GREAT NECK, N.Y. - The ghost of Norman Thomas must be kicking back in Presbyterian Heaven right now, smiling at the outrage of America's shiite Republicans and the accompanying discomfiture of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court.
The "controversy" erupted almost as soon as Obama uttered Sotomayor's name. On cue, the right-wing noise machine - led by such open minds as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly - googled the judge's name in search of incrimination. They found it, sort of, next to Sotomayor's picture in her 1976 Princeton University yearbook, where she quoted Norman Thomas, six-time presidential nominee on the Socialist Party ticket. The quote reads: "I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won."
The words alone - a typical yearbook platitude full of optimism and spunk - are hardly controversial. They mirror remarks by other heroic troublemakers like Clarence Darrow and Vaclav Havel. Darrow, America's greatest fighter of hopeless legal cases, said, "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for." Havel, the poet who resisted Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia and emerged as the first president when that nation was freed, said, "The only lost cause is one we give up before we enter the struggle."
So, nothing wrong with the quote. It's the quote's author who so offends Sotomayor's conservative foes. But let's not rush to judge the Judge. I don't think the woman is entirely responsible for whom she has cited. If I were Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the first question I'd ask is, "So, Judge, tell me already. Who the hell is Norman Thomas?"
I don't think she'd be able to answer in any depth at all, because you know where she found that rhetorical gem? It's on a plaque - on a wall, in the library at Princeton. And the library is named after - guess who! Norman Thomas, Princeton, '05. In other words, the yearbook editor was probably bugging Sonia for a pithy epigram to put next to her picture, which was already, like, a week overdue and - in desperation - she cast her eyes around the library and - there it was!
She stole a line of bronzed graffiti.
So, next question: "Judge, having shown absolutely no initiative or imagination in digging up a quote for your yearbook photo, why should we believe that you have the curiosity and intellectual independence to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court?"
The real problem, notwithstanding Sonia's shoddy research, is this: We have forgotten who Norman Thomas was, although he was one of America's genuine domestic statesmen for more than 40 years - and he's only been dead since 1968.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the Washington Post, who called Thomas "America's Conscience," wrote this: "There is hardly a cause involving compassion for the luckless or a decent respect for minority rights in which this great nonconformist has not played a part. He has fought hard and always cleanly. And he will continue, we may be sure, to reproach his country for not being as good as it might and could."
Far from being the Bolshevik spy portrayed by the current crop of conservatives who, very likely, have never read a word of his voluminous writings, Norman Thomas was a devout Christian and a lifelong anti-Communist. After graduating from Princeton, Thomas attended the Union Theological Seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. Although a supporter of the Russian Revolution, he soured early on the Soviet regime and was deemed an enemy by the Trotskyite and Stalinist elements of the American Socialist Party. In calling himself a Socialist, he often summoned terms like "decency" and "Christian democracy."
Thomas was a pacifist who opposed American entry into both world wars, although - after Pearl Harbor - he sadly changed his position on the second war.
Thomas was a New Dealer, as was almost every American in the 1930's. Among the then-risky and long since vindicated positions Thomas held - outspokenly and articulately - over the course of his life were his opposition to racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, his objection to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (despite the American Civil Liberties Union's hypocritical support for these gulags), his contempt for McCarthyism and his dissent against the war in Vietnam.
In supporting women's access to birth control, in the face of the Catholic Church's rigid hostility to all forms of contraception, Thomas scoffed eloquently: "This doctrine of unrestricted procreation is strangely inconsistent on the lips of men who practice celibacy and preach continence."
Among presidents who - openly - sought Norman Thomas' counsel were FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Anyone who, without preconception, examines the life of Norman Thomas emerges with the sense of a deeply moral and morally subtle man who called himself a Socialist - even while he was repudiated by myriad Socialists - because he believed that a communitarian philosophy is truer to democracy than the everyone-for-himself libertarianism that represents the opposite pole in American politics.
Anyone who examines Thomas' words - beyond the odd yearbook epigram - emerges with a better appreciation of the American idea of a "liberal arts" education. It was Norman Thomas who said, early in life, "Dissent... is a right essential to any concept of the dignity and freedom of the individual; it is essential to the search for truth in a world wherein no authority is infallible."
It was Thomas who, later in life, during the puerile U.S. debate over "flag desecration," offered a unique perspective: "If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it."
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