In his opening statement to the Judiciary Committee, Judge Samuel Alito told the senators where he comes from. First, Hamilton Township, N.J., the modest-income suburb of Trenton, where he grew up.
"It was a warm, but definitely an unpretentious, down-to-earth community," he said. "Most of the adults in the neighborhood were not college graduates. I attended the public schools. In my spare time, I played baseball and other sports with my friends. And I have happy memories and strong memories of those days, and good memories of the good sense and the decency of my friends and my neighbors." All positive memories.
Then Alito described Princeton, "a full 12 miles down the road," where he attended college. "And this was a time of great intellectual excitement for me. Both college and law school opened up new worlds of ideas." Still all positive. But then he sounds a negative note: "But this was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities. And I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly. And I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community."
To some of the senators, this must have seemed a jarring note. For them, universities like Princeton are places where young people are trained to renounce the racism, sexism and all the other evil -isms that are thought to be endemic in places like Hamilton Township. But Alito, a man of the highest intellectual ability and deep learning, sees the contrast another way. Witnessing radicals shut down a college and bomb university buildings, he saw the left-liberalism of the campus as an attack on one of civilization's highest institutions. And he did not think that campus radicals had higher moral standing than the middle-class people among whom he had grown up.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of cultural conflict, a battle between what I have called the beautiful people and the dutiful people. While Manhattan glitterati thronged Leonard Bernstein's apartment to celebrate the murderous Black Panthers, ordinary people in the outer boroughs and the far-flung suburbs of New Jersey like Hamilton Township were going to work, raising their families, and teaching their children to obey lawful authority and work their way up in the world.