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Ian Millhiser Headshot

Clarence Thomas's America

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Justice Thomas is an odd duck. Unlike the four other conservative members of the Supreme Court, Thomas makes no bones about his desire to repeal the New Deal and the Civil Rights Era and return America to the utopian days of the Hoover Administration:

In a series of decisions beginning with U.S. v. Lopez, Justice Thomas would have restricted Congress' power to enact economic regulation to a point unheard of since the Great Depression. It's difficult to count the laws which would cease to exist under Thomas' approach, but one commentator lists "the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the sick leave portions of the Family and Medical Leave, the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act, as well as minimum wage and maximum hour laws" as likely suspects. In Clarence Thomas' America, whites-only lunch counters are permitted, but basic labor protections are forbidden.

So I'm not particularly surprised that, at a recent speaking engagement, Thomas apparently bad-mouthed the Bill of Rights and was reluctant to identify the Fourteenth Amendment as the most significant post-Civil War development in shaping the way Americans view the Constitution.

What I find most revealing about Thomas' remarks, however, is a romanticization of austerity that seems out of place this far west of Sparta. At one point, Justice Thomas asked his audience "how can you not reminisce about a childhood where you began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom?" At another, he complained about people who think they are "owed" such audacious "luxuries" as a telephone.

When you set aside the vitriol, however, Thomas' remarks are quite probative into just how the conservative mindset differs from that of other Americans. Conservatives like Thomas start from a position that deprivation is the state of nature, and that any upward departure from the most bare bones lifestyle has to be earned. Two things follow from this mindset. The first is that basic human rights like freedom from discrimination or the maxim that a fair wage is the price of labor have no place in the law. The second is the fallacy which teaches that if freedom from deprivation must be earned through one's own efforts, than those who are free from deprivation must have actually earned that freedom themselves.

Progressives believe something different. First, while we do not believe -- as Thomas suggests in his remarks -- that everyone has a fundamental right to own a television, we do believe that there are certain basic needs which one is entitled to have fulfilled merely because they are a human being. Foremost among these rights are those things which enable people to take their lives into their own hands: education so that they may compete in the workforce, nutrition and medical care so that they do not grow up stunted physically or mentally, basic access to modern communications so that they can speak with potential employers and discover the opportunities that are available to them, and the ability to be judged according to their accomplishments -- not because of traits they are unable to control. Clarence Thomas escaped from poverty because he worked very hard to do so, but he also escaped because a generous society rightly chose to reward his talent and hard work with scholarships; and Justice Thomas is wrong to forget this.

And this, of course, leads to the second thing that differentiates progressives from conservatives. Progressives understand that hard work is an essential part of accomplishment, but we also know that wholly unaccomplished men and women enjoy stunning opulence not because of their own efforts, but because they were lucky enough to be born into the right family. Policy cannot eliminate the inequalities bred from luck, but progressives understand that a just society cannot allow birth to become destiny. We understand that by investing in education, health care and a basic safety net we can ensure that hard working Americans achieve whatever their talents will allow them -- even if they were born poor -- and we understand that the entire nation is enriched when its most talented members rise to the top regardless of what their parents did for a living.

It's sad that, after defeating the twin dragons of racism and poverty, Thomas has spent his career working to ensure that no one will ever follow in his footsteps, but I'm also grateful for his honesty. His America is a nation of silent children marching lockstep behind the flag and the cross, or cast aside because of their unwillingness or inability to do so. It is not an appealing vision, but it is the vision conservatives offer, and I have nothing but faith that America will reject it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are the author's own, and should not be understood as representative of any organization he may be affiliated with.

(Cross posted at Overruled.)

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