The Cult of No Criticism

Judge Alito had a cakewalk this week and I suspect he knows that, even if such Republican senators as Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch appear to think otherwise.

When I was a graduate student, some 30 years younger than Judge Alito is now, senior colleagues routinely spared no one at national and international presentations. One senior critic spent the entirety of his allotted 20 minutes telling hundreds of people that a young professor, specifically me, didn't belong on an international conference panel of distinguished, largely graying, male persuasion experts.

Each of many such events was trial by fire of a type not uncommon today in academic and business meetings. While some challengers practice overkill, the purpose is usually to discern whether the bearers of the onslaught can defend their ideas. The whole room, not just his wife, would have been in tears if Judge Alito had been subjected to what most young graduate students face in their dissertation defenses. To say nothing of the scrutiny and pressure attorneys sometimes endure practicing in front of skeptical or cranky judges.

Let's cast some perspective on what's going on here at a more macro level. Questions tend to be asked by people of higher status and answered by those of lower status. This is our cultural expectation. Persons who consider themselves above others -- authoritarian by nature -- expect to be doing more asking than answering. It follows that the questions asked of Judge Alito weren't nearly as offensive as the perceived temerity of those less powerful Democrats posing them. Lewis Carroll noted the status differential component of questions in his poem, "You Are Old, Father William," where a father takes exception to his child's persistent inquiries.

"I have answered three questions and that is enough,"
Said his father, "don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs."

I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would think that Judge Alito suffered in any way other than fatigue over the last few days. If it hadn't been for Senator Kennedy and a few other challengers, the process would have seemed a rubber stamp. Why do we want a judge on the Supreme Court for life who can't answer difficult questions, considering he will spend the rest of his days asking them of others? Do we really want to give a simple pass to a judge who can't remember why he included an item on a 1985 job application he prepared while seeking a federal position that was likely to be crucial to his career? Would a businessperson being questioned by his board of directors on a similar lapse of memory be given such a bye? Ask Donald Trump.

Of course questions should be asked -- and they should be tough ones. Judge Alito's entire career revolves around questioning. If he can't deal with them competently and persuasively, he shouldn't be on the Supreme Court.

A cult of no criticism is emerging in Washington, evidenced once again at the Alito hearings. It's like an invisible bubble contrived to protect the White House and most Republicans from challenges. I'm to some extent reminded of my father's view of the presidency -- "Respect the office if not the man." But I have no recollection of hearing "And don't ever question or you'll be rightly demeaned and denounced for aiding the country's enemies."

If the American people and a free press demure from questions and are suckered by baseless claims of incivility, democracy will be undermined and the path for extensive power abuses will surely be paved.

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