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Shawn Vestal: ‘Little Supreme Court’ in legislator’s head a symptom of a wider malady

Idaho Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, shows a mockup of the proposed “Friends of NRA” specialty license plate in 2015. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, shows a mockup of the proposed “Friends of NRA” specialty license plate in 2015. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

Now it can be told.

If you have sometimes wondered where those on the borderlands of the political right get their notions of legality and constitutionality – whether it’s that federal land is illegitimate or that the separation of church and state is a myth – you can wonder no more.

They don’t simply make them up. They don’t simply absorb them from the mid-1950s rantings of paranoid anti-communists. No, there is a special Supreme Court – a tiny, tiny Supreme Court – that provides legal cover for weak ideas.

And it lives in Sage Dixon’s head.

Dixon, an Idaho state lawmaker from Ponderay who was one of the legislators who joined Matt Shea on the infamous trip to Oregon to interfere with the Ammon Bundy standoff, recently weighed in on a new Idaho law that puts the Bible beside the dictionary as an approved reference material in schools.

Those of us with ordinary constitutional information and analysis at our disposal saw this as another pointless exercise by those who dream of “restoring” America to its roots as a theocracy. Those of us who are from Idaho and pay it some attention and who relish legal protections against religious fanatics trying to put sheep’s clothing onto their beliefs and tiptoe them into classrooms, might know that the state’s founding document has an admirably strict prohibition on religion in the classroom: “No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used.”

This would seem to include the Bible. The state’s attorney general sure seems to think so, advising lawmakers that the bill was “specifically prohibited” by the state Constitution.

Dixon thinks it’s OK, though.

He asked the voices in his head.

“The little Supreme Court in my head,” he told the House last week, “says this is OK.”

Shall we consider it settled, then? That’s the way it works, after all, with the big Supreme Court that is not in Sage Dixon’s head. No wonder it sometimes seems that Dixon and his fellow travelers exist in alternative versions of reality. They do. Even the courts are different there.

This is more than a passing remark. The little Supreme Court in Sage Dixon’s head is an emblem for our times: Nobody has to believe anything they don’t want to, and everybody has a source of information ready to bolster their belief. This is particularly true of the alternative world of media and “science” that has been built up to support conservatives faced with an ever more contrary real world: Don’t like or understand climate science? Check out this website – it will tell you you’re right, and it will pretend to do so on a scientific basis. See? You’re not a denier – they’re the deniers.

A Washington Post columnist, writing about the recent case of assault by a Trump campaign official against a reporter, said this week we have witnessed the death of the fact, because Trump – in the face of absolute video evidence – simply continues to deny that it happened, and the people who buy this guy will not care. They know not to believe their eyes, if what their eyes tell them is not what they want to believe. They’ve been trained by decades of disregard for shared sources of knowledge – for journalism, for science, for education, for responsible rhetorical argument, for visible verification versus red-face rants. If we’re witnessing the death of the fact, it’s been dying every day for a long time.

We all lean this way – led by belief more than knowledge. If there’s one thing social media shows us with absolute clarity, it’s that, despite the constant, high-minded criticism of the media, many people are merely individual examples of the traits of the worst journalism: shallow, simplistic, sloppy. The meme is the perfect unit for our information age: A good picture and seven words. Boom!

Problem is, very little of the actual world makes for a satisfying boom. People used to complain about sound-bite media; memes make sound bites look like The Economist, and the media doesn’t make those.

Everyone’s susceptible – Bernie versus Hillary has produced some doozies – but it would be a false equivalence to say it’s equal among people of different political stripes. It’s simply worse on the right – where, for example, belief in Reagan-era tropes like trickle-down economics remains entrenched and anti-science attitudes flourish – and it’s worst on the far right, where people like Shea like to call federal employees “terrorists” and sell fever dreams of revolution.

It would be easy to make fun of the little Supreme Court in Sage Dixon’s head and leave it at that. But a majority of the Idaho Legislature voted for the Bible-in-schools bill, though Gov. Butch Otter has indicated he may veto it.

If he doesn’t, the state is liable to lose an expensive legal battle in a real court. One lawmaker put the potential cost at $400,000. No matter. Once more into the constitutional breach! The possible expense was happily taken up by lawmakers who again failed to spend a dime – or accept a federal dime – to protect 78,000 people who are falling through the cracks of the health insurance system.

Maybe Sage Dixon has a little general fund in his head, to help pay for the bad advice he’s getting from the voices in there.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.