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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of December 24 - 30, 2002

Opinion Columns

Mr. Lott, 
meet Mr. Rawls

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

Imagine just for a moment that you were charged with choosing the principles of justice for our society—a little bit like participating in an election but different in one important way. In this thought experiment you indeed have interests and plans for your life, but you are not allowed to know the exact nature of those plans. Nor are you allowed to know your sex, race, economic class and religion. John Rawls, a philosopher who recently passed away, first proposed this hypothetical situation in his book "A Theory of Justice" in 1971. He referred to this starting point of social justice as the "original position."

Given this limited knowledge of life and society—what Rawls termed a "veil of ignorance"—the players in this game begin to make "rationally prudential choices" with regards to the kind of social contract they would like to enter into. Rawls argued that under this "veil of ignorance" the players would adopt a broader approach to political decisions that approximates the moral point of view. Religious and political liberties would be doled out on the basis of equality of all citizens. Economic inequalities would exist only so far as they improved the position of the worst off in the society.

It is a curious little exercise to entertain the idea of "original position," both from a personal perspective and from the larger social viewpoint. How, if at all, would your political decisions be different? Would our society look different from what it does today? Would the behavior of political leaders and parties be different?

Consider the latest misadventures of Sen. Trent Lott. It is as if his comments at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party were a tiny pebble dropping into the stillest pond in the universe. The waves have rippled out to splash on just about everyone standing on the shores of that pond.

At Thurmond’s party, and in an obtuse moment even for a politician, Lott said the country would be better off today had Thurmond been elected president in 1948 on his platform of maintaining racial segregation. That’s all it took to draw out the anti-Rawlsian behavior of just about anyone near or far from Lott.

The reactions from all sides of the political pond were based on self-interest—gaged carefully to reflect nicely on whoever had the microphone at the time. The issue was whether Lott should resign his post as Senate Majority Leader, quit the Senate entirely, or do nothing at all—perhaps apologize a half dozen times, wait for the next big news story and move on.

The harder-line conservatives in the Republican Party wanted Lott to step down from his leadership position. They wanted this not because Lott’s comments were damaging to African Americans specifically and racial justice in general, but because Lott would likely become their political Achilles heel. After decades of opposing affirmative action, Lott was suddenly embracing the policy. The hard liners didn’t want to compromise the party’s position on this.

This dilemma is brought into stark relief now that the University of Michigan affirmative action case is before the Supreme Court. This is the first significant return to the issues of the landmark Bakke case decided in 1978. One contingent of the administration, led by Solicitor General Ted Olson, would like to file a brief opposing the consideration of race in college admissions. Another contingent that includes White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales does not want to file a brief, fearing it would drive away Hispanic and other minority votes in general. Briefs are due at the Supreme Court by Jan. 16.

The more moderate Republicans wanted to wash their hands of Lott because he was single-handedly erasing the gains the party has made in bringing minorities into their "tent." So they wanted him out of the leadership position but not out of the Senate. Why? Because a Democratic governor of Mississippi would have appointed a Democrat to fill the seat and put the Senate back at a 50-50 split, which would have changed the power balance in the Senate dramatically. Ironically, most Democrats wanted to keep Lott in his post because he would have provided a big fat punching bag—something they felt they needed to win in the 2004 election. They also figured they could derail any Supreme Court nominations with Lott leading the Republicans into battle. This position was no less cynical or deplorable than the calculations on the other side of the aisle.

No one addressed the issue itself that Lott uncorked—the racial genie carefully hidden from view. Politicians were so obsessed with finding the winning angle on this event that they were not recognizing that there are real racist sentiments buried not so deep under the surface.

It has been said that, before now, no one had "connected the dots" of Lott’s voting record on civil rights and other race issues. Well, if a U.S. senator—someone whose background, every word and every vote is presumably scrutinized—can float along for decades with an apparent racist attitude going unnoticed, what can we expect to find in the hearts and minds of the anonymous public?

Racism is real and it’s there in all walks of life. We can apologize ad infinitum for racism, but it is a more insidious problem than any act of contrition might address. Part of this may be because racism is a bastard child of our innate competitive nature and insecurities. But where would racism be if the players in society didn’t know where they stood in the competitive arena before deciding the rules of social justice?

What would the world look like if people like Mr. Lott magically assumed a "veil of ignorance" the moment they walked on the Senate floor?

If there were equal but unknowable odds you would become, say, a slave, a rich industrialist, a middle class "soccer mom," a gay victim of AIDS, a Muslim, a Jew and a white sharecropper—how would you proceed in the world? What would be the American Dream?


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