Pearl River My mother was from the South. She wasn’t just from the South, she was from the deep South, and for better and for worse, there’s hardly any part of the South deeper than the Mississippi Delta and counties like Sunflower where she was raised. She was smart as a whip, and in her own way, she let you know it, ending up as a PhD in English from Tulane University in New Orleans and a career as a professor and administrator at the local community college. I didn’t know she was the valedictorian at Millsaps College in Jackson, until after she passed away, and I was sorting out her affairs. In her South, where “just so” manners were part of what you learned in order to make it from dirt poor towns to big cities, that would have been bragging and past the pale.
Part of her code, adopted by my father as well, involved reciprocity, and the accounting was rigid and exacting. If someone invited them somewhere, whether to dinner or a party or into their backyard for a glass of water, then good manners required reciprocity in kind. Maybe it wouldn’t have involved an exact tit-for-tat, but it would have been precisely equivalent. It worked both ways. If they invited a couple out or over to the house once or twice, and then there was no reciprocity, then that was that, and that couple would be off the list. Everyone knew, reciprocity was required.
I’m reminded of all of this reading the latest articles about the Supreme Court Justices. Their collective sense of entitlement is embarrassing, and overwhelms normal ethical restraints. I’m not saying they are all bought and paid for, but the constant erosion of their objectivity by their casual exercise of privilege and full and unapologetic embrace of elitism in my mind is simply un-American and an affront to any pretense that they share our core national values of equality under the law.
Clarence Thomas is just part of this problem, but he’s from the South, so no matter what his raising, manners were either drilled in or absorbed, just as ours were dictated at our mother’s knees. It’s simple to me, though. He and the others up there know better, and for them to continue to pretend otherwise is the scandal, not whether they have been directly compromised on any single case, because they have been infected by the society they seek and the friends they keep.
The individual and collective defense of the Justices is that their gifts from “friends” can be distinguished from direct, sleazy bribes. Fair enough, but even when reciprocity isn’t a quid pro quo among friends, there is always an implied or assumed reciprocity of some kind, even when there is no expectation that it is one for one. My mother was clear about that, and I’ll bet the mothers and fathers of all the Justices made the same points to them. If they didn’t do it that way, there would have been a time when each of them were told that they would be “judged by the company you keep.” The company kept is the same as the community sought. All of them would have been lectured at one time or another to be wary of “peer pressure” as well, which is nothing more than the personal price paid to be part of particular communities.
Do these expectations of reciprocity and fear of being ostracized by the community you seek or your so-called “friends” impact how you think, how you act, and in this case, the decisions you might make? Categorically, absolutely, totally, and undoubtedly. Many of the current Court’s decisions are not commercial, but cultural about gender, abortion, and religion, which is why it is legitimate to question their contacts and the ways their entitlements have compromised any semblance of neutrality. When that happens, as it is happening now, then there is no justice under the law when administered by justices who are so clearly not most of our peers. That they have been so infected, renders them blind to the problem, and for all of our sake, right to left, demands solution by others who are willing to stand at some distance where their vision is clearer.