Courage for Clarence Thomas

Posted: Feb 23, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - Every so often I question whether I've landed on the wrong planet. Or perhaps slipped into another dimension where perceptions are altered, where lies are truth, where yes means no, or the meaning of "is" is debatable. Wednesday was one of those days. I was reading a New York Times columnist's accounting of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' speech at the American Enterprise Institute's dinner honoring him, and I wondered whether someone had spiked my water with some reality-altering chemical. While the reliably witty Maureen Dowd described Thomas' speech as "bellicose," "self-pitying" and "self-aggrandizing," I described the same speech to friends as inspiring. Maybe it was the stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful" - I'm a shameless sucker for patriotic songs - but I seem to have heard a different speech altogether. It is true, as Dowd pointed out, that the 1,600-person crowd was mostly white, that red meat was served and, presumably, eaten, that Thomas talked, and talked and talked. But it is also true that no one stirred or so much as cleared his throat during the hour-long speech. And true, too, that Thomas' standing ovation at the end was longer than is required by politeness and more spontaneous than one might naturally expect of a crowd merely tired of sitting. From which I must infer that others in the throng heard the message of "duty, honor, country" as I did - as values worthy of the trenches and of our occasional discomfort. Nothing he said evoked "comparisons to Bill Clinton's defense for pardoning Marc Rich when he said it was easy to say no and took courage to say yes," as Dowd wrote. It doesn't take courage to pardon an unscrupulous criminal in exchange for political favors and possibly huge sums of money, though corruption helps. It does take courage, on the other hand, to fight for your principles, to stand by your convictions, to tell the truth in your heart, as Thomas recommended throughout his speech. That's what Thomas really talked about, even as he acknowledged some personal understanding of these matters. He mentioned having experienced the firing line, from his Supreme Court confirmation hearings through media portrayals that were painful. He spoke, too, of his experiences as a black man who dares to question such "black" issues as affirmative action, school busing and welfare. "Those who come to engage in debates of consequence, and who challenge accepted wisdom, should expect to be treated badly," he said. On issues of race, "there was no real debate or honest discussion. When whites questioned the conventional wisdom on these issues, it was considered bad form; when blacks did so, it was treason." Honest people know these words to be true, yet some would revile Thomas for saying them. Knowing that in advance - understanding that contradictory words will be greeted with personal attack and saying them anyway - requires the sort of courage Thomas was trying to advance Tuesday night and which surely he had to muster in order to make that speech. As he made unbellicosely clear, it takes courage to participate in active citizenship. It takes courage to face down jeering crowds because you invite debate. It takes courage not to be cowed into the silence of self-censorship when brutes resort to in-your-face intimidation. No one knows this better than Thomas, a black man who managed to navigate two American cultures, both black and white, in his odyssey from Pin Point, Ga., to the U.S. Supreme Court. That sort of journey takes courage. And though Thomas never said so, it also takes guts, which this man has to spare.