Scalia’s Dead: Good, Part II
I have been confronted with what seems to me to be a strange or puzzling phenomenon recently, revolving around the death of Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice, and my assertion that his death was good. Apparently, in response to my having expressed my lack of regret at his death, several people I know took exception, with one stating that my reaction “squinted towards hate.” Now, given that this same person asserted that Scalia had sown “divisiveness and hate” in the US, I was left wondering why saying that I took Scalia’s death as good seemed so inappropriate.
Even more recently, I reread an essay by Walter Karp, “Reflections (After Watergate) on History,” in which he distinguishes the “ancient view of history” with the “modern view”. The ancients, Karp says, discovered their view of history after the polis was created, where men discovered in their freedom that humans are “not by nature creatures of habit and circumstance.” “They discovered in the new experience of political freedom that history is the story of men acting.” History is not, as we moderns are taught, “the outcome of causes more potent than men’s deeds.” So, the ancients would say to the moderns: “Do not tell us about alleged basic causes of America’s emergence as a world power; tell us, instead, what men did that made it emerge.”
This is not to dismiss forces or phenomena that play a role in human history. But it is a reminder that it is men’s deeds that cause, for example, an empire to emerge. It might be “that the closing of the frontier created social problems that American leaders chose to solve through a new, outgoing foreign policy [but] that still does not make the closing of the frontier an underlying cause of anything.” Our leaders could have chosen differently with different results even though the frontier would still be closed.
I think this modern view of history plays a part in those who found my unsympathetic reaction to Scalia’s death inappropriate. Our leaders are captives, as it were, of history and, hence, they lack the freedom to choose or choose correctly. They are buffeted by historical forces this way and that and should not be deemed responsible for what can be labeled their “mistakes.” They are – all of them – well intentioned; it is history that was against them. LBJ did not choose to make war in Vietnam; he was dragged into that war, into that quagmire, by forces beyond his control.
So, Scalia is to be pardoned for the fact that his politics was characterized by racism, sexism, and homophobia, as well as by his embrace of oligarchy as was evident in his participation in the Citizens United case. Being caught up in historical forces beyond his control, he is not responsible for his “mistakes.” He was well intentioned as the characterization of his deeds as “mistakes” implies because no one makes mistakes willingly. He is not to be condemned, his death is to be regretted, and maybe at the outermost boundary of appropriateness, he is to be pitied.
But whether a republic – i.e., a political order founded on, fortified by, and productive of freedom – can be sustained given the implications of the modern view of history is doubtful. As Karp put it, the modern view of history resembles “some murky Babylonian scheme of universal and invariant cycles, a conception suited for barbarians who, enchained by immemorial custom and lacking experience of freedom and action, could well believe that history was the result of superhuman forces.” By this view, given the power of racism, Scalia should be pardoned for his. It was just another of his “mistakes.”
The Greek view of history reminds us that the distinction between “Greek” and “barbarian” was not racial or physiological but a distinction between those living freely and those living a Babylonian-like captivity. This view of history also reminds us that as much as we might want to forgive those like Scalia who sow divisiveness and hate in order to maintain their own power, we should not do so because the political consequences of doing so is nothing less than the loss of the republic to which we pledge our allegiance. We need to speak honestly of those who have, like Scalia, done all they could to undermine that republic by usurping the power of the people, even if this means speaking “ill of the dead.” And we should be glad when they can no longer harm us.