Defending the indefensible & the state of the media

Hussein Kanji is a prolific social media link poster. Next to his side gig as perhaps Europe's most underrated unicorn maker at seed stage with Hoxton Ventures (Deliveroo, Darktrace, Babylon), his main endeavour day in and day out is the curation of my Facebook feed. I have no idea how he does it - I'd usually wager some sort of combination of Zapier and Buffer, but perhaps he actually does read all of the stuff. In which case he's the most well-informed person I know. This post is not about him.

Sometimes something so egregious slips through the cracks of my Facebook newsfeed that it bears mentioning. This post is about that. It is on the border of not wanting to comment on politics (I did last week and it went poorly). 

The once venerable Newsweek has a piece on the Acting AG of the US, Matthew Whitaker, with the salacious title ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL MATTHEW WHITAKER ONCE SAID JEWS, MUSLIMS AND ATHEISTS SHOULD NOT BE FEDERAL JUDGES. Yes, all caps. 

Wow, I think, and take the clickbait. The article, written by Nicole Goodkind, starts off promising:

New acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in 2014 that judges without a New Testament “biblical view of justice,” should not serve on the federal bench and suggested that he would block the appointment of non-Christian judges if given the chance.

While Whitaker singled out atheists in particular as being unfit to serve, his comments also extended to Jewish and Muslim Americans.

Woah, I think. Really? That a man of such blatant bias would make it so far in the Justice Department is unfathomable. But these are strange times, aren't they? I read on.

Whittaker's two competitors [ed.: in the Republican primary for Iowa Senator], Sam Clovis and Joni Ernst, said that they would use faith-based criteria and make sure they acknowledged “natural law.”

Natural law is the belief that legal rights and systems of morals were given to humans by God and were not derived from the rules of society. The concept is often used in religious communities to deem certain acts immoral and “unnatural” like the use of contraception or same-sex relationships.

Oof. Dear Newsweek, that's not actually the definition of "natural law" at all. I mean, Wikipedia knows more about it than you. The point of natural law is that it derives from, well, nature. It does not comment per se on the metaphysics of that nature, if any. And atheist derivations of ethics from natural law abound, from Plato and Aristoteles onwards. Jewish and Islamic and Catholic philosophies of natural law exist. 

And - dare we say it - much of common law jurisprudence is founded on natural law. The Declaration of Independence bases its validity, the entitlement of the "separate and equal station", on the "Laws of Nature" (and to be fair, "of Nature's God").

Take "Thou Shalt Not Kill." A common view in theology is that this is a natural law, God-given perhaps not so much via a miraculous event involving stone tablets but because it was discovered as a central natural rule without which humans could not live together. Every fiber in our being knows it's wrong to kill another person. If we permit it to happen, "society" fractures (also, you get Horcruxes). That is the meaning of "natural law."

Reading on, we learn about Matthew Whitaker's criteria for selecting judges to the federal bench:

"What I’d like to see is things like their worldview.… Are they people of faith? Do they have a biblical view of justice? I think that is very important.”

The moderator interrupted Whitaker and asked “Levitical or New Testament?” which is an indirect way of asking whether people of the Jewish faith should be banned from serving as federal judges.

“I’m a New Testament,” responded Whitaker to laughter. “And what I know is as long as they have that [New Testament] worldview that they’ll be a good judge.”

One wishes Newsweek had expanded that first elipsis. We would know more about what Whitaker actually said. But by substituting [New Testament] in brackets, the journalist Nicole Goodkind is putting words into his mouth and then determines that those words are anti-semitic. 

As an aside: the interjection of "Levitican or New Testament" is a reference to the (wrong-headed) view that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful deity and the God of the New Testament is forgiving and loving. It's a frequent Christian trope, hence the laughter. 

But back to the main event. Yes, Whitaker seems to have said that he wants to understand a potential judge's worldview. Clearly a person of faith is something he likes because he believes they understand the concept of natural law. But his framing it as "person of faith" sounds quite inclusive of other religions, to me at least.

But then he drops the big one - do they have a "biblical view of justice"? Obviously that's something that plays quite well with the conservative base in how it sounds (remember, these are Republican primaries). But Newsweek uses it to suggest that this excludes in Matthew Whitaker's view anyone from serving as a federal judge who is not Christian. 

Let's take a step back. First of all, nowhere does he say that people without a biblical view of justice won't make good judges - it seems to him a shortcut to determine a worldview that would make for a good judge. But more importantly, the journalist is once again confused about what is actual a technical term.

"Biblical justice" is a well-defined concept and has a rich tradition, something that Nicole Goodkind apparently does not realize. It starts with the Judaic concept of mishpat, to treat people equitably regardless of social status, class, race, or gender. Biblical justice is in fact directly opposed to the bias that Newsweek's headline wants to attribute to Whitaker.

But biblical justice goes further by extending mishpat to tzadeqah, perhaps best translated as "righteousness." This means a justice not limited to righting wrongs, but extended to preventative and restorative acts like generosity and charity. 

The reference to the New Testament means Whitaker personally believes that a charitable, generous, equitable justice should apply especially to those who have broken laws. But a biblical view of justice does not require the belief in God. And it certainly does not require a person to be Christian.

Oh wow, someone who wants unbiased judges that are charitable? Get out the pitchforks! 

This article is everything that is wrong with the media today. It oversimplifies. It tries to identify prejudice where there is none. It demonizes a possibly good person. It does not do its research. It simply assumes that someone is not "on the right team" and declares them fair game. 

And so I find myself defending the indefensible. I do not know whether Matthew Whitaker is a good person or the right pick for AG. But for the purposes above, it does not matter, because he did not actually say what Newsweek heard or pretended to hear. 

I do care when media tries to fan unnecessary racial and religious and political divides. Newsweek would do well to practice a bit of biblical justice. Whether it calls it that or, you know, "humanist." Because they are exactly the same damn thing.