Last week when George Takei said some very, very ugly things, for which he has since apologized, about Clarence Thomas and his Obergefell dissent I decided not to comment. Seriously, A) Who cares what the Yoko Ono of the original Star Trek cast thinks about a Supreme Court decision and, B) Why publicize, even to refute, such self-damning comments? But then yesterday Rich Lowry pointed out that Takei was not the only one that took Thomas to task and did a marvelous job of pointing out how out of touch all the criticism was with the writings of the founders. Lowry concluded his piece:
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.
Amen to that. So what is all the hubbub about?
I turned to the decision and the specific passage in question (beginning page 16 of the Thomas dissent)
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
I think history will end up making that one of the most significant passages of court writing ever. Coming from Thomas specifically, as Lowry points out, those words are poignant to the point of evoking tears. Having myself been born in Jim Crow, segregationist Mississippi, and spending at least a portion of most of my youthful summers there watching the “Jim Crow” and “segregationist” adjectives slowly fade, Thomas’ words conjured in my mind pictures of Martin Luther King leading large crowds singing “We Shall Overcome” – relying on their innate, God given dignity to carry them through the trials of segregation. Those words reminded me of driving past cotton fields, in my life harvested by machine, but picturing dozens of slaves working those fields and singing spirituals with the same essential message – That no matter what their difficult lot in life they had dignity far in excess of their position, granted by the Almighty.
The real beauty of this passage in the Thomas dissent is the deep compassion for the petitioners implicit in it. Thomas pities those that feel it is necessary to have the paltry U.S. government grant them dignity when there is available to them a source of dignity that cannot be denied by any power. The passage is Christianity exemplified.
Thus my mind turned to the Psalms. I pray for everyone in the nation that they can pray for themselves the marvelous and powerful words of Psalm 139:
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.