The year 2020 may be remembered as “The Age of Remote Engagement.” Professional and college sports are played before empty venues or in antiseptic “bubbles”. The Presidential Debate Commission has proposed that the second debate between President Trump and Vice-President Biden be held remotely, via Zoom or similar technology, one presumes. Americans will watch from their living rooms, pausing perhaps to fill out their mail-in election ballots. Now, in keeping with the spirit of the age, comes the news that the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to hold a mostly-remote hearing on Judge Amy Coney Barret’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. There will be no spectators in the hearing room, and senators are invited to participate remotely if they choose. This setup will likely help move Judge Barrett’s nomination quickly down the rails – isn’t that the point? – but public debate on abortion, the civil rights issue of our time, isn’t likely to resemble the “robust, uninhibited, and wide-open” debate the Supreme Court has called for as the First Amendment ideal.
And whom among the senators, who are tasked by the Constitution to give their “advise and consent” to the nomination, has Judge Barrett met with? Very few on the Democratic side – they’ve kept their distance from her for the most part, preferring to lob talking points against her nomination than to engage on the issues her views may impact on the Court. Especially abortion.
Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court in Hill v. Colorado upheld a Colorado law that required pro-life sidewalk counselors to keep an 8-foot distance from abortion-minded women. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by former Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented – forcefully – on the ground that discourse on matters of critical concern must be held face-to-face, not an “eight-foot remove:”
I have certainly held conversations at a distance of eight feet seated in the quiet of my chambers, but I have never walked along the public sidewalk – and have not seen others do so – “conversing” at an 8-foot remove. The suggestion is absurd.… The Court would have us believe that this can be done effectively – yea, perhaps even more effectively-by shouting through a bullhorn at a distance of eight feet.
Shouting talking points into a microphone isn’t political discourse. Is anyone listening to anyone else anymore? “Is there anybody out there?”, as Pink Floyd once sang. “Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Or have we become comfortably numb in our own notions of the public good and inured to the views of others?