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Scylla and Charybdis

You all know the reference. In Homer’s enduringly great tale, “The Odyssey,” one of the most difficult decisions that Odysseus has to make is when he is told by Circe that to traverse the straits, he is going to have to take his ship either closer to Scylla, the six-headed monster, or Charybdis, who essentially creates a deadly whirlpool. Circe tells him to face Scylla, because the inevitable loss of six men is better than the loss of he entire ship. And that is what he does. It is a gruesome fate for the six men, but he makes what seems to be the best choice given the dire circumstances.

This story is so powerful and visual, that it has remained a virtual metaphor for trying to make the best of two very bad choices. I use it, and then I usually have to explain to the person I am talking to, what I mean. Ah, for the days when virtually everyone knew their Greek mythology!

The metaphor is more powerful than just that of making the best of two bad choices. Scylla is a fearsome monster, but the deadly whirlpool which will suck down your ship to the bottom of the sea, is more mysteriously frightening. Scylla’s physical carnage is immediate; Charybdis’ is longer, and gives no hope of escape for the the entire ship and crew. But both are awful, so Odysseus has to make the choice, for his men, for himself, and for the fate of the voyage.

We all make choices, hopefully never as horrifying as those. Political figures and political bodies do, as well. They likely never see it that way. If Senators Manchin and Sinema decide that it is most important to them to do the immediate thing, save the filibuster from disappearing; they may or may not understand that this will likely lead to Republicans winning the 2022 elections, and taking binding control of state elections for decades Very likely, they do not see it that way, or do not understand it, or are incapable of taking the long view. I would argue that the Democrats have made several crucial mistakes in choices over the recent decades, apparently not wishing to mentally game out the long-term effects of their decisions, or lacking the perceptiveness and imagination to do so.

Senate Majority Leader Mitchell, the model of probity, refused to allow his caucus to filibuster the nomination of Clarence Thomas, who was utterly unqualified, and had no interest in jurisprudence. At the time, the Supreme Court was pretty well balanced. But did Mitchell and other leading Democrats not see that he Thomas was the beginning of the Federalist Society’s plan to make sure that every judge which a Republican President appointed to the Court, was going to be an absolute rubber stamp for Far Right policies?

Justice Souter, also appointed by GHW Bush, voted not to overturn the decision of the Florida Supreme Court to recount the votes in 2000, but Thomas voted the other way, going against a history of precedent that the state courts can rule on their own state’s election laws. He did that, as did the other four who voted that way, simply so that GW Bush would win. Now, he is going to vote that Georgia has the right to make up any voting laws it wants, in direct contradiction of his other ruling. This is not jurisprudence or the principle of res judicata, it is pure naked politics, which is what the Federalist Society demanded from people they recommended to Republican presidents.

So Mitchell didn’t like the idea of filibustering that particular nominee, and so he got through, and is still there. Twenty years or so before that, liberals in the Senate blocked Haynsworth and Carswell, and the Court ended up with Blackmun, who turned into an excellent Justice.

And Mitchell is not the only one to blame, of course. Harry Reid, certainly a decent person, would not get rid of the filibuster for lower court judges Obama was nominating, and whom McConnell would not put up for a vote.. Finally, Reid did, but by that time, too many had been blocked, and those seats were never filled, until Trump got to put in hundreds of them, now filling up the courts with young, stupid, and relentlessly Far Right judges. This could have been anticipated, but Reid waited too long, and he and others in the Democratic Party did not want to invoke the wrath of the New York Times and the other mainstream media which will attack the Democrats immediately if they do anything which is in the least bit partisan or political. They only let Republicans do that.

I could give more examples. I remember the L.A. Times, which was thought to be fairly liberal, but turned away from that with Chicago Tribune ownership, writing an editorial about how it would be disgraceful if Democrats did not vote for Roberts to be on the Court. Now we have seen Roberts gut the Voting Rights Act, and he will undoubtedly vote to uphold the most draconian state election laws.

Decisions have consequences, not only for the political figures who make them, but also for the hundreds of millions of people whom they are supposed to represent. Comity is lovely when it means that you go to lunch or work out with your “colleagues across the aisle.” But that doesn’t do your constituents any good. Abortion rights, civil rights, union rights, separation of church and state, defendants’ rights, are all under attack from a Radical Right Supreme Court, which Democrats did not appoint or cause, but which they did not fight hard enough against when they had the chance.

And let us never forget those voters in 2016, who loved to tell everyone how they just couldn’t vote for Hillary; because “Bernie was cheated,” “She is a neoliberal,” “I just don’t like her,” “I want to cast a conscience vote,” “I won’t vote at all,” “She is the devil we know” (Eddie Glaude, whom I turn off every time he is on TV). She was an admirable First Lady, a very popular Senator from New York, a highly respected Secretary of State; but these people just couldn’t vote for her, as if they were wealthy restaurant patrons who just didn’t quite like the way the filet was cooked, so walked out, to go somewhere else. But here, there was nowhere else, except Trump being elected. And they were so wrapped up in their own egoism, their own belief in themselves as oh-so-perceptive people who do not want to vote for someone unless they were madly in political love with them, like Obama, apparently, that they got Trump elected. And virtually none of them will ever admit it to themselves or anyone else.

Oh, and let us not forget those Nader voters in 2000, who were so proud of voting for someone who said exactly what they wanted to hear; even though they were told time and again that their votes could cost Gore the election, and get Bush elected. Which is of course what happened, with the aid of the Supreme Court. Then they, or some other people, did the exact same thing in 2016, and there went the Supreme Court, perhaps for 50 years. They would probably do it again, too, if they could, because it made them feel good for the immediate moment. History does not very often give you the chance to make wrong choice after wrong choice, and then get to fix it all, by finally making the right choice.

You make decisions, and some of them are harder than others. The choice of Hillary was such an easy one, but too many could not make it, because they did not get the tingle down their leg which they so much wanted again. The choices of various Democratic leaders to not fight the Radical Right takeover of the Supreme Court, was largely a case of trying to avoid media criticism, and attacks of being partisan; so they let the Republicans be completely partisan and deceitful, somehow thinking that this would redound to their detriment, but it did not. sufficiently.

You make your choice. Sometimes it involves an immediate negative result of some sort, but the chance for an immeasurably important long-term gain. The outcomes are often not as obvious as they were set out to Odysseus, but sometimes they are, as with Hillary vs. Trump. To me, one of the most powerful meanings evoked by the legend of Scylla and Charybdis , is that Odysseus could not be certain what would happen, but he had to not only listen to Circe, but imagine the ultimate results of his choice. You have to have the ability to try to foresee various futures, when you try to make your choices, rather than just do “what feels right at the time,” and then see how it turns out. You cannot be like Hamlet, who simply could not make choices unless it was in the heat of emotion, or too late. But you must try to envision the longer-term results of what you choose to do, or not do, particularly when the decisions are significant, so that you do not end up being sucked into the abyss.