Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jeffrey Rosen on Justice Thomas

Writing in The New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen has a lengthy and particularly nasty review of Justice Thomas's autobiography here. Sample sentence: "What made Thomas into a sputtering victimology-mongerer, constantly fulminating against his enemies and rehearsing every slight?"

Alan Jacobs responds to the review here:
Jeffrey Rosen’s long essay-review about Clarence Thomas in The New Republic is troubling in several respects -- even for someone who, like me, is not exactly a fan of Thomas’s judicial philosophy. After a great deal of relatively even-handed summary of Thomas’s career, Rosen moves at the end into indictment mode. Here’s a key passage: “We now understand that some of the most memorable passages in his judicial opinions — such as his searing account of the costs of affirmative action, which he calls a ‘faddish slogan of the cognoscenti’ that demeans its intended beneficiaries — are psychological in origin, attempts to get even with the ‘pretty people’ whom he thinks snubbed him in law school.” This is a classic example of the rhetorical move that C. S. Lewis called “Bulverism”: instead of trying to demonstrate that someone is wrong, you assume error and then proceed immediately to a psychological explanation for the error. It may well be that Thomas’s judicial opinions are heavily shaped by his own negative experiences; but that in itself doesn’t make them wrong; nor does Rosen demonstrate that Thomas is unique or even unusual in this respect. Using the logic that Rosen employs here you could with equal ease dismiss the political ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Vaclav Havel or Gandhi.

I also think Rosen too quickly dismisses some of Thomas’s chief frustrations. “Thomas has overcome great hardships,” he writes, “but the world has also been remarkably good to him” — presumably by elevating him to the high status of Supreme Court Justice. In a sense this is true, and one would like to see Thomas acknowledge more often the power and, yes, privilege that has come his way. But I think Rosen seriously underestimates the world’s ability to present honors “in such a way as to render them bitter to the taste” — as Stanley Fish once wrote in a brilliant essay about academic politics. Surely the political world is even more adroit at such barbed recognitions. Thomas writes of his state of mind in 1968, “No matter how hard I worked or how smart I was, any white person could still say to me, ‘Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us,’ knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that.” Knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that — that’s the barb. And Rosen should be more cognizant of how sharp that barb can be, even when what the white man grants is a place on the United States Supreme Court.
Ross Douthat adds:
What Alan Jacobs said. I am by no means in the "Clarence Thomas, Real American Hero" camp, and much of Rosen's analysis seems to me astute. But I am persistently puzzled by the unwillingness of white male journalists, in particular - for whom a meritocracy-plus-affirmation action system of advancement provides constant validation, and constant confirmation that they're getting ahead on innate talent and hard work alone - to generate sympathy for a figure like Thomas, who feels, for not-incomprehensible reasons, that his successes have been won (as Jacobs puts it, quoting, Stanley Fish) "in such a way as to render them bitter to the taste." You don't have to like him or agree with him to understand, better than Rosen seems to, where his anger might be coming from.

I would also add, to Rosen's remark that "it is no more possible to feel pity for [Thomas] than for Britney Spears," that the comparison is ridiculous (persecution by the paparazzi is by no means comparable to the combination of segregationist racism, affirmative-action condescension and Uncle-Tom vitriol that has made Thomas the angry man he is today) and that even if it weren't I do feel pity for Britney Spears, and I'm a little puzzled by anyone who doesn't.

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