And the whole thrust of Mr. Trump’s drain-the-swamp campaign has been contempt for DC’s ISRVs; there’s no reason for an outsider like Ben Carson to believe that earlier Secretaries really did try to fulfill such commitments.

So what we’re left with here is some sort of prioritization of things that it is very difficult to put a valuation on. I mean, actually stopping a nominee is clearly valuable, but sadly, as it turns out, Our Only President’s Party has chosen to support him and his Cabinet nominees. We are, then, choosing between (a) a symbolic vote, or (2) an unreliable promise. Which is of greater value?

I am tempted to return to Kohelet and say that this is indeed r’ut ruach, wrestling the wind. We can’t know. But neither of those things are without value—I believe in the value of symbolic actions, of voting no, of standing athwart. But it’s hard to assess exactly how valuable those actions are. I also believe (with empirical evidence) that office-holders do act on specific promises. If nothing else, the career civil servants that staff the Department can use written promises to their advantage. Or the failure to fulfil those promises could be used rhetorically later on, as much as the no vote could. I have no idea how to assess and prioritize any of that stuff. It has to be done anyway.

I mean, that’s part of what’s going on with Kohelet in the first place, isn’t it? We have to do the r’ut ruach, despite the obvious fact that we, as mortal people, are unequipped to grapple with the unknowable. And yet, that’s what we have to do. That’s what we want our leaders to do (Senator Warren, not Our Only President, standing in for King Solomon in this analogy) and that’s what we do all the time. Humans, making snap judgments prioritizing unknowable outcomes in an infinitely complex world. Preposterous! And Constantly True!

There’s a kind of emotional whiplash in our politics right now, with inspirational pussy hats and preposterous executive orders, rogue park ranger tweets and horrifying legislative plans. If it seems like there’s an imbalance there, well, there is, but it’s a power imbalance, not an emotional one. When thousands of people take to the streets in Philadelphia to resist, it may be wrestling with the wind, but it sure as hell makes me cry. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting, and I certainly need some strength coming from somewhere to get through it all. I find that, sometimes anyway, in this notion that we are all Created with this near-miraculous ability to get through it all. To make those snap judgments—not always correctly, mind you—and keep grappling. Tolerabimus. My reading of Kohelet allows for there to be something that is not under the sun and therefore not futile, something that is in some sense worth doing all of this for. Your reading may be different; Senator Warren’s may be different. But we have to do it anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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