Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

It's A Doosey

For a spectacular and apparently willful misinterpretation of panel discussion remarks by Antonin Scalia, it's hard to beat this doosey by Brad DeLong and the equally distorted New York Times article from which it is cribbed. The Times piece is the work of Sean Wilentz, who directs the American studies program at Princeton

Scalia is, of course, well known as a passionate advocate of democratic principles, consistently applied - especially the First Amendment and federalist structure. His speech is nothing but a reminder that the better interpretation of American "fundamental rights" is largely that of the Founders, especially Jefferson and Madison - as rights required for consistency with the Divine plan of government. As the Pledge of Allegiance later averred to this: "One nation, under God." As Jefferson and Madison pointed out, elections and elected representatives can violate fundamental rights and the Divine Plan as much as the ukase of any king. In Scalia's view, and those of Jefferson and Madison, a democratic decision to commit genocide, for example, is a violation of fundamental rights notwithstanding any amendment to the relevant constitution allowing such a thing. Nor do legislative and electoral decisions fail to involve religious considerations, in the Scalia or the Founders' distinct views.

But to Professor DeLong, Scalia is being "unAmerican." DeLong dares to use that word. The most seriously confused objective apologists for tyranny will no doubt concur with him and Wilentz.

Professor DeLong fails to note that Justice Scalia's comments were offered as part of a panel discussion whose transcript has been posted on the web, but to which Professor DeLong chooses not to link and which he and Professor Wilentz fail to even mention. Curiously, although the panel discussion featured several highly sophisticated liberals (E.J. Dionne, Jr., former Senator Paul Simon and Beth Wilkinson) and occurred before a University of Chicago audience which was invited to participate and did, not one person on the panel or in the audience is recorded to have construed Justice Scalia's remarks in a way even remotely approaching Professor DeLong's bizarre take (which is that of the New York Times article he appropriates with disclosure). But then, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a major presence at the Washington Post.

The role of religious considerations and political question was addressed in the following Q-&-A session interchange, which doesn't seem to reflect the kind of specious considerations hatched by Professors DeLong and Wilentz:

QUESTION: Hi, this question is for Justice Scalia. In the previous session, Professor Garnett discussed a reshaping of the capital punishment debate. Do you believe the argument could, or should, be reshaped to include directly religious viewpoints? If so, how would you propose this accommodationist solution, which affects not only the death penalty, but the whole of the First Amendment interpretation by the Supreme Court?

MR. DIONNE: Professor Garnett gave a talk earlier in which he discussed the importance of allowing the – and correct me if I’m wrong – the importance of including religious arguments among the arguments brought to courts and into the public square as part of the argument against the death penalty. He was suggesting that you could only get a full understanding of the issues at stake if you included a religious sense in this sense of moral anthropology.

Justice Scalia?

JUSTICE SCALIA: You’re talking about whether the religious viewpoint should have a role in the legislative and political process. Of course it should. It always has in this country. I mean, you know, coming back to slavery, my goodness, the anti-slavery movement was led and sustained by clergymen -- all except Catholic clergymen, by the way, who simply ignored all the edicts from Rome, in case you ever think the American Catholic church is always right.

(Laughter.) No, I think we would, as a nation, have a very different history if we excised from our political debate those views that were distinctively religious views. On the most important issues facing our country they have always been heard and expressed.

The DeLong hatchet job is worth reading as evidence of the ongoing academic degradation and dishonesty in American universities, a deterioration vastly more extensive than anything known to have occurred to date in American corporate ethics.

It is fascinating that Professors DeLong and Wilentz write this kind of thing in the apparent expectation of continuing to have an academic reputation afterwards - and, chillingly, they are probably correct. In some respects their confidence in the ambient intellectual corruption in which they work suggests that of Michael A. Bellesiles, whose arrogant certainty that these same colleagues would continue to give his increasingly flagrant dishonesties a "pass" came crashing down on him and his fraudulent Second Amendment confections. Indeed, as an aside, what role has American studies program at Princeton played in rooting out the Bellesiles fraud. The Man Without Qualities cannot recall the name of that program in various articles on the topic, although the program's title suggests its bailiwick includes that fraud. Perhaps I missed it.

But, then again, other people have also noted that when it comes to topics that suit his political fancy (such as Bellesiles' delusions) Professor Wilentz is notably more forgiving that he has been with Justice Scalia. As Glenn Reynolds noted: Just look at how clueless Princeton historian Sean Wilentz is about statistics -- and about his own cluelessness.

This NOT because some fellow academic determined that enough was enough. No. It took a newspaper to expose Professor Bellesiles and make it stick - only later did the academic population (it is surely not a community) chime in. Some academics are STILL defending him.

But here that Wilentz New York Times article is part of the problem. As noted, he makes no mention at all of the panel discussion, and willfully conflates Justice Scalia's remarks with a Court dissent - in the face of Justice Scalia's repeated disclaimer that his personal and religious views are not "supplemented" by his judicial writings. Undeterred, Professor Wilentz dismisses what he terms Justice Scalia's "ritual disclaimer" and willfully misrepresents:

Justice Scalia spoke on these matters at the University of Chicago Divinity School in January, beginning with the ritual disclaimer that "my views on the subject have nothing to do with how I vote in capital cases"; his remarks appeared in the May issue of First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life. They are supplemented by his dissent to the court's decision on June 20 that mentally retarded people should not be executed. Justice Scalia's remarks show bitterness against democracy, strong dislike for the Constitution's approach to religion and eager advocacy for the submission of the individual to the state. It is a chilling mixture for an American.

This level of omission of material fact should be enough to send a corporate executive to jail. Professor DeLong's appropriation of the Wilentz article is all the more bizarre since there are easily available sources that already point out many of its howlers: here, here, here, and here. Ramesh Ponnuru also points out that Wilentz has some big issues in the area of misrepresentations of the Founders' intent, which a serious academic would have taken as a warning before appropriating his writing.

Professor DeLong may want to confer with some of his lesser students as to what sources make the most reliable cheat sheets if he's determined to continue to join them on his present path.

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