The Situationist

Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2007

supreme-discomfort.jpgKevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, both journalists with The Washington Post, are on tour with their new biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. The book’s webiste includes this brief overview :

Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher . . . crafted a haunting portrait of an isolated and bitter man, savagely reviled by much of the black community, not entirely comfortable in white society, internally wounded by his passage from a broken family and rural poverty in Georgia to elite educational institutions to the pinnacle of judicial power. He has clearly never recovered from the searing experience of his Senate confirmation hearings and the “he said/she said” drama of the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

Supreme Discomfort tracks the personal odyssey of perhaps the least understood man in Washington, from his poor childhood in Pin Point and Savannah, Georgia, to his educational experiences in a Catholic seminary and Holy Cross, to his law school years at Yale during the black power era, to his rise within the Republican political establishment. It offers a window into a man who straddles two different worlds and is uneasy in both—and whose divided personality and conservative political philosophy will deeply influence American life for years to come.

clarence-thomas2.jpgNPR has two worthwhile interviews of the authors — one from Fresh Air (27 minutes) and the other from All Things Considered (8 minutes).

Both interviews highlight themes of the book involving complexities, tensions, even hypocrisies in the life and policy positions of Justice Thomas.

Translated into the language of this blog, some of those tensions and hypocrisies involved Justice Thomas’s focus on his own situational impediments (and victim status) while admonishing African Americans to turn in their victim mentality in exchange for a “no-excuses” disposition. On the other side of the coin is Thomas’s weak memory of the the numerous ways in which he was situationally advantaged by affirmative action policies in the past while eagerly cutting back those policies today.

Such tensions were the subject of the following op-ed by Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson, originally published in the Baltimore Sun in December of 2005:

* * *

The Conservative Hypocrisy

When it comes to Supreme Court nominees, conservatives are in agreement: Situation matters.

Pundits on the right shouted down Harriet E. Miers over concerns that her evangelicalHarriet Miers backbone would whither under Washington winds. Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. stepped into her spot seeming of far more stalwart vertebrae, but as his backers have stressed recently, he is a creature of situation as well.

Responding to liberal criticism over a 1985 document in which Judge Alito championed the position “that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion,” conservatives quickly pointed out that the assertion was made in the context of an “advocate seeking a job” and thus could offer no insight into how Judge Alito would behave as a justice confronting an actual abortion case.

What makes all of this confusing is that conservatives are more or less devoted to a legal system and a policymaking approach that assumes situational influence is, in the vast majority of circumstances, trivial and irrelevant. Get the government out of our lives so that we can be “free to choose,” the argument goes. Unchain markets so that people can pursue their own ends as they see fit.

According to those extremely influential policy scripts, the consumer is sovereign and the outcomes of market transactions are good – no matter the nutritional content of the food, no matter the racial composition of the neighborhood, no matter the annual interest rate of the credit card, no matter the distribution of wealth. People choose freely and have no one no-excuses.jpgbut themselves to blame for any adverse consequences.

As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – dubbed “America’s leading conservative” by The Weekly Standard – wrote in his essay “Personal Responsibility,” in the 1999-2000 Regent University Law Review, “Success (as well as failure) is the result of one’s own talents, morals, decisions and actions.”

Many of the most basic conservative policy scripts in our ownership society are thus built on a conception of the person as independent and autonomous – the stuff of individualism and personal responsibility. The environment isn’t the problem; focus on the bad acts of a bad actor.

The poor, the overweight, the unemployed, the discriminated-against need to stop blaming others; they need to get to the gym, get to work and get busy. Just do it. The law owes them little more than a few more options and the knowledge that they will bear the consequences of, and full liability for, their choices. The situation is given and immaterial. Just ignore it. Again quoting Justice Thomas’ essay, there needs to be “much less of an emphasis on victimage.”

Similarly, when it comes to proper judging, the right approach is to “apply the law” and “stick to the Constitution” as originally written, as if the document has a clear disposition. Conservatives urge judges to ignore the context and focus on the plain meaning of the words. To venture beyond the “plain meaning” is to engage in politics. Situational considerations are to be shunned.

“But, again, the right does sometimes underscore the importance of situation. According to the conservative narrative, the situational force that is most harmful and significant is that of the “intellectual class” and the institutions where its ideas are developed, employed and advanced.

Elite academic institutions, by this reckoning, are a danger. The New York Times is a menace. And the Supreme Court, too, poses a threat. As Robert H. Bork put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “the left-liberal liberationist” ideology promoted by such groupsRobert Bork is leading to “moral anarchy.” The liberal intelligentsia that has seduced so many justices is, with those justices’ help, deeply influencing our lives. As a result, according to Mr. Bork, “the struggle over the Supreme Court is not just about law; it is about the future of our culture.” We are, by this account, being victimized by a victim culture.

Hence, the same individuals who are eager to point out how Supreme Court justices are vulnerable to situational manipulation – who suggest that our country is being destroyed because of the powerful influence of liberal elites over our culture and, in turn, our culture over us – are otherwise adamant in denying the role of situation in the lives of consumers, workers, voters, parents, criminals and any justices who happen to be strict constructionists. Situation, in their view, is critical in some contexts and irrelevant in others.

In the end, it should trouble us that those who lament the malleability of judicial behavior to situational forces are simultaneously calling for judges who will, for the most part, ignore the importance of situation.

Acknowledging the truth – that we humans, even the most autonomous among us, are situationally pliant – only when it serves our interests is nothing new, but it is deeply distorting. And it is particularly harmful when we acknowledge it only for the most highly educated, politically connected and powerful members of our country, leaving the weak, the forgotten and the voiceless to fend for themselves through “free choice.”

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2 Responses to “Justice Thomas and the Conservative Hypocrisy”

  1. Tom Clark said

    Thanks as always for your courageous critique of the free will assumption, and for showing the progressive implications of that critique. Who’s got the guts to follow your lead? Maybe Sheldon Drobny – see his Huffington Post blog on free will and naturalism at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheldon-drobny/free-will-and-naturalism_b_47592.html .

    Of course it isn’t just the situation that determines human behavior, but our genetically given capacities as expressed in the phenotype. It’s the complex interaction of internal and situational factors that ultimately explains why people act as they do. Liberals shouldn’t forget that people aren’t infinitely malleable, even as they fight the crucial fight of improving our situations to get the best out of ourselves, even Supreme Court justices.

    Keep up the good work!

    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism

  2. An excellent post! A couple thoughts:

    With our growing understanding of social psychology, I wonder if we are seeing more conservative leaders intentionally exploiting the situationist/dispositionalist toggle. For example, a religious leader, by well crafted poor manners, can procure expected public criticism from the ‘intelligentsia’. The leader can then cry ‘religious persecution’ to whip up the conservative crowd; this covers the poor manners in the name of the typical situation of religious intolerance while also giving the leader a larger voice in the conservative community, and perhaps even national media.

    Putting aside cases of dishonesty though, even if dispositionist interpretation of action is nothing more than narrative illusion, it would still seem to play a necessary role – we can’t do without it. As I think is intimated by many posts here, the point is not to determine whether an action should be objectively interpreted by either a dispositionist or situationist frame, but rather to choose the frame according to a moral-like principle: we need to find more disposition to our failures and others’ successes and more situation to our successes and others failures. This removes the selfish, self-protective mechanisms that allow for violence of all kinds on my view.

    And I second Clark’s exhortation: keep up the good work!

    Michael Metzler
    858.414.7559
    Cardiff By The Sea

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