Sitting down to write this week after days of the Supreme Court’s intense right-wing assault on our constitutional rights and, really, on our right to live free from fear, I had to ask myself, “Why bother?”
Reading cases in which Justice Clarence Thomas struck down a New York conceal carry gun law and Justice Samuel Alito reversed Roe v. Wade and eliminated a 50 year-old constitutional right, I find myself on one hand compelled to parse through the irrationalities, specious reasoning, abuses of history, and frankly bad faith arguments. It’s hard to believe Alito and Thomas are considered brilliant human minds and that they are in a position to make important decisions about the lives of Americans.
As a professor of American literature and culture who has taught his share of college-level writing courses, I have to say the arguments in these opinions are so poorly constructed it’s hard to see them receiving passing grades in an English 101 basic composition class.
I could pull out my read pen, mark them up, and then tease through the gaps and lacks of logical coherence in the arguments, the faulty premises, and so forth, trying to persuade audiences that these opinions represent more the raw ideological impositions of politically-motivated jurists than thoughtful legal reflection rooted in care for the Constitution and for the rights and well-being of Americans and of democracy itself. I’ve done this with Supreme Court opinions in the past; it’s my wont.
But why bother? We seem to be living in a cultural moment when reason and argument have become ineffectual.
Justices Thomas and Alito seem to have some awareness of this death of reason, seeming to feel no obligation to construct rational arguments or even consider the reality of life in America, instead brazenly asserting opinions that are that parrot right-wing ideological preferences, clouding them in the dry dirt of legal verbiage they kick up.
So is it worth it to invest my time in working assiduously through their arguments? At some point, yes, I think so. It’s what we’ll need to do to try to re-root our political culture in fact, reason, and deliberative discourse based in shared concern for our democratic interests and the well-being and humanity of all of us living in America. Rebecca Traister’s piece on The Necessity of Hope persuades me to keep exerting these efforts and not to give in to despair.
So, I’ll get to the arguments and disturbing dynamics of last week’s SCOTUS opinions—but later.
For now, I want to focus on the terror they unleash.
We have to recognize that the Supreme Court is now currently operating not just as an enabler of domestic terrorism in America but rather as a chief terrorist organization and a chief purveyor of anti-intellectualism in American culture. It is more interested in taking rights from Americans, cultivating fear, controlling the population, and killing independent thought and reasoning in an effort to define American culture and identity according to white male supremacist values dominant and operative in a earlier America.
Let’s start with this last one. How is the Supreme Court killing reason and thought and returning us to a white male supremacist value system?
In his recent opinion regarding firearm regulations, for example, Thomas argued that only regulations “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition” align with the Second Amendment, which jeopardizes restrictions that weren’t similarly operative in early American history.
You don’t have to think for more than a couple of seconds to see that this bizarre and rather arbitrary parameter short-circuits–indeed peremptorily forecloses—any effort at thoughtful consideration, reflection, and analysis of how to develop responsible gun law that affords people reasonable gun rights and protects Americans’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which one would think would include the right to live free from the fear of being subject to mass shootings while going about one’s daily life.
Similarly, Alito argues that the right of a woman to have an abortion is not rooted in “our nation’s history and tradition,” and he complains throughout his opinion that a woman’s right to an abortion did not exist in America until the latter part of the twentieth century.
First, we need to point out that these attitudes toward history and tradition are rather ahistorical. Anyone who understands history and traditions knows that history is about change and evolution and that traditions similarly evolve and change. Both Thomas and Alito beg the question of how long some phenomenon or way of thinking needs to have been part of our cultural traditions and history to be considered as such.
But more to the point is the way they strait-jacket thinking. We are not to think about current conditions or to re-think or re-assess the past. We are just, really, not supposed to engage in thinking or judgment—and neither are they are judges. This is anti-intellectualism at its most frightening.
But the terror unleashed is even worse. Alito’s abortion ruling subjects women’s bodies to state control and threatens healthcare practitioners who seek to provide reproductive health care or counseling to women and families. Women and their healthcare providers can be imprisoned if they obtain or provide an abortion.
And Thomas’ opinion concurring with Alito’s in overturning Roe v. Wade calls for cases to be re-considered that he believes erroneously gave people the right to not have private sex acts policed or prohibited, to buy contraceptives, or get married if you’re gay.
His opinion invites more cases to come before the Supreme Court to criminalize sex and love, control our reproductive decisions, and basically outlaw people for being who they are without harming others.
They are instituting a social world that is increasingly hostile, threatening, and repressive to Americans.
When it comes to Thomas’ ruling on firearm regulations, try to imagine a world in which most places you go in your daily you see people carrying firearms. Does that make you feel more secure? It might make the person with the gun feel more powerful and safer, but imagine the rest of us. A world with guns constantly present is a security-state that keeps us constantly insecure, which is a state of terror, not a state of freedom from fear.
But this is where the Supreme Court is bringing us—to a national life of less safety, more fear and insecurity, less rights, and more state repression.
The right-wing ideologues have convinced Americans, in Orwellian fashion, that repression and violence constitute freedom, and the Supreme Court is not taking the lead in proliferating repression and terrorizing Americans.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.