Janice Rogers Brown, the African-American daughter of Alabama sharecroppers who was confirmed Wednesday to the federal appeals court here, often invokes slavery in describing what she sees as the perils of liberalism.
"In the heyday of liberal democracy, all roads lead to slavery," she has warned in speeches. Society and the courts have turned away from the founders' emphasis on personal responsibility, she has argued, toward a culture of government regulation and dependency that threatens fundamental freedoms.
"We no longer find slavery abhorrent," she told the conservative Federalist Society a few years ago. "We embrace it." She explained in another speech, "If we can invoke no ultimate limits on the power of government, a democracy is inevitably transformed into a kleptocracy - a license to steal, a warrant for oppression."
To her critics, such remarks are evidence of extremism. This week, some Senate Democrats have even singled her out as the most objectionable of President Bush's more than 200 judicial nominees, citing her criticism of affirmative action and abortion rights but most of all her sweeping denunciations of New Deal legal precedents that enabled many federal regulations and social programs - developments she has called "the triumph of our socialist revolution."
Her friends and supporters say her views of slavery underpin her judicial philosophy. It was her study of that history, they say, combined with her evangelical Christian faith and her self-propelled rise from poverty that led her to abandon the liberal views she learned from her family.
"We discuss things like, 'How did slavery happen?' " said her friend and mentor Steve Merksamer, a lawyer in Sacramento, Calif. "It comes down to the fact that she believes, as I do, that some things are, in fact, right and some things are, in fact, wrong. Segregation - even though the courts had sustained it for a hundred years - was morally indefensible and legally indefensible and yet it was the law of the land," he said. "She brings that philosophy to her legal work."
It would be nice, of course, if the reporter had gone on to include something that would make sense of this quote. Because the more I read it, the less sense it makes. Was slavery a product of government regulation? Was there some kind of "New Deal" in the 17th century that led to the U.S. slave trade? Are we to blame Voltaire and Rousseau?
I wonder if this isn't the price paid for an anti-intellectual culture, one that considers all products of thought suspect and the efforts of "elites" to exert undue influence on the "salt of the earth" working classes. Because this is pseudo-thought, thought dressed up with references to Cicero and Beckett ("Her friends describe Justice Brown as a voracious reader, amateur poet and serious intellectual, and her speeches are filled with allusions to writers including Cicero, the apostle Paul, Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Beckett, Ayn Rand, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Friedrich von Hayek and the comedian Chris Rock.") to lend them cachet, but thought that has not seriously absorbed the lessons of such disparate thinkers. "'We discuss things like "How did slavery happen?"'"? I realize the statement could be taken out of context, but just what is that supposed to mean?
When Humpty Dumpty made his statement to Alice, it was meant to be a mockery, a satire on pretension and ignorance masquerading as intelligence. More and more it has become the state of affairs in American public discourse, where there truly is no bedrock, no firm foundation, and the only authority is power. The President had the authority to finally install Ms. Brown in a position for which she is clearly not suited. Now, to quote Paul Simon, she's "got the Presidential seal," and she's at "the Presidential podium." And I'm even sure her momma "loves her like a rock."
The pity is, she's a judge now; with no discernible talent for discernment, the hallmark of judgment. But she's got the power; and that's all that seems to matter.