Who gets to overrule democracy?

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina burns last night.

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina burned last night.

Seven black churches in the South have burned down over the last ten days, although officials in Greeleyville, SC say that the fire at Mount Zion AME last night was probably accidental. It burned down during a storm, and “the accidental burning of churches is not uncommon across the US.” That’s one for Fodor’s. It seems possible that various white people in South Carolina, angry their legislature would have the audacity to take down a flag in response to the murder of nine black people, have set things right by terrorizing more black people. It’s a confident moral system that turns to arson. There’s no money in it. The people who do such things must be inordinately convinced of their own rightness.

I was thinking about this issue after reading this fine argument that the Tea Party is in fact a Confederate party, and that both are premised on the idea that certain values are more important than democracy. I quote:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

As you may remember, the Confederacy happened because the ruling class of the American South determined that slavery was more important than the United States and its government. They didn’t even secede because the US tried to abolish slavery; they seceded because the US elected a guy who might abolish slavery later. The very possibility of such change rendered the man who might work it and the system that installed him illegitimate. Democracy is all well and good, but the important thing is buying and selling black people.

The moral bankruptcy of this reasoning overshadows its astounding hubris. It’s absurd that a generation of political, military and cultural leaders concluded that slavery was great, but it’s crazy they were so sure they were right. Only an asshole would think his opinion was more valid than the sum democratic will of America and its government—probably the kind of asshole who grew up owning people. But this particular assholism also happens to be a necessary element of democracy.

Say you’re driving a car with three other people in it, on your way to see the Grand Canyon. Somewhere in New Mexico, a passenger suggests you stop at Denny’s for lunch. You don’t like Denny’s and would prefer Mexican food, so you put it to a vote and everyone else votes Denny’s. That’s where you go. Only an asshole would say, “Well, I’m driving,” and blow by Denny’s for a tamale stand.

But let’s say that once you get to the Grand Canyon, everyone in the car agrees it would be super cool to ramp it. You disagree. You argue that the car is not able to jump the Grand Canyon, and everyone will die if you try. Your passengers aren’t convinced. The car votes three to one to fuckin’ launch over the Grand Canyon like Evel Knievel. At this point, you would be an asshole to go along with them.

Certain fundamental values are more important than democracy. The problem is determining what those values are—or, more precisely, the problem is determining who gets to determine what those values are. The Grand Canyon example is easy, because we all agree on continuing to live. But what about something more ambiguous like, say, the right to marry people of the same sex?

Many conservatives, including convicted goblin Steve Daines, have complained that the Supreme Court overruled the will of the people in Obergefell v. Hodges. Damn right it did. The Supreme Court exists partly because we the people determined long ago that certain values, including individual rights, are more important than popular will. Who can say what those values may be? Nine judges appointed for life by presidents of the United States.1

Note that the answer to that question is not “any dumb cracker with a gun.” The problem with admitting that in some cases, wise individuals may overrule democracy, is that utter assholes invariably think they’re wise. As with Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch, self-nomination is an issue.

We must accede to the will of the people, except when we must not. But who is so confident in his own judgment he knows just when? The answer to that question is usually “the kind of person who is wrong.” So don’t burn down a church. It’s possible you aren’t wise enough to do such things justly.

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  1. Ramp it? Is that phrasal verb in use? I hope that at the very least, it will be now.
    Anyway…. isn’t secession fundamentally democratic? (Obviously not at all in a case where only white men can vote, but in a broader sense…) If we believe in democracy, shouldn’t we allow/encourage/support any people living on any land to (re-)form their own government? The USA has been remarkably inconsistent on this in spite of basically growing out of secession: against the Confederacy, for Kosovo, against Crimea, neutral on Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia… Shouldn’t we as Americans strongly defend any truly democratic secession? And for god’s sake, let go of Texas, Puerto Rico, and Vermont, if they really want to go?

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