Journeyman oligarch: remembering Scalia

Most everyone here has heard about the death of Antonin Scalia, right? He was the right-winger’s right-winger on the US Supreme Court, the guy who’d voice the outrageous opinions. With Scalia in the background snarling about gay sex (not even gay marriage, but gay sex— he was against legalizing it), torture, and the death penalty, his vanilla right-winger colleagues got to look sane and decent. In the interests of balance and fairness, I should add, my smart, progressive lawyer daughter describes Scalia’s legal reasoning as very high quality– apparently he was not stupid. Stupid or not, though, Scalia did his best to push American morals enforcement back toward the bronze age. Fortunately the tides of history were mostly against him, and he didn’t get very far with that project.

But it’s another story when you think about what he helped do to our public life– because he was highly effective in helping normalize the gift-exchange lifestyle that’s come to define our power elites, liberal and right-wing alike. That’s the system that allows our public servants to cavort with the billionaires, despite earning only six-figure incomes; the truly wealthy supply the merely powerful with golf trips, hunting trips, high-end dinners, private jet travel, and on and on. The wealthy don’t necessarily get favorable laws and legal decisions as payback for their generosity, but at least their phone calls get returned.

Most of our public institutions have various rules and oversight procedures that at least complicate these gift exchanges, requiring say that public business be discussed in the course of visiting some high-end resort, or that speeches be made, or computer factories visited. But because the Supreme Court is the ultimate tribunal for all our national squabbles, nobody gets to tell its judges what to do– and Scalia delighted in reminding us that he didn’t care what the rest of us thought. His best-known escapade came in 2004, when he went duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheyney, whose big case the Supreme Court had just agreed to hear. (Of course everyone traveled to the hunting grounds by private jet, at the invitation of some billionaire petroleum guy; that wasn’t even the issue that got people riled up.) In response to questions, Scalia assured everyone that “I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned” because of the hob-nobbing.

He was true to that lifestyle right up to the end– he died in bed, in the course of a paid-for junket to an enormous hunting ranch in Texas, owned by a manufacturing magnate and accessible (of course) only by private jet.  Sadly, the rumors that he died with a pillow over his head seem to be unfounded– really, couldn’t the Powers that Rule the Universe have given us a leather-clad gay prostitution scene gone wrong? On the other hand, apparently the folks on this hunting junket were mostly members of something called the St Hubertus Society, which the Washington Post describes as a “worldwide, male-only society” whose members “wear dark-green robes emblazoned with a large cross” and a snappy Latin motto. So at least the kinky, guys-off-by-themselve-in-pseudo-medieval-costumes overtones weren’t entirely absent.

The awfulness in stories like these is truly multi-dimensional. There’s the humiliating spectacle of a smart, accomplished, famous guy depending for his pleasures on the kindness of oil patch billionaires. There’s the hypocrisy of mixing luxury duck hunting with reverence for Christian values, which Scalia ostentatiously endorsed; in Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, in fact, all hunting is classed as “a thing unworthy to be used of free men,” because it makes them indifferent to others’ suffering. There’s the assertive inequality, what with all those exclusive resorts and private jets, and even the Donald-Trump-lite tackiness of it all– if a Supreme Court Justice is going to sell out, shouldn’t it be for something a little more classy?

Usually folks toward my end of the political spectrum tend to credit Scalia with one redeeming feature: apparently he was a good friend, and his friendships didn’t track his politics. Famously, he was “best buddies” (her words) with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, generally viewed as the court’s top liberal. He was also “hunting buddies” (in the words of the Atlantic Monthly) with Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed to the Supreme Court in 2010; she’s less liberal than Ginsburg but way to Scalia’s left. (As a footnote, who knew we had not one but two big game hunters on the Supreme Court?)

Should the rest of us applaud all this good-natured collegiality? Usually we’re encouraged to, because warmth across the political divide offers hope in an otherwise-toxic political environment. It’s supposed to show that good sense and reason can prevail even when people disagree.

But I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the collegial warmth thing, as readers here probably picked up long ago. I mean, I’m all in favor of max politesse in the day-to-day, but actual friendship, in the face of disagreement over the death penalty, torture, and sexual freedom?? Actual lives are at stake in these matters, right?  If that’s not important enough to strain a friendship, what would be?   Klan membership?

My suspicion is, the gift exchange culture and the collegiality are just two more sides of our contemporary oligarchical culture. Within the oligarchy, you’re all friends.  Friends help one another out with the occasional hunting vacation, and they socialize without causing troublesome rifts. Good-natured ideological banter is fine, even pleasing– it shows our diversity, the vigor of our democratic debates. But treating torture or the death penalty as life-and-death, friendship-ending matters– that’s going too far.  It would just make everyone uncomfortable.

Scalia’s explicit moral crusades were mostly a bust– but in the work of oligarchy-building, he leaves behind a solid journeyman’s legacy.