Monday, May 21, 2007

Clarence Thomas' Sound of Silence

Since October 2004, according to Supreme Court transcripts, Clarence Thomas has spoken 281 words. At the rate of about a hundred a year, no one would call him garrulous.

In a new book, many people call Justice Thomas many other things: ultra-conservative, unqualified, combative, insensitive, self-pitying, reclusive, a traitor to his race. But the truth is more complicated than that.

Written by two black Washington Post reporters, “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas” attempts to solve the mystery of a man who became the focus of racial and political rage in America.

When Thomas was nominated to succeed Thurgood Marshall in 1991, it seemed like a bad joke that the first President Bush claimed to have chosen him without regard to race. Replacing the distinguished first African American on the Court with a political hack who had been on any bench for only a year enraged Democrats, black leaders and feminists who believed he was anti-abortion.

Yet televised confirmation hearings went well until opponents brought in Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas and testified that he had sexually harassed her with remarks about pubic hair in his Coca Cola and a porn star named Long Dong Silver.

The ensuing soap opera of character assassination by both sides was a national disgrace, which ended only after Thomas, who had been deferential until then, expressed his anger over what he called a “high tech lynching.”

Clarence Thomas has been on the high court for a decade and a half now, apparently still scarred by that experience, doing and saying very little, following Antonin Scalia’s ultra-conservative lead. Those who opposed him are still bitter about his appointment.

A magazine for black readers published two covers of Thomas, once wearing an Aunt Jemima headscarf and another as a lawn jockey. The Justice himself has seldom appeared in public, making an exception to officiate at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding.

Of all the players in this racial drama, George Herbert Walker Bush bears the most blame. Thomas was only being himself, and his detractors were justified in their reasons for opposing him, if not always in their methods.

But it was Bush’s cynicism in naming him that has led to the bitter polarization of the Supreme Court nomination process, which culminated in the depths of his son’s choice of Harriet Meirs and consideration of Alberto Gonzales for appointment.

Justice Thomas’ silence is a symbol for the loud and clear cacaphony that both Bushes have brought to American democracy.

1 comment:

Amicus said...

Bush-43 also gave us David Souter, so maybe he's not as damnably culpable as you make out.

There are conservatives who think that Thomas is his own man, often leading rather than following Scalia. And others who would find this latest book to be cut of the same cloth of a long line of predecessors.

I just read this on a Catholic Legal Theory website, Mirror of Justice, "Her approach to the law reflects the caprice of the positivist mind rather than the transcendent and objective moral order essential to Catholic legal theory."

I thought to myself, could that be 'the something' that explains the discontinuity between Thomas' life and his ... er, easily juxtaposed "legal world view"?