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The Limits of Libertarianism

12 Jul

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.

Why Go After Women and Workers? The Reactionary Mind Explains It All For You.

30 Jun

On a day when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court takes direct aim at women and workers, I thought I’d quote these last lines from The Reactionary Mind:

Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years….Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.

Also from The Reactionary Mind, on the private life of power:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been Adams’s: cede the field of the public, if you must, stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state….

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose.

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

The Disappointment of Hannah Arendt (the film)

28 Jun

So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.

As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the  scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.

My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?

Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.

I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.

When Presidents Get Bored

17 Jun

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.

Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places.

Usually abroad, in foreign wars and imperial exploits. As the British prepared to fight the Opium War, Tocqueville privately exulted, “I can only rejoice in the thought of the invasion of the Celestial Empire by a European War. So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!” Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of London, which threatened to diminish France’s role in the Middle East and aroused cries for war throughout France, Tocqueville wrote Mill that though he was wary of the rush to war, he thought it “even more dangerous” to “chime in with those who were loudly asking for peace, at any price.”

Or, if these action intellectuals look inward, it’s to the politics of reaction and counterrevolution. Thus, in 1848, Tocqueville was among the leading voices calling for the full suspension of civil liberties, welcoming talk of a “dictatorship” in order to preserve “the alienable right of Society to protect itself.” Whence the exhilaration? Whence the passion with which he defended a polity he had spent the better part of two decades denouncing? In his memoir of the Revolution of 1848, he offered an answer:

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.

Defending liberalism against radicalism, Tocqueville was given the chance to use illiberal means for liberal ends, and it’s not entirely clear whether it was the means or the ends that most stirred him.

There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.

(Recall the words of Christopher Hitchens after 9/11: “I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”)

Perhaps we have less to worry from Obama’s boredom. After all, he’s a writer and a politician who embraces—luxuriates in—moderation, skepticism, irony, and doubt. At least publicly.

Then again, so was Tocqueville.

Update (11 pm)

So it turns that that Obama quote, with which I led off my post, is not in fact a direct quote from Obama, but is instead a paraphrase, by one of Obama’s aides, of something Obama said. Slate‘s David Weigel has the whole story.

When Intellectuals Go to War

26 May

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians….My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago.[...] But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.

Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war. Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), but he saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

Schoenberg’s letter reminds me of a wonderful moment in the run-up to the Iraq War. Charlie Rose had Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell on to debate the war (I can’t find the video but apparently you can buy it on Amazon). Ignatieff was being especially nasty, mocking Schell for saying something like “the peoples of the earth” had said no to the war. Which, given the international character of the protests of February 15, 2003, wasn’t wide of the mark. But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff. After Ignatieff did his thing of describing the war as the second coming of Isaiah Berlin, Schell gently reminded him that, however much he might wish it were otherwise, he wasn’t in fact the commander-in-chief of the country that would be fighting the war. Whatever aims the United States would ultimately pursue in waging war on Iraq, they would have little to do with the concerns of Michael Ignatieff.

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading that state. Ordinary citizens, of course, are hardly immune to seeing themselves in that war and its exploits. But when it comes to the narcissism of war, as the example of Christopher Hitchens reminds us, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

Happy Memorial Day.

Updated (May 27)

Taghi Amirani, a producer/director in London, just sent me notice of a documentary his production company has made, “We Are Many,” about the February 15, 2003 international protests and their long-term repercussions. Looks great.

Free-Market Orientalism

26 May

From an interview with Friedrich von Hayek in 1983 (p. 490):

Robert Chitester: Going back to the question I asked you about people you dislike or can’t deal with, can you make any additional comments in that regard, in terms of the characteristics of people that trouble you?

Hayek: I don’t have many strong dislikes. I admit that as a teacher—I have no racial prejudices in general—but there were certain types, and conspicuous among them the Near Eastern populations, which I still dislike because they are fundamentally dishonest. And I must say dishonesty is a thing I intensely dislike. It was a type which, in my childhood in Austria, was described as “Levantine”, typical of the people of the eastern Mediterranean. But I encountered it later, and I have a profound dislike for the typical Indian students at the London School of Economics, which I admit are all one type—Bengali moneylender sons. They are to me a detestable type, I admit, but not with any racial feeling. I have found a little of the same amongst the Egyptians—basically a lack of honesty in them.

H/t loyaltothegroupofseventeen (via Mark Ames)

Reality Bites

13 May

According to Cass Sunstein, studies in psychology and behavioral economics show that 80% of the population is “unrealistically optimistic.” When it comes to their own actions and life prospects, people tend to have unwarranted expectations that things will work out well for them. The other 20%? The realists? They “include a number of people who are clinically depressed.”

The Gender Gap in Political Theory

13 May

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to an important new blog—Ms. Perestroika—that’s keeping track of the gender gap in academic political theory. It just started, but already it’s got informative posts on recent job searches and hires, the publication record of Political Theory, whose books are getting reviewed and by whom, and the composition of panels at the Western Political Science Association. This seems like an important initiative, so I wanted to make sure folks knew about it.

Machiavelli: The Novel

8 May

For all you readers, teachers, and students of Machiavelli:

There’s a wonderful graphic artist up in Boston named Don MacDonald who wrote a graphic novel Machiavelli. The aim of the novel, beyond its aesthetic and literary qualities, is to bring the scholarly knowledge about Machiavelli that we in the academy have been accumulating over the years—about his republicanism, his humanism, his literary excellence—to the public. That Machiavelli was not, as a famous book would have it, a teacher of evil, that he was not especially Machiavellian, and that his teaching was not especially Machiavellian, at least as we’ve come to understand that term.

Anyway, Don is now launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise money for the conversion of the novel from an online text, which is what it is now, into a printed text, an e-book, and a website. I don’t often make pitches for you to contribute money, but this is a worthy cause. One that’s especially dear to me, as a teacher and reader of Machiavelli.

Please make a contribution.

Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution

5 May

What follows is the talk I gave at the University of Washington this past weekend on my paper about Clarence Thomas: “Smiling Faces Tell Lies: Pessimism, Originalism, and Capitalism in the Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.” The paper is still incomplete. I only managed to write about Thomas’s theories of racism and how they intersect with his philosophy of constitutional interpretation. In the coming months, I intend to expand the paper to talk about Thomas’s views on capitalism, and how they inform his jurisprudence about the Commerce Clause, the Takings Clause, and more. Ultimately, this paper will be published by the University of Chicago Press in a volume on African-American political thought, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner. Other contributors will include: Cedric Johnson on Huey Newton, Nikhil Singh on Malcolm X, Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison, Michael Dawson on Marcus Garvey, Naomi Murakawa on Ida B. Wells, Jason Frank on Langston Hughes, Tommie Shelby on Richard Wright, Danielle Allen on Ralph Ellison, and many many more. It’s going to be fantastic. But until then, here’s my talk on Clarence Thomas.

• • • • • 

Yesterday, Nikhil Singh said that more than any other figure in the African American canon, Malcolm X is someone who everyone thinks they know. Clarence Thomas, I’ve discovered in the past six months, is also a figure who everyone thinks they know. In the interest of dispelling that expectation, which I suspect many of you share, I’d like to present five facts about Clarence Thomas that perhaps you didn’t know.

  1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to Washington, DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.
  2. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind,” he said in 1985, in the third year of his tenure as head of the EEOC. “I grew up in Savannah, Georgia under segregation. It wasn’t color-blind and America is not color-blind today…Code words like ‘color-blind’ aren’t all that useful.” Or, as he told Juan Williams in 1987, “there is nothing you can do to get past black skin. I don’t care how educated you are, how good you are—you’ll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you’ll never be seen as equal to whites.”
  3. When Clarence Thomas was in college he memorized the speeches of Malcolm X; two decades later, he could still recite them by heart. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told a libertarian magazine in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”
  4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas that’s called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”
  5. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he’s not allowed to listen to Carole King.

Now, the truth is that there’s nothing all that surprising about the fact that Clarence Thomas is black and conservative. There’s a long tradition of black conservatism in this country. And from Edmund Burke to Ayn Rand, conservatism always and everywhere has been the work of outsiders, men and women who hail from the peripheries or margins of the national experience.

Nor, in the end, is Clarence Thomas’s early engagement with black radicalism all that surprising. After all, one of the great clichés of the twentieth century is the young left-wing radical graduating into middle-aged conservatism. And, of course, as Cedric Johnson, Michael Dawson, and other scholars have reminded us, there’s a deep affinity between conservatism and parts of the Black Power/Black Nationalist tradition.

But here, I think, is what is surprising about Clarence Thomas: First, he’s a Supreme Court justice who has managed in his jurisprudence to incorporate rather than repudiate some of his early commitments to Black Nationalism and Black Power; I think it’s fair to say no other Supreme Court justice has ever done that. And, second, Thomas is a constitutional originalist, and a rather radical one at that. Unlike any other justice—not Scalia, not Roberts, not Alito—Thomas wants to restore the Constitution to the meaning it had in 1789.

How Thomas has been able to marry an incredibly bleak vision of the black past, a vision rooted in black nationalism, to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative black future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead: that is the basic puzzle of Clarence Thomas and what makes him, I think, more interesting than many of us realized.

In my paper, I document both Thomas’s involvement as a younger man in the broad milieu of Black Nationalism and how that involvement carries over into his jurisprudence. I use the phrase “broad milieu” deliberately. I don’t want to overstate the depth or intensity of his involvement, and I don’t want to posit a specificity, a precise location, to that involvement. Reading Cedric Johnson’s paper on Huey Newton, which Cedric presented yesterday, one sees this deep texture and particularity to the different arguments within the Black Power movement. You don’t see that in Thomas. Instead you see someone who breathed in the broader atmosphere of Black Power and Black Nationalism, and never, I argue, stopped entirely breathing it. Or at least never stopped breathing part of it.

Specifically, what I think Thomas took away from that early engagement are two ideas. First, not only is racism a perdurable element of the American experience—and I want to stress that Thomas’s concern, unlike that of more internationally minded figures like Newton, Malcolm X, or Angela Davis, is with racism as an American experience—but it is also a protean and often hidden element of that experience.

Thomas believes that racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you’ll never be able to remove it. You see this belief in these quiet, throwaway lines in his opinions, which if you’re reading too fast you’ll miss. In 1992, in one of his early cases, Georgia v. McCollum, Thomas stated, “Conscious and unconscious prejudice persists in our society. Common sense and common experience confirms this understanding.” In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he wrote, “If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination’s effects.” That “if” is a conditional only in the grammatical sense – that is, it governs the phrase that comes after – but not in the historical sense. Thomas’s point is that society cannot in fact end discrimination.

Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul, as I’ve said, that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.

In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:

At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [Northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.

If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that famous passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:

 The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.

You’ve got the same animal imagery; the same emphasis on deceit and insincerity as the crucial marker.

And here we come to the second idea that Thomas develops from his early engagements. And that is that the evil of the color line lies less in the hierarchies of white privilege and the humiliations of black subordination than in the deception and deceit that racism imposes upon blacks and whites alike. Unlike many in the Black Power tradition, or even in the black conservative tradition, Thomas seems never to have developed a political or economic analysis of racism. His is primarily a moral account of racism. Racism is shape-shifting, often hidden; that is its poison. The antidote to racism, the moral answer to it, is race sincerity: being truthful with and to oneself, and seeking truth, in however malignant a form, in and from one’s enemies. The goal is not, and never can be, color-blindness. The goal is racial candor or race sincerity, achieving a congruence between inner feeling and outward form.

For black Americans, that means giving up on the idea of racial authenticity, that there’s an official way to be black: i.e., liberal, Democrat, etc. Hence, the black conservative who listens to Carole King. “How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way,” Thomas asks in his memoir, “and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation?” Now that nod to segregation can sound pretty cheap. But I think it’s a sincere statement from Thomas of the psychological and moral terms in which he understands the harm of racism: that it imposes a false, outward self upon the true, inner self.

For white Americans, race sincerity means owning up to the racism that lurks within. Particularly among white northern liberals, who find in programs like affirmative action a more palatable way to express their racist condescension toward blacks. So many of Thomas’s opinions about affirmative action have far less to do with any commitment to state neutrality or color-blindness—or even a formalistic comparison between the use of race under Jim Crow and today—than they do with a belief that affirmative action is really just the sneaky face of contemporary racism. As he wrote most recently in the Fisher v. University of Texas decision, which was in 2013, “The worst forms of racial discrimination in this Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities.”

While Thomas’s two beliefs—in race pessimism, a belief in the perdurability and protean quality of racism; and race sincerity, the need to be on the outside what you are on the inside—come out of the black freedom movements, the role they assume in his political theory and jurisprudence reflect the waning power of those movements. Like many counterrevolutionary arguments, Thomas’s beliefs about race are symptomatic of a movement in recession or retreat. In three ways.

First, coming to consciousness at the end of the Black Freedom struggle, Thomas had and has difficulty seeing the achievements of that struggle as black achievements. In Thomas’s eyes, civil rights, anti-discrimination, affirmative action, integration: these were not the work of African-Americans, acting on their own behalf, wrangling power from a power structure that refused to give it to them. They are instead the poisoned apples of white liberals who prefer to give handouts rather than to cede power. Like many counterrevolutionaries (Tocqueville comes to mind), Thomas came too late to the revolution, too late to see the self-formation and self-assertion at work in movements of collective struggle. All he can see is a movement in retreat, and to his mind, the class of passive black dependents, waiting on the largesse of their white patrons of state, that the movement has left in its wake. As he said of his sister, in one of his nastier and truly vicious remarks, “She is so dependent [on the state] that she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check.”

Second, Thomas doesn’t believe in political or collective action. The answer to the persistence of racism is to accept it and to figure out a way around it. A way, however, for individuals only: In Georgia v. McCollum, which I mentioned earlier, the answer to the persistence of white racism in society is to give individual black criminal defendants the right to strike down potential white jurors merely because they are white. Trying to organize collectively to defeat or even confront and call out racism is hopeless. As he told Juan Williams in 1987:

Blacks are the least favored group in this society. Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win?…Which group always winds up with the least? Which group always seems to get the hell kicked out of it? Blacks, and maybe American Indians.

Third, the only space for African-American agency is in the market, particularly in the labor that each generation performs on behalf of the next. Where politics is a sphere “you don’t have any control over,” individual action in the market—which Thomas believes, it’s important to stress, can be performed on behalf of the black community—is a space where you can say, “I am in control of what I do today.” This is not an enlarged or particularly hopeful conception of agency; it’s radically circumscribed and contained. The political realities of race cannot be overcome; the best you can do is make your way within those constraints, and whenever or wherever possible, apart from those constraints. That “apart” explains Thomas’s willingness to indulge and support, even at the level of the state, all-black institutions.

This is not the sunny face of Reagan; it’s not morning in Clarence Thomas’s America. It’s twilight: we’re still living in the shadow of Jim Crow. The two most consistent words you’ll find in Thomas’s work are “sustain” and “survive.” The story of black America is a story of black people surviving centuries of horror, from slavery to Jim Crow, by taking care of themselves and each other, and trying to keep away as much as possible from the cruelty around them.

And this, I think, may be why Thomas has such faith in the project of originalism. Where other voices in the Black Freedom struggles either rejected the Constitution or found faith in its evolutionary openness—that is, in the interpretive distance the country has traveled since 1789—Thomas finds a glimmer of hope in the return to its original meaning. The Constitution may be the document of a slave society, but African-Americans survived slavery. By returning to the original meaning of that document, Thomas believes they may find the tools to survive slavery’s aftermath as well.

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