Antonin Scalia and Political Diversity

Next week Justice Antonin Scalia will be delivering the Hugo Black Lecture at Wesleyan. It’s been a long time since we’ve welcomed a Supreme Court Justice to Middletown. Justice Harry Blackmun visited the campus in 1993, giving the second lecture in this series. We’ve invited others, but given the busy schedule of the Court, we have not been able to arrange a visit. When Justice Scalia accepted the invitation, he said that he had heard positive feedback about the lecture series and Wesleyan from his former law clerk, Lawrence Lessig, who spoke here a couple of years ago.

I was very impressed by Justice Scalia’s comment. After all, everyone knows how far to the right Justice Scalia is, and Professor Lessig is pretty far along the opposite end of the political spectrum. It seemed to me a very good thing that these two men were in conversation about Wesleyan, and that Justice Scalia seemed to have respect and affection for a legal theorist with whom he undoubtedly differs on a slew of important issues.

Predictably, some faculty and students have objected to inviting to campus a public figure with whom they fiercely disagree. Less predictably, hundreds of Wesleyan students lined up to get tickets to the event (I wish we had more seats!). I suspect that this doesn’t mean they want to hear views they will find congenial. They want to hear a powerful advocate for a point of view that is having a decisive impact on the country. They want argument and disagreement — not an echo of their own thoughts. They want an educational environment.

Although as a citizen I have frequently found myself opposed to Justice Scalia’s views, as a professor and college president I am eager to hear them expressed in the setting of a public lecture. We need more vigorous debate on campus about political issues, and debate that does not just feature different views from the same sector of the ideological spectrum. We live in very polarized times, when differences of opinion quickly give rise to personal attacks on the one hand, and to retreats into like-minded groups, on the other. Sure, people may at first seek out others who share their strongly held views, but that kind of ideological and cognitive reinforcement is anti-educational.

Tucker Andersen ’63 is on the Wesleyan Board of Trustees. When I asked him to join, he expressed some hesitation because he did not know if his libertarian views and free-market advocacy would be welcome. He has been happy to support the university generously with his time and resources, and has often shared ideas with me on how to achieve our common goals for Wesleyan. But he was concerned that his political perspectives would create a distraction for the board as it pursued those goals. Despite the fact (maybe because of the fact) that we pretty frequently disagree on political matters, I told Tucker that we needed contrarian perspectives on the board. He has been a great board member, and I continue to benefit from his thoughtful point of view.

One of the questions Tucker asks me from time to time is how we can achieve more political diversity on campus. I haven’t found a good answer for him. It seems to many conservative observers that we are pretty homogeneous politically. We don’t seek out historians, critics, economists or scientists of one political persuasion or another, but we should be more aware of prejudices that might lead us to hire people whose political views reinforce our own. A certain amount of political prejudice is part of the culture of the campus — many take for granted that with education comes political commitment associated with the Left. This is a mistake. If we don’t recognize this mistake and try to correct it, we ourselves will be guilty of intolerance and anti-intellectualism. We will have no ground to stand on when faced with the arrogant, pseudo-populist ignorance we’ve been seeing recently on the campaign trail.

I often describe Wesleyan as representing the best in progressive liberal arts education. To truly be progressive, to develop programs that lead other institutions to learn from our example, we need to hear thoughtful voices from a variety of political perspectives. Although I consider myself a person of the Left, it is a serious error to think that all educated points of view will come from those who share our particular vision of critique, of progress, or of social justice. We should not welcome those who cannot tolerate difference, those whose views close down thinking and social interaction. But we should welcome dissent. Making the conservative or libertarian case at a liberal arts university like ours is a tough thing to do, and I admire those who try to do so.

By bringing intelligent conservative discourse to campus, we will increase our capacity to combat the idiot wind of know-nothing anti-intellectualism that is all too prevalent in our political culture. I am hopeful that Justice Scalia’s lecture and discussion will contribute to this capacity.


17 thoughts on “Antonin Scalia and Political Diversity”

  1. I agree that we need more political diversity, but I think we need more of it on the radical left, anti-authoritarian end of the political spectrum. Liberal and conservative voices sound pretty similar when subject to a critique of capitalist state authority, and far too few of those voices are represented at Wesleyan, especially now that more young people polled prefer socialism over capitalism – a statistic that probably doesn’t hold true at this supposedly left-leaning college. How many socialists or anarchists are represented on the Board of Trustees? Probably none.

  2. I’m with “Louise”. As long as we have definitions of “diversity” that are this sad, progress will continue to be imaginary or retroactively defined. Wanting diversity has to mean wanting a true spectrum of ideas, not a spectrum close enough to the current ideas to be inoffensive but to still pass as diverse. A black republican is not diversity. A christian democrat isn’t either. They are both sad reminders of how the “opposite” sides of our political system are frolicking hand and hand through the incredible wealth that they’ve accumulated. It’s sad. A capitalist is a capitalist is a capitalist.

    I also have no interest in what Antonin Scalia has to say. It may sound closed-minded, but I’ve met the man and read many of the supreme court opinions authored by him and have decided that he is bigoted and anti-progressive. I’m sure you have done the same with a select few people, no? Having him here is a sad excuse to define political diversity in a terrible and useless way. Thanks, “Louise” for opening the REAL dialogue.

    Have fun becoming enlightened at the Scalia speech, everyone.

  3. Such a superficial tolerance of “political diversity” reinforces the false liberal/conservative dichotomy that *itself* imposes its own ideological hegemony, restricting the range of political views by reducing anything left of center to the made-up category of “liberalism” (and therefore eliminating and presence of legitimate radical alternatives to these worldviews)

    Second: “I wish we had more seats,” really? if the purpose of bringing Scalia is to have students be exposed to viewpoints they might not agree with, why didn’t you allocate more than a small fraction of the seats for students? Clearly the demand is there–I woke up early and waited in line for over an hour, and didn’t get a ticket.

  4. A quick visit to Wikipedia tells me that Hugo Black (the person for whom Scalia’s lecture is named after) joined the KKK while politicking in Alabama though he later disavowed his membership and said “I would have joined any group if it helped get me votes.” Is that the “political diversity” you’d like to see Michael Roth?

  5. Louise, where are you getting your statistics? Even if your assertion that young people prefer socialism to capitalism holds true among Wesleyan students (although I doubt it), is it still the case in the wider population?

  6. Sarah, the Pew Research Center found at the end of 2011 that 49% of 18-29 y.o.’s in America have a positive view of Socialism, while only 43% have a negative view. The same study found that more people in that sample had a negative view of Capitalism than positive.

    I think that Louise’s point was that despite Wesleyan’s reputation for being so radical and to the left, and Michael Roth’s assertion that this seems to be the only view that get’s a voice on campus, young people at Wesleyan likely support Capitalism over Socialism.

  7. Sarah did you really just try to accuse someone of not having information while clearly knowing that you didn’t have the information yourself? Maybe the Scalia lecture IS the right place for you. Also, if this doesn’t get edited out, everyone should know that these posts are subject to much scrutiny before they are posted. Why is that? This is the Internet. This is ABOUT open fora. No one will get mad at Roth for what I say, and even if they do, he’s probably used to the criticism, considering the direction of this university and how it appears to the more thoughtful and progressive campus constituent.
    100,000? Hardly more than my dad pays to Wesleyan EVERY year, and they didn’t give him a house. What is education for? What are your goals? How are we getting there? You have so much power. The ball has been in your court.

  8. Although I agree that we must have more speakers from different political expectrums and different background personally I feel insulted by this response. First of all Scalia represents the very worst of American corruption and stands as one of the figures that impede progress in this nation. Second, bringing speaker who solely stand for the same policies that have brought about many of the problems in this country, regardless of their political affiliation, does not mean that we are having different points of view represented. Third, I think its a little funny where the location of the event is going to be and how many of the tickets were reserved for Alumni and parents rather than for students, after all aren’t we supposed to learn from people like Scalia coming. If he is delivering a lecture about Freedom of Speech why can’t it be open to everyone why does to be so exclusive, this clearly shows how hypocritical Roth’s comment is since he isn’t allowing students to hear what Scalia has to say in the first place. Finally, as a proud Latino Student of Peruvian descend I feel not only offended by President Roth’s comments but also by how egocentric it is. I feel like he is viewing this from this pillar he has placed himself on. Has he ever experienced hunger, discrimination, poverty, hunger I think not. He isn’t taking into account the feelings of those students, who like me, have experienced all the things I have mentioned above. Bringing an individual who not only wants to impede the progress of minority groups but also wants to disfranchise them is extremely intolerant on behalf of Wesleyan and it shows how we are heading more towards elitism and corporatism than we ever were. Next time people who truly have to bring something new to our education should come speak not some white supremacist, reactionary mentally stuck in 1776.

  9. I was rankled when I heard Scalia was coming to Wesleyan. Then I remembered that we can count on the undergrads to protest, question him carefully, and maybe even be a little disruptive. This is a good thing. If I could be on campus for the speech (and if there were any tickets available…) I’d be happy to attend to see all this play out. And let’s hope Obama gets to appoint another Supreme Court justice or two in his second term!

  10. “Many prefer Socialism over Capitalism”. Is this preference because Socialism is so successfull, both currently and in the past? Can, all of you, list the successful countires now operating under socialism. Is this “fact” of preference for Socialism because Socialism ALLOWS FREE SPEECH OR CONTROLS FREE SPEECH…as it seems you all wish to. Why are you all so afraid of Judge Scalia? Why do you wish to distrupt his FREE SPEECH?
    I invite YOU, the individual, to do some research and discover the TRUTH about Socialism, Communism, Totalitarianism, etc. Did these regimes celebrate diversity (racial, sexual, faith, etc.), free speech, free choice, ANY FREEDOM AT ALL? Do you view these regimes as TOLERANT? How naive, you all are. In this persuit of Evil (you think your utopia) YOU will be “used” and then ELIMINATED! HISTORY DOES REPEAT ITSELF….

  11. I wasn’t accusing anyone, Adam; I was simply wondering where the numbers came from because that assertion didn’t seem to file with what I know about my generation–especially since yes, Wesleyan students do seem to support capitalism over socialism, and Wesleyan students are extremely liberal compared to most youth.

    It may be true that socialists and anarchists are under-represented here. However, in a country where self-described conservatives outnumber liberals two to one–and I say this as a liberal–I don’t think socialism versus anarchism is even worth debating at the moment, if one’s endgame is actual policy change and greater social equality in the near future. Americans are, by and large, not looking to overthrow capitalism. If we want to be taken seriously outside the theoretical world of academia, we have to consider smaller steps.

    I disagree with Scalia on most, if not all, of his decisions. I also understand that it’s beneficial for me to have my worldview challenge. I look forward to listening Scalia’s lecture critically but respectfully.


  12. Perhaps ironically, the occupy movement, whether it realizes it or not, is very much in agreement with the stated views of Justice Scalia, as a Constitutional originalist. However, both the occupy people and Scalia diverge from their stated goals when put to practice, as both choose to ignore pertinent facts for the crimes of our age. As for Scalia, he had cited the 14th Amendment for Bush to win over Gore, but cannot cite it for women or other socially oppressed groups. The occupy movement though, having originated with the Wall Street and money power as it’s focus, has now been coopted by leftists to point out discepancies for Scalia and digress upon Social issues here at Wesleyan. The students seem to be making Scalia’s point here, because in a strict reading of the Constitution we should follow the 9th and 10th Amendments with regard to rights retained by the people and to the states. And I am sure we will hear from Scalia that he supports the protests and would support the students to propose legislation to address their respective grievances.

    In this regard we must realize that both Scalia and the Occupy movement are both distracted with these social problems best left to the states. The discourse from someone like Tucker Anderson should be to remind both the court of its obligation toward Judicial Review, and the Occupy movement that the free market should not be on trial – but crony capitalism. The bailouts orchestrated by the likes of Goldman Sach’s Paulson who as Secretary of the Treasury under Bush allowed AIG to obtain 100 cents on the dollar before going under. And now we learn that Timothy Geithner had also played a role as head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank in such actions, yet the lack of transparency of the FED has allowed not only necessary Judicial oversight to go unnoticed, but have enabled the bailouts and continued socialized losses. To Justice Scalia, Tucker Anderson, and our student body – let us unite upun the common goal to secure Liberty from these financial institutions that disrupt the free market and sound monetary policy.

  13. President Roth: now that you have seen how YOUR diversity works (“Get over it” and “that’s convincing” we’re some bits of “discourse” that Scalia spat lat night), what would you recommend to those of us who want to be heard but feel that your decisions and back-patting mostly serve to silence us and marginalize “radical” political viewpoint. You should be offended that such serious issues and questions were and are ignored.

  14. My favorite part was when a woman asked him a question about gender he interrupted her and asserted he knew exactly what she was going to say. See what we mean when we say we are SILENCED by this man’s “freedom of speech?”

  15. As problematic as I believe Scalia’s originalist approach is–it grants both the constitution and this nation’s electoral process an irresponsible degree of infallibility–I think many of the views expressed in these comments miss the point (though I do agree with Miss Luxembourg). As outlined in the constitution, the role of the supreme court is not to pursue social justice but rather to interpret a legal text. And interpret a legal text is what Scalia does better than almost anyone else, according to the standards determined by the legal profession. Asserting that Scalia is “impeding progress” (an incredibly problematic assertion in its own right, given the atrocities that the Western notion of “progress” has justified over the last few hundred years) assumes that the Supreme Court Justice has an innate social responsibility to do “the right thing.” Should this be the case? Obviously. Is it? No, because the constitution was written by a group of property-holding white men several hundred years ago. Scalia is, more than anything else, incredibly, incredibly naive.

    If anyone here actually listened to what Scalia was saying instead of picking and choosing moments from his speech to justify hir own preexisting viewpoints, what one would realize is that what Scalia fears is not a leftist, “progressive” government, but moral and legal relativism, which is undoubtedly a legitimite concern. Where he goes wrong by saying that an Originalist approach is the only viable solution to this problem. I’m not a lawyer, and I sure as …don’t plan on being one, but I’m CERTAIN that there is someone out there intelligent enough to construct a legal methodology that combines the stability of originalism with a true moral consciousness.

    Scalia is not evil. He does not have a “white supremacist, reactionary mentality stuck in 1776.” He does not represent everything wrong with America, because America is as much his country as it is ours. I don’t agree with his views–I’m as liberal as anyone else at this school. But to assume that your own moral/political viewpoints have a degree of objective truth that trumps Scalia’s merely because his works within the existing power structure and yours works to destroy it does not stand up to scrutiny. As Rosa pointed out, the liberal/conservative distinction is a false dichotomy that makes real political discourse in our country impossible. The socialism/capitalism dichotomy does this to an even greater extent. Coming into a discourse with preconceived notions of one’s moral superiority does not allow for true discussion to take place. The reason the Q&A was so sh…y is because no spoke to Scalia in his own language. Freedom of speech is meaningless if we don’t use it effectively.

Comments are closed.