Tag Archives: Clarence Thomas

Why Does the Winger Whine? What Does the Winger Want?

20 Apr

At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.

Actually, a fair number of commenters at CT claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want?

From The Reactionary Mind:

“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, such a claim would have elicited puzzled looks, if not catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America, including the 1960s. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945–2000 : “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that his kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.

Will is hardly the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted the movement from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. Even when assured of his position, the conservative plays the truant. Whether instrumental or sincere, this fusion of pariah and power is one of the sources of his appeal. As William F. Buckley wrote in the founding statement of National Review, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While David Hume and Adam Smith are often cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for, as we have seen, what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy Maistre could muster was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.” Maistre had good reason to offer this defense: playing the plebe, we now know, is a critical weapon in the conservative arsenal. Still, it’s a confusing defense. After all, if the main offering a prince brings to the table is that he’s really a pauper, why not seat the pauper instead?

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them, but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the “Homer of the losers.” But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette that we saw in chapter 1—“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris—have some claim to the title, too?

Or just listen to Chet Baker…

 

Or this lovely version from Thelonious Monk…

Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas

17 Apr

1. The first time Clarence Thomas went to DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War.

2. Clarence Thomas grew up a stone’s throw from the Moon River that Audrey Hepburn sang about in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. In the 1970s, Clarence Thomas kept a Confederate flag on his desk. [Correction: It was the Georgia State flag, which features quite prominently the Confederate stars and bars. It was a large flag, apparently, and he hung it over his desk.]

4. There’s a law review article about Clarence Thomas called “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism.”

5. Clarence Thomas attended antiwar rallies in Boston where he called for the release of Angela Davis and Erica Huggins.

6. Clarence Thomas told Juan Williams that “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.”

7. Clarence Thomas is the only Supreme Court justice to have cited Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in his opinions.

8. In college, Clarence Thomas hung posters of Malcolm X on his wall, memorized his speeches, and studied his writings. “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X,” he told Reason in 1987. “There is a lot of good in what he says.”

9. Clarence Thomas does not believe in color-blindness: “I don’t think this society has ever been color-blind. 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.”

10. Yale Law scholar Akhil Reed Amar has compared Clarence Thomas to Hugo Black:

Both were Southerners who came to the Court young and with very little judicial experience. Early in their careers, they were often in dissent, sometimes by themselves, but they were content to go their own way. But once Earl Warren became Chief Justice the Court started to come to Black. It’s the same with Thomas and the Roberts Court. Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.

11. Clarence Thomas resents the fact that as a black man he is not supposed to listen to Carole King.

Silence and Segregation: On Clarence Thomas as a Lacanian Performance Artist

14 Feb

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

Thomas’s critics see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?

But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that. Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian performance art. However unintentional or unconscious, his words signal the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

Diva of Disdain: Justice Scalia in Three Parts

26 Jun

Thanks to his rant from the bench yesterday—about the Arizona immigration law, which the Supreme Court mostly struck down—Justice Scalia is back in the news. But where many on the left see Scalia as a partisan hack, who twists the Constitution into a pretzel to get the result he wants, I’m more impressed by the  underlying consistency of his jurisprudence. That’s not to say he’s never inconsistent, but hackery is not his main problem. But to see the problem, you have to have a better sense of the man and his vision.

In The Reactionary Mind, I devoted a chapter to that question. Last fall, I excerpted the introduction to that chapter. Given all the attention now being paid to Scalia, I thought I’d continue providing some excerpts.

So today I’m launching a three-part series. Part 1 below provides some biographical details. Part 2, which will appear tomorrow, provides a close reading of one of Scalia’s lesser known decisions. Part 3, which will appear on Thursday, steps back to assess the overall vision and its relationship to liberalism on the Court.

If you want to read the introduction to the chapter, which gives you more sense of the man and his vision, start here.

Antonin Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in March 1936, but he was conceived the previous summer in Florence, Italy. (His father, a doctoral student in romance languages at Columbia, had won a fellowship to travel there with his wife.) “I hated Trenton,” Scalia says; his heart belongs to Florence. A devotee of opera and hunting—“he loves killing unarmed animals,” observes Clarence Thomas—Scalia likes to cut a Medicean profile of great art and great cruelty. He peppers his decisions with stylish allusions to literature and history. Once upon a time, he enjoys telling audiences, he was too “fainthearted” an originalist to uphold the eighteenth century’s acceptance of ear notching and flogging as forms of punishment. Not anymore. “I’ve gotten older and crankier,” he says, ever the diva of disdain.

When Scalia was six, his parents moved to the Elmhurst section of Queens. His lifelong conservatism is often attributed to his strict Italian Catholic upbringing there; alluding to Burke, he calls it his “little platoon.” He attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, and Georgetown, a Jesuit university in Washington, D.C. In his freshman year at Georgetown, the senior class voted Senator Joseph McCarthy as the Outstanding American.

But Scalia comes to his ethnicity and religion with an attitude, lending his ideology a defiant edge. He claims he didn’t get into Princeton, his first choice, because “I was an Italian boy from Queens, not quite the Princeton type.” Later, after Vatican II liberalized the liturgy and practices of the Church, including his neighborhood church in suburban Washington, D.C., he insisted on driving his brood of seven children miles away to hear Sunday Mass in Latin. Later still, in Chicago, he did the same thing, only this time with nine children in tow. Commenting on how he and his wife managed to raise conservative children during the sixties and seventies—no jeans in the Scalia household—he says:

They were being raised in a culture that wasn’t supportive of our values, that was certainly true. But we were helped by the fact that we were such a large family. We had our own culture . . . . The first thing you’ve got to teach your kids is what my parents used to tell me all the time, “You’re not everybody else . . . . We have our own standards and they aren’t the standards of the world in all respects, and the sooner you learn that the better.”

Scalia’s conservatism, it turns out, is less a little platoon than a Thoreauvian counterculture, a retreat from and rebuke to the mainstream, not unlike the hippie communes and groupuscules he once tried to keep at bay. It is not a conservatism of tradition or inheritance: his parents had only one child, and his mother-in-law often complained about having to drive miles and hours in search of the one true church. “Why don’t you people ever seem to live near churches?” she would ask Scalia and his wife.  It is a conservatism of invention and choice, informed by the very spirit of rebellion he so plainly loathes—or thinks he loathes—in the culture at large.

In the 1970s, while teaching at the University of Chicago, Scalia liked to end the semester with a reading from A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More. While the play’s antiauthoritarianism would seem at odds with Scalia’s conservatism, its protagonist, at least as he is portrayed by Bolt, is not. Literally more Catholic than the pope, More is a true believer in the law who refuses to compromise his principles in order to accommodate the wishes of Henry VIII. He pays for his integrity with his life.

Joan Biskupic, Scalia’s biographer, introduces this biographical tidbit with a revealing setup: “Yet even as Scalia in middle age was developing a more rigid view of the law, he still had bursts of idealism.” That “yet” is misplaced. Scalia’s rigidity is not opposed to his idealism; it is his idealism. His ultraconservative reading of the Constitution reflects neither cynicism nor conventionalism; orthodoxy and piety are, for him, the essence of dissidence and iconoclasm. No charge grieves him more than the claim, rehearsed at length in his 1995 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, that his philosophy is “wooden,” “unimaginative,” “pedestrian,” “dull,” “narrow,” and “hidebound.” Call him a bastard or a prick, a hound from hell or a radical in robes. Just don’t say he’s a suit.

Tomorrow: Justice Scalia vents his rage on a handicapped golfer, revealing his true inspiration is neither Catholicism nor the Constitution but Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Rorty

Our Negroes and Theirs: When Ann Coulter Tells the Truth, It’s Worth Listening to Her

1 Nov

Everyone’s going after Anne Coulter—and rightly so—for her racist comments yesterday on the “Hannity” show. Asked why liberals and Democrats are up in arms over the sexual harassment allegations that have been leveled against GOP candidate Herman Cain, Coulter said:

Our blacks are so much better than their blacks.  To become a black Republican, you don’t just roll into it. You’re not going with the flow…

That “our blacks” is especially gruesome. Sounds like the proprietary claim a fancy housewife would make, ca. 1960 (or 1860), about her black maid: “my girl” or something like that.

But if you can suspend disbelief—or disgust— for a minute, there’s something in what Coulter is saying that’s worth paying attention to for it unwittingly reveals a deep truth about conservatism. Not its racism, but something else.

As I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism has often attracted outsiders: Burke was not from Anglican and aristocratic England but from bourgeois and Catholic Ireland; Maistre was not from France but Savoy; Alexander Hamilton was from the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a rumored biracial union. Disraeli was a Jew, as was Irving Kristol.  And on and on, from Leo Strauss to Phyllis Schlafly to Antonin Scalia.

Why has conservatism always relied upon the kindness of strangers? One reason is that the newcomer brings a particular angle of vision—how the privileged look from the bottom or the outside—that the privileged are incapable of getting on their own. The outsider helps the elite see not only how they look but how they might look if they change their ways.  And that, as Tancredi reminds us in The Leopard—”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”—is what conservatism is all about: changing everything so things, hierarchy in particular, can stay as they are.

But another, arguably more important, reason is that the outsider brings a scrappiness and moxie, an appetite for power and appreciation of privilege, that the inherited simply lack. As Burke himself was all too aware, when he unleashed a rage, almost Jacobin in its substance and tone, upon the Duke of Bedford, who had attacked Burke as a dishonorable and unscrupulous striver.

I was not, like his grace of Bedford, swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator; “Nitor in adversum” is the motto for a man like me. I possessed not one of the qualities, no cultivated one of the arts, that recommend men to the favour and protection of the great. I was not made for a minion or a tool….At every step of my progress in life (for in every step was I traversed and opposed), and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to shew my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise, no rank, no toleration even, for me. I had no arts, but manly arts. On them I have stood….

Beyond the wounded sense of honor, Burke is laying out a matrix of the conservative claim to rule: the true man of power is not “swaddled” and “dandled” into his position; possessing only the “manly arts,” he wrests his position and assumes his place solely by the force of his wit and will. Such a man will, inevitably, not be to the manor born; he will spring from society’s lower orders. In such men (and sometimes women), conservatism has always rested its hopes.

That’s why Coulter formulates the virtues of Cain as she does: unlike black liberals or Democrats, the black conservative doesn’t roll into into his opinions; he fights his way into them. He doesn’t go with the flow; he stands in the crashing surf, forcing the waves to break. That is his claim to power, his entitlement to rule.

It’s also why the New Canaan-born Coulter would look to Cain for a glimpse of the Republican promised land—however much her racist rhetoric betrays the fact that she’s still in Egypt.

Update (11/2, 10:30 am)

A friend points out that in my original version of this post, I misspelled Coulter’s first name.  Ann, not Anne.

I Got a Crush on You

12 Oct

With this post, I start an occasional (very occasional) series on this blog, which will feature brief excerpts from The Reactionary Mind. This excerpt is from chapter six, “Affirmative Action Baby,” which profiles the thought and theory of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Many think of Scalia as either a social conservative or fussy originalist. I argue that he’s neither. He’s something far stranger, more wild: one part Nietzschean, one part Social Darwinist, one part post-modernist, and two parts crazy.

 

 

Next to Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia is the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court. He also loves the television show 24. “Boy, those early seasons,” he tells his biographer, “I’d be up to two o’clock, because you’re at the end of one [episode], and you’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to see the next.’” Scalia is especially taken with Jack Bauer, the show’s fictional hero played by Kiefer Sutherland. Bauer is a government agent at a Los Angeles counterterrorism unit who foils mass-murder plots by torturing suspects, kidnapping innocents, and executing colleagues. Refusing to be bound by the law, he fights a two-front war against terrorism and the Constitution. And whenever he bends a rule or breaks a bone, Scalia swoons.

Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles . . . . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives . . . . Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? You have the right to a jury trial? Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so. So the question is really whether we really believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes?

Yet Scalia has spent the better part of his career as a lawyer, professor, and jurist telling us that the Constitution is an absolute, in which we must believe, even when—particularly when—it tells us something we do not want to hear. Scalia’s Constitution is not a warming statement of benevolent purpose, easily adapted to our changing needs. His Constitution is cold and dead, its prohibitions and injunctions frozen in time. Phrases like “cruel and unusual punishment” mean what they meant when they were written into the Constitution. If that produces objectionable results—say, the execution of children and the mentally retarded—too bad. “I do not think,” Scalia writes in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, that “the avoidance of unhappy consequences is adequate basis for interpreting a text.”

Scalia takes special pleasure in unhappy consequences. He relishes difficulty and dislikes anyone who would diminish or deny it. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, a plurality of the Court took what Scalia thought was a squishy position on executive power during wartime. The Court ruled that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress after 9/11, empowered the president to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely as “illegal enemy combatants” without trying them in a court of law. It also ruled, however, that such citizens were entitled to due process and could challenge their detention before some kind of tribunal.

Scalia was livid. Writing against the plurality—as well as the Bush administration and fellow conservatives on the Court—he insisted that a government at war, even one as unconventional as the war on terror, had two, and only two, ways to hold a citizen: try him in a court of law or have Congress suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Live by the rules of due process, in other words, or suspend them. Take a stand, make a choice.

But the Court weaseled out of that choice, making life easier for the government and itself. Congress and the president could act as if habeas corpus were suspended, without having to suspend it, and the Court could act as if the writ hadn’t been suspended thanks to a faux due process of military tribunals. More than coloring outside the lines of the Constitution, it was the Court’s “Mr. Fix-It Mentality,” in Scalia’s words, its “mission to Make Everything Come Out Right,” that enraged him.

Scalia’s mission, by contrast, is to make everything come out wrong. A Scalia opinion, to borrow a phrase from New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, is “the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage.” Scalia may have once declared the rule of law the law of rules—leading some to mistake him for a stereotypical conservative—but rules and laws have a particular frisson for him. Where others look to them for stabilizing checks or reassuring supports, Scalia looks for exhilarating impediments and vertiginous barriers. Where others seek security, Scalia seeks sublimity. Rules and laws make life harder, and harder is everything. “Being tough and traditional is a heavy cross to bear,” he tells one reporter. “Duresse oblige.”

That, and not fidelity to the text or conservatism as it is conventionally understood, is the idée fixe of Scalia’s jurisprudence—and the source of his apparent man-crush on Jack Bauer. Bauer never makes things easy for himself; indeed, he goes out of his way to make things as hard as possible. He volunteers for a suicide mission when someone else would do (and probably do it better); he turns himself into a junkie as part of an impossibly baroque plan to stop an act of bioterrorism; he puts his wife and daughter at risk, not once but many times, and then beats himself up for doing so. He loathes what he does but does it anyway. That is his nobility—some might say masochism—and why he warms Scalia’s heart.

It means something, of course, that Scalia identifies the path of most resistance in fidelity to an ancient text, while Bauer finds it in betrayal of that text. But not as much as one might think: as we’ve come to learn from the marriages of our right-wing preachers and politicians, fidelity is often another word for betrayal.

[To read more, buy The Reactionary Mind.]

 

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