“It’s not my ambition to be in the political center, which blows around with the wind. It’s my ambition to be in the moral center, and that’s why I’m a democrat. That’s why I call myself a progressive because it’s my ambition to try to find what’s right the best we can and then bring the political center to us.” –Congressman Jamie Raskin

Summary

Constitutional law professor and Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8) and Norman Sandridge (classics professor and fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies) discuss how the congressman came to see the study and craft of law as a leadership role. They read from Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus on how Persian laws supposedly took thought for the character of its citizens. They talk about how indignation toward institutionalized cruelty (e.g., as depicted in fictionalized works like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) fueled Congressman Raskin to become more politically active. Finally, they discuss how Enlightenment ideals of rationality, empathy, solidarity, and human progress can help us discover the parts of the American story that unite us.

Questions

  • Did congressman Raskin think of the study of law as a “leadership position” when he first began his career? (00:01:17)
  • How did Congressman Raskin decide to pursue a career in law? (00:1:50)
  • Did Congressman go into law with a view to becoming a legislator? (00:03:45)
  • Did Congressman Raskin consciously try to follow in his father’s (Marcus Raskin) footsteps? (00:05:27)
  • How did Congressman Raskin finally decide to go from being a law professor to a lawmaker? Did it feel like destiny? (00:07:45)
  • Did Congressman Raskin have anyone encouraging him to run for office, confident that he could win? (00:09:25)
  • Do American laws take thought for the morality of its citizens (as Xenophon says Persian laws do in the Education of Cyrus)? Should laws try to make citizens more moral? (00:11:45)
  • Are there aspects of the American character that Congressman Raskin would like to see improved through law? What could the laws do to help us be better people? (00:18:23)
  • Should people receive (required) education about the reasoning behind their laws? (00:22:32)
  • What grade would Congressman Raskin give the United States on educating its citizens to participate effectively in a democracy? (00:25:55)
  • How do art and literature bring us to the moral center that Congressman Raskin hopes to help bring American citizens to? (00:27:50)
  • What were the earliest works that helped Congressman Raskin cultivate empathy? (00:29:43)
  • What has Congressman Raskin been reading since becoming a congressman? (00:34:30)
  • What does Congressman Raskin see as the biggest impediments to empathy in a person? (00:36:15)
  • Do lawmakers engage in dialogue sufficiently enough to comprehend and solve the problems that face them? (00:40:20)
  • Can a person ever have too much empathy? (00:42:31)
  • What are the stories from the American past that we could tell ourselves to help heal the divisions in the country? Should Americans instead give up on the search for a common, unified past? (00:46:05)
  • Do Americans have to be critical and selective about how they regard all of their history? Can anything be taken as an unqualified good, worthy of imitation? (00:56:00)
  • Congressman Raskin’s final question: How do you reconcile the specific and the general, e.g., the interests and will of Congressman Raskin’s own constituents vs. those of the country, and those of one’s party vs. those of one’s constituents, “the whole”? (00:58:58)

Key Insights

  • “Law is a distillation of the best wisdom that society has to offer.”–Congressman Raskin
  • Politicians are servants of the people in a democratic society.
  • “The rule of law is a boundary set on people with power. People with power generally don’t need the law. They use the law to their advantage but they generally have the resources to get what they want. But it’s people without resources, who are in a minority position, who are defenseless, who need the law badly.”–Congressman Raskin
  • “In politics nothing’s inevitable and nothing’s impossible. It’s only possible through the democratic arts of educating and organizing and mobilizing people for change”.–Congressman Raskin
  • “All laws both reflect and influence the character of social interaction.”–Congressman Raskin
  • The government’s budget is an ethical document, a moral reflection of the values of the people.
  • Our scientific and technological progress has so outdistanced our moral and social progress.
  • Technology can be a barrier to productive conversation.
  • The great trajectory of human history is toward progress.
  • “If you look around and everything is hopeless, you’re the hope.”–Marcus Raskin, father of Congressman Raskin
  • “There’s no Garden of Eden in the American story.”–Congressman Raskin

Works Referenced

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

Xenophon. Education of Cyrus (1.2.2)

The speeches of Frederick Douglass

The very emphasis of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill, makes it certain that we are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours.” Sigmund Freud (“Reflections,” 1922).

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem–in my opinion–to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately for the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.”–Albert Einstein (incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the podcast.)

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. Letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (1910) edited by Gaillard Hunt, Vol. 9, p. 103; these words, using the older spelling “Governours”, are inscribed to the left of the main entrance, Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building. (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/James_Madison)

President Barack Obama on empathy: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/19/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation-2/

William Golding. Lord of the Flies

Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jean Jacques Rousseau. Confessions (in French).

The Keepers, directed by Ryan White (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Keepers)

Richard Adams. Watership Down

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata on reconciliation through common history

George Orwell. “Notes on Nationalism”

Further Reading

On Loving Everyone in the Proper Degree