This note is occasioned by John McWhorter’s piece in the NY Times, basically praising Clarence Thomas as a thinker who has been too easily dismissed.
While I agree with Mr. McWhorter on some subjects, I think he is very wrong on this one. And his mistake is the same one made by other people about other public figures.
First about Clarence Thomas:
- He is someone who has received help every step of his career, but who has nonetheless declared himself self-made. His autobiography is emphatic to the point of absurdity on the subject.
- His general philosophy is heavily influenced by that mythology. Like many other pseudo-self-made people (there are admittedly more rich than poor of them), he asserts “I did it, so can anyone else who has what it takes.” No one should be asking government for help. That he sincerely believes this does not make it either true or admirable.
- Despite his self-delusions, he has not achieved his success as a thinker. He has achieved success as a propagandist for power. His ideas, however well or badly thought-out, are irrelevant to his current position. He is a tool in the Koch organization’s (and Republican party’s) battle plan. The position being propagated is simple and convenient: we just don’t have to care.
- Contrary to what you sometimes read in the papers, he has not driven the Supreme Court to its current position on the extreme right. That is a Koch-managed and funded enterprise that has put a succession of Federalist Society judges on the Court.
We should now talk more generally. There were places and times in the past when people seemed at least worried about selling out. That is, whether they were putting personal advantage above some notion of morality.
We are no longer at that place or time. In the United States (and elsewhere) today, there is no morality stronger than financial success. People don’t need to agonize anymore, because riches are proof of morality. That’s the Clarence Thomas problem, and he is far from the only example.
I’d even put Milton Friedman in that category (along with a good chunk of the Federalist Society). Milton Friedman was certainly capable of understanding the logical flaw in his argument: it’s okay to declare that corporations serve their stockholders—but only if someone else is minding the store. If those same corporations are also running government, then no one is minding the store. Instead he made himself a wealthy and respected genius, again as a propagandist for power.
No one should be venerating propagandists for power, no matter how sincere such people believe themselves to be.