The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled
On the theft of rights, the mythology of American law, and what comes next
In the dream, I get a phone call from a friend, an acquaintance of sorts, someone I know but don’t know really, in the way that sort of thing happens in dreams.
She is a professional organizer, and she wants to meet for dinner. I invite her over, and we order takeout.
I am living in a house that is not my house, in a city that is not my city, and though they are not home, my kids still live with me, but they are out somewhere.
This friend and I, we eat dinner on the carpet of the living room of this house that looks like it was built in the seventies, the carpet never changed.
This friend asks, after dinner, if she can do a few things, maybe organize some cabinets and clear out some clutter.
Sure, I say, that’s fine.
I turn around. It seems like a second, maybe five, in the way time moves when you’re not paying attention.
But when I turn back around, my entire house is on the street.
I race out through the garage. My belongings are on the sidewalk and this friend of mine, she is selling them to the first taker, wads of cash in her hand as people walk away with my furniture, my kids’ clothes, this dresser I don’t own in real life but which has the most gorgeous brass flowers as drawer pulls. Strangers are picking through my things.
I realize that mementos from my son’s childhood are already gone– his favorite book, the totem that was gifted to him by his godmother, the pajamas that I saved that I dressed him in as an infant, the blue ones that say R for Rocketman.
I start screaming. It is not the scream of anger but the scream of wails. It is the pit of grief and torment pouring from my mouth.
I howl at her, noises like an animal, finally forming words that she must put everything back, put it back, what have you done, put it back,
but she is desperate for the money and it is too late.
I plead with the strangers on the street, please, please, leave it all alone, please, she didn’t have permission to do this, please, these are my children’s things. I am shaking and I know I sound insane, but the strangers don’t leave.
They just back up for a minute until I move on to the next one, and then they move forward again to take more, vultures for the pieces of what I thought was mine.
It is then I realize that this friend of mine, this person I thought I knew, has loaded the remaining contents of my house into her pickup truck and is backing out of my driveway. All these memories and all these things, all these precious things belonging to my children that I had saved for them, they are gone.
You! I shout after her as she turns the wheel. You did all this because you wanted money?! I scream at her.
She stops and looks at me. She is ashamed, but she nods from the driver’s seat. She pulls away.
I do the only remaining thing I can think to do: I call the police. My voice is shaking when the line picks up, and I say, as calmly as I can, I want to report theft, and I want to report fraud, and I want to press charges.
There is no one at the end of the line.
No one is there.
And just like that, the past is gone, and so is the future, and there is nothing left.
In my first year of law school, I took Constitutional Law with the lauded and amazing Professor Jerome Barron. He wrote the casebook that we used in the class, and everyone in academic circles knew his name. I was enthralled with his class.
And he and I had some things in common: we shared the same intellectual fascination with the founding documents of America, the same particular and nuanced love of interpretation of rights contained in the Amendments.
I adored him. We had a forty year age difference, and yet the intellectual battles in class and in office hours over the beauty that was promised in the Amendments turned us into something like old friends, and fast.
One day, though, we got to the caselaw on abortion and the right to privacy.
Professor Barron wasn’t so much of a socratic teacher. He liked the volley of discussion, particularly from precocious young law students who were enjoying their indoctrination. And so, in that classroom in Washington D.C. on a fall day in 1994, as we discussed the nature of implied rights, I raised my hand.
“Yes, Ms. Cronise?” he boomed from the corner of the dais, where he liked to sit cross-legged in a simple metal chair.
“Here’s the thing, Professor Barron,” I said. “This is bothering me. If these rights are implied in the Constitution, doesn’t that mean that the Supreme Court could basically decide at any time to just take them away? I mean, I know there’s stare decisis and all, but honestly, this doesn’t seem too stable a situation for things that mean so much.”
He folded his arms in his lap, and looked at me through his thick glasses.
“Indeed,” he said. “Indeed, it is not.”
In Constitutional interpretation, there’s a doctrine called originalism. What it means, basically, is that if a right wasn’t in the Constitution to begin with, if the Founders didn’t intend for a right to be in the Constitution at the time it was written in 1787, if the words as written— let me repeat, in 1787— had a certain meaning at the time notwithstanding the intervening 221 years of progress, then that right, with its attendant required interpretation, does not exist.
Never mind that mifepristone and disinformation news stations and the ability of women to vote did not exist in 1787, let alone the notion that Black Americans were fully human.
If it didn’t exist in 1787, if it wasn’t intended by these white slaveowners when they wrote the Constitution, then according to the originalists (when they’re not being hypocritical), it is not ours to have.
It’s not stealing if it was never yours to begin with.
I had faith once.
I believed in the rule of law and in the institutions and in the balance of power.
Despite the “flaws” in the system, despite becoming a lawyer because I wanted to fight for women’s rights and for human rights, I believed the law would let me do it, that it would be the vehicle for making the world a better place.
I believed that we were working on a more perfect union, that beautiful propaganda that makes you want to rise in court and plead your case and aim to make the law fit the moment.
I loved the lie.
But I sit here now, five days after Roe fell, and I think about how insane the law is. It’s just words, written in musty books, by largely old white men.
It’s supposed to be a social contract by which we all agree to abide. But it has never been that.
It has always been unjust and fragile, easily contorted to the whims of those longing to preserve minority rule, and in the most crass and violent moments repeated throughout history, and repeated right now, concerned more than anything with property rights, control, and extreme power over others’ lives and bodies.
It is not real, the law. It is not real.
The law is merely a series of words, created by white slaveholder men, that are wielded over others with the threat of prison or death if you refuse to comply with those words, and sometimes, even when you do.
The law saves nothing, it preserves nothing, it protects nothing for any of us— because at any moment, should you find yourself on the other side of power, the law provides the means for those remaining in it the power to take yours away.
When necessary, the law will be used by the police state to strip you of everything you thought you had.
And there is no one coming to save you. There is no one at the other end of the line.
As we sit in the rapidly crumbling rubble of America, as we watch it all fade to black, I find myself thinking a lot these days about the real nature of rights— about who is deemed worthy and who is not, and who decides.
The almighty white christian man– these “Founding Fathers” of ours, oh the patriarchy– had the gall to claim that he should have the power to decide who is deserving of rights and who is not, and how that would be measured, by him alone.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us that we don’t have rights if he doesn’t grant them— through his institutions, his written documents, his laws— and worse yet that we have to labor to earn his favor, to please him, work for him, make him rich, bear his children even when it kills us, give him what he wants or he will take it all because he wants money and power and he will steal it if he has to, your compliance is required– that is, if you want him to “give” you any rights at all.
Your safety, your very life, depends on keeping favor with the devil, right now and for as long as America has been here, and well before that.
But here’s the thing:
Every single one of us is worthy of power over ourselves and our bodies and our choices.
We are worthy because we are here, and for no other reason.
We deserve to have power over ourselves and our bodies and our choices simply because we arrived.
It’s so basic that it’s referred to as “having some humanity.”
There’s a fundamental rule in contract law, applicable as much to the social contract as to anything else: you can’t have a contract if both parties don’t consent.
We did not consent to these laws, such as they stand and are upheld and are twisted and manipulated and tortured to maintain power over us.
We did not consent.
And if we don’t consent to the laws as they are being applied to us, if we don’t consent to pleasing the devil, then those laws are meaningless. They can and should be “broken” with impunity, because they are not ours, because there’s nothing to break.
We did not make them. We can refuse to be bound by them.
We can refuse.
It is thoughts like this that give me a tiny shred of hope.
In my home these days, as the legacies that I thought would belong to my children, and these things that I thought belonged to me, are hauled out onto the street and stolen like so much metaphorical garbage, I have been thinking about what matters most.
The love of my children.
The friends who are like soul mates and with whom the threads that bind can never be broken by time or space or violence.
The communities in which I live and work, blindingly brilliant in their complexity, touching every descriptive identity, subsumed by so much beauty.
I have been thinking about what it means to reclaim humanity, outside of caste and systems that are designed to separate and dominate us.
I have been thinking about what future you build when the future you thought you had has turned to ash.
It is possible, sometimes, to start over from nothing.
I know this, because I have done it many times.
It is possible, sometimes, to build a better life when everything around you has been taken, when all that you thought you could count on has been stolen by those who wanted power over you, just for the sake of it, for the sick pleasure of the taking.
It is possible to let go of the idea of possessions, of what we were told we could own or would deserve to own if we would just continue to comply, and tie ourselves instead to the possession of ourselves, in this collective of worthiness, across all of humanity and all its breathtaking possibility.
It is a moment not without grief.
It is a moment not without wailing for the things that we were promised that were never ours to begin with.
We stand in the driveway now, watching it all disappear across the horizon.
We stand there, waiting for the next moment, when we will have to decide what comes next.