Every once in a while in my reporting and writing life, seemingly forever ricocheting between the Middle East, Europe and the United States, a day occasionally passes when complex issues become clear and confusion is replaced by precision. This is especially true in that vast arena of human and national values. On these special days, the values, rules and lessons of history that define a country suddenly stand out in sharp relief amid the clutter of silliness and distractions that make us lose sight of what is truly important in life.
Such a day occurred for me this week in the United States, in two realms that have preoccupied most of my adult life: college basketball and constitutionalism. The two subjects seem as far apart as any two things could be, but on Thursday this week they came together in two incongruous events that may offer valuable insights into the best of American values: the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of arguments in a case related to whether gay marriage should be sanctioned by law, as some states have ruled; and the Syracuse University men’s basketball team’s zone defense that was brilliantly executed and led to the defeat of the favored Indiana University team in the fourth round of the national college championships.
I was reading about the Supreme Court’s deliberations most of the morning and middle of the day, and in the evening I watched the Syracuse team, known officially as the “Orange,” defeat Indiana. The two commendable values that asserted themselves so boldly today capture two core dimensions of American life, culture and governance.
One is judicial review, or the courts’ ability to review the legality of executive or legislative decisions, in this case a California law that banned same-sex marriage and raised the seminal and historical American issue of the balance of power and authority between the federal government and the individual states.
The other is the zone defense in basketball that sees the five players assume relatively fixed positions on the court along two lines comprising two and three players each. Its aim is to prevent the opposition from scoring, but it also captures the much higher reality of how to meld into a single efficient and beautiful machine the three assets of individual skills, coordinated teamwork, and the ability to constantly adjust and adapt these to new situations as needed. If a society can foster these skills among its people, it is likely to become a strong and admired society.
Judicial review and the balance of power between the states and the federal government have become all the more profound because American courts, including the Supreme Court, have grappled with such issues for nearly two and a half centuries – and they still have not come to a definitive conclusion. This recurring reassessment of the rule of the game of national life is a significant reason why I admire the American governance system. Every generation has the responsibility and the opportunity to consider again both the founding principles of the country and their applicability at that moment of history.
This reminds us that the American system of government in fact is still being created and recreated, a long time after independence in 1776. Every generation redefines foundational values in a manner that is most relevant to its time, making the government system perpetually responsive to public opinion, which evolves over time (for example, look at how the rights of African-Americans and women have evolved since 1776, when they had virtually no civil rights and no public roles).
The power of this phenomenon is that it is a living embodiment of the principle of the consent of the governed – the idea that government serves the citizens and should be perpetually accountable to them, because the government’s legitimacy stems from popular consent. This is a macro-reason for why the United States is such a powerful country, and is so widely envied around the world by so many people.
At the level of micro-reasons for American power, the Syracuse University zone defense is as good an example as we will find in any realm of life. It has much to teach us all. When it works efficiently, it is both a work of art and a devastating force that batters opponents into helpless confusion and ultimate submission, turning powerful athletes into ragdolls. It works because the American system that spawned it fosters the best talents of individuals of all shapes, sizes and colors, and then teaches the talented individuals to work together as a team, rather than to show off their individual prowess. It is poetic in its beauty, and unforgiving in its efficacy, as it generates rewards for both the individuals and the group.
The U.S. does some really criminal things around the world, but it also comprises stunning examples of how individuals and entire countries can function at an optimum level, as I learned again last Thursday.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.