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Opinion: A letter to the Left on Justice Scalia

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died over the weekend and everybody’s talking about it. People who were never before interested in the work, or even existence, of the Supreme Court are debating its future with the passion of professionals. Unfortunately, especially among those of us who hail from the left side of the political spectrum, the debate has a harmful tint. Although we are discussing Scalia’s life–and that’s good–the way that we are discussing his legacy reflects a dimension of hypocrisy and childishness that ultimately undermines our opposition to his ideas.

Scalia was a “card-carrying originalist” and, during his three decades on the Supreme Court, almost single-handedly renewed an old approach to law as literal and dead. His legal opinions fortified the economic, social and psychological barriers held against the most helpless in our community, like when he criticized the federal government for not confronting an “invasion” of “thieves” from Mexico during oral arguments on Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 in 2012. He consistently strengthened legal precedent of the privileged and often treated the underprivileged with ignorance and insensitivity, like last December when he noted that people of color would do better in “slower” colleges. This side of Justice Scalia will not be forgotten.

But to you on the left who are celebrating Scalia’s death; to those who exclaimed “good riddance” or wrote “thank God;” to the family who bought “celebratory hot chocolates” to commemorate his passing: there is something inherently childish about reducing a human to an absolute villain. Children see the world in strict terms of good and bad, and in the days since his passing, we on the left have cast Scalia as a defeated villain. Death is only satisfying when it claims the villain.

The justification of this passionate hate lies in Scalia’s political significance as a right-wing Supreme Court judge. But by reducing an individual to their political significance, we create a strawman that represents either the opinions we agree with (loved as heroes) or disagree with (hated as villains). We want to see the extremes of evil or good represented outside ourselves because that makes our own public performance of morality easier. Instead of critically thinking things through, we simply align ourselves with the figurehead of an ideology then emulate the talk of a follower. Like the good people. Hate the bad people. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can attribute their success to this same phenomenon.

But this phenomenon is telling. For those of you who celebrate Scalia’s death exuberantly, your anxious repetition betrays a deep sense of insecurity in your conviction. If our moral or political position requires an absolutely evil opposition, we will be constantly unsatisfied because such an opposition does not exist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who the left worships as a hero, was a warm friend of Scalia. Scalia was described in the Atlantic as “the kind of person you want to sit next to at dinner.” He was an extremely intelligent thinker and a fascinating writer.

The truth is that Antonin Scalia was a complicated person, as is Bernie Sanders, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Vladimir Putin, Yoweri Museveni, Donald Trump, Martin Shkreli, Joseph Kabila, etc. When we use them as archetypes and reduce them to ideological representations, we rob them of complexity and rob ourselves of an opportunity to grow through interaction with their complexity.

Even more importantly, our opposition to their ideas becomes superficial, generalized and insufficient. I recently asked a friend why he disagreed with Scalia’s approach to law. He replied, “‘Cause he was wrong…” and that was it! No. Justice Scalia was not “wrong” — he interpreted the law in a way that was harmful. To generalize that as “wrong” misses a complex package of points, and thoughtful opposition becomes impossible. It’s like trying to sweep a nail with a broom even though it’s driven into the floor: you can swipe all you want but unless you get closer and appreciate it for what it is in all its complexity, then retrieve the necessary tools, you’ll never get it out of the floor.

It’s tempting to attack a fresh legacy of someone with whom we disagreed and who caused harm. Justice Scalia was a barrier to equality in many respects, but he was also so much more than that. Let us remember Justice Antonin Scalia not as a villain, but as a complicated human with whom we struggled.

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