Monday, October 22, 2012

"Teddy" Kennedy - Why He Endured

Senator Edward Moore Kennedy - known as "Ted" or "Teddy" - occupied a seat in the United States Senate from 1962 to 2009. His nearly fifty years in office prompted his campaigners to market his as "the lion of the Senate" in his reelection bids. Such longevity is all the more noteworthy when one takes into consideration his alcoholism, womanizing, and most seriously his implication in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Born February 22, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy was brought into the U.S. Senate on the coattails of his brothers: Robert Francis Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who were respectively, at the time, Attorney General and President of the United States. Along with his brothers, two other forces pulled him into the Senate: his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a million in the 1920's and 1930's who smuggled liquor as part of an organized crime ring; and the Democrat party, which understood the Kennedy family to be a sort of dynasty.

Ted Kennedy's main interests were sports (he played tennis and hockey, but focused mainly on football), women, and liquor. After being placed into the Senate, the most significant event in his career was the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and the coverup of that death. Historian Ann Coulter writes:

In 1969, married U.S. senator Ted Kennedy killed Mary Jo Kopechne when he drove his car off the Cahppaquiddick bridge following a party on Martha's Vineyard. Kennedy escaped the car and left Mary Jo behind, where she was trapped in the car and drowned. He then returned to his hotel to engage in ostentatious behavior to create an alibi for the time of the accident. Since no one else would take responsibility for his accident, Kennedy was eventually forced to admit he was the driver of the car that plunged Mary Jo Kopechne to her death. Luckily for him, the Kennedy

family has especially strong political influence in Massachusetts; the Democrat Party used its influence on his behalf, that party also being powerful

in Massachusetts, so he only pled guilty to a minor infraction and never served a day in jail.

Historians will note the parallels to the case of Tarquin the Proud: Ted Kennedy would correspond to Sextus Tarquinius, and Mary Jo to Lucretia. Teddy and Sextus were protected by political machines which kept them from facing the consequences for the crimes committed against Lucretia and Mary Jo. Yet Kennedy's guilt lingered in many minds:

In 1980 - just a little more than ten years after he killed Kopechne - Teddy Kennedy ran for President. After running in the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon went on an eight-year hiatus just for losing an election. The Chappaquiddick incident seems to have colored the morals of the entire Democratic Party. The party has become practiced at defending the indefensible. One imagines Bill Clinton thinking

that if Kennedy survived the Chappaquiddick event, Clinton could surely stonewall his way out of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Similarly, Obama didn't let his documented chronic marijuana habit stand in the way of a presidential campaign (reported by the press as "the choom gang"). Kennedy's criminal behavior tainted seemingly unrelated aspected of his party's platform. Concerning those Democrats who worked to create a moderate image of their party, Ann Coulter asked,

if the Democrats want to stay in the middle of the road, why do they keep sticking with Teddy Kennedy? Didn't he have some trouble staying in the middle of the road?

The cynicism with which the party continually embraced Kennedy, despite the public's knowledge of his guilt, and the insincerity of the party's praise of Kennedy's ethics, left the party open to criticism by means of irony. Hailing Kennedy as a moral hero while knowing of his criminality exposed the Democratic Party to sarcastic assessments:

Teddy Kennedy crawls out of Boston Harbor with a quart of Scotch in one pocket and a pair of pantyhose in the other, and Democrats hail him as their party's spiritual leader.

Light was continually directed toward Kennedy's misdeeds, exposing him, and by association, the Democratic Party, because he steadily maintained a transparently false air of innocence, surrounded by vague and evasive language, and because he avoided any legal or significant consequences for his misdeeds:

It's not as if Democrats can say: Okay, okay! The man paid a price! Let it go! He didn't pay a price. The Kopechne family paid a price. Kennedy weaved away scot-free.

After causing the death of an innocent young woman, Ted Kennedy spent thirty-nine years in the Senate, plagued by alcohol problems and by credibility problems. His party's attempt to use him as an icon in struggle to claim "moral high ground" in its ideological battles - an attempt motivated in part by the memory of his brothers - was doomed to fail because of the raging internal contradictions involved in viewing Ted Kennedy as some type of ethical leader.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Formation of Clarence Thomas

How does a Supreme Court Justice arrive at his mature legal views? Like every other human being, he absorbs a variety of experiences and influences, and processes them with his own rational categories. Some of this is in the setting of formal legal education, and some of it is through life experiences. Clarence Thomas grew up in the home of his grandparents - he called his grandfather "Daddy" - and assimilated the worldview of the African-Americans in the deep south. He recalls:

I had come to feel that virtually every discussion of race in America was fundamentally dishonest. The continuing controversy over busing was a prime example. Many whites were crying foul about school busing, saying that they wanted "neighborhood" schools for their children. This, of course, was nothing more than what blacks had wanted during segregation - the chance to attend good schools near their homes instead of being carted across town to all-black schools. Why, then, should they now wish to be carted across town to all-white schools? Daddy and I were at loggerheads about most things, but we found ourselves in full agreement when it came to busing. Even in a segregated world, education was our sole road to true independence, and what mattered most was the quality of the education that black children received, not the color of the students sitting next to them. "Nobody ever learned anything on a bus," Daddy said. Nor did either of us believe that busing would somehow help ease white racism. What made anyone think that white people who didn't want to eat with us were going to like our children any better? We both saw busing as a tragic digression from the quest for real equality: the ostensible means of achieving a desirable end had become the end itself.

Justice Thomas captured not only the Black understanding of the situation, but also the social structures which prevented Blacks from expressing that understanding openly. There was a cultural mechanism which inhibited African-Americans from speaking on the issue:

I felt sure that Daddy and I weren't the only blacks in America who doubted the value of bussing, but only black nationalists and separatists, it seemed, were allowed to say so in public. The rest of us, we were told, didn't speak for blacks, thus making us irrelevant. Those who dared to speak out anyway were written off as sellouts or Uncle Toms. Why, I asked myself, did the advocates of busing answer all objections to their views not with reasoned arguments but contemptuous ad hominem attacks - and what made the media so willing to go along with them? I couldn't see what made these people so sure of themselves, yet whenever I shared my doubts with a supporter of bussing and pressed him to explain why I was wrong, I was fobbed off with the non-argument that no black person had a right to think the way I did. The popular political answers of the day, I saw, had hardened into dogma, making anyone who questioned them a heretic.

Later, in Washington, these same insights would make themselves felt in a different setting. Clarence Thomas was witness to a meeting between Coretta Scott King and Senator Jack Danforth. Danforth had been a longtime supporter of Morehouse College, sitting on its board of trustees, and helped to create the Martin Luther King Foundation. Clarence Thomas noticed that Coretta Scott King took it as obvious that, despite his valuable service to the Black community, many African-American voters did not support him, and voted for his opponents, merely because he was a Republican.

It didn't surprise me, for I, too, had reflexively disliked most Republicans (John Bolton had been an exception) prior to going to work for Senator Danforth in Jefferson City. Still, I found it hard to accept. "Black is a state of mind," one black Democratic staffer told me, by which I assumed he meant being a liberal Democrat. That king of all-us-black-folks-think-alike nonsense wasn't part of my upbringing, and I saw it as nothing more than another way to herd blacks into a political camp. But some of the black staffers I met on Capitol Hill were so sensitive to criticism that they found it necessary in conversation to elaborately disavow the positions of the Republican congressmen or senators for whom they worked, and I liked that even less. If I hadn't felt at ease with Senator Danforth's political views, I would have found myself another job.

Frustrated by the lockstep mentality which dictated that all Blacks owed allegiance to the Democrat Party - even when it harbored unrepentant segregationists - and by the imposition upon Blacks that they dare not vote for Republicans - even though GOP legislators passed the Civil Rights Acts over Democrat opposition - Clarence Thomas began to forge his own political path, and to the meet other African-Americans who were willing to defy the leadership of the Democrat Party and think for themselves.

I saw a memorable demonstration of this kind of hypocrisy when Thomas Sowell met with a group of black Capitol Hill staffers in 1980. By that time I'd read most of his books and many of his articles, and I wasn't surprised to hear him express in no uncertain terms his opposition to school bussing, racial quotas, and increasing the minimum wage, all of which he believed to be bad for blacks. His bluntness ruffled more than a few feathers; in the eighties these were all hot-button issues for black politicians and community leaders. What bothered me was that some of the questions from the Republican staffers were both hostile and embarrassingly uninformed. That didn't fluster Sowell. (As I was to learn, nothing flusters him.) He defended his positions with cool, clearheaded logic, and though his questioners grew emotional, none of them was able to refute his arguments.

On the bench, Justice Thomas continued to think for himself, not being prey to political pressure groups or the organized intellectual thuggery of the Democrat Party. Breaking ranks with the leftist dogma that the federal government should grow in power, and that state and local governments should yield ever increasing amounts of that authority to the national government, he voted to allow more flexibility for states to shape their own sentencing guidelines. Understanding that "states' rights" is not a synonym for racism, he wrote in Kansas vs. Marsh (2006) that

decades of back-and-forth between legislative experiment and judicial review have made it plain that the constitutional demand for rationality goes beyond the minimal requirement to replace unbounded discretion with a sentencing structure; a State has much leeway in devising such a structure and in selecting the terms for measuring relative culpability, but a system must meet an ultimate test of constitutional reliability.

Likewise seeing that phrase 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance does not constitute any binding religious creed, he wrote in a 2004 opinion about school recitation of the pledge that

Through the Pledge policy, the State has not created or maintained any religious establishment, and neither has it granted government authority to an existing religion. The Pledge policy does not expose anyone to the legal coercion associated with an established religion. Further, no other free-exercise rights are at issue. It follows that religious liberty rights are not in question and that the Pledge policy fully comports with the Constitution.

Justice Thomas sees the 'under God' phrase as innocuous and benign, and in no way presenting cause for a civil suit under the first amendment. The life of Clarence Thomas has been one of refusing to submit to pressure in his academic career, in his legal career, and in his spiritual life. He explores the breadth of the definition of the word 'independence.'

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Black Man's Courage

Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 into a African-American family in Pin Point, Georgia. Like his life, his hometown in many ways encapsulates the Black experience in America: the town was founded by ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War, was an example of communal interdependence and diligent self-reliance, and was bitterly poor, with no paved roads or sewage system.

The life of Clarence Thomas is a microcosm of the African-American experience: sent by his parents to live with his grandparents after the family home burned to the ground; inspired by his grandfather's diligence and inventiveness as a small business founder; enrolled as the only Black student in his high school.

Learning from the role models of creative independence and communal mutual support, Thomas saw that African-Americans were being harmed by the "Great Society" programs meant to help them. Although well-intentioned, these entitlements and public assistance programs dampened exactly that spirit of creative independence which inspires inventiveness and ingenuity in economics, business, and engineering: young Black men were informed that, rather than try to excel in a profession or technical field, they could rely on the "system" to support them. Clarence Thomas saw that these programs also starved the communal spirit of the African-Americans, who, instead of helping each other by means of the local neighborhood or town, were taught to turn to a social worker or government office.

Determined to return autonomy and dignity to Black communities, Clarence Thomas, after graduating from Yale law school, served as Assistant Attorney General of Missouri. In this role, he writes,

as a criminal-appeals attorney, I would have to argue in favor of keeping blacks in jail. I still thought of most imprisoned blacks as political prisoners. I had no facts to back up this opinion, a reflex response left over from my radical days, and didn't need any: I knew that anything "the man" did to black people was oppression, pure and simple. What changed my mind was the case of black man convicted of raping and sodomizing a black woman in Kansas City after holding a sharp can opener at the throat of her small son. Perhaps he and the woman he'd brutalized had both been the victim of racism, but if that were so, then she'd been victimized twice, first by "the man" and then by the thug. This case, I later learned, was far from unusual: it turned out that blacks were responsible for almost 80 percent of violent crimes committed against blacks, and killed over 90 percent of black murder victims. This was a bitter pill to swallow. Until then I'd ignored the obvious implications of black-on-black crime rates. After I worked on that case, I knew better than to assume that whites were responsible for all the woes of blacks, and stopped throwing around the word "oppression" so carelessly. I also grew more wary of unsupported generalizations and conspiracy theories, both of which had become indispensable features of radical argument.

Redesigning his legal thought, Clarence Thomas discovered that African-Americans, deprived of the dignity of responsibility, deprived by the dependency culture generated by the welfare state, were being turned into thugs by the LBJ-era "Great Society" programs which were supposed to ennoble them. Putting this discovery into action meant, for Clarence Thomas, that when he happened to be relocating to a new state, he was also realigning his political views. This came at a high price: the Democrat Party views Black voters as its property. Anger - and sometimes violence - is directed at any African-American who is skeptical of the Democrat Party. Clarence Thomas recalls summoning his courage to defy the white leaders of the Democrat Party who assumed that should always vote for their candidates:

In the fall of 1980, I changed my voter registration from Missouri to Maryland - and registered as a Republican. I had decided to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was a giant step for a black man, but I believed it to be a logical one. I saw no good coming from an every-larger government that meddled, with incompetence if not mendacity, in the lives of its citizens, and I was particularly distressed by the Democrat Party's ceaseless promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence. Their misguided efforts had already done great harm to my people, and I felt sure that anything else they did would compound the damage. Reagan, by contrast, was promising to get government off our backs and out of our lives, putting an end to the indiscriminate social engineering of the sixties and seventies. I thought that blacks would be better off if they were left alone instead of being used as guinea pigs for the foolish schemes of dream-killing politicians and their ideological acolytes. How could I not vote for a man who felt the same way?

Years later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas would take steps to curb the government's tendency to interfere in the lives of its citizens. His rulings and opinions support the individual's rights to freedom of religion, to freedom of speech, and to freedom from government intervention in economic activities. Thomas has also shielded the political processes inside each state from federal interference.