Jeffrey Rosen’s long essay-review about Clarence Thomas in The New Republic is troubling in several respects -- even for someone who, like me, is not exactly a fan of Thomas’s judicial philosophy. After a great deal of relatively even-handed summary of Thomas’s career, Rosen moves at the end into indictment mode. Here’s a key passage: “We now understand that some of the most memorable passages in his judicial opinions — such as his searing account of the costs of affirmative action, which he calls a ‘faddish slogan of the cognoscenti’ that demeans its intended beneficiaries — are psychological in origin, attempts to get even with the ‘pretty people’ whom he thinks snubbed him in law school.” This is a classic example of the rhetorical move that C. S. Lewis called “Bulverism”: instead of trying to demonstrate that someone is wrong, you assume error and then proceed immediately to a psychological explanation for the error. It may well be that Thomas’s judicial opinions are heavily shaped by his own negative experiences; but that in itself doesn’t make them wrong; nor does Rosen demonstrate that Thomas is unique or even unusual in this respect. Using the logic that Rosen employs here you could with equal ease dismiss the political ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Vaclav Havel or Gandhi.
I also think Rosen too quickly dismisses some of Thomas’s chief frustrations. “Thomas has overcome great hardships,” he writes, “but the world has also been remarkably good to him” — presumably by elevating him to the high status of Supreme Court Justice. In a sense this is true, and one would like to see Thomas acknowledge more often the power and, yes, privilege that has come his way. But I think Rosen seriously underestimates the world’s ability to present honors “in such a way as to render them bitter to the taste” — as Stanley Fish once wrote in a brilliant essay about academic politics. Surely the political world is even more adroit at such barbed recognitions. Thomas writes of his state of mind in 1968, “No matter how hard I worked or how smart I was, any white person could still say to me, ‘Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us,’ knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that.” Knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that — that’s the barb. And Rosen should be more cognizant of how sharp that barb can be, even when what the white man grants is a place on the United States Supreme Court.