An epiphany.

Justice Clarence Thomas rarely speaks in public, and judging from these rambling remarks at an event sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, it’s easy to see why.

The event, on March 31, was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.

‘Today there is much focus on our rights,” Justice Thomas said. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.”

“I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?”

In this unguarded moment, Justice Thomas blurted out the essence of his faction — the evil, ugly essence of the reactionary Right. It is marked by detestation of liberty, for liberty brings chaos and crime in its wake. It is marked by hatred of those who defend the powerless and hatred for the powerless themselves. And it is marked by yearning for an omnipotent social order imposed by the state, for the authoritarian Right, unlike its libertarian counterpart, feels no deep distrust of the state unless it emboldens its enemies. How contemptuous these faux-conservatives are of those with “grievances,” and how resentful of a “proliferation of rights” that weakens their own power over others.

Blessedly, the moment also reveals how comic this half-mad ideology is. Side by side with our Bill of Rights, Justice Thomas wants a Bill of Responsibilities and a Bill of Obligations. What are our obligations, one wonders? Helping little old ladies across the street? Returning library books on time? My own “responsibilities” include changing my cat’s litter box and stacking the dishwasher every other day, but do we need to put them in the Constitution?

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5 Responses to “An epiphany.”

  1. A. Hill Says:

    I don’t know if I would say this is necessarily a characteristic of the Right so much as an attitude embraced by all establishment flacks. I mean, couldn’t you just as easily hear those words tumbling out of the mouth of Nancy Pelosi or your high school principal? All those figures of authority have the same goal: to keep those under them as docile as possible, which is best accomplished when they believe in the validity of the hierarchy whose lower rung they occupy.

    Even in the social sphere, those who most vocally insist that everyone else remain mindful of their supposed obligations to the status quo are usually those in the dominant position, because nobody else has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.

  2. Life Under the Sun « The Arizona Desert Lamp Says:

    […] may be busy running a newspaper, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take time to call out Justice Clarence Thomas’s distinctly unlibertarian […]

  3. mattstyer Says:

    A Bill of Obligations would be a bad idea, but it’s hard for me to see how rights don’t entail obligations as their flip-side. My right entails your obligation to respect my right by not interfering with it (which is not always just “leave me alone”) and also some kind of responsibility to contribute to a social order in which that right can be fulfilled/make sense.

    To think that rights are just there, and can be applied usefully outside of a certain social atmosphere is an illusion propagated by how classical liberal theories have been received. It’s easy to ignore the context they’re set in – or better, to let it slip past you that they’re setting up the context – but it’s all in the “state of nature.” It’s a huge deal for Locke and the others.

    Like anything else, someone can use a good point for malicious purposes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wrong idea. I’m surprised by your strong reaction against the idea of responsibilities and obligations, Justyn – republicanism embodies those ideas.

  4. Justyn Dillingham Says:

    Matt — I don’t object to the idea of responsibilities or obligations, but I think the spectacle of a judge on the country’s highest court calling for them to be permanently enshrined in law is degrading to both of them. In general, I don’t care for moral calls-to-arms when they’re coming from our leaders; I think the people ought to be judging their government, not the other way around.

    I don’t think rights require “a certain social atmosphere” to exist. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect specific *political* freedoms, and that’s why it was not rendered null and void whenever society changed, despite the fact that our own society has next to nothing in common with the one in which the BoR was written. It *would* be rendered null and void if people at large ceased to care about those rights, which is precisely the result that someone like Thomas (whether he consciously knows this or not) is aiming for when he suggests that political rights are on the same level as government-enforced “responsibilities” and “obligations.” What “obligations” does a free citizen have to his government, other than the exceedingly simple obligation to obey the law?

  5. Quote of the day. « The Civic Spirit Says:

    […] The Civic Spirit “The demands of a free people rarely are injurious to liberty.” — Machiavelli « An epiphany. […]

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