by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
This year marked the first time in a decade or so that Associate Justice Clarence Thomas asked questions during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. That doesn’t mean he has little of importance to say, as demonstrated by the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis.
I often wondered why my grandparents remained such model citizens, even when our country’s failures were so obvious. In the arrogance of my early adult life, I challenged my grandfather and doubted America’s ideals. He bluntly asked: “So, where else would you live?” Though not a lettered man, he knew that our constitutional ideals remained our best hope, and that we should work to achieve them rather than undermine them. “Son,” he said, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” That is, don’t discard what is precious along with what is tainted.
Today, when it seems that grievance rather than responsibility is the main means of elevation, my grandfather’s beliefs may sound odd or discordant. But he and others like him at the time resolved to conduct themselves in a way consistent with America’s ideals. They were law-abiding, hardworking, and disciplined. They discharged their responsibilities to their families and neighbors as best they could. They taught us that despite unfair treatment, we were to be good citizens and good people. If we were to have a functioning neighborhood, we first had to be good neighbors. If we were to have a good city, state, and country, we first had to be good citizens. The same went for our school and our church. We were to keep in mind the corporal works of mercy and the great commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Being wronged by others did not justify reciprocal conduct. Right was right, and two wrongs did not make a right. What we wanted to do did not define what was right—nor, I might add, did our capacious litany of wants define liberty. Rather, what was right defined what we were required to do and what we were permitted to do. It defined our duties and our responsibilities. Whether those duties meant cutting our neighbor’s lawn, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, or going off to war as my brother did, we were to discharge them honorably.
Shortly before his death in 1983, I sought my grandfather’s advice about how to weather the first wave of harsh criticism directed at me, which I admit had somewhat unnerved me. His re-sponse was simple: “Son, you have to stand up for what you believe in.” To him, that was my obligation, my duty. Perhaps it is at times like that—when you lack strength and courage—that the clarity of our obligation supplies both: duty, honor, country.