Mark P. Lagon – Centennial Fellow: Global Justice Blog

mark-lagonAmbassador Mark P. Lagon is a SFS Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar. Lagon most recently served as President of Freedom House, an international nonprofit devoted to research and programs advancing human rights and democratic governance.

The Global Justice Blog addresses ethics, international law, and human rights in today’s fractured world. Centennial Fellow Mark P. Lagon and guest bloggers will grapple will raise key issues and dilemmas among these priorities and strengths of the Walsh School of Foreign Service. A parallel Global Justice Lecture Series will interest readers.


Ridding the U.S. of Injustice: Platonic and Socratic Premises

Posted: May 17, 2017, 5:41 am

By Andrew Oravecz


Photo by Michael Vadon, Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: Andrew Oravecz worked closely with me in the Office of the President when we were both at Freedom House.  We are both committed to equity at home in order for the U.S. to play a much-needed role catalyzing global justice.  He has interned on Capitol Hill for Representative Elizabeth Esty (CT-5), taught introductory human rights classes to homeless and unstably housed individuals through Charter Oak Cultural Center’s Beat of the Street Center for Creative Learning, and worked with underserved urban youth in realizing their academic and professional aspirations.  He graduated the University of Connecticut with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and Human Rights—Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

In his guest blog below, he explores the implications of pressure on a free press and an independent judiciary in America – offering guideposts for concerned citizens drawing on Plato’s conception of justice.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

How to Unify Resistance

With the United States mired by “alternative facts” and “fake news” produced by an executive branch actively willing to gaslight its own electorate, concerned parties have turned towards literature to answer some of their most vexing concerns about the condition of our country. Dystopian novels from Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 have skyrocketed among best-seller lists nationwide. Diving deeper into philosophy also provides productive, forward-looking, and—frankly—refreshing discourse about what type of society we would like to collectively inhabit.

Damning descriptors of President Trump have included terms such as sexist, fascist, racist, demagogue, oligarch, Islamophobe, nativist, plutocrat, xenophobe—the list goes on. If broadening resistance is desirable, though, linguistic utility ought to be prioritized. I personally believe Trump has earned these labels, but perhaps apt accusations are the least effective mode to speedily counter him. Have we learned nothing from this past election? The resistance’s vocabulary is problematic in appealing to wide audiences needed to upend Trump.

Presently, much of the resistance aims for the President’s eventual impeachment. If one believes in the need for Trump’s removal from public office, expediting it must entail a distancing of D.C. speak, think tank jargon, and social justice catchphrases that aren’t immediately accessible to middle America or moderate Republicans— especially with a Republican-controlled Congress. An alternative approach could incorporate members of both party caucuses and enact concrete action. Plato’s Republic illustrates a path forward. This piece is particularly helpful because of Plato’s dedication to understanding the essence of a term in its most fundamental form. Boiling narratives down to their foundational elements offers room for common ground and clarity.

What is Justice?

In Book II of Republic, Socrates sought to convince Glaucon that justice ought to be categorized as a good to be pursued, not only for its consequences, but also for its own merits—what he deemed the “highest class.”

Through argumentation, Socrates debunked the “common view” of justice, articulated by Thrasymachus, which conceived justice as “troubled.” Justice was a compromise between doing injustice without consequence (most desirable) and suffering injustice without recourse (least desirable), a circumstance which encouraged societies to agree upon laws. Therefore, justice itself–present in covenants–was neutrally oriented on this continuum.

In contrast, Socrates views perfectly just states and individuals as being harmonious with nature, which is inherently good, not a neutral compromise. He goes on to describe the virtues needed to achieve this: to be wise, valiant, and temperate. In cooperation with one another and through repetitive action, a person embodies justice, becoming, “his own master… and at peace with himself,” and nature. Additionally, “that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action; and the opinion which presides over it, ignorance.” Objectively speaking, Donald Trump cannot be categorized as wise, valiant, or temperate. Further, he is incapable of countering unjust action or recognizing, in many instances, his own ignorance.

Wisdom, Valiance, and Temperance

Per Socrates, wise guardians “advise(s), not about any particular thing in the state, but about the whole, and consider[s] how a state can best deal with itself and with other states.” The Trump administration has been domestically and internationally dysfunctional since it began. Even after attempting to revise parameters, his immigration executive orders have been blocked by numerous judicial bodies. In his first attempt at Obamacare repeal-and-replacement, Trump’s inability to broker a deal between moderate Republicans and the House Freedom Caucus revealed that Capitol Hill negotiations are not executive office ultimatums. The American Health Care Act’s (AHCA) current legislative limbo, low approval numbers among constituents, and fiery town hall meetings still pose political and human challenges.

Internationally, Trump himself has picked fights with historically friendly nations including Mexico, Australia, and Germany, in addition to NATO allies he portrays as security free riders, rudely offering invoices to strategic allies.

As it pertains to valiance, Socrates alludes to military courage when he introduced this criterion. An argument can be made that Trump’s escalation of war in Syria, willingness to talk tough on North Korea and Iran, and sustained intervention in Yemen indicate courage. But, to be truly valiant, shouldn’t individuals analyze potential negative outcomes, before taking action? Attacks on Senator John McCain related to his status as a prisoner of war and Representative John Lewis regarding his “all talk, no action” tweet demonstrate Trump’s inability to separate tantrum from real courage, which is more than bluster, bragging, and violence.

Socrates’ third quality of justice, temperance, is “the ordering or controlling of certain pleasures and desires.” Socrates says that, “owing to evil education or association, the better principle… is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse—in this case he is blamed and is called the slave of self and unprincipled.” Steve Bannon, former executive chair of Breitbart News and White House Chief Strategist, is the epitome of “evil education.” Breitbart promotes white nationalism, Islamophobia, and a host of other hateful narratives that govern the “Alt-Right” wing of the Republican Party. From 2 a.m. tweet storms targeting media outlets to Trump’s complicity in “Lock her up!” chants at his rallies, he clearly cannot help but indulge these urges, however destructive they might be to his legitimacy.

Moving Forward

The strongest rebuttals of Trump ought to be framed in simple, tangible terms that moderate Republicans and Democrats can simultaneously identify. Questioning the president’s wisdom, valiance, and temperance is a way to do so. The opposition’s epithets do not build bridges to Republicans seeking election in 2018. While inside the Beltway or social justice language is accurate politically, historically, and socially, it alienates vast swaths of the country. With Republicans controlling all branches of government and a majority of state houses, the country’s ability to put this disastrous presidency behind us will hinge on broadening the resistance. We must continue education efforts within a social justice framework long term. Right now, however, word choice must be based on efficiently confronting the greatest threat to post-World War II order and American democracy; time is of the essence.

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