Who knew that inherent rights are a political bombshell?
Justice Clarence Thomas set off a controversy in his dissent in the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision by reciting core American beliefs about the innate dignity and rights of all persons, whatever their circumstances or the injustices done to them. He wrote that even people held in slavery, even people interned during World War II, retained their dignity because it is impossible to erase what is woven into our very nature.
What one would think is a stirring statement about our irreducible human quality occasioned outrage among the justice’s critics. Slate considered the passage “brutal.” MSNBC found it “jaw dropping.” Salon called it “vile.” But none could top the gay actor and activist George Takei — famous as Sulu in “Star Trek” — who fumed that Thomas had forfeited his status as a black man.
Seriously. In a TV interview, Takei called Thomas “a clown in blackface.” Amid a backlash over this insult, he doubled down: “I feel Justice Thomas has abdicated and abandoned his African-American heritage by claiming slavery did not strip dignity from human beings.” Takei the would-be racial arbiter eventually apologized, although he still thinks Thomas is “deeply wrong.”
That Takei’s first instinct was to deny the blackness of Clarence Thomas tells us much about the rancid racial essentialism of the left, which can’t get its head around minorities stepping out of ideological line.
That aside, the left’s freakout is remarkable, since what Thomas wrote represents American Founding 101. Where did Thomas get this outlandish notion of rights and dignity that exist prior to government?
Maybe Thomas Jefferson? “We do not claim these,” he wrote of our natural rights, “under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of kings.” Or John Adams? He wrote of rights “antecedent to all earthly government,” “that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws,” “derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”
One wonders if anyone disturbed by the Thomas dissent glanced at the Declaration of Independence over the July Fourth weekend. It says, as Thomas notes, all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In case there’s any misunderstanding, the good folks at Merriam-Webster define unalienable as “impossible to take away or give up.”
This is a truth that abolitionists wielded against the institution of slavery. The foremost of them, Frederick Douglass, held it strongly. He declared once after suffering a rank act of discrimination: “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.” (Quick — someone ask George Takei if Frederick Douglass was truly black.)
The reaction to the Thomas dissent is, in part, about the historical and philosophical illiteracy of his critics. But they also have a profoundly different worldview. The Founders believed we have innate rights that must be protected from government. As Thomas writes, “Our Constitution — like the Declaration of Independence before it — was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from — not provided by — the State.”
This notion is anathema to a left that identifies the state with progress, and that defines freedom much more loosely (not to say nonsensically) as including what government gives us, in an ever-expanding palette of benefits.
Thomas is the one firmly grounded in the best of the American tradition, even if his clueless attackers don’t get it. Some of them acted as if he is somehow ignorant of the nature of slavery, even though his forebears were slaves and he grew up in abject poverty in the Jim Crow South. Justice Thomas doesn’t just understand more about the reality of racial discrimination than his critics, but more about America and its ideals.
They should keep reading his opinions. Maybe they will learn something.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.