February 20, 2008Re: Clarence Thomas, His Autobiography, And Related Matters Pertaining To America And The Supreme Court.
Recently, I read Clarence Thomas’ autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, which covers his life up to the time he joined the Supreme Court. The book was widely condemned by reviewers, though some praised it. A few, a very few, even hit the nail on the head with regard to crucial aspects of Thomas’ life and thought discussed in the book.
One might begin here by saying that this is the angriest book -- by far the angriest book -- that one has ever read. If Thomas were not a Justice, his book would be called a polemic, or a screed. To have written such a book sixteen years into the continuing honor of being a Justice of the Supreme Court is more than the word “amazing” can signify. There are, roughly speaking, about one million lawyers in this country. Nine of them, or one in about every 111,000 are on the Supreme Court. That’s less than one one-thousandth of one percent of them, if my arithmetic is right. There are 300 million people in this country, and only the same nine of them are Supreme Court Justices. That’s less than one three hundred thousandths of one percent, if my arithmetic is right. With an accomplishment like this, Thomas is angry? One thinks there must be something fundamentally wrong with this guy.
One understands, of course, that anger cannot necessarily be measured this way. Events can have such an impact on a person that no success, however great, can fully dissipate it -- although for most people great success will mitigate it, a fact not irrelevant to the saying that “living well is the best revenge.” One also fears that the kind of anger still borne and now disclosed by Thomas despite huge success may not be totally irrelevant to the psychological profile of George W. Bush, a man whose psychological problems -- coupled, to be sure, with mental inadequacy, unlike Thomas -- are widely believed to have had more than a little to do with the disasters of the last eight years. Perhaps Thomas has done us a favor after the fact in this regard, the favor being greater knowledge that, in picking leaders, we ought to try to be sure they are not persons of unlimited psychological anger and consequent high aggression. But be all as it may, it remains true that Clarence Thomas is a very angry man despite an extraordinary level of success, and does not even have the grace to hide the anger although he has risen to a level that the vast, vast run of lawyers, and the even vaster run of people, cannot aspire to.
The irony, of course, is that if there had been grace, there would have been no book. There is a book only because there was no grace.
Yet one cannot help wondering whether, at least in part, Thomas wrote the book not just to get even, but also for the money. In the book itself, he talks a lot about not having any money, and I’m pretty confident he would deeply resent and take offense at someone questioning how this could have happened despite salaries that most Americans would die for (e.g., as head of a federal agency in Washington). He would point out his prior background of poverty, his need to repay educational loans, his family responsibilities, especially after a divorce. Yet lots of unfortunate people have these problems on far lower salaries. Nor am I the only person to suspect that maybe the lack of money he so often mentions stems from a lack of competence in handling it. In any event, he does complain, often and bitterly, about lack of money, and he received a nice piece of change as an advance for writing the book: $1.5 million still buys a few things even though this is 2008.
Let me now disabuse the reader of the idea that this is to be a one sided, anti-Thomas posting: Thomas says some things that resonate deeply with this writer, things I agree with, are sympathetic to, and understand. Less than a handful of his book’s many reviewers seem to have realized or cared about these things.
To begin with, Thomas is an avatar of hard work, discipline in one’s work and heavy reliance on one’s self and one’s own efforts, as the road to success. Amen, brother. That may be the 1950s talking, particularly now when we know any bum can be successful if his Daddy was rich or president (or both). Yet, for most of us, hard work, discipline in doing one’s work, and heavy reliance on self remain the only road. They are not the royal road once portrayed. They do not guarantee one will escape failure. But for most they are the only avenue, other than cheating and dishonesty, that leads to success. It was the road followed by Thomas -- nobody seems to deny that, by the way -- and he deserves all credit for it.
If he caught a break here or there rather than relying wholly on self, well, everyone should and most do catch at least some good breaks in a world filled with bad ones.
Forgive me for telling a story that supports Thomas’ view, a braggadocious story about our school, the Massachusetts School of Law (MSL), that happened just a few days ago and that Thomas might well appreciate. Our law school is one that for years has spurned American Bar Association accreditation because the elitist, money-oriented rules of that accreditation body mean law schools, and therefore the legal profession, have ever increasingly been the preserve of the white and wealthy. Under the ABA’s rules, a school cannot effectively carry out the mission of our school, which is to provide opportunity for the less fortunate economically, including minorities. We offer opportunity to people who are capable but are excluded from ABA schools by financially or academically exclusivist standards, and lots of our students are persons who could not get into ABA schools though they are capable, hardworking and will be excellent lawyers.
We have a chapter at MSL of BLSA, the Black Law Students Association. The chapter is open to persons of any race, color, etc., but is primarily comprised of African Americans. Every year the national BLSA puts on a trial competition among BLSA Chapters. There are six regional competitions, and the top two teams in each region go to the national finals held a few weeks later. MSL competes in the Northeast Regional Competition. This year there were a total of 15 teams in the Northeast Regionals, with MSL sending four separate teams. We do not know all of the other schools, because of “secrecy” maintained to insure against bias in judging, but we nonetheless know that other schools included one of the country’s most prestigious schools, Harvard, and still others were well thought-of ABA schools like St. Johns, Rutgers, Syracuse, Albany, Pace and Touro. It is no secret that ABA schools, especially ones like Harvard, enroll African Americans who have the very best academic records and aptitude test scores of any black students.
So what happened at the Northeast Regionals a few days ago? Well, in the first round of matches every team has two trials. After these two trials, the number of competing teams is reduced from 15 to 8. By the luck of the draw, none of the four MSL teams played each other, and all won, so that all four advanced to the quarterfinal round of eight. Again by the luck of the draw, none of MSL’s four teams played each other -- but again all won, so that all advanced, and only MSL teams advanced, to the semifinals, where the four MSL teams necessarily played each other because no team was left from any other school. And from the semifinals, of course, two of the MSL teams advanced to play each other in the finals of the Northeast Regionals.
As far as we know, this has not happened before. And, especially because the luck of the draw is needed so that teams from a given school do not play each other, with one knocking out another at or before the quarterfinals, it is not likely to happen again. But how and why did it happen this time? Why did teams from the non ABA MSL sweep the competition -- competition which apparently included nothing but teams from ABA schools, including one of the country’s most prestigious law schools that gets African American students with the best previous grades and test scores? The answer is not complicated, and should make someone with Thomas’ views as pleased as punch. MSL’s coaches and team members worked very hard to prepare for the competition. Hard work was the only secret.
Now, this does lead to two other ruminations. One knows from experience that other teams did not fail to work hard: some schools make such competitions one of the focal points of their academic programs and do well year after year. So MSL did not succeed because of sloth elsewhere. As well, it goes without saying that the students from MSL are smart and talented. Without intelligence and talent, even hard work could not suffice to defeat teams from schools that select the crème de la crème of students -- white, black, brown, yellow, red or green -- as judged by higher education’s ordinary, if deeply incomplete, measuring stick of prior grades and purported aptitude test scores.
So this little story, which happened only last week, is more living proof of the rightness of Thomas’ view of the importance of hard work and discipline in one’s work.
Then, too, there is another matter as to which Thomas’ views, are very understandable. Beyond question his views stem from, were shaped by, the life he led. With a grandfather (who raised him) whom the words “stern disciplinarian” do not begin to describe, and living in a southern society that made life hell for him, Thomas had to rely on himself, on his own talent, work and discipline. Little wonder that he came to see these traits as the route to success, and to think that what a lot of liberals said about help that government should give minorities was simply a snare and a delusion for the minorities. Equally little wonder, as one or two reviewers have noted, that his background informs his constitutional views, even ones regarded as incredibly harsh, and even though he himself believes, one gathers, that a judge’s personal views should not inform his judging. Backgrounds have been informing judging since at least the days of John Marshall, so Thomas’ actions accord with this even if they are harsh and even if his view of the role of background is wrong.