Hillsdale College seniors Kaitlyn Buss, Daniel Burfiend, and Jillian Melchior interviewed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on September 19, 2007 about his recent memoir My Grandfather’s Son. Thomas was raised by his grandfather, Myers Anderson, from the age of seven (his father having left when he was two). Thomas regards his grandfather as serious and tough–a hard man, but not a mean man. Says Thomas:
His life was marked by segregation, by no education, by having no father, by having his mother die when he was nine and going to live with his grandmother who was a freed slave.
Thomas attributes his work ethic, values, and judicial philosophy to his grandfather (whom he also regards as the greatest person he has ever known). On the greatest lesson he learned from his grandfather:
There may be a disconnect between my world and yours, because when my grandfather was raising me, people didn’t talk about their rights so much. They talked about civil rights, yes, but they didn’t simply talk about rights and freedom. They talked more about the responsibilities that came with freedom—about the fact that if you were to have freedom, you had to be responsible for it. What my grandfather believed was that people have their responsibilities, and that if they are left alone to fulfill their responsibilities, that is freedom. Honesty and responsibility, those are the things he taught.
It’s the same thing in civil society. We’re too focused on the benefits of a civil society and we think too little about the obligations we have—the obligations to be civil, to learn about our history and our government, to conduct ourselves in a disciplined way, to help others, to take care of our homes. Too many conversations today have to do with rights and wants. There is not enough talk about responsibilities and duties.
On affirmative action:
I often say, “I don’t hire women law clerks.” People are shocked. But I don’t hire women law clerks—I hire the best law clerks. And it turns out that 30 percent of them happen to be women. If a woman graduates from law school and I say I’m going to hire her because I need a woman, that seems to me dehumanizing, and the job would be tainted. That’s my attitude.
On whether morality is relative:
Have you ever read Modern Times, by Paul Johnson? I read it back in the ’80s. It’s long, but it’s really worth the effort. One point it makes clearly is the connection between relativism, nihilism, and Naziism. The common idea that you can do whatever you want to do, because truth and morality are relative, leads to the idea that if you are powerful enough you can kill people because of their race or faith.
Read the whole thing.