Equality before the law doesn’t mean justice will be done

George Pyle

Salt Lake Tribune

April 25, 2014



“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” — Anatole France, Nobel Laureate novelist, 1844-1924

Or, were the French philosopher among us today, he might note that the law provides the rich and the poor equal opportunity to contribute to political campaigns, flood the airwaves with deceptive, self-serving ads and stand up to wrongdoing by the Bureau of Land Management.

Equality before the law is such a lofty ideal that we have been working for centuries to attain it, and don’t give up even though we know how often we do, and how often we will, fall short.

But when the theoretical equality of opportunity is not matched by an actual equality of outcome, there is always a snappy answer.

Like the solution offered by the Fox News pundit who, when interviewed by Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, tried to excuse the Third World health care delivery system found in rural America with the straight-faced statement, “Stop being poor.”

Followed by one of the longest silences in the history of television.

It recalls the story written by World War II columnist Ernie Pyle about the infantryman who existed for weeks on end in mud and rain and, when he complained to the medics about chronic trench-foot, was told to keep his feet dry:

“Sgt. Day went back to his watery foxhole, still sore-footed but unable to keep from chuckling over the irony of this advice. Their prescription for trench-foot takes its place in history alongside W.C. Fields’ sure cure for insomnia — get lots of sleep!”

Stop being poor, of course, is the implicit answer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that have opened the floodgates of special interest money into political campaigns even as they allow states to turn off the practice of using affirmative action programs to diversify the student population at public universities. (In the case of the latter, of course, the appropriate response might also be, Stop being black.)

The fact that having equal rights to buy congressmen does not mean the equal ability to buy them is, though, dawning on many of us. Enough so that the new reply to the liberal concern that evil corporate types such as the Koch Brothers (kill Obamacare) are now free to distort democracy is that, well, evil liberal types like George Soros (end the drug war) and Tom Steyer (stop the Keystone pipeline) are equally free to distort democracy. So there.

Which is true. Both sets of evil billionaires are equal before the law. Either they are all free to spend as they like, or none of them are.

The fact that the conservatives are spending billions to advantage themselves, while the liberals are spending billions to make a society they could afford to live above more just and livable, is — and should be — of no concern to the Supreme Court.

Neither, perhaps, is the fact that Nevada’s freeloading rancher Cliven Bundy has persisted in his years’ long drive to cheat the American taxpayers out of millions in grazing fees out of pure selfishness, while Utah’s concerned citizen Tim DeChristopher made a spur-of-the-moment decision to monkey wrench an ill-advised, environmentally unsound oil lease auction out of profitless altruism.

Certainly, the fact that Bundy was supported by a clutch of heavily armed pseudo-patriots, while DeChristopher had only the after-the-fact backing of some peaceful Unitarians, of course had nothing to do with the fact that the latter spent 21 months in a federal prison while the former attained 15 minutes of Fox News sainthood (before his revealed but unsurprising racist views caused his star to plummet).

There are selfish and selfless reasons to stand with the law. There are selfish and selfless reasons to defy it. Judges may treat them equally. History will not.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can claim no moral equivalency, nor established kinship, with Ernie Pyle. Darn it.