Clarence Thomas in His Own Words
With a Few of Mine Thrown in ...
United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is poking his nose out
and testing the air after the unpleasant Clinton years. Justice Thomas had
nothing to say during the Courts selection of George W. Bush as president,
it is true. But afterwards he made a public appearance at a grade school, and
on February the thirteenth of the Bush Restoration he gave the Francis Boyer
lecture before the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Other recipients of the Boyer Award have been Ronald W. Reagan, Richard B.
Cheney, Gerald R. Ford, and George F. Will. Justice Thomass speech is in
regular type; the glosses on his text are in italics.
I have now been in Washington D.C. for more than two decades. When I first
arrived here in 1979, I thought that there would be great debates about
principles and policies in this city. I worked as a legislative assistant for
Senator John C. Danforth. I expected these great debates to occur in the
Senate. Like so many of you, I was surprised to see soliloquies spoken in
almost empty chambers, and unspoken statements included in the Congressional
Record as though spoken.
For some reason that now eludes me, I expected citizens to feel passionately
about what was happening in our country, to candidly and passionately debate
the policies that had been implemented, and suggest new ones. I was disabused
of this heretical notion in December of 1980, when I was unwittingly candid
with a young Washington Post reporter. He fairly and thoroughly displayed my
naïve openness in his op-ed about our discussion, in which I had raised what
I thought were legitimate objections to a number of sacred policies, such as
affirmative action, welfare, school busing--policies that I felt were not well
serving their intended beneficiaries. In my innocence, I was shocked at the
public reaction. I had never been called such names in my entire life.
Justice Thomas here moves along to other matters in the speech, matters of
Law and the Constitution that need not concern us here any more than they
concerned him on December 12 when he voted to award the presidency to the son
of the man who put him on the court.
In the spring of 1980, I received a call asking if I had any interest in
going to the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education. Until
then, for the good of my career, I had assiduously avoided any work that was
related to civil rights and frankly I had no interest in such a position.
Then a dear friend of mine, Jay Parker, spoke to me about it, insisting that
these issues were of great importance to me, and that I had a point of view
that should be a part of the policy process and the continuing debate. I had
to admit that what happened in this area did mean a lot to me. But I didnt
want to be the one arguing publicly for policies that would raise the ire of
the civil rights establishment. I had just gotten a taste of the penalties
for candor and honesty as a result of the Washington Post op-ed, and I had no
interest in a repeat performance.
Supreme Court Justice Thomas remembers the Washington Post
piece as running in December of 1980, which would mean that in the spring of
1980 obscure Senate aide Thomas had yet to taste the penalties for honesty.
At no time in December of 1980, however, was the civil rights establishment
in charge of staffing the incoming administration; that would have been
Ronald Reagan. And in 1981, after Mr. Thomas had managed to have the Post
advertise his conservative views, he was indeed named Assistant Secretary for
Civil Rights at the Department of Education
There is, of course, such a thing as self-preservation. Also, I was insulted
that I was being offered the job for no reason other than my race...
Graver insults of this sort lay ahead. Far graver.
Some years ago, I wrote a dissenting opinion which argued that a prisoner who
had been beaten but only received minor injuries could not, in this case,
base a claim on the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth
Among the minor injuries, the guards knocked the
prisoners teeth out.
Now, there are obviously different, legitimate points of view on this case.
If not, I would not have been in dissent. But what is striking is that I was
widely denounced for advocating the beating of prisoners, which is
Of course it is. Justice Thomas was not advocating the beating of prisoners.
He was merely allowing it.
Today, there is much talk about moderation. It reminds me of a former
colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who often joked
that he was a gun-toting moderate--a curiously oxymoronic perspective. Just
think of that, dying over half a loaf.
Or, as Senator Barry Goldwater once put it, ...and let
me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!
...It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us is to
settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream. This tendency, in
large part, results from an overemphasis on civility. None of us should be
uncivil in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how
difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be
civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to
avoid appearing judgmental.
And some of them even have the nerve to call themselves
They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance. The
insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of
cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society.
Your assignment, class, is to decipher that last sentence.
That is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or
leadership. As Gertrude Himmelfarb observed in her book, One Nation, Two
Cultures, To reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the
good-neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen
but also the virtues expected of the citizen--the civic virtues, as they
were known in antiquity and in early republican thought. ...Gertrude
Himmelfarb refers to two kinds of virtues. The first are the caring
virtues. They include respect, trust-worthiness, compassion, fairness,
decency. These are the virtues that make daily life pleasant with our
families and those with whom we come in contact.
To sharpen the point, these are the girly virtues.
The second are the vigorous virtues. They include courage, ambition, and
creativity. These heroic virtues transcend family and community and may
even, on occasion, violate the conventions of civility. These are the virtues
that characterize great leaders, although not necessarily good friends.
And these are the studly ones.
She notes that the vigorous virtues have been supplanted by the caring ones.
Though they are not mutually exclusive or necessarily incompatible, active
citizens and leaders must be governed by the vigorous rather than the caring
virtues. We must not allow our desire to be decent and well-mannered people
to overwhelm the substance of our principles or our determination to fight
for their success. Ultimately, we should seek both caring and vigorous
virtues--but above all, we must not allow the former to dominate the latter.
Again, by yielding to a false form of civility, we sometimes allow our
critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected
to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom,
homophobic, sexist, etc. To this we often respond (if not succumb), so as not
to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental--i.e.,
we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or
well-intentioned self-deception at best. Immanuel Kant pointed out that to
escape shame and self-contempt we must learn to lie to ourselves.
So why not give it a try in your own life? Its
working for Clarence!